In the 1961 Bald Eagle Area yearbook, there is a photo of the junior high football team under the headline, “Great Potential! Our Junior High.”
There was good reason for optimism. The junior high team, which consisted of eighth- and ninth-graders in those years, had gone undefeated two years in a row. The talent was obvious. This was a class the stars fell on.
There were two quarterbacks — Barry Ellenberger and Paul Haas — both of whom went on to play college ball at Western Maryland and Lycoming, respectively. There was a group of linemen anchored by Dan Riser, Joe Guyer and John Glasgow, who formed the nucleus up front. There were talented ends who had speed, including Larry Weaver, Terry Dorman and Jay Doherty. There was another end, Gary Weaver, who developed into an outstanding kicker.
And of course there was tailback Mike Condo, a game-breaking halfback who had the speed to set a District 6 record in the 100-yard dash (10.1), the elusiveness to return punts and the football instincts that all of the great ones have. He went on to become BEA’s first All-State and Big 33 selection and went to Minnesota on a full ride where he started three years as a safety for the Golden Gophers.
So the pieces were in place for something special to unfold. And it did. Over the next two seasons BEA posted a 15-1-2 record including an 8-0-1 mark in 1963. The 1985 team, which went 10-0-1 in the regular season, is the only other unbeaten football team in school history.
But late in the 1962 school year, head coach Willis Kinsey unexpectedly stepped down and his assistants went with him. In his seven seasons, Kinsey’s teams posted a 27-18 record the high-water mark being the 1959 squad that went 6-3. His last year his team was 3-6. He walked away from a coach’s dream.
Now what? All of that ability and who’s going to coach it?
Ron Signorino had been an assistant coach under Kinsey in the fall of 1956, BEA’s first year under roof at Wingate, but then spent the next three and a half years in the Navy. He returned to BEA in 1961 and spent the spring as an assistant baseball coach under Doc Etters. When Etters suffered a heart attack midway through the season, Signorino took over and guided the team to a Central Penn League title, the first championship of any kind for the Eagles.
And in the fall of 1961 he and Al Hagg coached the junior high football team while the previous year’s junior high standouts moved up to the JV-varsity level.
When Kinsey and his staff left, Signorino and Hagg both applied to fill the vacancy.
When he didn’t get the head coaching job, Hagg decided to stay on the staff as an assistant along with Ken McMullen. Signorino left BEA at the end of the 1964 school year and Hagg was awarded the head coaching job. He held it for two years before leaving. McMullen coached the 1966 squad.
“I think I got the job because I had graduated from Penn State and Al had graduated from St. Vincent’s,” Signorino recalled recently. “I was eager to get the job and I felt fortunate the way it all worked out.”
The players weren’t so sure about the former Penn State lineman.
“He was a little scary at first,” Ellenberger, who retired from the U.S. Army as a Lt. Col in 1993, said. “He never smiled. I remember when I found out he was a center I wondered what he knew about throwing passes and coaching the backfield.
“But he was a coach and you did what he said. Back in those days the coaches were Gods. I always looked up to my coaches, at least most of them. But I can’t say he made a great first impression.”
“I have heard it said that Sig was like a Marine, with that flat-top hair cut,” said Gary Dyke, a defensive back. “I have some friends who are Marines and he fits that description to a T.”
And while Signorino had been around the program, he was uncertain exactly what kind of talent he had on hand.
“That was an almost exclusively an all-junior team and it wasn’t until practice began that I recognized the talent we had,” he said. “ I can remember talking to Willis Kinsey before our first game with Bald Eagle-Nittany and asking him, ‘What happens if we can’t stop them.’ He said ‘Don’t worry, you have good players.’ I didn’t realize how good they were.”
There had been glimpses. In the opener against Bald Eagle-Nittany the previous year, Condo returned a kickoff for a touchdown immediately establishing himself at the varsity level. And several of his classmates had elbowed their way in among the upperclassmen, fighting for playing time.
So at 28, Signorino was handed the keys to the dragster, which was just getting tuned up.
