Ed LangloisThe roar from football games could be heard all over the neighborhood.
Of the Catholic Sentinel
North Catholic High School, open in Portland for a dozen years before it was destroyed by a 1970 fire, had already built a proud sports tradition.
There was track and baseball. The basketball team, which won its league on occasion, played in Howard Hall on the University of Portland campus. The librarian, Donald Jacobs, was an accomplished speed walker.
But the gridiron stands out in many memories in this working class neighborhood, framed by docks on the Willamette and Columbia rivers.
The Royals made it to two state title football games, losing 13-0 to Phoenix in 1963 and 14-3 to Vale in 1966.
North Catholic looked unbeatable for the 1970 season. But the fire broke up the team. Players spread all over the city, becoming starters even at much larger schools.
Marv Delplanche taught history and coached football at North Catholic from 1964 until the fire in 1970.
"The best years of my life," says Delplanche, who still lives in the district.
He was a newlywed in the mid-1960s and planned on making a career there. He and the late Armand Martinotti, the athletic director at North Catholic, had graduated together from the University of Portland.
"It was one of the best quality schools," Delplanche says.
Under his leadership, the Royal gridders went 41-5.
"They were hard-working and very dedicated players," Delplanche says, speaking of the team as if the last game had been yesterday, not 40 years ago. "I was gifted with boys who had a lot of speed."
In the lead-up to one 1966 game, Delplanche knew the Warrenton middle linebacker was a one-man wrecking crew. The big, strong player had knocked out the last opponent's center with a knee to the head.
Before kickoff, Delplanche told the referees they had better protect his center, senior Steve Hafer. But the Warrenton Goliath kept taking cheap and brutal shots at Hafer, who, like all centers, was vulnerable because he needed to snap the ball.
Delplanche gathered his team and told them to focus their blocks — legal, but ferocious — on the linebacker. The Royals, fueled by devotion to their suffering teammate, rose to the occasion. Tough fullback Von Wecker charged through the line and laid a stunning hit on the burly linebacker that could be heard all over the stadium. An inspired North Catholic went on to win 40-0.
"I have never seen a team rise to such an emotional level," Delplanche says.
Marv Honl sent five children through North Catholic. He recalls watching Wecker run in a game at Neah-Kah-Nie High on the coast that year with opponents hanging all over him. "The announcer would come on," Honl recalls, "and say something like 'Wecker carries nine Indians for 12 more yards.'"
But that season continued as an example of wily speed over might. Few Royals topped 200 pounds. In a memorable game against an imposing Scappoose team, North Catholic decided to go around the muscle, throwing screen pass after screen pass and setting the blue-clad speedsters free.
North Catholic's defensive backs were so good that in four seasons, opponents scored
only one passing touchdown.
Father Francis Maloney, North Catholic's founder, was a football fan. Parents recall with glee one rainy day in Astoria when the portly priest charged 50 yards down the sideline encouraging a Royals player who was making a long kickoff return. Father Maloney's housekeeper struggled to keep up, holding an umbrella over the red-faced principal.
When the 1962 Columbus Day storm hit as the football team was on it's way to a game at the coast, Father Maloney jumped in his car and drove at high speeds to call the bus back to safety.
North Catholic sports had a minimal budget. Delplanche and other coaches bought used or rejected gear.
The field, behind the school and just barely big enough for its purpose, was always full on Saturday afternoons for games. As many as 1,000 Loyal Royal Rooters came. Many were neighbors who had no family enrolled, but were dedicated and proud of North Catholic just the same.
Several alumni played football in college. Mike Jodoin was a celebrated University of Oregon middle linebacker in the early 1970s.
When the fire hit, the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle was "Sports powerhouse burns."
After the fire, Delplanche tried to bring football to La Salle in Milwaukie, where many North Catholic students went, but officials there found it too costly. He applied for other coaching jobs, but technicalities blocked him. He left coaching and took up farming, then insurance sales and financial planning for funeral homes.
Delplanche still thinks of the school as part of his life. When he drives down Lombard on a fall Saturday afternoon, he can sometimes still hear the roar of the crowd.