Between September 1987 and December 1988, a period of about 16 months, the Holy Spirit High School Spartans played 21 football games. They won 20 of them. I was an eleven-year-old waterboy at the start of the run, and I’d already been around the team for six years at that point (my dad was a coach), but I’d never seen anything like the ’87-’88 Spartans.Up to that point, the Spartans had been very much a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football program. Successful enough, but a little boring maybe. Then Brian Little, a junior running back from Atlantic City, took the opening kickoff of the first game of the 1987 season and ran it back 80-some yards for a touchdown, and from that point on, things were different in Absecon. On offense, they could run over you or around you. They could throw and catch and block. On defense, they were fast and aggressive. They forced turnovers and collected shutouts. And for two seasons they casually beat the snot out of the Cape Atlantic League en route to back-to-back South Jersey Parochial A (“State”) championships. And in the middle of it all was a quarterback with kind-of-red hair who wore a running-back’s number (30?) and came from Egg Harbor Township. His name was Albie Mallen. He died the other day at age 45.
In my experience, the trope of the “star quarterback” is vastly overplayed in popular culture. In actual fact, on a lot football teams, and I have been around a few of them, the QB is regarded as a kind of dork, or prima dona, by his teammates. For one thing, he tends to be smaller and skinnier than your average lineman or fullback, meaning he’s less useful in cases of emergency. For another, you can’t hit him in practice. Since most of a typical football player’s career is spent running at three-quarter speed into his teammates at practice, an argument can be made that a quarterback is not really playing football at all.
But for two years, despite no shortage of Large Personalities on the Spartan sidelines, Albie Mallen was unquestionably the captain of the S.S. H.S.H.S. In 1988, his senior year, they started the season ranked number one in the South Jersey polls and finished it that way. What more could you want from a star quarterback?
I knew of Albie for 30 years. I never really knew him. I knew, for instance, that Albie’s dad had been a state trooper who was killed in the line of duty. That was part of the Albie mythos. I did not know Al Mallen Sr. had been shot while executing a narcotics warrant against a meth dealer who was later sentenced to death for the murder but died in prison before he could be executed. Nor had I ever imaginatively absorbed the impact those events must have had on Albie, in 1985, when he was a young teenager.
One of the earliest Albie stories I remember came from some kids I played with on the E.H.T. Orioles county team, who’d spent the summer working with Albie for township public works. Apparently they did a lot of driving around the rec fields while Albie fired spirals (or attempted to fire spirals) into the passenger-side window for target practice.
’87-’88 was a very fashion-conscious period in South Jersey football circles. Accessories were in. Those plexiglass visors popularized by Jim McMahon, of the Bears, had filtered down through the college ranks to high school, where they were made available to the more marketable/politically-connected members of the Spartan team. I’m sure Albie had a visor one year. Probably it was a tinted visor, the better that the d-backs should not read your eyes while you’re scanning the secondary.
Also popular were those Neumann Sporting gloves, tackified, that aided the grip of players at the skill positions. I feel like Albie pioneered the use of Neumann gloves, along with a custom hand-towel adorned with his number that hung from his belt. Why you needed both tackified gloves and a towel to dry your hands with remains mysterious to me. But the point is, the Spartans did not just win, they won stylishly.
At some point, Albie started dating the girl who lived next door to me. In the mornings, we would all be standing outside waiting for the bus to middle school, and Albie would ruck up in his mini Ford Bronco II (I think, I’m not good with cars) with the personalized license plates (“AL QB 30” I want to say) to pick her up. She was five years older than us and the neighborhood bombshell, naturally, and we, the neighborhood preteens, would stop and salute her whenever she walked out the front door.
The whole thing was like a John Hughes movie. In fact, it was about as close as life ever got to a John Hughes movie, for me anyway, and I sometimes wonder whether a lot of people maybe felt that way. After the Spartan ’88 roadshow, the whole educational system could feel like kind of a letdown.
In 1987, Albie’s junior year, they went 10-1, the only loss coming against Millville, under circumstances that remain controversial in Spartan circles to this day. In 1988 the whole Spartan team was back, essentially, a year older, bigger, wiser, meaner and more experienced. They went 10-0, the first perfect season in school history. They were supposed to win every game and did so, comfortably. Most of the time they were in cruise control.
In the first two games, they beat Absegami and Ocean City, 50-12 and 42-0 respectively. After a (relatively) close call against Vineland (at Vineland, another beautiful stadium), they casually administered four more blowouts before beating Millville, at Millville, on a Friday night, avenging the only loss from the year before. A few weeks later they won their second-straight South Jersey Parochial A championship in Absecon against Notre Dame of Trenton.
