Rudel: Piece of Altoona history remembered
It’s safe to say there are few in Altoona Area High School’s rich football history remembered more for one single play than Brooks Kaufman.
Kaufman, who passed away last month in New Jersey at the age of 94, was the central figure in the infamous Altoona-Johnstown 1940 season finale that ended in a riot involving fans from both sides of a packed Mansion Park.
Referees, police and fans were treated for injuries, and the game, which was called with 15 seconds remaining after the Trojans “quit” according to Mirror archives, went into the record book as a 1-0 victory — the score of a forfeit in high school football — for Altoona.
Here’s how it started: Late in a scoreless tie, Johnstown punted deep into Mountain Lions’ territory. The ball hit the ground, and a Trojan touched it, apparently thinking it was down. According to the Mirror archives, one of the referees even blew his whistle.
However, Kaufman, the Mountain Lions’ heady quarterback, didn’t hear a whistle or didn’t think it was dead, and he picked up the loose ball and ran 39 yards to the Trojans’ 27.
Amid protests from the Johnstown bench, Altoona scored several plays later to take a 6-0 lead. As the teams lined up for the extra-point attempt, Johnstown coaches and players came on the field and when one tried to grab the ball, fans from both sides flooded the field.
Mass chaos ensued with helmets flying and widespread fighting.
The head referee, Russell Buckwalter of Latrobe (formerly of Portage), was hit with a swinging helmet and had to be hospitalized.
Henry Weinberg, 10 years old at the time, was at the game.
“All I saw was the screaming and carrying on of the Altoona team because Brooks picked up the ball,” Weinberg, now 88, said. “It was not blown dead. He picked it up and ran, and that was the spark that set the whole scenario off.
“Within the stadium, the anxiety of the people … the Johnstown fans were mesmerized and started swinging,” he said. “It was a sad commentary.”
Kaufman was one of four brothers from a prominent family. Their father, Dr. David Kaufman, was a community leader and instrumental in the founding of then Mercy Hospital. Their uncles, Phil and Mike Klevan, were local business pillars.
Barry Kaufman of Altoona was 14 years younger than his brother Brooks, but he often heard about the incident growing up.
“He (Brooks) was the one who caused the riot,” Barry, now 80, said.
City Councilman Bruce Kelley has a clip file of newspaper articles about the game.
“That story became part of local sports lore,” Kelley said. “Sadly, a lot of those old timers are now gone. But boy, there were some great stories, and the disturbance was significant enough that the series between Altoona and Johnstown was discontinued for many years.”
Vince Nedimyer grew up hearing about the game. His father, Jerry, was a junior on the ’40 team, which went 9-0-1 (tied Erie Academy), before the Lions went unbeaten in 1941.
Nedimyer rattled off a number of players from his dad’s era, which included the likes of Jack Hopper, Dutch Turchetta and Gene Speacht.
“My dad used to make a big deal out of how tough they were and what that thing was like,” Nedimyer said. “The point always was: You guys aren’t as tough as we were. Every time we’d come around to play Johnstown, I’d hear the stories.”
After the riot, the schools suspended the series until 1947, and from when it began in 1920, until when it was resumed through 1990, it remained each other’s biggest rival.
“Even though we were playing Massillon, McKeesport, Williamsport and Pennsbury, Johnstown was the game,” Nedimyer said.
Like Altoona in that era, Johnstown’s program was fueled by multiple junior high schools.
“Those were kids we had played against from the seventh grade on,” Nedimyer said. “We all knew each other by name. It was a great rivalry. The saddest thing I think I saw at the high school level was Altoona-Johnstown not playing anymore.”
While Altoona was continuing its rivalry with Johnstown, Kaufman was forging his own career.
He graduated from Yale and was a Naval aviator who flew with the first Marine Air Wing in the South Pacific before becoming one of the first licensed commercial helicopter pilots. He also had a distinguished mark as an architect.
“Even though I had two other brothers who were both were doctors, Brooks was an outstanding member of our family,” Barry Kaufman said.
And one would be quietly proud of his unique legacy at Altoona.
“Brooks was always a gentle, quiet individual,” Weinberg said. “He wasn’t looking for the glory. He was just happy he had the ball in front of him, and he had the common sense to pick it up.”
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com