Are you ready for some football? It’s the Patriots vs. the Falcons, ironically two names very common to Frederick-area football. Super Bowl Sunday weekend, the annual post-Christmas ripple of heightened commercial marketing has no shortage of football-themed advertisements, viewing parties, and game prognostications. The whole thing has certainly turned into a cultural frenzy over the past half-century.
Fifty years ago, the first ever Super Bowl was simply a major game between reigning champions of competing professional football leagues—the NFL (National Football League) and the AFL (American Football League). The game was played on January 15th, 1967 and featured the Green Bay Packers (NFL) and the Kansas City Chiefs (AFL).
Although the Packers of the NFL were victorious, the game had a tinge of “David and Goliath” to it. The NFL had already been around for over 40 years when the upstart AFL, and its eight teams, began play in 1960. The established NFL had successfully fended off several other rival leagues in the past, and wrote off the AFL as a collection of second-rate misfits and rejects, not good enough to play at their level. NFL officials thought that fans would not accept these new teams and the players that filled their rosters. Contrary to popular belief, many of these players were good--very good in fact. The AFL would soon put themselves in a position to bid against the NFL for top free agents, college prospects and coaches. The AFL had arrived!
Unfortunately, the AFL hadn’t completely "arrived" yet for that first Super Bowl as they experienced a 35-10 "beatdown" by Green Bay, led by quarterback/game MVP Bart Starr. The heavily favored Packers were also coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, a coach so good they later would name the Super Bowl championship trophy after him.
Even in its infancy, the Super Bowl generated a heightened interest in professional football, giving hope to athletes, coaches and communities throughout the country that perhaps one day, they, themselves, could break into the big time, perhaps even playing in the “Big Game” itself one day. The stage was set for locals here in Frederick, Maryland to "strike while the iron was hot."We got ourselves a team!
The Frederick Falcons were first organized in November, 1967 by Wayne Bowens and Herbert R. Eiker, Jr. A key component was hiring the right head coach. And this was done when they chose Richard L. “Dick” Shipley, Frederick’s version of Coach Lombardi—not to mention having a bit of Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, and Bill Parcells sprinkled in.
Richard Lee Shipley, a father of three was a Supervisor of Operations for Frederick County Public Schools. He was also twice elected to serve as a member of the City of Frederick’s Board of Alderman at the time. Shipley knew how to work and motivate people, young and old. He also knew football.
Born March 11th, 1933, Dick Shipley was an athletic standout at Frederick High School, playing from 1949 to 1951. He was named to the Maryland state high school All-Star team in 1951.
Dick Shipley’s football career continued at the University of Maryland. His 1953 Terrapins team won the national championship after posting an undefeated regular season. The offensive lineman went on to play in the Blue and Gray Football Classic game in 1954. He entered the US Army and continued playing football while in the service.
Once home, and starting a family with wife Eleanor Heston, he returned to football as one of the original coaches in the Frederick Midget Football League, a post he kept for five years. Then, in June of 1968, Shipley was hired to coach the Frederick Falcons.
Plans for the semi-professional team had come to fruition over the winter months. The Falcons would play as a member of the Interstate Football League which featured in-state rival teams from Baltimore and Cumberland, along with Pennsylvania mainstays Waynesboro and Chambersburg. The Falcons games were played at Frederick's McCurdy Field, with practices first held in Baker Park.
The team was led by QB Ron Manges and receiver “Wonderful” Wayne Randolph. Coach Shipley was buttressed with other notables such as former college standout Fred Burgee, who doubled as both Falcon assistant coach and player. Two more assistants of note were William O. Lee and Richard “Bing” Keeney. Local radio legend Tommy Grunwell even played for the team as a stand-in for quarterback Manges while the latter was on summer camp active duty with the Marines. The team had players ranging in age from 17 to 41, plus had three deaf members.
The first game took place at Red Lion, (PA) on August 18th, with the Falcons as 6-0 victors. The winning would continue, but Coach Shipley was dealt a challenge from the get-go, as he lost his starting quarterback in the second game of the season. He had to rely on 2nd string quarterback, Lou Mascara, who played admirably in relief of QB Manges. The Falcons would finish with an 11-0-1 record, dethroning the reigning champion Baltimore Eagles. It was a miraculous season that opened the eyes and hearts of Frederick Football fans. The Falcon(s) had landed!
How do you repeat the surprise success of 1968? With another great season, of course! Shipley coached the 1969 Falcons to a 13-2 record. They unfortunately lost in the final championship game to the Chambersburg Cardinals by a score of 33-28.
Year three for the Frederick team was much of the same, boasting a great record (14-3), however the last game was a tough loss to the Schuylkill Coalcrackers for the IFL championship in November 1970.
Dick Shipley found himself with a coaching record of 38-5-1 as he entered his fourth season. Meanwhile, the Falcons had made a move to a new league—the Seaboard League, billed as the top minor-league football entity in the country. Coach Shipley and his Falcons were challenged both on, and off, the field. They finished 4-9, and were shut out in their last game against the Carroll County Chargers.
The true problem came with other teams paying some of its star players, not just recruiting hometown talent from within. Shipley longed for the IFL days, having a team of local, unpaid players, and not having as far to travel. New teams from Long Island and Norfolk (VA) had joined the league, and players were now being lured to rival teams, something Coach Shipley did not think that this was in the best interest of Frederick.
