With his father being the school’s football coach, Joe Ziemba grew up on the campus of Morgan Park Military Academy, now known as Morgan Park Academy (MPA).
As a child in the 1950s, Joe was on the practice field, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the team.
As an adult, Ziemba has become a respected sportswriter and author, and his latest book focuses on those days at the academy.
Ziemba published “Cadets, Cannons and Legends: The Football History of Morgan Park Military Academy” this year, and he visited the Ridge Historical Society (RHS) on Dec. 7 to celebrate its launch and raise funds to support the RHS.
At over 400 pages, the book features scores from every game, as well as recaps of memorable games.
Ziemba doesn’t remember everything from his days with the team, but writing the book made him even more impressed with its accomplishments.
“I heard rumors about how good the academy was at the turn of the [20th] century,” Ziemba said, “but upon research, I found out they were not only one of the best around Chicago, but also the Midwest and the country.”
MPA, 2153 W. 111th St., was founded in the 1870s and originally known as Mt. Vernon Military and Classical Academy.
It became Morgan Park Military Academy, a boarding school for boys, in 1877, and from 1890 to 1892, it was incorporated by the state and operated as the Illinois Military Academy, preparing students to enter the newly founded University of Chicago.
It was re-named the Morgan Park Academy of the University of Chicago in 1892, and was co-educational at the time, but after school president William Rainey Harper died in 1906, it again became a boys military boarding school.
Girls were once again admitted in 1959, and boarding was phased out, ending the school’s days as a military academy.
Ziemba’s book, which was published by Gatekeeper Press, of Columbus, Ohio, covers from 1893 to 1958.
The Frankfort resident lived with his family on the academy campus until the school became co-ed, then moved to Evergreen Park, where they were parishioners of St. John Fisher Roman Catholic Church.
Ziemba, a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association, said he was inspired to write the book about 20 years ago, after a reunion with academy players from the 1940s. He did most of his work the past three years, interviewing dozens of players and other members of the program.
He visited with former players at MPA, and he credited the school for being “so gracious.”
The football team’s accomplishments include 12 undefeated seasons, and four players who went on to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s mostly a book of stories—stories that can range from a team that didn’t have a coach that was undefeated to one of the Chicago gangland’s unsolved mysteries that involved a former player at the academy, though we don’t stray too much into that,” Ziemba said. “What I consider the biggest game in history: in 1939, when Chicago police actually shut down 111th Street because they had 5,000 people attend a game between two undefeated teams.”
Mike McClure attended the academy for one year, playing in the 1959 football season, right after the school was de-militarized. He enjoyed a successful career in the NFL, becoming executive vice president of the Houston Oilers and assisting in moving the franchise to Nashville, Tenn., in the 1990s.
McClure called himself a sports historian, and he was among those that Ziemba interviewed for the book. He called Ziemba’s work “amazing” in retrieving scores and rosters.
“I can appreciate how difficult it is, first of all, to go back and try to find things,” McClure said. “Back in those days, you didn’t have the kind of coverage of prep football that you have today.”
Ziemba also wrote “When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL,” which details the professional team formerly based on the South Side that is now known as the Arizona Cardinals.
His memories of the academy including cleaning up the concession stand at the football field and preparing equipment for practice.
He hopes his book conjures up memories for others and provides an easy read.
“I tried to pull out stories,” Ziemba said, “rather than sit there and cover every single game, which would be dreadful.”