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Rudel: Marauders celebrate their history

Commentary

October 14, 2012
By Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

There may be high schools with more decorated football histories than Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic relative to NFL players and state champions.

But there are few if any that are more proud.

That pride was on full display Saturday during its homecoming festivities and 90th anniversary as BG introduced 30-plus of its Cohen Blanket recipients during a pre-game ceremony at Mansion Park.

Article Photos

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic Joe Cohen Blanket recipients Ray Palmer (left), Harold Steinbeiser (center) and Mike Irwin talk after a group photo Saturday afternoon.

It was a celebration of BG football and the coveted blanket, now in its 85th year and surely among the oldest high school awards in the nation.

"The blanket is an absolute honor," 1974 winner Pat Counsman, whose blanket is framed in his house, said during a pre-game reception outside BG earlier in the day. "It meant a lot back then, and when you have an event like this, it brings it back to life."

An incredible seven decades were represented - from the 1950s through last year's winner, Tai Irwin - and while over the years the school's name has officially changed from Altoona Catholic to Bishop Guilfoyle to now Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic, the sense of community remains the same.

"I'm glad there was a great turnout," 1976 winner Mark Schimminger said. "I'm real proud to be here."

Schimminger won the blanket on a team that produced three Division I players - Don Gildea (Pitt), George Geishauser (Tulane) and Jim Sommer (Maryland) along with Division II Cal (Pa.) Hall of Famer Bill Seidel.

That group followed the golden age of the 1960s when BG turned out more than a dozen Division I players, including the entire 1961 backfield of Bill Hoff (Buffalo), Bill Huber (Penn State), Mike Irwin (Penn State) and Tom Wiley (Purdue).

"How many small high schools can claim that?" Frank Wiley, Tom's brother and winner of the '71 blanket, asked.

Adding a special touch to Saturday's event were the presence of the Joel and Brian Cohen, son and grandson, respectively, of blanket originator Joe Cohen, whose Young Men's Shop in downtown Altoona started the award in 1927 by presenting a blanket to the outstanding players of both Altoona High School and Altoona Catholic.

If you're scoring at home, that's now 170 blankets.

"My dad had two blankets that he was selling in the store - one in BG colors and one in Altoona colors," Joel Cohen said, tracing the origin and adding his father met with administrators at both schools and formed the idea to recognize not only the top senior player "but my dad wanted it to be a team player who molded people around him and the player who cared a lot about his other players."

It garnered publicity, but that was secondary, Cohen said.

"It may have been good for his business, but I don't think he ever thought of it that way," he said. "He was a sports fanatic, and especially football."

In his later years, Joe Cohen, who also gave shirts and socks and other gifts to the teams after big wins, passed the torch to his son.

"He wanted me to start to give it away and he wanted to see 'if you do this right while I'm still around,''' Joel Cohen said, laughing. "He'd critique how I did it."

To put in perspective the prestige and longevity of the award, consider 1935 was the first year of the Heisman Trophy. In fact, former Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne presented BG's second blanket winner, Tom Irwin Sr., the award at a banquet in 1928.

Joel Cohen is touched that the blanket has reached its third generation.

"It means a tremendous amount to me because my son has continued it," he said. "I know my father would be extremely proud."

The store no longer operates in Altoona, but the family has sustained the commitment. Joel Cohen traveled from Sacramento to be here while Brian lives in State College.

"It's an honor to be able to present it every year and keep something going that my grandfather started," Brian Cohen said. "I feel humbled every time I do it."

So do the recipients - present and especially past.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

 
 

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