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1969: The Missing Season

Thirty-five years ago, they were felled by an outbreak of hepatitis A. The members of the ’69 football squad recall for the first time that unique season and ponder what might have been.

By Michael E. Neagle ’98

members of the 1969 football teamGood athletes pride themselves on their thoroughness. This especially holds true for football players. Coaches implore them to finish their blocks and tackles, play ’til the whistle sounds, compete for the full four quarters. To leave a job half-done goes against the code.

Consider, then, the case of the 1969 Holy Cross football team, whose season was cut short after only two games when 90 of the team’s 97 players and coaches succumbed to an outbreak of hepatitis A. Thirty-five years later, the disappointment of a lost season still resonates with many members of the team–especially the seniors who saw their varsity tenure come to an abrupt, premature and ignominious end.

“The lasting memory of that season is that we never finished out the year,” says Bill Moncevicz ’70, a co-captain and offensive lineman on that team. “It’s a closure thing. That sentiment is still there. It never leaves.”

Steve Jutras ’70, the team’s star running back who is now a high school teacher in Providence, echoes those sentiments: “I remember the disappointment of not being able to cap off my college career. I’ll always have that empty feeling that it wasn’t complete. I would have liked to have finished my senior season–win, lose or draw, just complete the year.”

That lasting disappointment contrasts sharply with the excitement and enthusiasm players felt entering the 1969 season. Many players recalled that under new coach Bill Whitton–the Crusaders’ third head coach in four seasons–the team enjoyed a renewed sense of purpose and expected to improve vastly on the previous fall’s 3-6-1 campaign.

“We had an unusually close-knit group of players,” says Bob DeSaulniers ’70, then a defensive lineman, now the principal of Littleton ( Mass.) High School, where he was once the football coach. “We had all waited our turn. We [seniors] felt like it was our team. We felt a real ownership there. We felt we would have an outstanding season. I thought we had enough hard-working players. We couldn’t wait to play.”

Little did the players know, however, that their season was doomed after just the second day of practice. On Aug. 29, a hot summer day in Worcester, on the practice fields where the Hart Center now stands, players drank water from a faucet that was later found to be contaminated with hepatitis. Though investigators almost immediately suspected the drinking fountain as the source of the illness, it took nearly a year to determine conclusively the sequence of events that led to the contamination.

On that fateful day, firefighters battled a blaze on nearby Cambridge Street. This caused a drop in the water pressure, allowing ground water to seep into the practice field’s irrigation system. That ground water had been contaminated by a group of children living near the practice facility who were already infected with hepatitis. Once the players drank from the contaminated faucet, they too became infected.

A month later, after the incubation period had run its course, players started to feel the effects. Bob Cooney ’72 was the first.

“I remember I started to feel sick during practice before the Harvard game [which was the season opener],” says Cooney, who played defensive end and is now an assistant principal at Cranston East High in Rhode Island. “I got really sick on a Wednesday or Thursday, and I remember going to bed and drinking gallons of water to flush it out of me. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I went to the infirmary on that Friday [the day before the game]. The nurses took my temperature in the infirmary, and they knew right away that I was ill.”

Cooney stayed in the infirmary all weekend but did not see a doctor until Monday. And when he did, “[the doctor] took one look at me, saw that I was jaundiced, and said ‘Get this boy to a hospital–he’s got hepatitis.’” Cooney estimates he was at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester for 15 days, followed by a lengthy stay in the infirmary on campus. When he finally returned to his dorm room weeks later, he found a big yellow “No. 1” sign on his door, marking his place in the outbreak.

Meanwhile, his teammates–still blissfully unaware that the virus had a hold of them, too–were working to bounce back from a 13-0 loss to the Crimson in which they had appeared sluggish and weak. “It’s not that we were being overpowered, but that we lacked the strength,” recalls Larry Iacoi ’70, a defensive tackle who now works as a vice president and general counsel for AIPSO, an insurance services company in Rhode Island. “We just petered out. Our strength was sapped.”