Notre Dame had been undefeated going in to the finals and had given up only one touchdown the entire season, but it was pretty clear early on the Spartans had them outmatched. In the fourth quarter, Spirit was leading by two scores but had yet to really put the game away for good when they faced a fourth-and-inches at their own 46. The Spartans lined up in Power-I formation, classic short-yardage personnel. Everyone in the stadium knew that Brian Little, the standout tailback and future Delaware Blue Hen, was going to get the ball and go over the top, a la Walter Payton, as he had done many times in the previous twenty games. In fact that was the play that had come in from the sidelines and been called in the huddle. But Albie, being Albie, changed it at the line of scrimmage, to an off-tackle run by the fullback.
At the snap, the Notre Dame defense crashed toward the center, but they had been outguessed, and Chris Murray, the Spartan fullback, took the ball, aimed himself at the left ham-hock of the big offensive tackle (Jim Muskett, I want to say) and “scampered,” I think is the technical term, 54 yards untouched into the end zone. Ballgame.
Holy Spirit, I assure you, had a full complement of coaches—assistants and coordinators and position coaches–who thought themselves very good at their jobs. Yet at this key moment, the decision was made by an 18-year-old. Spirit was a Catholic school. Imagine the many un-Catholic things that would have been said to him on the sidelines, if that play had backfired and Notre Dame had somehow gotten back in the game. But Albie made his own call. And it was a good call: tough and smart and selfless. And 30 years later, it’s still a good story.
I’m sure Albie made a lot of memorable plays in two seasons, but the one I remember was an audible. On fourth and inches. In the fourth quarter of a state championship game.
After that season I saw less and less of Albie, naturally. I was a waterboy on a football team and he was no longer on it. I knew he signed to play at Rutgers, but I don’t think he stayed on the team very long. There might have been a coaching change or something–always tough on QBs. He was undersized for Division I. He had a great arm, but at that level, everyone’s got a great arm. You need to be one of the coach’s guys. Anyway, he was never going to have the success at Rutgers that he’d had at Holy Spirit. They were Rutgers. They went 2-7, 3-8 and 3-8 in the next three seasons. I’ve been on those teams. That doesn’t feel like success. It’s fucking depressing.
He concentrated on baseball instead, and after college spent many years dominating the county league, racking up absurd strikeout totals.
When I was in high school, in the early 90s, he sometimes helped out as an assistant baseball coach, throwing batting practice sometimes, I guess so we could experience the joys of swinging ineffectually at Albie’s 90mph cheese. I don’t know how hard Albie threw. Mid-80s at least though. I remember the ball got on you unbelievably fast. Then every so often he’d break off a big curveball, like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and you got to feel the joys of swinging ineffectually at one of those too. It was humiliating. But he seemed to get a kick out of it.
At some point we connected on Facebook, so I had a certain limited window into the continuing life of the Mailman. He became a fireman in Atlantic City–the Spartan football program, good Catholic boys, has always specialized in producing civil servants–he ran half-marathons, drank beer with friends, rooted for Notre Dame in his man cave, and seemed to be happily settled down. But I wondered, sometimes, if 1988 was still a kind of disease. It was a long road, maybe, from there to normal.
Over the years I’d sometimes bump into Albie out at a bar or restaurant. Usually I’d be with my family. My dad coached for Spirit for about 20 years so they would sort of reminisce. The Spartans had been through any number of dynasties that contended for Greatest-of-All-Time status by that point, but Albie always wanted us to know his team was the G.O.A.T. of all G.O.A.T.s, the best in school history.
Sprousey, these kids don’t know, he’d say, or something like that.
He was unabashedly competitive. But he also had a sense of humor. And he was right. Holy Spirit did have some great teams. But for sheer joy and the spectacle it brought to the community, nothing came close to the Air Mallen Spartans.
A few weeks ago, I happened to be riding my bike down Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City in the morning when an ambulance was parked at a corner of Texas Avenue. And there was Albie pulling a body—alive or dead, it wasn’t clear—out of a row house. I didn’t say hi of course. He was clearly busy with his work—his grim, mundane, and heroic, I suppose—work. That was the last time I saw him.
The last few days I’ve been going through Facebook, which is how we hear about tragedies like this these days. Social media is sort of built for spying on high school heroes. I’m sure it sucks for the people who were still an active part of Albie’s life. But for the rest of us, maybe it’s therapeutic.
There has been the usual outpouring. Albie was in and out of a lot of lives, through sports. Everyone talks about how competitive he was and how much fun he was to be around. It’s a weird combination, when you think about it. One comment that stuck out was from a guy who Albie played baseball with in college I guess. “You seemed to remember every pitch you ever threw me,” he wrote. A lot of those pitches had been strikes clearly (the Mailman threw heat) but whenever these two guys got together, Albie always brought up the pitches he hadn’t gotten by him instead.
Albie was a real talent. He was also competitive as hell. But somehow the fact that this guy, with so much ability, thought what you were doing mattered: it lifted everyone up, rather than the reverse.
He was a keeper of the flame. South Jersey’s a sadder place without him. May he rest in peace.