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Taken away before his time

Hanover Twp. star died from injuries suffered in a 1949 game

Joseph Gayewski Jr., in this Hanover Township 1950 yearbook photo, gave it his all on the field and was a gentleman off the field. ’Joe was a loveable guy. He dressed well and he was very humble,’ said George Krlic, who grew up with Gayewski in the 1940s.

In this photo provided by Hanover Area Junior-Senior High School, Joseph Gayewski Jr. always had a smile on his face. The 17-year-old was a running back and defensive back on the 1949 Hanover Township football team.

HANOVER TWP. – Look carefully at the picture of the 1949 Hanover Township football team and one person stands out. Of the 45 players on the squad, Joseph Leonard Gayewski Jr. is the only person smiling.

“That was Joe, he always had a smile,” said Charlotte Jones-Styczen, class of 1950. “You didn’t have to belong to the football team or a certain club to be friends with Joe.

“Joe was friends with everyone and I think every high school girl was crazy about him,” she added, admitting she had a crush on Gayewski back then.

Gayewski was 17 years old, a senior with movie-star looks. He was athletic, charming and affectionate. The son of a coal miner, Gayewski was a Wilkes-Barre Record paperboy for about five years in the 1940s.

Only about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds, Gayewski played both sides of the ball as a running back and defensive back. He scored several touchdowns, helping the team to first place through eight games in the 1949 Wyoming Valley Conference season.

Headlines in the Wilkes-Barre Record’s sports section in September and October 1949 read: Hanover mothers GAR; Hanover scores 27-0 triumph over Larks; Hanover upsets Nans, 12-7; Hanover hits Johnies, 25-6; Hanover holds first place in WV Conference; Hanover nips Kingston, 12-7; Hanover shows plenty of power, hits hard in gaining first conference triumph over Kingston.

But a successful season turned tragic when Hanover played its ninth game.

It was a cold day -- about 5 degrees below zero -- Leon Woss recalls, when Hanover traveled to play the Newport Township Nutcrackers on Nov. 5, 1949.

Usually the softness of the ground absorbs some of a tackle’s impact. But on that day, the ground didn’t have any give, remembers James Kopacz.

“The field was frozen solid. Usually the ground would freeze that time of year but you would still have the little cushion. But that day, it was a frozen solid field,” he said.

Woss played right guard and Kopacz played left guard on Hanover’s offensive line in 1949. Both were close friends with Gayewski while growing up in Hanover Township’s Breslau section. In the team picture, Woss and Kopacz sat on either side of Gayewski.

Woss now calls Wittier, Calif., home while Kopacz resides in Port Saint Lucie, Fla. Nearly 2,600 miles apart, the teammates remember that frightful day 57 years ago as if it was yesterday.

As the team approached the field, Kopacz recalls walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Gayewski.

“We came out from under the bleachers and we were walking up the steps and Joe kept saying, ‘We gotta get these guys. We gotta get these guys.’ He knew some of the fellas on Newport’s team. I think there was a player or two on Newport that were his cousins,” Kopacz said.

Jones-Styczen said the Hanover and Newport Township game was a rivalry but it was a special game for Gayewski because it was family vs. family.

Gayewski was born in Newport Township and still had friends and cousins living there, Jones-Styczen said.

The Nutcrackers won the coin toss, forcing the Hawks to kick off and play defense for the first series.

Gayewski made a solo tackle, Woss and Kopacz recall, and while doing so, he was kneed in the head. His head hit the frozen ground, knocking him unconscious.

Although Gayewski wore only a simple plastic helmet with no padding, everyone thought he’d suffered a minor injury.

“He bounced back after a play or two and came back in,” Woss said.

“He was sitting on the bench and he seemed out of it. He wasn’t the Joe I knew,” Kopacz said.

Other teammates noticed Gayewski’s appearance changing during the game.

“We kept telling Coach, ‘There’s something wrong with Joe.’ We saw him in the huddle. He was across from me in the huddle and Joe kept feeling his face. His eyes and face were turning black,” Woss said.

Gayewski would score three of the team’s four touchdowns by the end of the third quarter.

And then the tragedy happened.

“It was either at the end of the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter. He was running the ball and he got tackled and just seemed to fall to the ground. He didn’t get back up,” Woss said.