At the time, Whitton was at a loss to explain his team’s lethargic performance. “I know we didn’t play the game we should have,” he told the Worcester Telegram after the game. “Our offense is not that bad. We have some good backs, and we are not as slow a team as we looked.”

But even during practice, players knew that something was wrong. “I walked to the practice field with great fatigue,” Jutras says. “When we were running wind sprints, I couldn’t go. I just stopped. I threw my helmet down in disgust. I was either not in shape, I was sick, or there was something wrong.”

Originally a linebacker on the team, Mark Doherty ’70 became the backup quarterback as the roster became depleted by illness. “I always considered myself somewhat of a Spartan,” he says. “I didn’t like to drink too much water. But I remember sucking up more water than in the past. I thought I was in better condition, but I remember laboring. I always took pride in being first when we were running laps, but I was struggling. Something was wrong in the workouts. Looking back, it was the disease taking effect.”

Players began dropping out during the week leading up to the team’s next game at Dartmouth. What had been described as a “flu bug” by newspapers during the week was confirmed as hepatitis the day of the game. Eight players did not make the trip because of illness. Some got sick on the drive up. More were sidelined when they fell ill during the game – a 38-6 loss. “Guys were getting sick, literally, on the field,” recalls Moncevicz.

“I remember calling audibles at the line of scrimmage on defense,” Doherty says, “I looked over at [teammate] Fran Kittredge, and he fainted on the field. It really hit me then.”

Upon returning to Worcester, the rest of the team was tested for hepatitis and virtually all results were positive. On Oct. 6, in an emotional team meeting at the Fieldhouse, Whitton and Athletic Director Vince Dougherty announced that the school was terminating the rest of the season.

“I’ll never forget the meeting in the Fieldhouse, sitting in the bleachers where they told us they would have to end the season” says co-captain and fullback Tom Lamb ’71. “For those of us fanatic about football, it was a shock.”

“There was a lot of crying,” Iacoi recalls. “A lot of guys were upset, disappointed.”

For many players, the end of the season meant the beginning of quarantine. About a dozen or so of the most seriously affected players were sent to the infirmary. The others–55 in all–were confined to Hanselman Hall. Rest and good nutrition were prescribed to fight the disease. The cases were described as “mild” to “moderate” with no one gravely ill, due in large part to the fact that the athletes were already in good physical shape. All the former players surveyed agree that the school took good care of them.

Players recalled that the quarantine experience had its positives and negatives.

“It was boring,” Iacoi says. “We couldn’t go to classes. But they gave us good food, like steaks. We watched a lot of TV. We read. But it was tough, especially on the weekends. But everybody was commiserating together. It was good to have someone to lean on.”

Doherty echoes those sentiments, recalling pranks and jokes that helped keep the mood light during a difficult time. “The experience with my friends is what I remember most,” he says. “We were very close.”

Others recall the academic strain it placed on them, as they could not attend classes. Some players, like Cooney, had to go to summer school to make up for the lost semester. “But I didn’t think about it at the time,” he says. “We did what we had to do.”

Although the players were out of sight from the public, either in Hanselman or the infirmary, they were not out of the minds of many observers. The team received national media attention from outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. And because their case was so unique–a hepatitis outbreak among a group of that scope was rare and documentation of it rarer still–it was covered in a number of medical journals. Even the National Communicable Diseases Center in Atlanta sent two doctors to the practice field to run tests.

Recognizing the financial hit the College was going to take without any incoming revenue from football, Dartmouth proposed that all NCAA Division I football playing schools donate $1,000 to Holy Cross. In all, more than $35,000 was raised–including $2,000 from archrival Boston College. There were even rumors that Ohio State and Notre Dame would play a postseason bowl game in which 50 percent of the proceeds would go to Holy Cross–but the game never took place.

“To have other teams make gestures, it really opened our eyes to the general camaraderie among [football teams],” Desaulniers says. “It made us feel like someone gave a darn about us.”

But the gesture that was most touching to the players came from Sacramento State, which dedicated its season to Holy Cross. To this day, no one from Holy Cross is quite sure why a school more than 3,000 miles away went to such lengths to honor them, but the move was appreciated nonetheless.

