On an August morning in 1953, on a field behind the Howard High School, Walter Galbraith put a whistle to his lips and signaled the inaugural Bald Eagle Area football team to begin its first practice.
It was an interesting gathering of athletes. There were the players from Snow Shoe and Howard, who had played football for those schools in the years before the formation of the BEA jointure early in 1953. And then there were the players from Port Matilda who had never donned a pair of shoulder pads before. Only soccer was offered in the fall for the guys from the Port Matilda-Julian area who attended what was then known as Worth Township High School.
And Galbraith, who had coached the previous year at Snow Shoe, was selected to be their head coach over Mickey Moll, who had coached the Howard team.
Galbraith, who passed away at age 88 last month, had only that one year of coaching experience. He graduated from Altoona High School in 1946, spent two years in the Army, four years going to school at Shippensburg and then the one year at Snow Shoe.
“He was an authoritarian but he really established a rapport with the kids,” remembered Jay Robinson, who was a freshman lineman from Port Matilda on that first team. “He even taught us how to wrap our ankles before practice every day. He was a tall man who had a commanding presence.”
Then, as now, logistics played a role in BEA athletics since the district is so far-flung. To overcome it, the first-year players from Port Matilda car-pooled in their own cars to get to practice at Howard.
“That first year there must have been eight of us,” recalled Jim Jones, a lineman from Port Matilda who immediately became the starting center despite having never played before. “My brother (Jack) had a 1942 Chevy and Ike Williams’ dad had a ‘48 Chevy and they drove to practice. They got paid 6 cents a mile.
“The next year the school rented two vans from Keckler Chevrolet in Bellefonte. The Snow Shoe guys got one and we got the other. I was assigned to drive it. I’ll tell you, those trips to practice were as much fun as the games. (In 1955 the school permitted the Port Matilda players to drive the Driver’s Education car back and forth to practice.) We always used to stop at the BeBop (frozen custard stand outside of Howard) on the way home. One night after practice, following a game we had lost, I remember Galbraith giving us a talk and ended it by saying, ‘I don’t want you damn guys stopping at that BeBop on the way home.’
“But he seemed like he enjoyed football. Al Drapcho was our punter and after practice he and Galbraith would have punting competitions.”
One of the unique aspects of the BEA teams from 1953-55 was the lack of a true home field. Most of their home games were played where they practiced at Howard, but on two occasions they played at Port Matilda, on what had been the soccer field behind the school.
“Oh, I remember that,” Jones said. “I can remember Mr. Ziegler (who was the principal of the school), leading cheers.
“And after the game we went over to the brickyard (McFeely Brick Company had a plant in Port Matilda) and that’s where we showered. There were no showers at the school. I’m not sure how that worked out, whether we gave the visiting team the option of showering there or not.”
Galbraith’s first team tied its first three games — 6-6 with Montgomery, a game in which Lee Thompson scored BEA’s first-ever touchdown on a 70-yard pass reception; 0-0 with Mill Hall and 6-6 with Renovo — and went on to finish with a 2-2-3 record. BEA went 1-7 in the 1954 season and 3-3-1 in 1955, giving Galbraith a record of 6-13-4 during his three-year tenure.
“He really loved football,” Robinson said of Galbraith. “He was adamant that the style of football he taught us (single wing) would work, that if we played it well we would win.”
After leaving BEA, Galbraith had coaching stops at Coatesville, Bellwood-Antis, Solanco and Pittman, N.J., as well as North Hagerstown, Md.
Once he left BEA, the school went under one roof at Wingate in the fall of 1956 and played its home games behind the Wingate Elementary School that year. It began playing on its current field in the 1957 season, playing under lights that had once been used at the defunct Snow Shoe Racetrack.
“One of the things I remember is how well the guys from those different schools got along,” Robinson said. “Three years before there was a bricks-and-mortar school there was a recognition that we were Bald Eagle Area and that was because of the football team.”