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In 1969, hepatitis was a foe too tough for the Crusaders.
What they remember most 40 years later is how quickly it all ended. One day, the Holy Cross football team was preparing for a road game with Colgate. The next day, the season was over and the players were quarantined.
“The abruptness of it,’’ says Steve Jutras, the star tailback for the Crusader varsity that played only two games in 1969.
None of the players would have dreamed when they thirstily slurped water drawn from a nearby faucet that they were contracting hepatitis, wrecking not only that season but also the next one, when the Cross went winless for the first time in its history.
“It put us on the map, unfortunately,’’ says Jutras, who teaches in the Providence public school system. “When I get together with my fellow players, that subject seems to dominate.’’
There’s still the unanswered question.
“We always wonder what kind of team we would have had,’’ says Bob Desaulniers, a lineman who coaches Weston High School’s team.
And there’s the eternal absence of a natural, scheduled ending, which is what prompted defensive end Tom Walmsley to keep playing in the annual spring alumni game against the next season’s squad.
“I wanted to play as many games as I lost that year,’’ says Walmsley, a retired postal inspector who says he suited up eight times over several decades. “A couple of times, I was the oldest idiot on the field. To me, it was a way of closure.’’
For the seniors, the aborted season was particularly painful. The Class of 1970 had been recruited by coach Mel Massucco, then had spent two unhappy seasons under Tom Boisture, going 5-5 and 3-6-1.
“We weren’t exactly enthused about Mr. Boisture,’’ recalls Walmsley.
Now came Bill Whitton, who’d been a Princeton assistant for 14 years, with plans to run a wide-open offense.
“We were all fired up about having a brand-new start,’’ says Bill Moncevicz, who was a cocaptain with Tom Lamb.
The headline in the Globe season preview proclaimed, “Holy Cross Obituary Premature.’’
Practice had been under way for only two days when the season was doomed.
Local kids hanging around the field who’d already been infected had urinated into the water that had spilled from the field-side faucets. On Aug. 29, a fire in a tenement 2 miles away lowered the pressure, causing the tainted water to siphon back into the faucets.
“If we’d had Gatorade that day, nobody would have gotten sick,’’ says Bob Norton, the team’s offensive line coach.
As soon as the players drank the water, they were infected. For a month, the disease incubated in their systems. Bob Cooney, a sophomore quarterback who had transferred from West Point, was the first casualty, falling ill a few days before the opener at Harvard.
“I felt like a flu was coming on,’’ he remembers. “I drank a lot of fluids, but when Friday came, I knew I couldn’t last, so I went to the infirmary.’’
Everybody else kept practicing, but many of them felt oddly sluggish.
“Like running in knee-deep water,’’ says Desaulniers.
Jutras couldn’t even finish a wind sprint. “I took my helmet off, completely disgusted, and threw it on the ground,’’ he remembers.
Something is wrong
That Saturday, Sept. 27, the Crusaders, whom the Globe account described as “heavy-footed’’ and “slow off the mark’’ appeared to be sleepwalking and barely were able to cross midfield in a 13-0 loss.
Nobody questioned the outcome, since the Crimson were coming off an unbeaten season capped by the historic 29-29 “victory’’ against Yale.
“We were saying, ‘Great, we got a shutout,’ ’’ says Neil Hurley, the Harvard defensive back who picked off a late pass to squelch the visitors’ only threat.
By the middle of the following week, many of the Crusaders were woozy and legless.
“Kids getting sick, that’s not unusual,’’ says Lamb, now the football coach and athletic director at Natick High. “But as the week wore on you’re thinking, ‘Wow, the flu is really going around the team. We’ve got a problem.’ ’’
The problem was far worse than the coaches and players imagined.
“On Monday, the doctor came into the infirmary, took one look at me and said, ‘Take this boy to the hospital, he has hepatitis,’ ’’ says Cooney, now an assistant principal at Cranston East High in Rhode Island. “He didn’t even touch me. He knew just by looking at me.’’
By Friday, on the bus up to New Hampshire for the game with Dartmouth, Cooney’s teammates clearly were sick, showing all the signs of hepatitis: nausea, lassitude, fever, body aches, chills, jaundice.
“We lost guys Friday at practice, we lost guys Friday night at the hotel, and we lost guys before the game,’’ says Norton.
So calls were made to Worcester to get reinforcements.
“It was like they were dialing in an order - two offensive guards, two defensive ends,’’ says Desaulniers. “Guys were showing up at the inn until right before kickoff. It looked like a World War I reenactment.’’