With all of this going on, the Falcons realized that it was harder to come by money to operate, especially in a more competitive league. They lost $13,000 during the previous season. For this reason, the team sought, and came into, the new ownership of a bonafide local non-profit entity in February, 1972. The Frederick County Association of Retarded Children was now responsible for administering Frederick’s football Falcons and solidified the team’s non-profit status and ability to accept donations and grants. (To note, these funds were separate from the central aim of FCARC.)
Coach Shipley came under fire from team management for being so vocal about the return to the IFL, and lobbing accusations against the Seaboard League. Some players became discouraged as well, thinking this move was a step down. Management was conflicted, and perhaps slightly intimidated, by the power and passion Coach Shipley wielded in regards to the Falcons. It was then and there that Shipley would surprisingly step down as coach in May of 1972. His resignation read as follows:
“After considerable thought in consideration of all aspects pertinent to my relationship with the Frederick Falcons, I have decided to tender my resignation as head coach, effective immediately. The thought processes involved in reaching this decision have been agonizing at best, not only for myself but for my entire family, I regret that this decision had to be made. ….To communicate my real feelings at this time is impossible, I would like, however, to express public thanks for having been given this opportunity, I would also like to congratulate the ballplayers and fans for having created “the image of the Falcons.”
It appears that his resignation was more a protest stemming from a disagreement with the team’s Board of Directors. He would defect to the Falcons top rival, the Chambersburg Cardinals, serving as their offensive line coach. Shipley also brought with him Frederick's star player, Wayne Randolph. Stan Goldberg, my old colleague from the Great Southern Printing and Manufacturing Company, wrote a bold editorial about the whole affair in the May 9th, 1972 Frederick News-Post.
Shipley and his new team (Chambersburg) would go to the Seaboard League's championship game in 1972 and 1973, winning the latter. At the time, the Seaboard League would be the second-highest ranked professional football league behind the NFL. The league folded after the 1974 season with the founding of the World Football League, which deprived them of talent.
The Falcons would rejoin the Intersate Football League and fly on into the future with great coaches such as former player Tom Kent and Shipley’s one time player/coaching assistant Bing Keeney, who would later coach the team to three straight championships from 1987-89. Shipley even came back to the Falcons for head coaching and assistant coaching stints along the way. The team eventually disbanded in 1992 due to financial reasons.
As for Dick Shipley, his name will be forever synonymous with Frederick football and the Frederick Falcons. He was inducted into the Alvin J. Quinn Hall of Fame in 1979.
Coach Shipley's last football assignment came with announcing high school games as a color commentator with WFMD. Shipley’s final broadcast featured coverage of a state championship loss by his high school alma-mater, Frederick High School. This event was fittingly played at the University of Maryland, his collegiate alma-mater.
Just two days later on December 2nd, 1985, Dick Shipley was taking part in an annual hunting trip to Sterling Run, PA with friend Elgin Etchison. Sterling Run is located near Emporium in the north central part of the state. As the story goes, Etchison was on one hill talking with his son, when he turned to spot Shipley’s progress in traversing another nearby hill with an extremely steep grade. Etchison waved to Shipley, and he (Shipley) returned the favor, but then collapsed. Etchison rushed to his friend's aid, performing CPR for 15-20 minutes before leaving to seek help from the closest house, about a half-mile away.
Dick Shipley was gone at the age of 52. His death made front page news here in Frederick the next day.
A friend of mine is Tom Martin, who served as the first treasurer for the Frederick Falcons organization. He fondly recounted how the Falcons would pack the stadiums for both home and away games. In fact, one time he said, when the team played in Baltimore, they had so many Falcon supporters on hand for one game that a portion of the visiting teams grandstands collapsed from the weight. Now that's dedication!
Tom also said that Coach Shipley's influence as an alderman also brought a few interesting perks. He said that management would take in extremely favorable gate receipts at McCurdy Field on tickets sold, plus made additional money with hot dog and other concession sales. As treasurer, he had to properly account for, and safeguard this income. The alderman/coach thus arranged for Martin to have a police escort after each home game in an effort to bring "a large pile of cash and coins" to the treasurer's home, then located on E. 14th Street. Tom said although people thought the organization brought in a great deal of money, it was a break-even endeavor. Each week's windfall was short-lived because as soon as it came in, it went out in check form to pay health insurance premiums for the players.
Another lasting legacy, courtesy of Coach Shipley, was the naming of Falcon Lane, a twelve foot alley that once stretched from E. Patrick Street, adjacent the Frederick Fairgrounds, to E. South St. Falcon Lane still exists, however was shortened in the early 1970's to better facilitate and protect the city's publlc works department yard.
It’s fitting here to share a story that occurred a couple weeks ago to me. I was taking a few pictures of Coach Shipley's grave marker. I looked up and saw what I thought could be an eagle flying over the cemetery’s western section. I was soon corrected by a co-worker that it wasn’t an eagle, but something else instead. Yes, you guessed it, the winged creature was a falcon. Perhaps it was simply just paying respects to the old gridiron coach, whose name will ever be synonymous with the bold and brash bird of prey, and more so, Frederick County football.
Authors Note: Special thanks to Tom Martin with help with compiling this article.