WASHINGTON, D.C. - Catholic University's historic 1999 football season was much more than a collection of terrific players and coaches. It reflected the team's sacrificial unity in pursuit of a common goal.
The 1999 Cardinals rode a nine-game winning streak and an unbeaten record in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) to the NCAA playoffs. Catholic finished 9-2 overall and 6-0 in league play en route to its third straight appearance in the NCAA Division III Football Championship.
The run culminated a three-year regular-season record of 29-1, the finest such stretch in school history.
Dan Evans, a freshman wide receiver on that team and former head coach at Osborne Park High School in Manassas, Va., said he compares every squad he's been a part of to the 1999 Cardinals.
"Winning is a byproduct of what you do in practice, in the weight room and off the field," said Evans, now a Catholic assistant coach. "That team was the epitome of hard work, singular focus, tremendous preparation and how to treat your coaches and teammates.
"It's the benchmark for how I look at teams I've played on or coached."
James Parker, a sophomore cornerback and punt returner that year, said the 1999 season "was a lot of fun. We were playing Division III, so we were kind of playing in obscurity, but it was a nice community. We had some really good guys, and we played for a great coach.
"It brings back a lot of fond memories."
Head Coach Tom Clark's sixth team in Brookland was one of his finest. He and his staff beat the bushes and brought in a bevy of talented players. Five Cardinals were first-team All-ODAC honorees.
Parker, linebacker Brian Hee, wide receiver Mike Hunter, guard Tim McCarthy and running back Andrew Notarfrancesco were named All-American.
"I came to play Division III football, and I didn't know what to expect," said Parker, an honorable mention All-American special teamer who that season set the Catholic record for most punt return yards (282) and scored twice. "I didn't know I was going to be playing with so many great players."
Clark, now in his fifth season as defensive coordinator at VMI, was honored as ODAC Coach of the Year.
Catholic not only dominated in the standings but also in the league's major statistical categories. Offensive Coordinator Marty Favret's crew led the ODAC in total yards, rushing and scoring. Its 40.1 points per game ranked seventh nationally.
Favret's offensive ingenuity spurred Hampden-Sydney to hire him as head coach in 2000. Nineteen years later, he is the Tigers' second all-time winningest coach.
Defensively, the Cards led the league in total yards, rushing, passing efficiency and points allowed. The club was No. 1 in turnover margin and punt return average.
"We had really good defensive players and really good offensive players," Evans said. "We had great guys on special teams. We were a complete team."
Derek McGee, a four-year starting quarterback, was another sophomore that year. He led the ODAC in passing, completing 193 of 298 passes (64.8 percent) for 2,397 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Notarfrancesco, a senior running back, rushed for a league-high 1,038 yard (5 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns. His 126 total points led the conference. He was named ODAC Player of the Year.
Known to his teammates as "Notar," the 5-foot-9, 205-pounder could be hard to see behind the Cardinals' huge and talented offensive line. Senior Dan Riely played right tackle alongside junior guard Anthony Bottoni. Sophomore Nick Faiola manned the center position. McCarthy, a junior third-team All-American, played left guard. Sophomore Puri Garzone was at left tackle.
Their blocking created the openings for Notarfrancesco and Dan Boyle to run through and gave McGee sufficient time to locate receivers.
"As the quarterback, I knew they always protected me and looked out for me," McGee said. "If anybody ever took a cheap shot or hit me after the whistle, they'd be up in their face. That gives you a lot of confidence to sit back there and make throws and do your job."
Riely had to overcome the rupture of the same two tendons in his right hand – three times.
"He's developed into a great player," Coach Clark said in October 1999. "He's worked hard in the weight room to become one of the best Division III offensive linemen in the nation."
The same could have been said for the entire front five.
"They were some of the best athletes, and you don't always say that about offensive linemen," McGee said. "They were great in space, which for the offense we were running was incredibly important."
Hunter caught 73 passes for 1,014 yards and eight TDs. The senior capped his career as a two-time All-American.
