- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

More than 60 years after he missed out on winning a championship at Georgetown Prep, Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, class of 1949, is finally getting his chance.

The Cardinals will play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. Considering the decades of futility as the franchise migrated from Chicago to St. Louis to the desert, it is the stunning surprise of this NFL season and sweet redemption for Bidwill, a frequent target for his team’s well-chronicled difficulties.

This also is an exciting time for the extended Georgetown Preparatory School family.

“The whole school is rejoicing about it,” said school president Father William George, the recent recipient of a new Cardinals hat.

Its sender, Bidwill, was a senior kicker and hard-running fullback for Georgetown Prep, a valuable member of an undefeated 1948 team that seemed bound for its own postseason glory.

But it never happened. The week of the regular-season finale against archrival Gonzaga, with the winner going to the city championship game, a polio outbreak shut down the north Bethesda school for several weeks. Georgetown Prep’s season was finished.

“They closed the school and sanitized it,” the 77-year-old Bidwill recalled via e-mail. “We came back, and everything was fine, except every other school in the area was playing basketball by then. At that point in time, many of your athletes on one team were very good athletes in another sport and so on. So we couldn’t get together and play Gonzaga, which was the other Jesuit school in Washington.”

Polio, an occasionally fatal viral disease with symptoms that range from mild sickness to paralysis, was a threat in the United States - President Franklin Roosevelt was perhaps its most famous victim - before Jonas Salk created his vaccine in the 1950s. Fear of contracting polio was widespread, and no one took chances.

“Everybody went home,” said Tom Crowley, who played end for the Little Hoyas that season. “That was the end of football. It was unequivocal. Everybody was let down. All the guys in my class had played two or three years to get to the point we were at. But that’s the way it was, and we went on to basketball.”

One of the team captains, end and linebacker John O’Donnell, said, “We were destroyed. Gonzaga in those days was a natural rival. … We were disappointed because there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were confident we could beat anybody.”

Bidwill since then has maintained close ties with his alma mater. He visits the 90-acre campus when travel permits and donates a lot of money, as evidenced by the 2-year-old Bidwill Fitness Center. Two of his sons - Timothy and Michael, the Cardinals’ president - are Georgetown Prep alumni. Bidwill spoke to the football team and participated in the school’s first Hall of Fame ceremonies, when the entire 1948 team was inducted.

Through the years, Bidwill has invited several ex-teammates and classmates to spend football weekends with him in Arizona and St. Louis. George was Bidwill’s guest last year, when the Super Bowl was played at the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium.

“He’s such a generous person,” George said. “When I was there, he took me to a convent school at one of the Native American reservations that he supports. They loved him. When we were at the Super Bowl, they had a little side area for the fancy suits, but it was all full of nuns. He does quiet, generous things. I don’t think anybody ever knows how many institutions that family has helped.”

Said associate athletic director Jim Fegan, who coached football at Georgetown Prep for 30 years: “He’s a generous, caring alumnus. When he comes around campus, he’s totally at ease. People find out who he is and ask him questions, and he’s very, very gracious. There’s nothing phony about the man at all. He’s a real down-to-earth person.”

•••

The polio outbreak also cost Georgetown Prep an opportunity to play in the Jesuit high school equivalent of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Loyola High of Towson, Md., was invited instead. Earlier that season, Georgetown Prep beat Loyola 33-31, helped by a play in which Bidwill took a pitch from quarterback Ed Claxton, rolled out and threw a touchdown pass to Crowley.

“The fullback option pass thing,” said Crowley, who owns a real estate business in Delaware. “I was on the left side, and I came across the field to the right and caught the pass near the end zone. The ball was where it was supposed to be.”

Crowley said the play covered about 40 yards, but Bill Gaudreau, a Loyola linebacker and quarterback, said he does not remember it. What he does recall is how hard it was to tackle Bidwill, a sturdy, bowling ball-type runner.

“Hitting that guy was like running into a wall,” said Gaudreau, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for one in the game. “He was not that tall, but he was thick and strong.”

Gaudreau and Bidwill both were recruited by Maryland coach Jim Tatum. Gaudreau said while he waited outside Tatum’s office for his interview, he could hear Bidwill talking.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this, Coach. I’ve got a team in Chicago,’” Gaudreau said.

Bidwill’s father, Charles, who bought the Chicago Cardinals in 1933, died in 1947, the year the franchise won its only NFL title. Bill Bidwill said he met with Tatum mostly as a courtesy. He went on to Georgetown University, content to study and play intramurals.

“I thought I was a good prep school player, but in college my interests were academic, and I didn’t think I could compete against the people they were bringing in on scholarships,” he said.

Gaudreau attended Notre Dame and played safety. He missed his senior year because of an injury but was drafted by the Cardinals in the 30th round in 1953. Bidwill did not say whether his team picked Gaudreau because they were former prep adversaries, but O’Donnell said: “Bill liked Billy Gaudreau as a friend, and they ran into each other over the years. … It was a thank you for Gaudreau.”

Asked whether he was drafted because Bidwill knew him, the Baltimore architect said, “I think so. I hadn’t played that year. I was flattered, but I had to go into the military.”

Despite his doubts, Bidwill might have been good enough to play in college. Gaudreau certainly thought so. The Washington Daily News named Bidwill “All Prep,” and his leather-helmeted teammates respected his abilities.

“He was a strong runner,” Crowley said. “He would do the tough work. He wasn’t afraid to run through the middle of the line. Once he got going, he was awfully hard to stop.”

Crowley played quarterback until his senior year but continued to call the plays.

“For his size, [Bidwill] was very fast, and I called his number many times for him to go outside,” he said.

O’Donnell, who went on to become a prominent Washington attorney, said, “He was a good, big fullback, but he was also a good placekicker. He had a good, strong leg, and he was accurate.”

•••

Bidwill’s mother, Violet, assumed control of the Cardinals after her husband died of pneumonia at the age of 51. After considering other Jesuit schools, she sent her son to Georgetown Prep for his junior year. An older brother, Charles, nicknamed “Stormy,” (the brothers would later learn they were adopted) was attending Georgetown University. As an out-of-towner, Bidwill was known as a boarder (the term these days is “resident”). Students who lived at home were called “day hops.”

“My mother just knew that while I never got into any trouble or anything like that, she didn’t want to try and supervise my situation when she had a lot to attend to,” Bidwill said.

Classmates say they knew of his connections, but he never flaunted them. He also displayed the same reserved personality that has come to characterize him as an owner.

“He was a very shy person,” said Tom Field, a classmate who did not play football. “He wasn’t very outgoing but very friendly. … He’s a very nice person, but he didn’t show it well to people, because he was reticent.”

Crowley said, “He wasn’t reclusive or anything like that. He was just a guy you blocked for and played ball with. He was more on the serious side. He had a sense of humor… but he wasn’t a jokester. He was just a regular guy, that’s all.”

But playing with Bidwill, a former Cardinals ballboy, had at least one perk. In 1947, the team attended a game at Griffith Stadium. The Cardinals, en route to a championship, were heavily favored against the 2-6 Washington Redskins. But legendary quarterback Sammy Baugh threw six touchdown passes, and the Redskins won 45-21. On Sammy Baugh Day, no less.

“They gave Baugh a 1947 Packard station wagon,” said Crowley, who also attended Georgetown University with Bidwill. “It was maroon with red sides. He was terrific, absolutely terrific.”

Some of Bidwill’s teammates were pulling for their hometown team, but just about all who are left will be rooting for the Cardinals, and Bidwill, on Sunday.

“He’s never forgotten Georgetown Prep,” O’Donnell said.


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