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Gibbons Athletes Fight Grim Reality Of School?s Closure

March 15, 2010

By Keith Mills

It has been two weeks since the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that 13 Catholic schools in the Baltimore area will close at the end of this school year. Since then emotions have run high with frustrated and disappointed students and parents holding rallies and meeting with the Archdiocese in hopes of keeping their schools open.

Cardinal Gibbons is the only high school closing. The 48-year-old facility on Caton Avenue in West Baltimore, once the home of the St. Mary's Industrial School attended by Babe Ruth, will shut down because of enrollment and economic issues, according to the Archdiocese.

Athletically, Gibbons has been home to some of the area's premier student-athletes. Jean Fugett graduated with honors from Gibbons in 1968. He played football and basketball at Gibbons and is one of two Crusader graduates to play in the NFL. After studying law and playing football at Amherst, Fugett was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1972. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound tight end played eight seasons in the NFL with the Cowboys and Washington Redskins.

Vaughn Hebron graduated from Gibbons in 1989 after helping coach Frank Trcka's Crusaders win the school's last MIAA A Conference football championship. Trcka replaced Vic Corbin after the 1988 season with Hebron, Steve Allen, Eric Hawkins, Charles Pratt and Art Holloway leading Gibbons to the championship.

Hebron went on to Virginia Tech. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles before eventually joining the Denver Broncos in 1996. In 1998 and '99 Hebron helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls.

Under Ray Mullis the Crusaders’ basketball team took a backseat to no one, winning six Catholic League championships and producing some tremendous talent. One of the best was Quintin Dailey who, along with Todd McClendon and Dwayne Purnell, led Gibbons to the second of its six BCL titles in 1989.

Dailey went on to play at San Francisco and was later selected by the Chicago Bulls with the seventh pick of the 1982 NBA draft. He played 10 years in the league with the Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle SuperSonics.

Two years later, Steve Wojciechowski, Jerard Rucker and current Loyola High coach Josh Davalli led Gibbons to its sixth and final Catholic League championship, a 70-66 win over St. Frances. Wojciechowski went on to an outstanding career at Duke, where he has served as an assistant coach under coach Mike Krzyzewski for the last 11 years.

Dozens of Gibbons graduates are currently playing college sports, including Blake Thompson, an all-MIAA football and baseball player a year ago, now at Elon University; Ryan Staton, a 2008 graduate playing baseball at Catonsville Community College; and Andrew Parker, an All-State catcher last year for the Gibbons baseball team, now a freshman at Towson University. Teammate Robbie Harris, another All-State Crusader, is playing baseball at Indian River Community College in Florida. Christian Klimczyk, Dave Stark and Will Foy are all playing lacrosse at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.

Leon Williams (Ohio University) and Kenny Hasbrouck (Sienna) completed outstanding careers in college basketball while Alex Franz (St. Mary's College of Maryland), Jamar Briscoe (North Carolina Central), Dorian Green (Goucher) and Paul Kouvaris (York College) are playing now. Dylon Cormier, a first-team All-Catholic League guard, will play next year at Loyola.

Many of this year's Gibbons student-athletes are also active in school government and leaders on a campus rocked by the news of their school's closing. One day after the news broke, two dozen students drove to Archdiocese headquarters in downtown Baltimore to protest the decision. Their orderly conduct earned a dozen of them a meeting with Bishop Denis Madden. On March 6 more than 200 parents and students crammed into the Gibbons auditorium for a question-and-answer meeting with Bishop Madden and several members of the Archdiocese.

Five Gibbons students-athletes, four seniors and a junior, spoke with PressBox about their time at Gibbons, their reaction to the decision to close, and what, if anything, can be done to save the school.

Senior R.T. Vail plays baseball and runs cross country, and will attend UMBC next year. Senior Ryan Ellis runs indoor track and plays baseball and football. He'll play football next year at Bridgewater College in Virginia. Senior Nick Mills, president of the National Honor Society, plays baseball and soccer, and he will play soccer next year at Goucher College. Senior Dominic Fratantuono plays soccer and baseball and will play baseball next year at Towson University. Dominic’s brother Justin Fratanuono is president of the school's junior class and also a baseball and soccer player. He is weighing his options for next year.