The Crusaders could barely walk, much less play, with six regulars missing, plus quarterback Mark Mowatt, who’d hurt his foot in the opener. “People literally were going to the sidelines and vomiting,’’ recalls Moncevicz. “I’m thinking, what the hell is going on here? Even the Dartmouth guys were wondering.’’
As the bodies were falling, the Holy Cross coaches began using some players both ways and others out of position, with Whitton calling players out of the stands and telling them to suit up. The Crusaders hung in gamely for a half but ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and were steamrolled, 38-6, their worst loss in the series in 62 years.
“After the game, they told us, ‘This locker room is quarantined,’ ’’ says Moncevicz. “I thought, ‘This is not good.’ ’’
It was clear that the hepatitis was widespread, but the players figured they’d get a shot and some fluids and bounce back in a few days.
“The first reaction was, ‘We can get over this, we’re not that sick,’ ’’ says Lamb. “We didn’t know how sick we would become.’’
Calling it a season
By then, it was obvious to the athletic department that the season was finished. Every player on the varsity was infected, as were all but seven of the 97 people involved with the team. “We have passed the point of no return,’’ concluded Whitton.
On Monday, the players were called into the fieldhouse and told that the rest of the games had been canceled.
“When the announcement came,’’ says Moncevicz, “it was like someone taking a sledgehammer and slamming you.’’
Everyone who wasn’t already in the hospital was quarantined for several weeks in Hanselman Hall.
“They said, ‘OK, guys, you’re going to be guinea pigs for the Communicable Disease Center,’ ’’ says Walmsley. “That was the worst time, because every other day they were taking blood from you.’’
It was a textbook case for hepatitis. Rarely, if ever, had so many people contracted the disease at the same time from the same source.
“Everyone was sent home,’’ says Norton, who was uninfected because he made a point of never drinking water during practice. “We weren’t allowed to recruit, we weren’t allowed to do anything. So [offensive coordinator] Tom Yewcic and I played golf three times a week and I scouted Belmont High for Watertown seven weeks in a row. Nobody scouts a high school team seven times.’’
There was nothing else to do. Everyone else in America was playing football on Saturday except for Holy Cross.
“Every week it would sink in a little more,’’ recalls Desaulniers.
Sacramento State dedicated its season to the Crusaders, wearing purple jerseys for its final game and inviting Lamb and Moncevicz to California to receive an autographed game ball. It was a lovely gesture (the HC surrogates went 8-2), but it wasn’t the same as playing. The season finale with Boston College was called off for the first time, with the Eagles playing Syracuse instead.
“They would have kicked our butts and we would have moved on,’’ muses Jutras, who likely would have set the school rushing record if he’d played the full 10 games. “That would have been the natural end of the season.’’
Aftershocks are felt
The disease had knocked everything askew. The quarantine played havoc with academics. Lamb later contracted mononucleosis, had to drop out of school, and didn’t graduate with his class. The athletic department lost what would have been more than $250,000 in revenue, including a $50,000 payout from the BC game; sympathetic Division 1 schools donated an estimated $35,000.
The aftershock also made a shambles of the 1970 season. Though Lamb was granted another year’s eligibility and returned as captain, there was no experienced cohort of seniors, no carryover cohesiveness. The Crusaders lost their opener, 26-0 to an otherwise winless Army team and managed only a tie with Connecticut in 11 games.
“It was absolutely horrible what was happening,’’ says Moncevicz, who also was given an extra year but couldn’t play because of a head injury sustained during the spring. “You still had the emptiness of the year before and now you’re seeing them get dismantled. It was like watching Custer’s Last Stand.’’
The last game was the ugliest, a 54-0 flogging at Chestnut Hill with the Eagles still throwing touchdown passes in the fourth quarter while BC students chanted, “Hepatitis, hepatitis, ooh-aah.’’
“Wait ‘till basketball season,’’ declared a sign held aloft by a Holy Cross cheerleader.
The cloud above Mount St. James lifted slightly in 1971 under new coach Ed Doherty, with the Crusaders winning an emotional opener at Harvard, 21-16, and going on to post a 4-6 mark. But the Class of 1970 learned a lesson taught in no classroom at the Cross.
“You learn about life and the good things that can come even from horrible things,’’ says Moncevicz, now a dentist in Delaware. “It gave everybody the chance to see how things happen for real. Like Nietzsche said: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. None of us got killed, and it made us stronger.’’
The story of the “Hepatitis Team’’ endures as a cautionary tale. A schedule is only a piece of paper. A football career can end with one untimely swig.
“You never know when your last play is,’’ Desaulniers tells his Weston players. “Don’t take the game for granted.’’
By John Powers, The Boston Globe