For its last game of the season, Sacramento State wore the Crusaders’ purple jerseys and invited Crusader co-captains Lamb and Moncevicz to California, where the duo had a chance to feel a part of a football game again. “That [recognition] was tremendous,” says Moncevicz, who has a game ball signed by all the Sacramento State players and inscribed: Holy Cross 49, Puget Sound 24. “The guys from Sacramento State were wonderful. We felt they were a part of the team. That game was our gift from the California boys.”

Mount St. James was not completely devoid of football that fall, however. The freshman team–which existed at a time when first-year students were not allowed to play varsity–played all four of its games at home that year. While they finished the season with a 1-3 record, their final game drew an estimated crowd of 6,000. Although they frequently practiced with the varsity, the freshmen did not contract the hepatitis virus because they reported to school about 10 days after the varsity had been exposed to the contaminated faucet.

Joe MarcAurele ’73, who played tight end and is now the president and chief executive officer of Citizens Bank of Rhode Island and Connecticut, says that he and his freshman teammates never considered themselves the flag-bearers for Holy Cross football that season.

“I’d like to tell you that we did, but we were too young and naive to think of it that way,” he says. “We got more attention than other freshman teams have gotten. At the time, you didn’t expect the [varsity] coaches to pay attention to you. We were just somewhat grateful not spending 1-2 days a week getting beaten up by the varsity.”

The hepatitis outbreak affected not just the 1969 season, but the 1970 campaign, as well. That squad finished 0-10-1 and marked the end of Whitton’s short coaching tenure, in which he finished with the dubious distinction of being the only Holy Cross head football coach to have never won a game.

Only three fourth-year students from the ’69 team–Moncevicz, Lamb and Ed Murphy–were allowed to redshirt and return for another season. Moncevicz, now a dentist in Brockton, Mass., had aspirations to play professionally and, he had drawn interest from the Washington Redskins. But he suffered a head injury before the start of the 1970 season and never played a down that year. Lamb, now the athletic director and head football coach at Natick ( Mass.) High School, was named the captain of the 1970 squad–the first Crusader in more than 50 years to be selected as a two-time captain. “That’s something that I’m proud of,” Lamb says. “But I’ve probably been the captain for more losses than anyone in the history of the school.”

Like many other seniors, Jutras–who entered the 1969 season about 700 yards shy of the all-time school rushing record–while waiting to return for another year, was not allowed to do so. He, too, had drawn interest from the NFL–in this case, the Dallas Cowboys–but now says not coming back to play may have been a blessing in disguise. “The next year was so horrendous–the entire structure had disintegrated,” Jutras says. “But I think the school did the right thing in not letting us all back. We were not Michigan State or Notre Dame.”

Though the virus affected the entire team, its impact was felt most deeply by the seniors. The 1969 campaign was supposed to have been their crowning season. Instead, they were waylaid by a microscopic opponent that prevented them from finishing what they started.

“The other classes had a chance at another year,” Moncevicz says. “We never had that final game.”

When Mark Doherty’s son missed out on his senior season of football at Springfield College after contracting mononucleosis a few years ago, the memories and emotions of his own lost season came flooding back.

“When you’re 21 years old, and you’re playing football in college, it’s a big part of your life,” Doherty says. “To have it taken away from you has a big impact. … The other three years [of collegiate football] didn’t count in my mind. I feel unfulfilled.”

That emptiness has not faded much for Moncevicz, either–especially when he considers what might have been.

“We thought we were going to have a great season and make amends for the other seasons,” Moncevicz says. “It was all new–a fresh start. We were so filled with the energy of new life. This was going to be our year. It would be the finishing touch to all three years.”

But although the disappointment endures, so does the sense of friendship and camaraderie that this unique team discovered during its missing season.

“Life doesn’t always give you what you want,” says Moncevicz.

And Doherty concurs. “Losing your last football season at that age is big. But we learned how to cope with the loss together.”

Michael E. Neagle ’98 is pursuing his master of arts degree and Ph.D. in history at the University of Connecticut.

 

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