DETROIT — Last October, the Catholic League’s Prep Bowl football championship marked its 50th year. But league officials recognize that they need to keep the interest level up if there is to be another 50.
So, there are changes to the championship format coming this fall. While still retaining the Prep Bowl name, the event will revert to three championship games on Oct. 21 at Detroit’s Ford Field.
As before, the winners of the Catholic League’s two Intersectional divisions will meet for the Cardinal Division championship. But the following two games have the potential for a bigger buildup by matching the champions of the AA and Central Divisions against public schools.
“Instead of the Central Division playing each other again, the winner of that division is going to play the Public School League champion in that game,” Catholic League director Vic Michaels said. “Instead of the AA champion playing the second-place team, the AA champ’s going to play Oxford if (the division champion) is U of D or Divine Child, or they’re going to play Harper Creek out of Battle Creek if it’s Loyola or Lumen Christi.”
The CHSL participants in those clashes will already be declared Catholic League champions, by the way.
Although there is still half the regular season to be played, Toledo Central Catholic is the front-runner to be the Catholic League Central Division representative. The Fighting Irish, which were predicted to finish first in the pre-season coaches’ poll, is the only undefeated team remaining, and they have already defeated their closest competitors in Warren De La Salle (28-23 last Friday) and Detroit Catholic Central (42-21 on Sept. 1).
Over in the Public School League, Cass Tech and East English Village are the only two undefeated schools remaining after two weeks of league play. The two will play each other on Oct. 6. Cass Tech or Martin Luther King have won each PSL championship each year since 2011, and Cass beat King 14-7 last Friday. East English will play at King this Friday.
In the Catholic League’s AA Section, both Jackson Lumen Christi and Dearborn Divine Child won their initial league games, and will face each other Friday in Jackson. The winner of that tilt will likely be the AA champion. Incidentally, Harper Creek currently stands at 4-0 while Oxford sports a 1-3 record.
This won’t be the first time there’s been a shift in the championship format, but Michaels admits the moves made during the past few seasons haven’t been fruitful.
Because of a dwindling pool of Catholic League schools, the top two teams of the Central Division began meeting for the A-B Division championship in 2005, with the top two teams in the AA Division facing each other in the Wild Card game. Aside from the C-D Division game, which matched the winners of the two Intersectional Divisions, the bigger-division games ended up being re-matches of regular-season games, and didn’t have that championship aura.
“They didn’t like playing each other again,” Michaels said. “It didn’t bring in as many fans, and if a team were to lose both games, it would hurt their playoff draw.”
When realignment left the AA Division with just three teams, the Prep Bowl schedule was reduced from three games to two. The A-B Division (now called the Bishop Division) championship matched the winners of the Central and the AA from 2020 on. That format didn’t work so well, either.
“We switched it so the AA schools were playing a Central school, and that ended in a mercy game three years in a row,” Michaels said. “Nobody wants that, so we got rid of a couple of those games.”
Warren De La Salle won the last two Bishop Division championships, beating University of Detroit Jesuit 49-14 in each of the contests. Those were basically repeat results from early-season games, which the Pilots won 55-13 (last year) and 44-7 (in 2021). And to make things more anti-climactic, the two schools matched up again in the 2021 playoff pre-district round, with De La Salle winning 44-0 — marking their third victory over the Cubs in a four-week span.
The 2020 Bishop Division game, downsized because of the COVID-19 pandemic, saw Detroit Catholic Central beat Detroit Loyola by a similar margin, 45-14.
If the new Prep Bowl format sounds familiar, it most likely is to longtime prep football followers. The Catholic League and PSL champions played the annual Goodfellow Game around Thanksgiving each year from 1938-1967, often filling large venues such as Tiger Stadium (Briggs Stadium) or University of Detroit Stadium while raising funds for the Old Newsboys’ Goodfellow Fund, which provided clothing and toys at Christmas to needy children throughout the Detroit area.
The series was a hit right from the get-go. In 1938, Catholic Central defeated Hamtramck (then a member of the PSL), 19-13, in a contest that attracted roughly 30,000 fans — the largest crowd to witness any high school football game up to that point. Three Detroit radio stations even broadcast the competition.
“They played a game at Tiger Stadium the day that President Kennedy was shot (in 1963). That night, 46,000 people went to see Denby defeat Notre Dame,” Michaels said. “That was the biggest high school game, before the state tournament, before any of the playoffs.”
Few people knew at that time that the tradition was nearing its end. The Goodfellow Games ceased to exist after 1967, for reasons ranging from dwindling attendance, crowd behavior and racial disharmony.
In response, the two leagues began the “Operation Friendship” series pitting the league champions in most sports, which ran up until the past decade. However, it was never able to work in football for logistical reasons.
“We just couldn’t get together. The state tournament started shortly after (in 1975) and then we just couldn’t come to an agreement with the schools,” Michaels said. “They didn’t want to play such a good opponent before the state tournament.”
Although it’s been more than 50 years since the last Goodfellow Game, Public School League director of athletics Jay Alexander thinks it a good time to bring it back.
“I am not familiar with it — it’s been a while — but I know I heard about it, because I was at Benedictine,” Alexander said. “Vic and I talked at length, and he’s hoping to bring the Goodfellow Game back this year, and in years to come. It would be good for both of our leagues to be able crown the true city champion.”
The Catholic League’s between-game events, including Catholic school educator recognition, the Scholastic All-Catholic Awards, and football honor team presentation, will remain an important part of the daylong festivities.