Mike DeRisi and the First Championship
Mike DeRisi and the First Championship Teams:
1946 and 1947
The Langhorne of 1946 was a town and culture in change. With America just a year into the “post-war” celebration that would continue for half a decade, the historic, crossroads Lower Bucks County municipality was straddling the border between the old and the new. And just as the region was about to experience a growth and prosperity boom through the addition of towns and locales like Fairless Hills and Levittown − with school districts set to explode with baby-boomer students while also changing their names to fit the times − a man named Mike DeRisi, a Bristol son, an athlete and coach who had bossed the Falcons of Fallsington through 1945, made his way to the Redskin reservation for the 1946 campaign. Once there, he found himself with an abundance of talented, feisty and eager charges at his disposal. Thus armed, Coach DeRisi quickly provided a glimpse of the future of the Tribe’s grid program as he delivered its first championship teams during the two short years he held the reigns..
The Foundation: 1928 through 1945
Although 1946 was DeRisi’s first year at the helm of the ‘Skins, it was Langhorne’s 19th with a football team while he was the team’s fourth head coach. His very capable predecessors included William Thomas – who both started the Moleskinners’ grid program and then coached the boys during their initial season of 1928 – followed by Charlie Beck from 1929 through 1942 and finally, Johnny Messics who directed the program from from 1943 to 1945. Coach Thomas was also Principal Thomas and as an avid outdoorsman and sports enthusiast, it was practically preordained that he would be the fellow to get a team off the ground and then serve as the head man on the sidelines for its first season. A native of Nanicoke in upstate Pennsylvania, he was particularly fond of football and for a time he quarterbacked the Langhorne Aces which was the local semi-pro team during those more wild and wooly times of “ballyhoo” and raccoon coats. Charlie Beck, who took over after that first season of 1928, was a Bristol native. A science and chemistry teacher at Langhorne, he was both well liked and a capable field mentor during his 14 years as “chief” of the ‘Skins. With his somewhat loose and “laid back” style, he was the right fit for Langhorne and its players during their embryonic decade of the 1930s..
Johnny Messics was a Temple graduate who had played as a lineman for Glenn “Pop” Warner during Warner’s time as head coach at the Philadelphia school. Pop’s tenure produced some of Temple’s best teams and Messics had the opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl on one of those clubs. Interestingly, Messics was not teacher at Langhorne nor was he a native but, instead, he was a salesman for the Borden Dairy Company who happened to live in town. Furthermore, his involvement during the war years of 1943 through 1945 came free of charge as he helped keep the program intact as many schools had shut down athletics till the global conflict was resolved. A capable “football man” as well, Messics was of the no-nonsense school of coaching which included a focus on the fundamentals of the game. And becoming masters of the Notre Dame Box formation under Messic’s direction, the ‘Skins were known as a disciplined group that announced their intentions and then followed through..
With the background so established, anyone surveying the landscape in 1946 would certainly agree that there had been some solid Redskin teams over those first 18 seasons. An early example would include the 1930 team that finished 6-2 with losses only to Bristol and Morrisville. In addition, several outfits during the mid-30s featuring Hall of Fame inductees Chuck Klein and Bill McCahan stood out as did the 5-2 squad of 1944. Still, the Tribe was as yet far from being considered one of Pennsylvania’s premier schoolboy gridiron programs..
The budding rose bush, though, was about to display its first blossoms..
Head Coach Mike DeRisi
A Bristol resident, Coach DeRisi had grown up playing football and baseball of the sandlot and organized type right on through to the high school and college level. An excellent athlete, he had helped anchor some of the great Bunnies teams of the 1930s from his position as a lineman. Attending West Chester State, he continued his athletic endeavors there while also earning his teaching credentials. After graduation he then returned to Lower Bucks and began teaching in the Fallsington district while honing his coaching abilities as the head man of the Falcons football program for several seasons. And he also continued to stay active on the baseball diamond during that time too as he played for Bristol’s St. Anne’s church league team for many years.
Attracting the attention of the Langhorne brass after Coach Messics departure in 1945, DeRisi was enticed into bringing his imposing six foot, 240 pound frame to Langhorne. Described as dapper, low key and likable, he was the type of coach who inspired loyalty and a desire to perform while also being a master of the game. And those qualities and skills would quickly produce solid results on the football field behind the old Langhorne-Middletown High School..
