A RIVALRY TO REMEMBER: Central vs. Central Catholic

The Central Catholic Fighting Irish “won” the mythical football state championship in 1950, an achievement recognized by a banner still preserved 73 years later. (Photo courtesy of Today’s Catholic)

It’s rivalry week in the Summit Athletic Conference.  

The city’s best matchups of the year and some of the most fun that fans can have takes place this week. We have classic games like the Totem Pole Game between North Side and South Side, as well as good ol’ fashioned neighborhood disputes like Northrop and Snider.  And of course, we can’t forget to talk about the Battle of the Bishops – featuring the two Catholic schools in the area battling it out in Luers and Dwenger.

While these rivalries mean a lot to their schools, I’d like to share the story of one of Fort Wayne’s original rivalries. This is the story of two schools merely feet apart from each other, and how many of the rivalries we have today can trace their origins back to this one – Fort Wayne Central and Fort Wayne Central Catholic. 

Let me take you back to Fort Wayne in 1942. High school football was starting to become a big deal in the city, even though, at the time, basketball was the main show in the Hoosier state. The city had five high schools: North Side, South Side, Central, Concordia Lutheran and Central Catholic. These schools would schedule whoever would play them – often having to travel to places like Hammond, Indianapolis and Huntington to fill their schedules.

That was until North Side principal Milton Northrop proposed an idea. The heads of each school met and the Fort Wayne City series was born, made up of the five schools. 

I’m sure some of you are wondering what Central High School and Central Catholic were. 

Central High School was the original Fort Wayne high school. Opened in 1846 as Fort Wayne High School, it was the first public high school. It was later named Fort Wayne Central after South Side opened in 1922 and North Side opened in 1927.

Central’s mascot was the tiger and its colors were royal blue and white. The Tigers quickly became known for its great sports teams. Football and basketball were where they shined.

Central eventually closed in 1971 due to the necessity to diversify the city and move schools into the suburbs where the population was booming. The creation of Northrop and Wayne high schools meant that there was no more need for Central. Students were divided up amongst the remaining high schools. If you still want to see Central High School, just take a trip downtown to the Fort Wayne Career Academy, which is housed in the Central High School building constructed in 1912.

The old Central High School in downtown Fort Wayne, now the Fort Wayne Community Schools Career Center.

Directly across Lafayette St. from Central was Central Catholic High School. Central Catholic opened in 1938 as the city’s first Catholic high school. It was dedicated by Bishop John Francis Noll in 1939 and stood as a beacon for those going through Catholic grade schools. Many students who attended the local parishes throughout the city dreamed of one day playing for the purple and gold Fighting Irish of Central Catholic. They became known for their great football and basketball teams and their mythical hoops state championship in 1950.

The two rivals played for the first time in 1934, which finished in a scoreless tie.

Central Catholic ultimately closed in the 1970s due to declining enrollment and the creation of two new Catholic schools in Fort Wayne – Bishop Dwenger and Bishop Luers. The building is no longer standing, but you can still see many memorabilia of Central Catholic at both Bishop Dwenger and Bishop Luers, as well as a marker on the site.

Central and Central Catholic were less than a block apart. The schools were so close that on lunch breaks and dismissal, you’d often see students in Central Catholic and Central sweaters walking to the same places and living in the same neighborhoods. 

But while the students were friendly (for the most part) with each other, the rivalry on the football field was far from cordial. These two would engage in some epic matchups.  

In 1950, a Week 2 matchup featuring the highly-touted Fighting Irish traveled to play the Tigers on the road. The game featured two of the best teams in the area at the time. College coaches such as future Super Bowl champion Hank Stram (then a Purdue assistant) and Michigan State Hall of Fame coach Clarence Munn were both in attendance. Central Catholic would dominate, ending a five-game losing streak to its bitter rivals. Two touchdowns were scored by future Purdue running back Phill Erhman and senior quarterback Tony Martone would add another. Central Catholic would go on to win a mythical state championship that season. 

Central High School would also go on to have some great seasons in its final few years of existence with the hiring of a young, upstart coach named Byron “Buzz” Doerffler. He would help Central to four consecutive winning seasons to finish the school’s football history. In 1970, the program’s final campaign, the team went a perfect 8-0 against its city opponents, with one blemish. Led by all-state performances by Bob Love, and Clarence Bullock that year, the Tigers tied their bitter rival Central Catholic 12-12 on Oct. 10, 1970.

It was perhaps the perfect end to the rivalry, especially since it began with a tie as well. Central Catholic finished 4-5-1 in 1970, then went 6-2-1 in 1971, its final campaign. 

As the two schools disappeared, players from both schools would transfer to other city schools. The rivalry would continue in spirit in many ways. Some Central students went to South Side or Wayne and many Central Catholic students moved to Bishop Luers in the early 70s. They took the rivalries with them. 

Many Central students were sent north to Northrop to play for their old head coach in Doerffler, who also landed there. Some Central Catholic players also headed north to play at Bishop Dwenger.

While many people today talk about the current Snider vs. Dwenger Northrop vs. Snider rivalries, it was the Bruins and Saints who played in many epic matchups in the early 70s, and this can be traced back to that old rivalry off Lafayette St. 

It’s important to remember those who have come before us. The city has such a rich history of high school sports and it’s a shame that many of the great men who played have long past. Most of this information I got from my grandfather, who would tell me so many stories about his football-playing days at Central Catholic. Many times I would take him to breakfast with his old teammates. In between complaining about how old they were, they would share unbelievable knowledge of the game of football.

Another big source of information for this article came from my grandmother, Dr. Patty Martone, who was a teacher and dean of girls at Central High School. She would later write that she “left her heart on Lewis Street” and went on to be the backbone of the new school, Northrop. She was proud of all the firsts for Northrop, but her love for Central never died. 

This past year, we lost Buzz Doerffler, a great man and football coach. He was loved by his former Concordia teammates and all his players at both Central and Northrop.

My hope is that we never stop remembering and telling stories of our rich high school sports traditions in Fort Wayne.

So as you head out to rivalry games this Friday, celebrate the love of competition and a bit of fun disdain for your opponent.

Enjoy every minute of it because you never know when it’s going to be gone.

Coach‘s Corner appears weekly at Outside the Huddle. The author Ben Martone played football in the SAC and has coached at North Side and Northrop. He is currently a teacher at Weisser Park Elementary in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

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