Catholic's stingy defense, which allowed just 14.7 points per game, was replete with strong and mobile athletes. Senior defensive end Richard Change was arguably the most athletic and chiseled player on the team. He came to Brookland from St. Pius X in Atlanta and spent much of his time in the opponent's backfield.
"He just overwhelms you with his speed, and then is just physically strong enough to deal with bigger people," Clark said at the time. "His speed, at this level, is pretty impressive. I don't think there's too many guys that have the big-play potential from that position that he has."
Hee, from his outside linebacker slot, was so good that the American Football Coaches Association recognized him as a first-team All-American. He led the Cards in tackles his final three years and concluded his brilliant career in Mexico by helping the United States defeat the Mexican National Team in the Aztec Bowl.
Other top Cardinal defenders included Tim Whitney, Ben Bailey, Jimmy Nalls, Tim Varian, Jonah Burrelli, Matt Steiner, Joe Marino, DeOliveira, Drew Anderson, Gary Mann, David Thornton, J.P. Quinn, Larry Waters, Scott Lutte, Maurice Wilson, Jeff Tabery, Brad Blaisdell, Chris Martorana, Slattery Johnson and Ryan Welsh.
Sophomore Mike Fleet was the ODAC's third-leading punter, averaging 37.6 yards. Freshman Tokollo Moffat returned 14 kickoffs for a 23.3-yard average.
Parker had five of Catholic's league-high 15 interceptions. He said the defense used to practice blocking on interception returns.
"We blitzed a lot," said Parker, co-owner of Marshall's Bar & Grille in Foggy Bottom. "I played cornerback and there was a lot of man coverage. Quarterbacks were just kind of throwing the ball to us. We did a lot of work in practice on returning [interceptions]. So, a lot of our returns were big.
"We were really a well-coached team."
The Cards also had the one thing every great team needs.
"The senior leadership we had that year was outstanding," Evans said. "They treated everyone well regardless of whether you were a starter or a practice squad player."
A Historic Season
The 1999 Cardinals accomplished something no other Cardinal football team has: win an outright conference championship. The 2008 club came closest by sharing the ODAC title and winning the ECAC Southeast Bowl.
Since Catholic played its first football game in 1895, the Red and Black have primarily competed as an independent. This includes Dutch Bergman's 1930's juggernaut that won the second Orange Bowl.
Football ceased on campus in 1950 before returning as a club sport 15 years later. In 1977, Catholic moved up to Division III status. It became an ODAC member along with other Cardinal sports in 1982 but dropped out after the '83 season.
Catholic resumed its independent schedule until 1999 when it rejoined the ODAC. This gave the Cards the benefits of conference affiliation, including a guaranteed number of games, greater player recognition, a focus to the season and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid for the league champ.
"We were excited to hear that we'd be in a conference," said McGee, a senior vice president for the Berkheimer Group at Morgan Stanley in Frederick, Md. "We thought it set us up better to make the playoffs. When you're an independent, you basically have to go 9-1 or 10-0 to even have a chance."
Clark, who arrived as Catholic head coach in 1994, led the Cards to the NCAA playoffs in 1997 and '98 and knew he'd have a strong squad in '99. He also liked his chances of competing in the ODAC. His record against those schools was 10-1-1.
Journey to the Title
The Cardinals opened the season at home with a 26-21 loss to John Carroll, a solid program from northeast Ohio. One of the Blue Streaks' alumni, London Fletcher, was that year helping the St. Louis Rams win the Super Bowl.
John Carroll broke to a 20-0 lead before the Redbirds surged ahead, 21-20, in the second half. The visitors scored the only points in the fourth quarter on a 64-yard pass play to win. Catholic penetrated the red zone late but came away empty.
"We got off to a terrible start," said McGee, who hit Evans for a 33-yard TD. "They ran the opening kickoff back, and I threw an interception. They looked like they were running away with it. Then we just scratched and clawed and got ourselves back in the game."