The Championship Teams
– 1946 –
In many ways, the 1946 championship team was not that surprising and nor was the ’47 group. For in addition to the fundamentals that Coach Messics had drilled into his players during the years he was in charge of the Redskins grid teams, there was a group of solid athletes reaching high school age in Langhorne during that mid-40s period including players on the ’46 club like George Myers, Don Kaleda, Bob Griffin, Phil “Doc” Richter, Wayne “Inky” Schneider, Walt Baumeister, Rich Lukens, Spanky Peters, Jay Lewis, Armand Fizzano, Semarian Brown, Bud Lane, Warren Tucker, Bob Davis, Jim Cameron, George Detweiler, Al Knox, Bill Fizzano, Jim Connoly, Max Einekel, George Beswick, Tom Salvadore, Clarence Myers and Harry Ferrell. Actually, with the talent then becoming available, the years of 1944 and 1945 had seen a steady rise in the ‘Skins fortunes. And considering that 1943 was the war’s mid-point, and Coach Messics first as the volunteer boss of the ‘Skins, the 0-3-1 effort during that purposely shortened season was not that unexpected. But as the team came in at 9-6 over 1944 and 1945, the Moleskinners were set to take off when DeRisi arrived on the scene that following year of ’46..
With one of his first jobs including analyzing the “material” he had to work with, DeRisi decided the Carlisle single wing might work a bit better than Rockne’s “square and shift” offensive scheme. And leaving no doubt they were for real – and that the single wing was the right offensive arrangement – the 1946 club opened the campaign by easily dispatching DeRisi’s previous club, LBC conference member Fallsington, 26-0, to start the year and league play off right. The following week the ‘Skins then went on a road trip as they took on Burlington County’s powerhouse Riverside High School. The Rams, a perennial south Jersey champ, were huge compared to the diminutive but lightning fast Langhorne team. Delivering a Herculean effort, the Indians surprisingly controlled the line of scrimmage, only buckling once in the 2nd quarter when they gave up a 60-yard drive to the home team. Behind the pounding ground game provided by their big and bruising fullback, Ken Keibner – who capped that series by going the final 12 yards on a bull-like rush followed by his kick for the point after – the hosts were the first to inflict some damage as they took a 7-0 lead..
But not throwing in the towel, and later that same period, it was a 45-yard pass from Schneider to Brown that closed the gap to 7-6. The point after try was no good, though, as another Schneider pass to Brown out of a fake kick, flea-flicker play, slipped through the receiver’s hands. With the two teams then locked in a scoreless land war for the final two quarters (which saw both clubs get achingly close to the end zone without putting it away), the Rams happily took the win while the ‘Skins just missed banking the upset against the heavily favored home team..
The physically punishing Riverside game had clearly left the team drained and emotionally flat the following week. Showing it on the field in their next game, the ‘Skins narrowly escaped with a 6-6 tie against a tougher-than-usual George School to stand at 1-1-1 after their first three encounters. With his club obviously worn down, DeRisi tirelessly worked with the boys all week long as he pushed, prodded and coddled the squad in preparation for Lower Moreland; however, the first half of that contest looked like more of the same as the Lions lead 6-0 at the break. Sensing his team’s crisis, Coach DeRisi delivered a stirring halftime speech which is most remembered for its disconnect from his normally taciturn approach. Just the medicine they needed, the Moleskinners were a different group in the final 24 minutes as they shut the Lions offense down while scoring twice themselves. Brown was first when he took one across in the third, with Schneider then finishing it up as he found the promised land in the fourth. Inky also toed both PATs to power the come-from-behind 14-6 victory..
From there on out the team really began to click as they took 6 in a row including the Lower Moreland win. First they romped over another league team, Newtown, 42-6, before turning back Trenton, 26-6. Back in conference play the following two weeks, they first stopped perennial nemesis Bristol, 14-0, before dismantling the equally disliked Morrisville Bulldogs, 46-0, to close out league play while capturing their initial LBC title as well. And in addition to sealing the crown, the win over Morrisville also marked the first time the ‘Skins had beaten the Dogs and Bunnies in the same year. The Tribe then followed up on their top-o’-the-heap status by pummeling Southampton, 31-0, with only Bensalem then remaining on their schedule. No doubt, as the conference flag was already stuffed in their pocket, the ‘Skins were doing some celebratory dancing even with the season still underway..