Kopacz said Gayewski was supposed to run between Kopacz – the left guard – and the left tackle.

“He didn’t come over my side. He went wider,” Kopacz said.

According to the Nov. 7, 1949, Wilkes-Barre Record, two Newport Township players tackled Gayewski, who ran for 7 yards on the play.

Woss believes one of the opponents was Gayewski’s cousin.

“The crowd noise just dropped and seeing Joe on the ground and everyone running to him to see if he was OK. People were kneeling around him trying to take his helmet off,” Jones-Styczen recalled.

Gayewski was taken to Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre. The players finished the game with Hanover Township defeating Newport 26-20.

The sports headline in the Nov. 6, 1949, Wilkes-Barre Record read: Gayewski tallies three times.

No one knew Gayewski lay dying inside an iron lung, a chamber-like device that forced oxygen into the body when the person’s ability to breathe has been lost.

“When I got to the hospital and saw him in the iron lung, I knew,” Woss said.

Gayewski died at 1:40 p.m. Nov. 6, 1949.

“I remember getting a call by a girlfriend at 6 o’clock that night and telling me Joe died,” said Jones-Styczen, her voice softening.

Gayewski’s death made the Wilkes-Barre Record’s front page on Nov. 7, 1949: Joseph Gayewski, Hanover Gridder, Victim of Injuries Suffered in Newport Game.

“Joe’s dad (Joseph Sr.) was shaken. His dad was a miner but he came to every practice and every game,” Kopacz said.

“His dad adored him,” said George Krlic, class of 1950 and high school friend of Gayewski, Woss and Kopacz. “He probably would have been on a four-year scholarship. There was talk about Annapolis (the U.S. Naval Academy).”

School officials and coaches wanted to forfeit the rest of the season. But the players knew their all-star friend and teammate would have wanted them to play on.

Two days after Gayewski died, players took a unanimous vote, Woss said, and told their head coach, Leo Yozviak that they wanted to play the remaining two games.

Gayewski was buried on Nov. 10, 1949, at St. Adalbert’s Cemetery in Glen Lyon.

According to the Nov. 11, 1949, Wilkes-Barre Record: “Members of the Hanover Township High School varsity eleven were bearers. They were Andrew Moskal and Wayne Wolkiel, co-captains; George Gryskiewicz and James Kopacz, Edward Swankosi, Leon Woss, (Whitey) Adamchak, Raymond Yakovonis, Theodore Wazenski and Francis Strincoski.”

“Back then, they had the wake in the homes. There were lines coming out the back door and there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere,” Krlic recalled. “Joe was a loveable guy and always had a smile.”

After the funeral, arrangements were made to reschedule the final two games against the Meyers Mohawks and Plains Red Raiders. Several school districts donated a percentage of their final two games’ entrance fees to the Gayewski family.

The Meyers game was played at Hanover on Nov. 16, 1949. School officials and the team dedicated the scoreboard during the game in honor of Gayewski. Hanover lost 27-7.

The final game against Plains was played on Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 24, 1949. Hanover lost 18-0.

“We didn’t have it in us anymore after Joe died,” Kopacz said.

Woss and Kopacz believe the plastic helmets that Hanover players wore during the 1949 season may have contributed to Gayewski’s fatal injury. Both men said the plastic helmets had very little padding while other teams used older-style leather helmets that had more padding.

“We didn’t use those plastic helmets after that game (Newport),” Woss said.

“Joe was a great guy. My wish before I go is to go back and visit Joe’s grave. I’ve always said I wanted to go back and visit my friend. The best guy in Breslau and he had to die,” Kopacz said.

The sign bearing Gayewski’s name that hung below the scoreboard for nearly 39 years went missing when Hanover’s field underwent renovations in 1988.

A new sign was crafted and rededicated on Nov. 14, 1994. A bronze plaque giving a brief description of Gayewski’s tragedy hangs on the brick wall near the entrance to the football field – the same field where Gayewski posed for the 1949 team picture that captured his smile forever.

On the Web

To read other Look Back stories, go to timesleader.com.

“That was Joe, he always had a smile. You didn’t have to belong to the football team or a certain club to be friends with Joe.”

Charlotte Jones-Styczen Class of 1950
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