The Cardinals won their next three nonconference games, 46-12 over Franklin & Marshall; 63-7 at Newport News (Va.) Apprentice; and 34-2 at Salisbury (Md.). In their first ODAC game, the Cards fell behind, 26-7, to Randolph-Macon midway through the third quarter. This time, however, they would complete the comeback.
McGee threw three of his four touchdowns, including two to Hunter, who caught 12 passes for 97 yards and two TDs. Greg Stokes added a 27-yard field goal, and the Catholic defense recorded a safety for the final margin.
The Cards scored at least 42 points in their next three games, all on DuFour Field's natural grass. It would be several years later before an artificial surface and lights were installed at what is now Cardinal Stadium.
Catholic went into its Nov. 6 game against Guilford in Greensboro, N.C., needing a win to clinch the ODAC championship. Evans remembers how cold it was during practice that week. Twice the team practiced indoors.
The cold weather didn't follow the Cardinals down south. Officially listed as 71 degrees, Evans said it felt like "80 degrees at kickoff."
Catholic, however, started off lukewarm. After a scoreless first quarter, a Stokes field goal and 11-yard run by Notarfrancesco gave the Cards a 10-0 lead at halftime. Notar would go on to carry 35 times for 187 yards. Boyle added 54 yards, and McGee finished 22 of 34 for 285 yards and three scores.
"Winning the ODAC was special," said Evans, who that day posted team highs in receptions (6) and yards (83). "At the time, as a freshman, I didn't realize it would the only one we would win."
Catholic pushed its winning streak to nine the following week by downing Bridgewater, 35-14. It was then off to Westminster, Md., for the 11th-ranked Cardinals to face No. 6 Western Maryland College (now McDaniel) in the Division III playoffs.
It was a sunny Saturday in Carroll County, and 4,885 fans jammed into Scott S. Bair Stadium. "It was packed with students, with people from the community, with fans," McGee said. "Of all the places that we played in my four years, it was probably the most electric environment."
McGee's two TD passes (one to Hunter and Notarfrancesco) propelled Catholic to a 16-3 halftime lead. The Cardinals would not score again, while the Green Terror put up 17 points en route to a 20-16 victory.
"I think we could have gone far [in the playoffs]," Evans said. "We had a lot of the components to make a run. We just ran into a really good team that day."
You can't talk about the 1999 season without the tragic way the calendar year ended. On Dec. 28, Anthony Bottoni, the team's much-admired and soft-spoken right guard was killed during an automobile collision while on Christmas break in New Jersey. He was 20.
Clark established the Anthony J. Bottoni Award the following year to honor the team's outstanding senior. In addition, Bottoni's No. 76 was retired. His parents, Lou and Alida, have presented the award at a Catholic home game nearly every year since. Hunter was the first recipient.
Clark told The Washington Post that Bottoni would have been a team captain as a senior.
"One kid seldom has an impact over a large group, but this kid did," he said. "He actively pursued relationships with all the players on the team. He was beloved by the coaching staff."
Bottoni was an honor roll student and class vice president at Watchung Hills Regional High School in his hometown of Warren, N.J. He was a freshman starter for the Cardinals in 1997 until a stress fracture in his right foot ended his season in game six. It was on his side that Notarfrancesco rushed for the game-winning touchdown in overtime at Albright to send Catholic to the 1998 NCAA playoffs.
"He was great," McGee said. "There's no question in my mind that he would have been an All-American his senior year. He was that good – big and athletic. Despite the fact that he was a really nice guy off the field, he had enough of a mean streak to turn it on on the football field.
"And that's what all the great ones need, especially at his position."
Bottoni's teammates will get another opportunity this Saturday, Oct. 19, to reminisce about the special times they shared on the field and around campus. Despite the passage of time, memories of the 1999 season are still fresh.
"It's always great to see those guys," Evans said. "It was a special year, one that I'll never forget."
Chris McManes was Catholic University's sports information director in 1999.