By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 29, 2009 10:03 AM
TAMPA -- They still call it The Polio Team at Georgetown Prep, one of the greatest football teams in school history, an 8-0 juggernaut with a senior fullback/placekicker nicknamed Ace who, 60 years later, is now one of the central figures this week here in Super Bowl XLIII.
Bill Bidwill, the longtime owner of the perpetually woeful Arizona Cardinals, was one of the more valuable players on that 1949 team, and a half century later, he still remembers the joy of that season, and the disappointment of never having the chance to finish it off with a championship game against the Washington, D.C., public school winner at old Griffith Stadium.
The Bethesda school, founded in 1789, had one more game on the regular season schedule against Gonzaga that fall when three Prep students, none of them on the football team, were diagnosed with polio. According to current Prep President Father William George S.J., "there was a quarantine and they closed the school for a while.
"They were on the way to winning the league title, and then playing the public school champion for the city title," he said. "But it never happened. That was one of the best teams we've ever had, and Mr. Bidwill was a very big part of it. They say he never ran side to side. He always went straight ahead."
The Little Hoyas outscored their eight opponents by 209-55 that year, including a 69-0 rout of a Longwood team that never got past its own 40-yard line. Gonzaga was the school's traditional rival scheduled for the final game every year, but in 1949, it was never played. The winner of that game also would have played for the city title, but the polio outbreak ended a dream season with a nightmare.
"Oh yes, it was a very big disappointment that we were not able to play the final games," Bill Bidwill, now 77, said in an interview here Tuesday during his team's Super Bowl media day appearance at Raymond James Stadium. "We were undefeated, I believe the only undefeated team in the Washington metropolitan area that year, and we were really looking forward to it.
"We were a very good football team, but I have no regrets. I still have no idea what happened to those students (with polio). But my experience at Georgetown Prep was wonderful, some great years. Disappointed, yes, but no regrets."
According to the school's 1949 yearbook, Bidwill was a very busy young man at Prep, playing football and baseball, singing in the school choir, being an active member of the radio actors guild, the drama club known as The Prep Players and the debate team. The caption on his yearbook picture his senior year read "Nickname is Ace...Star athlete. Famous for his play as a 200-pound fullback. Snappy dresser. Ambition to play on his Cardinals."
In 1949, they weren't exactly his Cardinals quite yet. His father, Charles Bidwill, a prominent Chicago sports figure, purchased the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 and ran the team until his death in 1947 when the Cardinals won the NFL Championship, the last time the franchise has been in a league title game until this season. Charles Bidwill's widow, Violet, ran the team for the next 15 years, followed by joint ownership by Bill and his older brother Charles "Stormy" Bidwill Jr., until Bill Bidwill purchased sole control of the team in 1972.
Bill Bidwill has often been described as among the league's most inept owners, a man who scrimped on player salaries for years, hired and fired coaches willy-nilly and outraged the city of St. Louis when he moved the franchise west to Phoenix after the 1987 season. But he has always been exceedingly generous to his prep school alma mater in the Maryland suburbs, where he is truly a beloved alum.
Bill Bidwill's older brother Stormy Bidwill was a graduate of Georgetown University, and one of the main reasons his little brother wound up at Prep, one of the nation's few Catholic boarding schools. Bill Bidwill, who also went to Georgetown after high school, said another option for him back then might have been Campion Jesuit High School, a small Catholic prep school in Prairie du Chien, Wis., but he said Tuesday he wanted no part of going there.
"The campus was near a little town that was about 12 miles away," he said. "The town had a drugstore with four stools, and I knew I didn't want to go there. My brother was already at Georgetown at the time. Prep was perfect for me."
And the school still retains a special place in his heart.
"When he's in Washington, he'll always come by if he has the time," Father George said in a telephone interview last week. "He'll stop in the gift shop and buy something. He was a boarder here, and he made friends for life. He's also been very generous to the school. He just loves the place."
Bidwill and his wife Nancy donated the funds for Prep's now two-year-old state of the art fitness center named in his honor, among many gifts he's given over the years. He also sent three of his sons to Prep, including Michael Bidwill, a member of Prep's Class of '83 and now the Cardinals team president who also graduated from Catholic University's law school.
"I was a backup running back at Prep; my dad was the star, not me," Michael Bidwill said here Tuesday. "I had a great experience there and went back to law school in D.C. Washington was a great place to go to school. And Prep is a very special place for us."
When the Cardinals defeated Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game a week ago last Sunday, Bill Bidwill immediately shipped several championship hats to Father George, who has been wearing them all around the campus ever since. When the Super Bowl was played last year at the Cardinals' new stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Bidwill invited Father George to attend the game as his guest.
"One day during the week, we took a day trip out of the city and visited a Native American grammar school their family had adopted," Father George said. "He does those kind of things rather quietly. He doesn't do it for the publicity. The school was run by nuns, and at the Super Bowl, all the nuns were up in the owner's suite watching the game. It was quite something to see, actually.
"Mr. Bidwill is an extremely generous man, but he's not like some of these other flashy owners of teams. He doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself like some of them do. When he drives to the campus, he's in a Honda, not a fancy car. When we were out there, he took us to the NFL Experience (an interactive theme park set up every year at the Super Bowl site). As we started to walk, tons of people would come up to him and talk, and some of them acted as if they were meeting The Holy Father.
"So many people came up, they finally got a table for him to sit and sign autographs. I was watching Michael when this was going on. He just stood to the side just to watch the joy his father was having. The respect and the honor the son showed to the father was wonderful to see. Michael kept the Fourth Commandment well."
Father George e-mailed Bill Bidwill after the victory over the Eagles to congratulate him on the franchise making the Super Bowl for the first time.
"I told him how happy the entire Prep family was for him and his entire family," he said. "I always end by saying 'Go Hoyas!' He wrote right back, and said the same thing. 'Go Hoyas.' He has always been a faithful son of Georgetown Prep."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.