“When I took the job, I talked to the coach at Beaverdale, Ron Corrigan, who had been at Tyrone and I used his Wing-T offense. Defensively, I don’t know if I ever did know what I was doing,” he laughed.
When they were juniors, they moved into the upper echelon of District 6 teams going 7-1-1, tying Lock Haven 19-19 and losing to State College 20-6.
While Signorino installed the Wing-T, he also used a Fireball approach sprinting into and out of the huddle. There were several games where his teams ran 90-plus plays.
The stage was set for the 1963 season since personnel losses were minimal, end Jerry Spackman being the key loss. He went on to play at Colorado State and College of Southern Utah and became the first county athlete to sign a pro contract. The San Francisco 49ers signed him as a free agent and he made it to the final cut of training camp.
“I look at it two ways,” Condo, who retired from the Maryland legal system and lives in Frederick, Md., said. “If Kinsey had stayed, we still would have had a pretty good team. But Sig brought in that Fireball offense. We only huddled a couple of yards from the ball. We could run a lot of plays. And he played a lot of people. He tried to play as many as he could. Most of us did not play two ways. He was a big team person and he was big on conditioning.”
And he was a master at motivation according to Dyke.
“He would play fight songs before the game to get you emotionally and psychologically ready to play,” he said. “He was a fantastic motivator. And those coaches were always focused on the positives. I don’t remember them being negative. Sig gave us an outline of what the expectations were and it was up to us to fulfill those expectations.
“He came in with a completely different philosophy on how to play football. With Kinsey, it was three plays up the middle and punt. With Sig, it was one up the middle, one outside, one pass and then maybe a punt. He hated to punt.”
The Eagles got a scare in the opener of the 1963 when BEN, now part of the Central Mountain jointure, took them to the wire before falling 18-13. BEA had built an 18-0 lead at the half as Condo scored twice on runs of nine and six yards.
The following week BEA traveled to Lock Haven and hung a 34-13 loss on the Bobcats, the first time BEA had ever beaten a Don Malinak team.
“I can remember we wanted to run the score up against Lock Haven and Sig wouldn’t let us,” Condo said. “He said, ‘No, I might have to go back there.’”
BEA finished the brutal three-game opening stretch by beating State College 21-6 as Condo ran for 61 yards, caught two passes for 32 yards and clinched the game with a 65-yard punt return for a score.
“Too much Condo,” State coach Bill Leonard said. “That was the story of the game, just too much Condo.”
The next two weeks were easy for BEA as it rolled over Mo Valley 41-7 and West Branch 49-7 to stretch its winning streak to 11 and set up one of the greatest games ever played at Wingate. Chief Logan, now part of the Mifflin County jointure, rolled into town with a 5-0 record to match BEA’s.
A crowd estimated at 4,500 filled the stands and sidelines as the two teams fought to a 26-26 tie that ended with Chief Logan inside the BEA 1-yard line.
Condo gained 102 yards on 19 carries and caught four passes for 107 more. He scored twice as BEA built a 20-13 halftime lead only to have Chief storm back behind the passing of quarterback Jerry Confer, who went on to play at Juniata and the receiving of Dave Bradley, who went to Penn State, became an offensive tackle and started on the undefeated 1968 team. Bradley caught six passes for 113 yards.
“Our little defensive backs couldn’t handle their tall ends,” Signorino said then.
“I remember we were hanging on at the end,” he said earlier this week..
“The first half we kind of dominated them,” Condo remembered. “In the second half, we didn’t do anything and they did everything. I think we went into a shell and played not to lose instead of playing to win. It seemed we never had the ball in the second half. I know I played a lot of defense in that game.
“I was glad that game ended when it did because they were only a foot away and I’m not sure we could have stopped them. I wasnt’ happy with the tie but it could have been worse with one more play.”
Dyke watched the last play from the sidelines. The previous play he had made the tackle that stopped the ball carrier on the one-foot line.
“There was never any thought we were going to lose,” he said. “Even when they had the ball on our 5, I never thought they would score.”
Ellenberger, who played linebacker as well as quarterback and also punted, remembers the game well.
