That Winless Wondrous Season

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What I remember most about that first SFPAL football team was that we had so much fun never winning a game.

Not even one.  We were a perfect 0-8 for 1959.

black and white SFPAL boys football team

1959 Football Team

But we had the greatest home field in the league — situated in the middle of San Francisco Bay on enchanted Treasure Island.  We also had the use of the Naval Base’s spacious swimming pool to sooth our wounds after each loss — which was no mean consideration for a kid from the City, which lacked public pools at the time.  And we had an endless reservoir of great volunteer coaches, all of them from the San Francisco Police Department.

Why even a U.S. Congressman turned out for our games.  He was the brother of our head coach, a huge teddy bear of a guy named Dan Shelley.  A police inspector, as I recall.

Come to think of it, we even had song girls, a spirited group led by the head coach’s daughter, Bonnie.  No matter what the score — and it was often exceptionally lopsided — they cheered us on as though their tonsils and enthusiasm could turn the tide for us just this once.

As with any initial endeavor, the beginnings of SFPAL football were rocky.

I remember reading about the tryouts for that first SFPAL team in a small squib on the San Francisco Chronicle sports page and wondering how I’d fare if I pursued the invitation.  Pretty well as it turned out; that first day, we didn’t have enough players.

illustration of boy kicking and list of names

1959 Football Program

I immediately set out on a personal recruiting spree.  Two of the players I enlisted right away were Pat Kearns, my friend from the Avenues who would later quarterback the Sacred Heart varsity, and Johnny Brandt, a kid I played freelance football  with in Golden Gate Park who would go on to become one of the most respected  police officers in the SFPD.

Bringing John aboard proved exceptionally rewarding for me because as we walked home from the next practice he found a $20 bill.  What a teammate: he spent the whole $20 on the two of us that very afternoon. I remember ingesting a heart attack’s worth of junk food, renting a motor boat on Stowe Lake, and playing lots and lots of pinball machines. And we were only through the first $10.

We also picked up other players along the way.  Our friend Terry Collins, who later served the City in the SFPD for almost three decades, joined the team.  He reported that he had already tried out for one of the elite teams in the Pop Warner League — The Les Vogel Powergliders — and after a quick assessment of his skills, was summarily advised by their coach that he would be a better fit for our club.  Welcome aboard.  Lou Giraudo, the now bakery king of the City who has done so much good in civic and community matters, was recruited by his neighbor in the Richmond District, Mike Hanlon.

Enter the season, and despite our mounting record of ineptitude, I don’t recall any recriminations or bad blood on the team.  What I do remember are little vignettes — maybe some apocryphal — like arriving on the verge of game time after Coach Shelley had picked up a few players who lacked rides, and hitting the siren on his police car on the Bay Bridge so we would make it in time for kickoff.

It was also the most racially diverse team I had yet played on, drawing players from the Avenues, the Fillmore, and what was then described as “the Mission” – basically the rest of San Francisco in those days of less heady real estate prices and proliferation of neighbor hamlets.

The season marched on.

Every week was greeted as another chance for redemption.  The missed blocks and whiffed tackles of the previous Sunday were quickly forgotten as anticipation mounted for our first win.  I credit the coaches for maintaining team morale at a high level because we were all very competitive kids, and it could have easily gone the other way.

As I said there were lots of coaches:  Jack Farnham, Jim Bishop, Gus Morales, Gus Bruneman, and Dan O’Connell are a few of the names I recall.  And I hope to Knute Rockne I got them all right because they were very generous with their time and talent.

I also remember how devoted Dan Shelley was to his guys.   So much so that when the season ended and Dan found out that the vaunted Powergliders were going to host a powerful team from Hawaii in a non-league game, he offered several of our players to them.  He was turned down. Make that 0-9, but thanks, Dan.

Five Players and the Chief With a Photo of the 1959 Team

1959 Football Reunion


Fast forward a few years and many of the players on that first SFPAL team went on to football success. My friend Pat tells me that our teammate Chris Ransom was just voted into the Hall of Fame at Sacred Heart High School and I know that Pat himself played on two championship teams at City College of San Francisco.

But I still recall that first winless wondrous season of SFPAL football team very fondly.

And every so often when I’m driving across the Bay Bridge, I pull off and visit the Bay Area’s most beautiful home field.

I’m guessing that some of the other guys do, too.

Smiling man in glasses and a sweatervest

John Keane, #32 on SFPAL Football Team of 1959

By John Keane, #32 SFPAL Football 1959

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