GCC football team plans to take field for national anthem
By: Bill Beckner Jr. Chris Harlan and Michael Love
Monday, September 25, 2017 | 4:00 PM
The Greensburg Central Catholic football team will take a stand.
The Centurions will buck the long-time trend of staying in the locker room for the national anthem and instead plan to stand on the sidelines when the song is played Friday night before their game at Leechburg.
“We will all stand out of respect for our great country and those who have sacrificed their lives for us,” GCC first-year coach Aaron Smetanka said. “I know my players and coaches will agree this is the right thing to do.”
It's rare for high school football teams in Western Pennsylvania to be on the field for the pre-game national anthem. Typically, they exit their respective locker rooms once the marching band has left the field.
Sunday's powerful displays of protest and, in some cases unity, during NFL games have forced coaches and athletic directors to discuss the hot-button issues with their players, bringing a polarizing topic to the high school level.
Smetanka said he did not base the move on what the Steelers did Sunday.
Leechburg coach Mark George said he was unaware of Greensburg Central Catholic's plans. The Blue Devils generally remain in their locker room when the band plays the national anthem and alma mater.
“That's something we haven't discussed,” George said. “That's something we'll discuss throughout this week if we're going to change it up just to show respect for our country. That's something we may do. It's just different from what we've done in the past. If we've been home or away, most high school teams are inside their locker room.”
Military veterans and servicemen and women will walk to the center of the field at Warrior Stadium on Friday night before Penn-Trafford hosts Gateway in a WPIAL Class 5A Big East Conference showdown between two unbeaten teams.
They will be joined by first responders in attendance and together will be honored for their service by the thousands of fans in the stands.
A student will read a poem of thanks from the press box, and the marching band is planning an Armed Forces salute for members of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines and Air Force.
Then the teams will show their respect, lining up on the 30-yard line for the playing of the national anthem. But, at Penn-Trafford, this is not a new occurrence.
“We've done this the last 10 years. There's no change. Our teams are always on the field (for this night),” Penn-Trafford athletic director Kerry Hetrick said. “It used to be more of a wounded warrior theme. We wanted to do more of a thank you. We've had a military/first responder night since I've been there.”
Said P-T coach John Ruane about pre-game protests: “It's a non-issue with us because it hasn't trickled down to our level. We're never on the field for the anthem except for one time a year when we honor the military, which is this Friday. I don't plan on talking to the players about it because they know who we're honoring.”
‘Closer to home'
For very personal reasons, Baldwin athletic director Vince Sortino considers the national anthem the wrong moment for a protest.
“It touches a little closer to home for me because my son, Vince Jr., is a lieutenant infantry officer in the United States Marines,” Sortino said.
As the national anthem plays, he thinks about his son, a Pitt graduate who joined the military two years ago.
“I don't think any of this belongs in the sporting arenas,” Sortino said. “I believe it's definitely a respect issue for the people who have served prior and are currently serving.”
But, Sortino made it clear he's not anti-protest in general.
“Actually, if you asked my son, I'm sure he would say (freedom of speech) is one of the reasons he does what he does,” he added. “He gives you, me and everyone else the opportunity to speak their mind.”
Sortino, a member of the WPIAL Board of Directors, wasn't aware of any protests during an anthem this fall on the local high school level.
“I've never heard it discussed among WPIAL people. It has not been discussed among Baldwin athletics,” Sortino said. “… We haven't discussed ‘what if,' or ‘this is how we're going to handle it.' ”
‘Emotion and tradition'
Gateway coach Don Holl was commissioned as a Naval officer upon graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1988 and performed several tours of duty aboard the Norfolk-based missile cruiser USS Harry E. Yarnell.
Holl ended his service as an 03 rank lieutenant in 1995.
As might be expected, Holl's passion runs deep as it relates to the flag and the national anthem.
“At the heart of the issue, for me, I wish there was another forum or avenue for (the NFL players) to make their point. There is so much emotion and tradition attached to the flag. I wish we hadn't traveled down the road to make the flag and the national anthem the center of the protests.”
Holl said most coaches are going to be proactive and talk about the issue with their teams. Gateway is a diverse team with a mix of white and African-American players.
“At the end of the day, we didn't have a group that outwardly wanted to do anything to protest,” Holl said. “I've said to the guys, ‘Let's talk about it and not do anything unless every player is on board with it as a team.' ”
Holl said, like many teams, his players are not on the field for the national anthem. However, the band schedule got turned around for the home opener against Latrobe, and the Gators were on the sidelines for the anthem.
“The kids know the procedure for the national anthem if we're out there, even though we aren't normally scheduled to be out there,” Holl said.
Carrying the flags
For home games, Yough's football team usually runs onto the field with frontrunners Scotty Houseman and Chanze Spoonhower carrying American flags. The Cougars are at McGuffey Friday night, and coach Scott Wood said the team will likely bring the flags with them, not customary for road games.
Wood said the team may stand on the field for the anthem, assuming McGuffey does the same and the referees permit it. There is quite a distance between the locker rooms and field at McGuffey.
“If you take a knee during the anthem, it's a sign of disrespect,” Yough running back Dustin Shoaf said. “None of us are going to do that here.”
Like many coaches around Western Pennsylvania, Jeannette football coach Roy Hall doesn't expect his players to have any type of public displays Friday night when his Jayhawks host Bishop Canevin.
“We're in the locker room during the anthem, so it doesn't affect us,” Hall said. “I had one player, my nephew Kareem (Hall), ask me about it last year, and I asked him if he understood why Colin Kaepernick was kneeling and he said no. I told him he shouldn't worry about it then.
“Personally, I don't agree with the protest. There is a better way to protest issues. I don't agree because the flag and anthem represent the military men and women who fought for the freedoms we have.”
Doug Gulasy and Bill Hartlep contributed. Bill Beckner Jr., Chris Harlan and Michael Love are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.