St. John’s (5-4, 3-0 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference) and Gonzaga (8-1, 2-1) meet again Saturday night in the 98th edition of the oldest Catholic high school football rivalry in America. The schools played a few times in the late 1800s, but since the start of “modern history,” Gonzaga leads 47-45, with five ties.
Embedded in those numbers are years of twists and turns because a century of high school football does not exist without a century of history. As the schools prepare to meet again, the characters from both sides have stories to share.
“It’s a big scary world out there, and there’s a lot of important issues out there, and a lot of things happen to put life in perspective,” said Brian Gallagher, who graduated from Gonzaga in 1998. “So I’m sure with everything else that’s going on in our country now and everything that was going on in our country then, people could say, ‘It’s just high school football.’ But it’s more than that. … It’s just such a bond. We all shared in this really cool experience.”
All St. John’s in the 1970s
Through 1967, the two schools were about even — the Eagles led 19-18.
A difficult decade followed for Gonzaga, whose campus is six blocks north of the U.S. Capitol. Tension in Washington, in the days before Metro, made students wary of going to school in the city rather in the suburbs at McNamara, DeMatha or Good Counsel.
That meant Gonzaga lacked top athletes, and the Eagles lost to St. John’s 11 straight times from 1968 to 1978 by a combined score of 362-71. Administrators decided the school should step away from the Catholic league for a couple of years to rebuild the program. In 1979 and 1980, for the first time since the 1920s, the schools did not play.
But during the two-year hiatus, the city settled down, and top athletes began enrolling at Gonzaga again. The school also hired a new head coach, Mark Gowin, who rejuvenated the Eagles almost overnight. In the end, the rivalry with St. John’s carried Gonzaga through the doldrums.
Gonzaga took control in the ’80s
Gonzaga recovered quickly, winning eight straight matchups when the series resumed. Quietly, St. John’s had built a roster led up front by two future NFL players in Harrison and Jay Williams. Longtime coach John Ricca kept the team together.
The 1989 Cadets jumped on Gonzaga — they took a 24-0 lead early and wanted more, but that score was the final. Harrison recalls Ricca being upset that St. John’s didn’t pour on more points. Decades later, he will take the 24-0 win.
But what still irks Harrison is the memory of the Gonzaga student section’s chants. He did not like them then. He does not like them now.
“We’re a lot alike, but there’s a lot that’s different,” Harrison said. “They thumb their noses up at us, and we thumb our noses up at them.”
Eagles got tricky in ’95
Maurice “Maus” Collins built a powerhouse at Carroll from 1960 to 1988, and after two years of retirement didn’t last, Collins became Gonzaga’s head coach. To beat St. John’s in 1995, he needed a trick play.
With the scored tied at 14, Collins split Jack Egle wide right and put Gallagher in the slot next to him. Willie Mack, the quarterback, took the snap and fired a lateral to Gallagher, who heaved the game-winning touchdown pass downfield to Egle.
Gonzaga was going to the WCAC championship, and on the bus home, a senior named Tom Guerin found Gallagher, shook his hand and said, “Thanks for letting me play one more game of football.”
Hampton saved the day for the Cadets in 2004
To this day, Stephon Hampton goes to parties and sometimes hears someone relive a stunning moment they once witnessed at a high school football game years ago. Hampton created that moment.
Toward the end of the 2004 game, Gonzaga led St. John’s 20-19 and only needed to run out the clock. But Hampton, on defense for St. John’s, recalls urging his teammates that the game wasn’t over. Make a play.
Hampton saw Gonzaga’s running back turn the corner, and in one motion he stripped the ball and grabbed it. He returned it 78 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
A kicker helped Eagles soar in 2011
Sometimes the biggest moments come from the most unexpected sources, and that’s what makes the rivalry great, Brady said. Gonzaga trailed St. John’s 10-0 early in the 2011 game and then scored to draw within a field goal. The Eagles’ regular kicker had suffered an injury in practice. His replacement was a soccer player named Santi Juarez, who had never kicked a field goal in a game.
When Gonzaga’s season depended on him, he hit a field goal to tie the score. In overtime, he hit another to win it. His family moved to Washington from Miami, and he showed up one day and asked whether he could play football. “Who knew,” Brady said, “that at the end of the season he’d make that kick to win the rivalry game?”
‘Everybody had a story’
To former St. John’s coach Joe Patterson, the Gonzaga game “defined the season,” and he emphasized it as such. Every year, he showed his players clips of previous games, including Hampton’s game-winning touchdown in 2004.
The 2015 game produced two more clips for the reel: St. John’s won 21-17, using a fake field goal for a touchdown and a fourth-and-goal run for a touchdown to pull ahead.
Does he remember who scored? “I remember it all,” Patterson said. The fake field goal was a shovel pass from Matty Pizzola to DJ Brown.
“It was such a long and storied tradition,” Patterson said, “that everybody had a story.”