O’Connell about to publish ‘The Team the Titans Remember’

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Photo by Meg Hibbert
Author Mark O’Connell sits in bleachers in Kiwanis Field, the old stadium in Salem where Andrew Lewis High School played football games in the era of the 1971 Wolverines regional championship team that he writes about in his forthcoming book, “The Team the Titans Remember.” Former Assistant Coach Dale Foster made O’Connell an honorary Wolverine and gave him the letter jacket O’Connell is wearing, embroidered with the book’s name and “Remember the Wolverines.”

Most Salem people know about “Remember the Titans,” the 2000 movie that featured the state football championship battle between Andrew Lewis High School – though incognito – and a recently integrated T.C. Williams High School in Northern Virginia.

Now Mark O’Connell wants to be sure people all over the nation, maybe even the world, know the real story of the 1971 Wolverines team which wasn’t given the glory, not even the real name of the Salem team. In the movie, it is called Marshall High School for no known reason.

O’Connell expects the softcover, hardcover and e-book to be of interest to more than readers in the Roanoke Valley – after all, one of the players lives in France – with an opportunity to go viral.

He is almost ready to publish “The Team the Titans Remember” that ties the beginnings of the school whose building is now Andrew Lewis Middle School to football greatness whose roots started in 1962.

The massive 744-page history “Is not sports news. It’s human interest,” O’Connell emphasized.

The year 1962 was the first year ALHS won a state championship, “and under Coach Eddie Joyce they got used to winning,” O’Connell explained during a visit to Salem last week.

“The players were winners. They expected to do well.”

O’Connell searched out former players, coaches, fans, photographs, yearbooks, news articles and much more to write “The Team the Titans Remember,” which is due out “this summer, before football season,” he promised.

The subtitle of his book to be published by Page Publishing Co. in New York is “The 1971 Andrew Lewis High School Football Team: The Final Link to a Lasting Legacy.”

What makes O’Connell’s two-year-effort of researching, reaching out and writing even more notable is that he didn’t go to Andrew Lewis, and didn’t play football. The 59-year-old moved to Salem when he was 5 and did go to West Salem Elementary School and Glenvar High School but graduated from Fork Union Military Academy where he played lacrosse. He now lives in Orange County, Va.

O’Connell sees not being a Wolverine as an advantage in telling the story: “I could be more objective and didn’t have anything personal” coloring memories – although he did see ALHS football games, starting when he was 7 years old.

“I remember going with Mom’s brother Galen Munsey, who graduated from Andrew Lewis in ’61. Andrew Lewis won over E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg with a score of 53-12,” O’Connell said. Another of his ties to Andrew Lewis was his uncle Leo W. “Buck” Wright Jr., a star player from the 1950s.

O’Connell’s love of history, in which he majored at Mary Washington, and his “great long-term memory” helped him in his quest to get the true ALHS story. He interviewed scores of players, “And no one ever said ‘Why do you want to write this? You didn’t even go there,’ ” he added.

His reasons for writing the book are simple: “I just wanted to set the record straight about the 1971 team,” he said. “I want people to know not only about Andrew Lewis, but the personal stories, and to give acclaim to coaches Eddie Joyce and Assistant Coach Dale Foster and players in their own right.”

These days Salem sports and academic teams are accustomed to winning, but that wasn’t so before Coach Joyce’s years, O’Connell pointed out. Before him, it was rare for high school football teams to go to football camp, O’Connell said.

“The players had a chance to bond by going to a football camp each summer. That was innovative on Coach Joyce’s part,” he said.

O’Connell started researching his book shortly after retiring two years ago as an adult probation and parole officer. Among the Andrew Lewis players he interviewed are names people remember, such as Charlie Hammersley. “Charlie was one of my heroes when I was a little boy,” the author said. Other interviewed included, Paul Webb, John Morrison, Dick Tate, David Heath, Dean East, Billy Sample, former Salem Vice Mayor John Givens, who was a quarterback for the 1966 team that played Granby in the state title match. The player interviews finish up with G Sprinkle, now a Salem dentist.

The forward is written by Salem native Carey Casey who played on ALHS’s ’71 team and was a running back for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“None are self promoting. They all are humble and give credit to the team,” O’Connell pointed out. There are pictures of the ’71 team and coaches, old Victory Stadium in Roanoke where the championship game was played, and local Salem area pics.

Former Assistant Coach Dale Foster made O’Connell an honorary Wolverine, and gave him a blue-and-white letter jacket. The embroidery reads “The Team the Titans Remember” over the AL letters, and below it, “Remember The Wolverines.”

O’Connell had planned to complete the book earlier, but had a setback when his previous publisher went out of business and he had to start over.  “Ultimately, I hope that everyone will feel that the finished product was well worth the wait!” he wrote in an email this week to many of the people he interviewed.

O’Connell’s mother, Jan Munsey, lives in Salem at Richfield Living Retirement Community. He and his wife, Diana, who is Commonwealth’s Attorney of Orange County, live in the Somerset community in Orange County. He has two grown daughters and a son: Jordan, 27; Rebekah, 22 – who did much of the library research for him in Charlottesville – and Ethan, 24.

In his leisure time, O’Connell plays some tennis, walks, rides his Kawasaki motorcycle, and he and Diana are in a murder mystery play coming up soon.

O’Connell is a sports correspondent for the “Culpeper Star Exponent” and the “Madison Eagle” in his area, and also broadcasts local high school lacrosse and football games for cable television. His email address reflects another of his sports interests, which is wrestling. You can contact him at takedownnews@aol.com.

O’Connell has a book signing set for Sept. 18 at the Salem Museum at 7 p.m., where he will be the speaker.