Trophy comes off shelf for St. Al-St. Joe game|[10/18/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 18, 2007

The trophy is nestled on top of St. Aloysius’ trophy case, in the school lobby, alongside a couple dozen others, forgotten by all but a few people.

There’s some dust on the base now, and the aged roman figure on top gives a grimy salute to his former owners. The copper cup’s edges are worn smooth from a half-century’s worth of victory celebrations. The only shiny part of the whole thing, the plaque, commemorates those games from years ago.

Even the engraved name, “Strauss-Stallings,” is from another era, as is the name of one of the recipients, “Jackson-St. Joseph.”

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Yes, the trophy is a throwback to a rivalry that progress sent to the scrap heap seven years ago. But all things come full circle, and the trophy will have another moment in the autumn moonlight Friday night.

It will be awarded to the winner of the football game between St. Aloysius and Madison-St. Joseph, just like it was for nearly 50 years.

“You don’t have many games like that left on the high school level,” said Jimmy Salmon, St. Al’s defensive coordinator and assistant athletic director. “I’m hoping we can get the tradition started again.”

St. Al’s tradition goes all the way back to the very beginning of high school football in Mississippi. It played its first game as early as 1912. St. Joe — then based in Jackson — didn’t start its football program until 1950, but quickly found a natural rivalry with its Catholic school cousin to the west.

St. Al and St. Joe, which moved to Madison in 2001, played their first game against each other in 1952. Strauss-Stallings Jewelry, which had stores in Jackson and on Washington Street in Vicksburg and whose owner, Joe Canizaro, was a devout Catholic, offered a trophy to be presented to the winner.

Each year, the trophy was to go home with the winner until the next meeting.

The trophy stayed in Vicksburg most of the time.

St. Al won 13 of the first 14 meetings in the series. St. Joe’s first victory didn’t come until 1956, when it rallied from a 7-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 14-7. It didn’t win again until taking a 7-6 decision in 1966, starting a run of five victories over St. Al in seven seasons.

From 1952-65, however, the team then known as the Rebels was usually beaten handily. St. Joe never scored more than 14 points against the Flashes in that span, and was outscored 203-13 in nine meetings between 1957 and 1965.

“When we first started playing football at St. Joe, we couldn’t even get on the field with St. Al. They were even playing a lot of bigger schools back then,” said Bill Raphael (pronounced RA-full), who served as St. Joe’s head coach from 1950-91. “That little school was bad news.”

According to one of the original stipulations in the series, St. Al never should have lost the trophy

As the series was originally designed, the first team to beat the other in 6 of 10 games would become the permanent owner of the trophy. Raphael joked that he didn’t recall that provision.

“I was teasing Jimmy (Salmon), asking how’d it wind up over there?” Raphael said with a laugh.

Jim Taylor, St. Al’s current coach, joked that he’d be inclined to invoke the clause on Friday.

“We might mention it after we beat them, but we’re going to keep the trophy,” Taylor said with a laugh. “We might put the score on it and remain the keeper of the trophy.”

After St. Al’s initial dominant run, the series gradually became more competitive. Each school took turns owning the Strauss-Stallings trophy for the next 30 years, until St. Al ripped off six straight wins in the series from 1996-2000. St. Al leads the all-time series 29-15, but is just 16-14 against St. Joe since 1966.

Salmon, who played for St. Al from 1966-69 and has coached there since the early 1980s, said that even footing amped up the rivalry factor.

“It was never just another game. It was always rough and tough. We would have a run of victories and they would have a run of victories,” Salmon said. “I tried to tell the kids that this rivalry was nothing like what we have with Natchez (Cathedral). It was do or die. You’d rather have anything happen than lose to them.”

Both teams enjoyed epic wins in the series that ranked among their most memorable ever. Bubba Booth, St. Al’s coach from 1987-97, called a 27-26 win over St. Joe in 1991 “One of my best memories.”

Raphael called St. Joe’s first victory over the Flashes in 1956 “amazing.” Some of the others, he joked, weren’t as great.

“We had another one we won 9-8. That was outstanding, because it was a hard-fought ballgame. Of course, I try to forget the forgettable ones,” he said with a laugh.

After the 2000 season, one of central Mississippi’s best rivalries fizzled out. The Mississippi High School Activities Association enlarged the divisions for Class 1A, leaving only one or two non-division games per year for St. Al.

St. Joe, a Class 2A school, had a few more open dates but never one that aligned with St. Al’s. And so the Strauss-Stallings Trophy found a home in St. Al’s lobby, alongside a few division championship and Red Carpet Bowl trophies.

Finally, the stars aligned for the rivalry to begin anew. When this year’s division schedules were finalized, both schools had open dates on Oct. 19. Raphael — who served as St. Joe’s athletic director from 2004 until his retirement last spring — and Salmon happily worked out a two-year contract. The teams will play in Vicksburg this year and in Madison in 2008.

After that, the rivalry may once again go on hiatus. Coaches at both schools said they would like it to continue, but they may not be able to find an open week to do it in.

If they can’t, the Strauss-Stallings Trophy will get a couple of new scores added to its base and then go back on its shelf to collect more dust. One of the relics of high school football will always have its place, and will await another chance to witness history.

“I’m just excited to see it get started,” Salmon said. “I don’t know how long it will last, but I hope we can keep it going.”