This is the first of an occasional series of articles reflecting upon the history of the Catholic High School League as it approaches its centennial in 2026.
DETROIT — Football in the Catholic High School League traces its lineage all the way back to nearly a century ago, to 1926, when the league was formally established.
That the sport still flourishes today is a tribute to the commitment, dedication and sacrifices of administrators, coaches, players and families to the principles of good sportsmanship and Christian values.
Head coaches bear the major responsibility for their team’s performance and comportment as well as providing direction to student athletes for an appreciation beyond the gridiron for discipline and teamwork in accordance with the schools’ faith-based mission.
Six legendary head coaches spent their careers entirely in the Catholic League:
- Al Fracassa, 53 years: eight at Royal Oak Shrine and 45 at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice;
- Mike Boyd, 47 years at Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes;
- John Goddard, 43 years: one at Warren Immaculate Conception, 17 at Redford St. Agatha, and 25 at Shrine;
- Tom Mach, 41 years at Novi Detroit Catholic Central;
- George Porritt, 33 years at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep;
- George Sahadi, 32 years: 29 at Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher, two years at Harper Woods Trinity Catholic, and one year at Harper Woods Notre Dame High School.
In the eyes of his son, Paul, Sahadi “is the perfect example of a real football coach. He breathed it. He loved it. He loved high school football.”
Sahadi graduated from St. Catherine High School in 1962 and attended Northern Michigan University for a year. “But he dropped out,” Paul Sahadi said. “College degrees were not as popular as now. He really wanted to be a football coach.” He assisted at Detroit Austin, Grosse Pointe St. Paul, and Bishop Gallagher before taking over as head coach in 1973.
“He was a very tough coach but fair,” said Paul, who along with his brother Anthony played for their father. “He worked us hard. We had tough losses, but he was always accountable for the team.”
Tommy Ostrowski, who graduated in 1980 and was an assistant coach from 1981-92, shared a perspective of Sahadi as one of his players and one of his assistants.
“He had the biggest heart and compassion for his players,” Ostrowski said. “He cared for them. If one of them got into a situation of some kind off the field, he’d be the first to help them out, whether it be a problem with the family or the police. Whatever it was.”
Ostrowski recalled an incident during halftime of a game against De La Salle. Sahadi roared, “’Where is he?’ He grabbed the player’s face mask and yelled, ‘You make one more holding penalty and I’ll cut your hand off!’”
“The coach got mellower as time went on,” Ostrowski said, “but he was kind of grooming us for life. We hated doing some things because they were hard and rough but he’d tell us you’re going to be out in the real world sooner than you think and there’s going to be challenges, whether it be a death in the family or you lose a job, you gotta be tough. He made us a lot tougher for the challenges that came around in life. The players loved him.”
Jeff Spicuzzi, a running back on the 1977-79 teams, said, “He was a tough coach. The teams took on his personality, but he cared about the players and made himself available.”
Sahadi went to Mass every morning. Spicuzzi said when he’d come home from Central Michigan, where he played baseball, “the coach would tell me to meet him in church and they’d go out for breakfast after.”
“The greatest thing I can say,” Paul said, “is he had no fear. He was not afraid to play the best teams.” Bishop Gallagher competed in the CHSL Central Division against the likes of Brother Rice, Catholic Central and Warren De La Salle. He scheduled games in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. “He was one of the first — if not the first — to play teams in Canada.”
He was 1-4 in the CHSL Prep Bowl. Gallagher lost in 1978 (the first time the games were played at the Pontiac Silverdome), 1993 and 1999, and in 2004 with Notre Dame, the first time the games were hosted at Ford Field. The Lancers trounced Saginaw Nouvel, 24-3, in 1992.
A month later, Bishop Gallagher (11-1) and Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) clashed at the Silverdome for MHSAA Class C title. St. Francis prevailed, 28-21, in double overtime.
Six years later, the Lancers (11-1) returned to the Silverdome to face Middleton Fulton (11-1) for the state 1998 Class DD championship, only to be disappointed again by the narrowest of margins, 21-20.