All four seniors attended the meeting with Bishop Madden at Archdiocese headquarters.

PressBox: What has your Cardinal Gibbons education meant to you?

R.T. Vail: There's so much attention given to Gibbons students that you can't find anywhere else. Teachers will sit down with you to work out every problem, and it's priceless. You can spend $100,000 a year and not find that. I'm also very involved with Student Sports Services, which helps other kids in the community. It's satisfying to be a part of that.

Nick Mills: You come to Gibbons because it is a small community; the classes are around 20 kids. You go to Gibbons for the close relationships. The teachers, the guidance counselors, because the Gibbons education is top-notch and the classes are small, which allows me to focus and get enough attention so I can strive.

Dominic Fratantuono: The education is outstanding, and it comes with the values that are taught at Gibbons. I've learned things that are going to stick with me for the rest of my life, things that are never going to leave me. It's like a family. We're all learning values about each other and how to live our lives.

Justin Fratantuono: I came to Gibbons in eighth grade and it changed me so much. I became a better young man. I learned about values. I was never an outstanding student. Now, I'm a straight-A student and ranked second in my class. The staff and teachers are outstanding.

Ryan Ellis: Earlier this year in social justice class, we learned how family is the basis of society. I never really thought it would come into play in my life until later, but here it is. Gibbons teaches you to be a family. And about raising strong men, which is really what we need in our world today. We need young men in our neighborhoods and communities. Family is the most important thing. These guys are my brothers.

PB: When you guys came together, you really didn't know one another. What is it about this diverse group of people from different races and backgrounds that is, as you say, "bonded as brothers?"

JF: When I was in eighth grade it was very diverse economically, racially -- about 50-50. When I was looking for a high school, there was another Catholic school that was cheaper to go to and was offering me more of an academic scholarship. But these guys are my family. I never knew Ryan Ellis before I came here, but we play baseball together and it doesn't matter if he's black and I'm white, we're great friends. I'm a lot better friends with him than anyone in my neighborhood.

RE: I originally went to Owings Mills High School. I came here before my sophomore year and was immediately welcomed with open arms. No one opposed me at all. Regardless of what background, financial standing, race, whatever. They treat you like you're their brother here. A lot of people can't afford to send their kids to St. Paul's or Gilman. They don't have the money. This is one of the best educations you can get for the money.

NM: The good thing about Gibbons is that it's four years. You start as a freshman and find your core group of friends and you expand on that. Playing a sport helps but it's not essential. I've known R.T., but we've never been real close. We sit together now in physics class and our relationship has just grown. You build these relationships for four years and now you're going to cut the kids off who have to change schools after two or three years. They're not going to develop those lasting relationships.

PB: After word came out about the school closing, many of you went to Archdiocese headquarters to voice your concerns. You ended up being called in for a meeting by Bishop Madden. Why did you go? What did you talk about?

NM: As a senior class, and as a school, we hopped in our cars and just went. We had signs and we were wearing red and just went to support our school. We caught them off guard. But we did it the right way. We didn't bang on the doors. We didn't holler. We were very respectful. We sang our school song outside. They called us in to talk, but I don't think they really knew what to say to us.

DF: We definitely didn't want to bash or criticize the Archdiocese. They've helped us along the way. We just want to make them see that this is our home. We want them to know what we go through as a family. We're not perfect, but we do care about each other. We don't want to send the wrong message. We just want to say, "This is our home."

RV: I definitely think we got our message across by going down there and being the most respectful students they've seen.

RE: Bishop Madden said that himself. Mr. (Steven) Cole (vice principal at Cardinal Gibbons) walked into the meeting, and [Bishop Madden] told Mr. Cole we were the most respectful students he's ever confronted. He said we handled ourselves like true gentlemen.

