New Kensington standout France’s memories still vivid
In 1946, New Kensington High School was basking in the afterglow of an undefeated football season in Class AA — the highest classification offered at this time — and its first WPIAL title. George “Cubby” France was a sophomore and the team’s starting quarterback.
“It was a big thing, and it had never been done in New Kensington before,” France said. “The veterans were coming home from the service; everyone was behind us.”
There were no state championships and the season, for all intents and purposes, was complete.
That is until the school was handed an invitation to participate in the Peanut Bowl, a yearly event then held at Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium that pitted some of the best high school football teams in the country against one another.
There was just one big problem: The Red Raiders could only play in the Peanut Bowl if they left behind both of the black players on their roster — including Willie Thrower, who would later become the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL. At that time, Florida’s Jim Crow laws prevented black-and-white players from competing on the same field.
For France and the remainder of the predominantly white Ken High football team, leaving anybody behind was not an option.
“There was no way we were going to go without Willie and Flint Green,” the 81-year-old France said recently with a firm conviction that feels as though it has lingered since he was 15. “When Coach (Don) Fletcher presented (the offer) to us, the decision was unanimous.”
It was with a similar style of confident leadership, skill and versatility that France excelled as a three-sport athlete and, by his senior year, a three-team captain at Ken High from 1946-49.
France was a four-year letterman and three-year starting quarterback on the Red Raiders’ powerhouse football team, which won two WPIAL championships and amassed a 24-game winning streak.
“I think of how fortunate I was to play with a group of athletes like we had,” France said. “It was just unbelievable what we could do. I always considered myself fortunate to be a part of that.”
That group of athletes included standouts such as Thrower, Tony Kotowski, Vince Pisano, Dick Tamburo, Reynaldo Kozikowski, Harold Verstand, Bill Horrell and Joe Kline.
The Red Raiders dominated their opponents, outscoring teams by an average of 27-4 over the 1946 and ’47 seasons. Part of their success stemmed from a stifling defense, and the other part from an innovative single-wing offense.
While France lined up at quarterback, the nearest back to the offensive line, he was not behind center like a modern day quarterback. In the single-wing, the tailback — Thrower’s position — took most of the snaps. France’s duties were split, from lead blocking to running the ball to passing.
The team’s success afforded it opportunities to play in front of large crowds. Notably, a hotly anticipated contest against Vandergrift in 1946 was moved to Forbes Field because of high demand. The game between the two undefeated teams served as a de facto championship, because there were no WPIAL playoffs.
“Just to go in the locker room and see all of those professional football players’ names was a memory I’ll never forget,” France said.
The 17,967 in attendance watched France and the Red Raiders defeat the Blue Lancers, 21-0. France threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kotowski, to make the score 14-0.
France also played shortstop on the baseball team for four years, and was a guard on the basketball team for three season. Though both teams experienced some success and appeared in the playoffs, neither touched the dominance of the football team.
France enrolled at Michigan State after graduating, then returned to Pittsburgh to complete his education. He taught at Freeport for 33 years and assumed a variety of roles, including shop teacher, counselor and assistant principal for 10 years.
Now retired, France still finds himself still in conversations about the Ken High teams that he played for.
“At one time it was very frequent, not so much anymore. It’s been 60 years now,” he said. “But you never forget about those days.”
Hall of Fame banquet
7 p.m. May 19, Clarion Hotel, New Kensington.
â¢ Inductees: William Bonner, George France, John Kratsas, Tom Myers, Tom Nagy, Tony Petrarca, Warren Riddinger, Terri-Ann Gizienski Ulewicz.
â¢ Tickets: Al Uskuraitis, 724-727-7259. Cost: $25. No tickets sold at the event.