Game on: Chicago Catholic League celebrates centennial year

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, September 23, 2012

Through and through, Mike Curtin’s a “Catholic Leaguer.”

A graduate of Leo High on Chicago’s South Side, Curtin has served as athletic director at both Mendel and Fenwick high schools and has spent more than two decades as a league officer in the Chicago Catholic League.

“I grew up steeped in Catholic League lore and to think I’d someday be an athletic director in the Catholic League and even president of the Catholic League seemed like a pipe dream,” Curtin said. “It’s been one of the great honors of my life.”

For so many like Curtin, the Catholic League is an institution unlike any other in Chicago history — evolving in the present, yet ever aware of its past.

One of the Chicago area’s largest prep athletic leagues and the oldest continuously operating high school athletic league in the nation, Catholic League schools have been competing on fields and courts for 100 years. That century of competition among Catholic schoolboys, Curtin said, has sparked a common bond among athletes.

“There’s tough competition,” Curtin said, “but faith has tied us all together.”

On Aug. 19, Bishop Francis Kane celebrated the Chicago Catholic League’s Centennial Mass at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, with hundreds of Catholic Leaguers like Curtin in attendance.

“That turnout shows the spirit of this league,” Curtin said of the Mass.

Century of competition

The Catholic League began operating in October 1912 when representatives from eight Chicago- area parochial schools founded the conference and sponsored competition in basketball and indoor baseball.

Of the eight founding members, De La Salle, Loyola Academy, Mount Carmel and St. Ignatius remain. Cathedral, DePaul Academy, St. Philip and St. Stanislaus have since closed.

In subsequent years, the conference added football, track, swimming, golf, tennis, cross country, wrestling, water polo, soccer and volleyball. In 1974, the Catholic League would officially join the Illinois High School Association, a move to develop a wider base of competition for its sports beyond football and basketball.

Over its century, the Catholic League boasts names and teams etched in Illinois prep sports lore — individual state champions and team state champions, All- State athletes and All- American performers. Indeed, some of the finest athletes to ever emerge from the Chicago area’s prep ranks honed their athletic skills in Catholic League battles, including Super Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb (Mount Carmel), mile-run world-record holder Tom O’Hara (St. Ignatius) and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner (Fenwick).

At the recent Olympic Games in London, two Catholic Leaguers claimed gold medals — Loyola Academy alum Conor Dwyer in swimming and Weber graduate Mike Krzyzewski, who guided the United States’ men’s basketball team to its second consecutive Olympic title.

“The history and prestige of the league combined with the success of so many of its alumni is certainly part of the mystique of the Catholic League and what makes it so special,” said Jim Prunty, the current Catholic League president who, like Curtin, is also a lifelong Catholic Leaguer. Prunty graduated from Brother Rice, coached at De La Salle and St. Rita and, for the last 13 years, has been the athletic director at St. Ignatius.

Continued strength

From current Catholic League members such as Brother Rice and Gordon Tech, Hales Franciscan and St. Rita, Leo and St. Laurence to shuttered schools such as Mendel, Weber, St. George and St. Mel, the Catholic League has touched as many as 30 Chicago area schools over its century in existence.

Today, the conference features 16 members from communities throughout the Chicago area. Competition stretches from Bishop McNamara in Kankakee and Providence Catholic in New Lenox to Loyola Academy in Wilmette and St. Joseph in Westchester.

The league’s diversity is cultural and racial, geographical and financial. Enrollments range from 200 students to more than 2,000 and league administrators have worked to find the competitive balance that gives all of the league’s athletes an opportunity to compete in a fair way.

“Year after year, the Catholic League is competitive and we work hard to maintain that balance,” Prunty said.

Many of the schools continue to be athletic powerhouses. In recent years, the Catholic League has hoisted numerous state championships, including Leo in track, Providence Catholic in football, St. Rita in wrestling, Loyola Academy in golf and Fenwick in water polo.

“There has been one long, 100-year string of competitiveness,” Curtin said.

Central to the league’s success, many contend, is the faith-based qualities of the league and the camaraderie both competition and faith breed.

“The Catholic League has held a consistent belief that sound, competitive athletics bathed in good Catholic water is a way for kids to grow up and succeed,” Curtin said.

“It’s been that way for 100 years and we hope it stays that way for another 100.”