With the closing game against the Owls set as the traditional Thanksgiving Day contest, the 3,000 fans in Langhorne that day represented the largest crowd of the year as the 7-1-1 ‘Skins hosted a solid 5-3 Bensalem team. No stranger to one another, the Owls and the ‘Skins had first squared off in 1930 and played continuously since that “kickoff” contest went to Langhorne, 38-0. A bitter rivalry, the overall record was slightly in Bensalem’s favor, 6-8-2, after those 16 seasons of play. And showing they deserved to play with the champs, the Owls kept the ‘Skins offense throttled in the first half. But the ‘Skins defense returned the favor and it was only Schneider’s spectacular 75-yard open field interception return for a touchdown of an errant pass by the Bensalem quarterback, Jack Hansen, that prevented a 0-0 score at the half. Instead, the teams retired for the break with the Moleskinners on top, 7-0..
The second half saw the Owls defense continue to play inspired football while their offense closed the gap in the third as Hansen ran one in for a TD; however, the extra point kick was blocked and the score still favored the home team, 7-6. Continuing to trade missed punches until the last four minutes of the game, it was then that Hansen caught the Redskins napping. From deep in his own territory he spotted a receiver, Bob Dapp, all alone at the Owls’ 40-yard line. Firing a direct hit missile his way, the ball somehow bounced off Dapp’s hands and then bounded in the air and down the field. Looking just like a classic “tip-drill”, the tumbling pigskin was grabbed from the sky by George Ashton, also an Owl, who proceeded to race the remaining 53 yards to pay dirt and a score as signaled by the trailing officials. With DeRisi storming on the field to dispute the “illegal” play, the game was halted for 45 minutes before the befuddled zebras finally allowed the touchdown to stand. With the point after attempt good, the score spun to 13-7 for Bensalem and that’s the way the scoreboard read when the final gun sounded just minutes later..
While perhaps the end result was not a complete surprise due to the ‘Skins “championship” game having been played two weeks earlier, the Owls clearly showed they had just enough to get by the somewhat lethargic Indians as they handed them their second loss of the season. But still, and notwithstanding the Bensalem loss, the Blue and Red had earned their first championship trophy. Scoring an all-time team high of 216 points in their ten game season, they had yielded just 46 with the “average” score of a game being 21-5. And post season accolades soon began to pour in as Langhorne placed four men on the “Big Three Conference” First Team including Schneider – he was voted “Captain” as well – and fellow backfield mate Lukens along with linemen Tucker and Griffin (the Big Three was a short lived separate league that consisted of Langhorne, Bristol and Morrisville). Three other ‘Skins made the Second Team including Armand Fizzano, Kaleda and Brown. Additionally, three Tribe members also made the Delaware Valley Advance, All-District First Team including Schneider, Griffin and Tucker. Kaleda and Lukens were named to the Advance’s Second Team while Fizzano and Brown were placed on the Honorable Mention squad..
Deserving special nod on the 1946 team was Schneider who had closed out his 4-year career as a star and starter that very special year. In fact, of the Langhorne record 216 points scored by the ’46 boys (and which, was also second highest in Lower Bucks at that time with only the 1936 Bristol team scoring more at 237 in total), Schneider had tallied 9 six-pointers himself while putting up 8 conversions for a total of 62 points. He also threw 9 touchdown strikes thus having a hand in over half the team’s offensive output with 116 in all. Additionally, was it not for his unselfishness he could have scored a few more by calling his own play near the goal line after many long runs – including one against Trenton of 40 yards which ended at the two yard line and another against Newtown of 42 yards that also ended at the two. Of Schneider’s 9 scores, six were on the ground while two were on aerial grabs with his other the interception return against Bensalem. Besides his running and passing on offense, and defending as a defensive back, he also punted with his average being a phenomenal 50 yards per kick..
