Bears have put together the nation's longest current football winning streak — 62 games — on the strength of an ultra-productive youth program.
The town runs a program, common to Western Pennsylvania, which relies on volunteer coaches and has around 18 players on teams for age eight, nine, 10-11, 12 and 13-14. Because of the popularity and productivity of these teams, Clairton does not have middle school football. When players reach the high school as freshmen, they go straight to the varsity. Many of the youth coaches are former Clairton players who do a great job of teaching the tradition as well as strong fundamentals and a winning attitude.
Current defensive coordinator Wayne Wade experienced the program from age eight through high school and earned a scholarship to the University of Akron.
Wade, whose grandfather also played for Clairton, told MaxPreps that football is "a huge deal, just a way of life in Clairton. It was bigger for us to be a Bear than for kids to go through college or the NFL. Being in the Bears locker room and putting on a Bears uniform ... When we played pickup football, you'd hear us call out (pretending to be) high school football names."
The former quarterback/safety noted that the streak started with a 16-0 campaign and Class A state title.
He recalled, "The first year they went 16-0, that team felt they were the best team ever. Next year there were a lot of returnees and it became contagious. Every team said 'We are going to go 16-0.' That's the goal every year."
Statistician Jim McCorkel echoes the grassroots benefits of the program.
He pointed out, "We all stick together. They always come back and say hello. Once a Bear, always a Bear."
Head coach Tom Nola, who has an outstanding 138-20 record and three consecutive Class A state titles since 2002, reached his current position in a roundabout way. Baseball was his first love and first coaching job, although he actually started in retail sales for two years following graduation from Bethany College in West Virginia.
A graduate of nearby McKeesport High, Nola calls the streak, "unimaginable. Coaches only think about this. I don't think it will ever happen again."
The veteran coach doesn't think the streak brings much pressure to his veteran team.
He observed, "Our kids, they like it. They've got a lot of confidence. They don't think they can lose,. They're not overconfident. They have good athletic ability. There's a whole lot (of pride). Our guys talk about it all the time. It's not like we shield them. The community is very proud of them and it brings a lot of attention to our school (180 students in grades 9-12)."
The high-scoring Bears run a spread offense with three and sometimes four wide receivers. Nola calls all the plays.
The workhorse is Tyler Boyd
, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior running back, who has well over 20 college scholarship offers.
This year Boyd, who runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, has carried 194 times for 2,467 yards and 42 touchdowns. He also has scored three times on punt returns, twice on receptions and once on an interception. In two years as a running back, Boyd has gained 5,581 yards and scored 117 touchdowns.
Nola calls him "the greatest player I ever have coached. He sees holes other people can't see. The comparison that other coaches have used and we agree is that he runs like Marcus Allen. He sort of glides along."
Boyd, who began playing football at age eight, calls the streak "huge. It's about us making history. I think Class A might have the best talent around here."
During the few times that Boyd was slowed down, senior quarterback Armani Ford
(5-10,160) took over. He has completed 75 of 104 passes for 1,858 yards and 24 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He also has run for 225 yards and three touchdowns in his first year as a starter.
Senior linebacker Robert Boatright
(5-10, 170) leads the Bears with 135 tackles.
Nola is quick to point out that the Bears not only score a lot of points, but they also make teams pay on defense, even though they are normally out-sized.
He explained, "Our base is a 5-3, but it depends on the other team's formation. The tradition now has been established. Our guys love to hit and play defense — most of them even more than scoring touchdowns. They're hard, aggressive hitters."
But football is a numbers game and at Clairton depth can be greatly diminished by injuries. For example, two key starters could miss Friday's state championship game against Dunmore. Both are two-way starters.
Nola said he has his biggest-ever squad this year — 38 players. His teams have averaged about 32 players per year, but once had only 24. The Bears often lack size, but they always have a lot of speed and tough hard-nosed athletes.
Not unnoticed is the impact the team has made on a very financially depressed town, located 12 miles from Pittsburgh. Once a thriving steel mill town, Clairton's population has shrunk to 6,700. There is no longer a single grocery store and there is just one gas station in the city limits. Approximately one-fourth of the houses in the city are shuttered, according to Mayor Richard Lattanzi.
Lattanzi said, "For the community and myself, it means a lot. A lot of people are happy and a lot of people are not complaining because the focus is on the football team. The streak is phenomenal, because they have maintained it year in and year out. I know the kids are phenomenal athletes."
The 48-year-old mayor also is a product of the Clairton football line, even though he was just 5-5 and 140 pounds as a senior defensive back.
Wade weighed in with his thoughts about football's impact on the community.
Wade said, "There's not a lot of revenue going through the town since the mill has depleted and not a lot of business is coming. With the football team having so much success, it kind of keeps the town going. People can't wait for football to get going."
And, even though the population has dwindled, the football team is often the reason for families moving into town. Clairton continues to produce the great athletes who have made Western Pennsylvania famous for many years.
So, it all boils down to Friday night when the Bears hope to win and close out another banner year with a 63-game winning streak to pass on to a young team in 2013.
"They want to keep the streak going, because they don't want to be the ones to give it up," said Nola. "They would probably be more remembered for that than the streak."
Regardless of the outcome on Friday, the Bears will continue to roll in the future. Nola already is excited about this year's great eighth grade crop.
And the beat goes on.You can contact Dave Krider by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noonhoops.