If fond memories give credence to the value of a Catholic education, the robust turnout on Jan. 26 for an alumni clash between Leo and host Br. Rice implied that new memories are in the offing for decades.
Alumni from both high schools were in attendance at the game to remember and celebrate Br. Rice’s city championship win over Leo in 1969.
Tall tales circulated in the stands while the modern-day Crusaders took down the Leo Lions 69-66 in a seesaw affair as thrilling as the dramatic 3-point attempt that hung in the air as time expired.
The event was symbolically led by two “Come Back Kids,” Leo President Dan McGrath and Br. Rice President Mark Donahue, who have returned to continue the mission of providing quality education for young men on the South Side.
Before becoming Leo president in 2012, McGrath was an award-winning sportswriter, and he retired as sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Donahue became Br. Rice president on Jan. 1. The 1974 Br. Rice graduate is a member of the Br. Rice Hall of Fame and a charter member of its Circle of Champions.
After a stellar football career at Br. Rice, Donahue went on to star at the University of Michigan from 1974-78. He was a two time All-American for the Wolverines and led them to three Big Ten championships and two appearances in the Rose Bowl and one in the Orange Bowl.
Donahue played professionally with the Cincinnati Bengals for two seasons before beginning his career in insurance. He won’t boast about any of that, or that he honed his business acumen during the past 36 years in the insurance industry.
For these two modest men, it was certainly a come back to the helm of revered institutions.
At halftime, McGrath and Donahue quietly accepted identical, framed documents commemorating this day of sports, education and, in some ways, resolve. Like the many athletes from 50 years ago scattered throughout the packed gym, these men don’t need adulation or to take bows at center court for what comes naturally: giving back.
As if to say, “The court belongs to today’s players,” the two posed beyond the end line, and the celebrated 1969 players of yesteryear remained in their seats, at ease with teammates, friends and family.
After the contest, the school presidents enjoyed a post-game reception at Reilly’s Daughter in Oak Lawn to thank sponsors, organizers and former players who today are instrumental in keeping the schools on path so they can keep students on the straight and narrow.
After some refreshments, the announcement of food being served prompted some Leo/Rice banter.
“Better get me some pizza,” said one alumnus, “before the Leo guys get at it.”
The entire day was a celebration of basketball as much as it was about sustaining two institutions that have remained steadfast in their mission to provide a Catholic education for their students.
It’s well documented that a lack of financial support has been the demise of urban Catholic-school education across America, but Chicago schools like Br. Rice and Leo find creative solutions to remain viable in serving families on the South Side, including their significant enrollment from Beverly, Morgan Park, Mt. Greenwood, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn.
It’s like a fairy tale to have gifted alumni return to serve as president of their alma maters; however, helping them are volunteer alumni and families of every generation. They were peppered around the entrance and hallways with tasks to make this afternoon of basketball safe and entertaining.
An ever-observant athletic director, Phil Cahill kept the court sidelines dry from fans’ wet boots before and during the sophomore and varsity contests.
Parent groups ran “split the pot” activities and operated concessions to raise a few bucks.
A student-run sports production, with a faculty moderator, provided play-by-play and color commentary of the basketball action, streamed live to those living far away through the miracle of the World Wide Web—much to the delight of alumni like Dave Collins, a fanatical 1965 Br. Rice Crusader.
He sat in his wheelchair in Maryland, glued to a computer screen while watching players run the court the way he did as a golden-haired 6’3” forward for Coach Will Kellogg.
The young broadcasters read a script on air to give a “shout out” to Collins, a former teacher who coaches paralympic veterans in Washington, D.C.
Although they may have graduated from different high schools, the motivation for many of the alumni and volunteers on Jan. 26 was the same: to give back.
Editor’s note: Bill Figel, a Beverly resident, is a member of the Leo High School Class of 1972.