“This one really sticks with me,” Paul said. “I was coaching special teams. It was late in the fourth quarter. We’re ahead 19-12. We’re in a situation where it was fourth down and 3. It was either punt or go for it.
“What happened was they would mike up one coach on the field. My dad was miked up. Everything he was saying the other team could hear in the press box. They heard we were going to fake a punt.
“This is where I take the blame for the loss,” Paul said. “There was a bunch of chaos on the bench. Some were saying go for it, others saying punt. I should’ve been more forceful and said punt. They ended knocking down the pass and went down and scored” with 56 seconds to play.
Bishop Gallagher’s quests for a state title in 1999 and 2001 were snuffed both times in the semi-finals by Mendon.
“The thing about my father was he could spot kids who were great players,” Paul said. “He’d let other coaches know, not just from Michigan but from all over. He had (University of Michigan coaches) Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr and others in his office.”
Eight players from Gallagher went to Michigan: Dave Stavale (1974), Ted Dennard (1985), Mark DeSantis (1975), Jesse Johnson (1990), Julius Curry (1998), Markus Curry (2000), Darnell Hood (2001) and Braylon Edwards (2001).
“I think he may be the only (high school) coach,” Paul said, “in college sports who had four (future U-M) players (the Curry brothers, Hood and Edwards) on the field at the same time.”
Edwards transferred from Detroit Martin Luther King to Bishop Gallagher for his senior year. “His dad wanted him at Gallagher,” Paul said, “because he knew about my dad’s connection to Michigan.” Edwards, a wide receiver, set a Big 10 record gaining 1,000 or more receiving yards in three consecutive years. He played in the NFL for eight years.
Sahadi’s relationship with U-M developed when, for a number of years, he transported five or six players in his van back and forth daily from the east side to the Ann Arbor campus for weeklong football camps. One of those kids was Jerome Bettis from Detroit Mackenzie, who went on to gridiron glory at Notre Dame and in the NFL.
Notre Dame closed its doors in June 2005, and Sahadi found himself out of work, but not for long. Lloyd Carr asked him to help scout offenses of Wolverines opponents for the upcoming fall schedule.
“From August through November,” Paul said, “he would attend practices and watch films of opponents’ offenses to assist the defensive coordinator map out a strategy.”
Sahadi rarely missed attending the Michigan-Ohio State game. Paul talked about the predicament his father faced for the 1986 game at Ohio State.
“He had eight tickets but nine people,” Paul said. “Typical about my dad thinking of others and not himself. He gave away the tickets and told them not to worry, that he’d get in the stadium. Somehow he found a way to be with the Michigan team and alongside Bo Schembechler as they were ready to run on the field.
“An Ohio state trooper says, ‘Sir, you can’t go in there.’ Bo said, ‘If he doesn’t get in, we don’t get in.’ Assistant coach Lloyd Carr told dad, ‘Now you’re on your own.’”
The 2005 Wolverines-Buckeyes encounter was in Ann Arbor.
“I saw (Dearborn Divine Child athletic director) Tony DeMare in the crowd,” Paul said. “I walked up to him. ‘I heard you’re looking for a football coach. If you ask my dad, he’ll accept.’ Tony did and hired him on the spot.”
Sahadi’s health had been a lingering concern in the last year or so. He died from liver failure on June 6, 2006, five days short of his 63rd birthday. He is survived by his wife, Joan, and sons Paul and Anthony, a high school principal in Virginia, and four grandchildren.
“My dad was very kind,” Paul said. “If players needed lunch money or rides to practice, he was always there for them. His favorite saying was, ‘Treating people with trust, honesty and respect will always come back to you a hundredfold.’”
Paul, a Detroit police officer for 27 years, walks a beat in the New Center area.
“It’s amazing to be on this job that there has to be people praying for me,” he said. “I’m not a huge religious person, but I pray. But honestly if people didn’t pray for me, I wouldn’t still be here. You avoid so many things by having people pray for you.
“My dad is praying for me,” he added.
Sahadi was inducted into the Catholic League Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1996.
Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].