In the classic comedy “Tommy Boy,” Sandusky, Ohio, is portrayed as a dying city that’s been decimated by the decaying of blue-collar jobs. Just when it looks like there is no hope, Tommy Callahan comes in and saves the city and its auto parts company.
Nearly 20 years later, there’s been no real life Tommy Callahan keeping jobs in Sandusky. There’s been a steady decline in population, dating to the 1970s. A city of more than 32,000 at its peak is down to just 25,000. Sandusky was recently tabbed by Forbes as the “Best Place to Live Cheaply.”
Still, people flock to Sandusky in the summer. Ohio’s North Coast is a relaxing oasis when the temperature rises. Lake Erie, Cedar Point and Put-in-Bay are must-see tourist attractions that become inundated with summer sightseers.
One hundred years ago, Knute Rockne was a lifeguard on Cedar Point beach. It was on that beach that Rockne created and perfected the forward pass, changing college football forever. It also thrust Sandusky into the sport’s lore.
The city holds a special place in American history due to its status on the Underground Railroad. Today, it’s more known for actual tracks. Five years after the final shots of the Civil War were fired, Louis Zistel opened a beer garden and dance floor on the Cedar Point peninsula. The fun and games had begun on a parcel of land that would develop into a worldwide attraction.
By 1892, the first roller coaster was built. A hotel followed seven years later. The construction of the Blue Streak in 1964 set off a building boom that now includes 16 roller coasters, the most of any theme park in the world.
Summers might revolve around Cedar Point and the lake, but on Friday nights – and Saturdays – in the fall, the main event is high school football. Fridays belong to the Sandusky Blue Streaks and Perkins Pirates, while the St. Mary’s Panthers get Saturdays to themselves.
“Football is hyped in the city of Sandusky,” said longtime resident Dave Mehling, who works as an analyst for WLEC radio.
The three schools count 25 state championships among them. Sandusky High School’s first building was commissioned in 1845 and the first graduating class walked in 1855. But it wasn’t until the “Sensational Sixties” – that’s the 1960s – when football reached the apex in town.
During his four years as head coach of the Blue Streaks, Earle Bruce compiled a 34-3-3 record. And that was the “low” point of the decade. Sandusky lost just two games over the next four years. In 1966, both Sandusky and St. Mary’s finished the season 10-0, one of the great feats for a single town in Ohio high school history.
“The town went bananas,” Mehling said. “The town was decorated, Strobel Field was decorated, the enthusiasm and the crowds were unbelievable. You couldn’t get a seat Strobel Field. They had a tremendous run.”
- Population: 25,493
- Where: 41.447, -82.709
- County: Erie
- Zip Code: 44870, 44871
- Area Code: 419, 567
- Fun Fact: Tommy Boy, a 1995 film starring Chris Farley and David Spade, was set in Sandusky (though most filming occurred in Ontario).
It’s a level of success that has never been duplicated in town. With the factory jobs went most of the wins, though Perkins did win a state title in 1999 and Sandusky made a playoff run in 2010. The Blue Streaks still boast more than 600 wins, fifth-most in the state.
“One of the greatest things of living in this area is the passion people have for local sports, especially during football season. It's one of the most anticipated times of the year,” said Troy Baumgartner, a sports radio show host on WLEC. “The crowds show up every home game hours before kickoff to tailgate. The crowds might not be as big as they once were, but the passion and excitement is still there.
“Sandusky isn't an easy place to coach or play. Sometimes I think the success of the past leads to high expectations for the upcoming season. Kids know the legends and sometimes it's one of their family members.”
Sandusky and Perkins are budding rivals, having played for the first time in 2009. But the most passionate in the area is the Blue Streaks annual tilt with Fremont Ross, a game that’s origins date to 1895, making it the second-oldest rivalry in the state.
Both games will take place in the first two weeks of the 2013 season, giving the town something to savor as the calendar flips from August to September. Even before fall arrives, however, Sandusky is already in football mode.
“When scrimmages start, you start to get the electricity in the air,” Mehling said. “Everyone is getting ready for the home openers. The community really comes together to support the schools. It brings the town together.”
In the early 90s, Orlando Pace brought much attention to town during his All-American seasons before moving on to Ohio State. The gentle giant was an All-American in Columbus, as well, and an All-Pro in the NFL. All told, Pace is regarded as one of the greatest linemen of all-time.
“He was fantastic,” Mehling said. “That’s the best word to describe him.”
He isn’t the only sports figure to come from the shores of Lake Erie. Jon Gruden, Scott May, Thom Darden, Tyson Gentry, Kevin Randleman, Derek Isaman, Brian Bixler, John Bettridge, Ed Bettridge, Corey Croom and Luther Henson all began careers in Sandusky that would evolve into the professional level.
About the same time Pace was making more pancakes than the East Side Café, Tommy Callahan changed the direction of the city of Sandusky with the sale of half a million brake pads.
It’s the kind of story that makes you want to feel all warm and toasty inside.