A three sport athlete (baseball and basketball were his other two) most local followers of the sport of football rate Schneider among the top three pre-1950 running backs in Lower Bucks County. The other two include Bristol’s immortal Johnny “King” Cole who powered the great Bunnies squads of the late ’20s and Morrisville’s big and speedy Jimmy Yeager who paced the fearsome 1938 Bulldog team. Schneider’s skills were clearly evidenced by his status as a four year ‘first teamer” and his selection to Bucks County grid all-star teams following his sophomore, junior and senior years. He also went on to excel at West Chester playing in several small college division bowl games..
The Championship Teams
– 1947 –
With the 1946 squad and its accomplishments already a fading memory by the fall of 1947, the ‘Skins of that year’s team still had the taste of championship meat on their minds – and it clearly had a delicious flavor. With a nucleus of “star” players returning from the 1946 championship team, including Tucker, Armand Fizzano and Brown, in addition to some underclassmen who had spent the off-season filling out their frames including Salvadore, Einenkel, Beswick, Cameron, Bill Fizzano and Knox along with some new faces like Ray Mongillo, Harry Curtis, Vic Gring, Calvin Tobias, Robert Davis and others, the ‘Skins were looking forward to another run at the flag. In fact, showing they were every bit as good as their predecessors, the 1947 players mirrored the achievements of the ’46 club as they snagged the LBC title once again while delivering another 7-2-1 effort..
But it didn’t start quite as smoothly as the boys would have liked as they opened the campaign by tying Fallsington, 0-0, followed by another loss to Riverside and then a strong Ft. Washington team too. With only a win over the George School wedged between those two “L” column entries, prospects for a championship season looked dim after those first four contests; however, despite the rocky start, and not unlike the ’46 streak, the ‘Skins then pocketed six straight wins. And looking like an unstoppable powerhouse once they had found their footing, they outscored the opposition 130-25 over that run as they turned back Newtown, Lower Moreland, Bristol, Morrisville, Southampton and the 1946 season ending spoiler, Bensalem. Actually, the Thanksgiving Day classic with the Owls of ’47 had special significance as they had joined the conference that year and a loss would have cost the ‘Skins the trophy. And just as they had in 1946, the Owls showed up raring for a fight as they drew first blood early in the game as they grabbed a 6-0 lead on a quick 39-yard aerial strike following their recovery of a Langhorne fumble. Fighting tenaciously thereafter, the Tribe scored two touchdowns and earned a safety on a blocked punt while keeping the Owls off the board anymore to finish on top, 15-6..
Meanwhile, and just as in 1946, several Redskin players were accorded post-season honors by being selected to all-star teams including repeats in Fizzano, Tucker and Brown plus some new ones in Salvadore and Beswick. Notably too, those great 1946 and 1947 teams produced 6 Redskin Hall of Famers including Schneider, Fizzano, Griffin, Lukens, Tucker and Kaleda. Of course, the man behind it all, Coach DeRisi, was also voted into the Hall of Fame. And although DeRisi moved on to Hammonton High, NJ the following year of 1948, the teams he had mentored and the trophies they had earned were instrumental in setting the stage for what was to follow..
Although Coach DeRisi and the boys of those great Langhorne-Middletown Redskins squads of 1946 and 1947 were soon “just” another few pages in yearbooks of the day, their efforts and results on the field were not at all forgotten. In fact, the teams of the next four years continued to play solid, winning football under DeRisi’s follow-up, Jim Egli. Hard on his heels, in 1952 a man by the name of Harry Franks would next set up shop as the head man of the Moleskinners which had by then changed their name to that by which they are still known today – the Neshaminy Redskins. Building on the accomplishments of the DeRisimen, Franks’ driving personality and relentless pursuit of perfection would spur the ‘Skins on a course that would reach heights probably not considered during those mid-40s seasons. In fact, from 1952 through 1965, under Franks and his replacement, the legendary John Petercuskie, the Blue and Red morphed themselves into a state and regional powerhouse as they spread their war dance far and wide..
Finally, with time now providing perfect clarity of vision as to their importance, it can be stated without contradiction that Coach DeRisi and his boys – the 1946 and 1947 Redskins, the first champions – had clearly raised a barn on the foundation set in place by the teams of the “early years”. And no doubt too, the dynasty thus born still continues to this day.