by Larry Mendte
There is a football dynasty blooming in Chestnut Hill. At Norwood-Fontbonne Academy on Germantown Avenue the varsity team just won the school’s fourth Catholic Academic League championship in the last six years. During that span, the Norwood Bears have a remarkable 37-2-2 record.
The winning tradition started at Norwood when Jim Rockenbach took over as head coach in 2013. The team went 7-2 that year and hasn’t lost since.
“Coach Rock” has come full circle. He played on the Norwood football team as a child. Now, at 38, he’s back with the team and fulfilling a dream to keep football a part of his life.
“I feel like I’m giving back,” said the coach after a recent practice. “My football career ended when I was in high school (Saint Joseph’s Prep). I was a smaller kid back then. Now I can take what I learned and help kids with their own hopes and ambitions.”
Since Rockenbach has been coach, four Norwood players have gone on to play college football. Notably, Chris Maloney is a defensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh, and Malkelm Morrison is a defensive back playing for Army.
Little Norwood Academy is getting a reputation for developing future stars.
“We have a couple of kids in high school right now that are on the radar of top college programs,” Rockenbach said proudly.
Running back Sam Brown, who played for Norwood last year, is turning heads at La Salle College High School. In a game against Father Judge, Brown had the ball in his hands only six times, but racked up 196 yards and three touchdowns.
Norwood alum Casey Stephenson is an offensive lineman at Saint Joe’s Prep. MaxPreps, an online college recruiting site, ranks Stephenson as the best junior guard in Pennsylvania and the 13th best in the country.
Stephenson and other former players routinely show up at the Norwood varsity and JV games to coach and cheer on the players – a testament to the Norwood coaches who not only developed great players but produced great young men.
“I am in touch weekly with my former players,” said Rockenbach, who also teaches science at the school. “It’s kind of cool that they come back to see the kids and their fifth-grade science teacher and eighth-grade football coach.”
The coach is keenly aware that there is much to be learned on a football field beyond just football.
“These kids have to work together and respect one another because that’s how they succeed,” he said.
The players at Norwood are proud of the school’s growing legacy.
“The kids work out on their own during the summer because they want to win,” Rockenbach said. “They come to the first practice already in shape.”
The coach credits the players’ drive to win for the program’s success, “that and the fact that we have the same system for the past five years.”
Part of any successful system is teaching the young players how not to get hurt.
“We are really big into the Heads Up tackling program,” the coach explained. “Teaching the kids how to get into position and then how to properly tackle without leading with their heads.”
The national concern about concussions in the NFL has trickled down to Norwood and other elementary schools. The number of boys going out for football teams is dwindling. In the Catholic Academic League, Gwynedd Mercy has had to abandon its program. Waldron Academy couldn’t field a varsity this year.
After a couple of years of barely having enough players to field a team, Norwood Athletic Director John White and former Head of School Sister Mary Helen Beirne got proactive by holding educational meetings for the parents about the risks and benefits of football. The result: participation in the program is up significantly this year. More importantly, the team and the entire league completed the season concussion-free.
“Concussions are a concern, but I think it has been overplayed by the media and that understandably has caused fear among parents,” Rockenbach said.
Coach Rock is an advocate for grade school football and strongly believes his program is safe for kids to play.
“When people think of concussions they picture the NFL. There you have 6’4,” 260-pound men who can run 40 yards in 4.3 seconds,” he said. “That’s nowhere close to the reality in seventh and eighth grade football.”
The coach ends his argument with a factual exclamation point: “In 10 years and over 100 kids playing at Norwood, we have had one concussion and that was six years ago.”
Some of the best players on the Norwood Bears, like running back Kelby Hughes and wide receivers Zahir Colman and Jack Koch, are seventh graders and will return to the team next year. And the JV team at Norwood, led by coach Darryl Wilkins, was co-champion in the CAL after tying with Rosemont Academy twice. So, it’s safe to say the Norwood Football dynasty will continue, at least for the next few years.
As for Coach Rock, it is inevitable with all of his success that a high school program will eventually try and steal him away. So, does he want to play at the next level? The coach just laughs when asked the question.
“Maybe one day, when my kids are older,” he said. Jim and Barb Rockenbach have two children: Elizabeth, 3, and Christopher, 2, so Norwood will have its championship coach for several years.
“I played here, I taught here for 15 years, so this is home for me,” Rockenbach added.
Larry Mendte is a multiple Emmy award winning TV commentator and former anchor at CBS 3 and NBC 10. He was the first male host of Access Hollywood. Larry lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife Dawn and their two children Michael and David. David will play varsity football next year at Norwood.