PB: You guys have bought into what Catholic schools and the Catholic Church have preached. You deliver food to families. You help youth groups. You treat each other with respect. You do all of these things to represent the Archdiocese in a good way. Are you questioning your Catholic education or faith at all now?

RV: I'm not questioning what I believe or what we're taught, but I think the Archdiocese has absolutely succumbed to corporate greed. The church is constantly talking about stewardship and how the youth are our future, and how helping others less fortunate is their mission. We do that here. So what kind of a message are they sending us?

RE: One thing I'm questioning now is what the Catholic Church is saying about money. I understand it's a business. But we're taught not to be money-hungry and do the right thing and not let money make our decisions. But in this situation, money made the decision. That should never happen in regards to schools. Schools should be about the betterment of future generations, especially Catholic schools. It should be about teaching people. They totally disregarded that when they came to this conclusion.

DF: We all know Gibbons is prime real estate, right off I-95. The price that somebody is willing to pay for the land, I'm sure, is outstanding. It shouldn't be about that. It should be about actually practicing the values they're teaching in school.

NM: I bluntly asked them if St. Agnes (Hospital, across the street from Gibbons) bought the property and they said they did not. They said that truthfully. I just wanted to thank them for being honest. I believe them.

JF: It's definitely not a Christian thing to do. You owe us money so you're closing. That's basically what it comes down to. I was originally told the kids in the school would at least be allowed to graduate with a Gibbons degree. But now that's not even going to happen.

PB: How do you foresee this ending? What do you think is going to happen?

DF: To be honest with you, when I heard the news I thought there's no way we're going to be able to overturn this. Nick and I were talking about that right after the rally at the Archdiocese. Friday we started e-mailing people, thousands of e-mails. Then we had the rally at the school on Saturday. After the rally, I now believe we've got a legitimate shot of keeping the school open.

RE: The rally showed people care. It's not just us. People really do care.

JF: I have to believe we're going to do it. I'm a junior. I think what's going to happen is this: They'll say, "OK, you can graduate next year." And in that time, that one year, we're going to do what we have to do to keep it open, and they're going to be smart enough to say, "You can keep it open."

RV: My fear is this. There are a lot of people who want to send their kids to Gibbons, and they will be scared off by what's happening. The parents won't send them, enrollment will drop and that will be it.

DF: But that's a double-edged sword. You look at this way and say, "Who wouldn't want to be a part of this? Who wouldn't want to be a part of this family?" The rallies, how positive we've been in talking to the Archdiocese, what we stand for. Who wouldn't want their son to be a part of that?

PB: The seniors are graduating in a couple of months but they've been the ones who have been the most vocal, the ones going out of their way to support the underclassmen. Why?

RV: It's not about us. This is our last year, and we've had the best four years of our lives. I think everyone can agree. We want all the students to have that same feeling. We don't want it to end with us.

RE: It's important because I want my younger brothers to grow like I have. Gibbons taught me a lot of things; most important is that you need time to develop. You need to be around your peers and guys you really respect and look up to. Gibbons prepares you for life after high school.

NM: A lot of my best friends are juniors. Through soccer and lacrosse, even baseball, I've become close with a lot of juniors, and to see them break down in tears because our school is closing … it affects me and makes me break down.

JF: We're just one year away from graduating. It's tough. It seems like the seniors care as much as we do. You look at who went to the rally at the Archdiocese, look at the TV coverage ... they were all seniors. I was surprised so many people cared.

DF: I'll always remember the four years I've spent here. If I didn't care, I'd graduate and move on to college. But Justin is my brother and these are my friends. It's not about me. It's about my brother and them. It's about the graduates before us. It's about the freshmen who are already here and people who want to come here. It's more than me, it's more than us. It's the big picture.

Keith Mills is the father of Nick Mills, a student-athlete at Gibbons quoted above. Keith Mills is also a volunteer assistant coach with the Cardinal Gibbons soccer and baseball teams.

Issue 147: March 2010