“I recall looking at the film later and I saw three different times where I rolled out and if I had just taken five steps, I could have gotten us five yards instead of throwing three interceptions. We didn’t lose but I remember we all felt like we had lost.”
Their hopes for a Western Conference championship shattered by the tie, the Eagles had to get ready for arch-rival Bellefonte the following week. The Raiders were 4-1-1 and waiting.
It was one of the memorable games in the long-running rivalry and was decided when Condo got loose on a 76-yard run with 6:09 left in the game with 5,600 fans in attendance. There is a legend that Condo winked at Raider coach Bill Luther as he sprinted past the Bellefonte bench. He neither confirms or denies it.
“Knowing Mike, he might have,” Signorino said. “He knew no one was going to catch him. I remember that run. And you know what, I still carry a picture of Mike in my wallet. It’s faded and worn but I still have it.”
As it turned out, a variation of the play called 47 Pitch, allowed Condo to break free.
“One of our linemen, I think it was Danny Yearick, told me to cut it up inside instead of going outside. I did, then I cut back to the outside.”
Condo also revealed that he came close to not being in the game to score that touchdown.
“I almost got kicked out of that game,” he said. “All during the game I thought they were coming in late (on the tackle) so I put my foot up toward a guy and the referee came running in and said no more of that or you’re out of the game. That’s all I would have needed, to get kicked out of that game.”
Dyke also played a pivotal role, intercepting three passes to stifle Bellefonte drives.
“We knew all of their pass routes,” he said. “And we knew who their best receivers were, so we knew where we were supposed to be in the zone. I was just in the right place at the right time and they ran the routes we thought they’d run. Luther didn’t change anything all year.”
By all estimates, the Eagles played in front of more than 10,000 fans on those two Fridays.
The Eagles rolled over Tussey Mountain behind three touchdowns by Condo in a 42-6 romp the following week before ending their season at Jersey Shore where they pulled out a 20-13 win to close at 8-0-1 and 14 points behind unbeaten Punxsutawney in the race for the Western Conference title. Philipsburg-Osceola was third and Chief Logan was fourth.
BEA did win the Central Counties Conference and Susquehanna Conference championships, Signorino was named Coach of the Year and Condo was the top vote-getter in the voting for Central Conference All-Star team. Glasgow and Riser were second-team choices.
Tonight the members of that team, in addition to Signorino and Hagg, will be recognized at halftime of the game with Huntingdon on what promises to be a special Homecoming.
Signorino left BEA for a coaching job at Toms River, N.J. and is still on the sidelines, assisting his son at Toms River South. He had a 19-game winning streak in 1968-69 and later, was on the staff at Brick Twp., where the 1981 team was 11-0.
“If those teams had played that BEA team, it would have been a heck of a game,” he said. “I owe my coaching career to those boys at Bald Eagle.”
Condo went on to play at Minnesota where he only missed one game — against Michigan in his junior year due to a hip pointer. He played against Bob Griese of Purdue, Mike Garrett of USC and Johnny Roland of Missouri during his time. He finished his career at BEA with 43 touchdowns. His senior year he scored 17 times, gaining 854 yards on 123 carries and 504 yards on 25 pass receptions while playing only the first half in games against West Branch, Mo Valley and Tussey Mountain. He scored 11 touchdowns rushing, four on pass receptions and two on punt returns.
Looking back across 50 years, the unity of that 1963 team still stands out in his mind.
“I always felt we were a team,” he said. “Everyone contributed and that’s a tribute to Sig and Al. Because he had been our junior high coach guys like Barry (Ellenberger), Paul (Haas) and me knew Al. He seemed as much like our head coach as Sig because we knew him. He kind of gets forgotten.”
The memories are equally sweet for Ellenberger, who wound up sharing the quarterback job with Haas.
“When I went off to college, I felt my high school team could have given our college team a run for its money,” he said. “We didn’t know how good we had it back then. I always thought we were better than anyone we played that year. We had a good team, good guys who knew what they were doing and all we had to do was do our jobs and we wouldn’t have a problem. I had full confidence in that team.
“Looking back, it was too good to be true. I guess we were too dumb to know how good we had it. It was perfect.”