The Community Connection
Former Firebird Demczuk finds new passion post-football
Another installment in a series profiling former players for the Pottstown/Pennsylvania Firebirds minorleague football franchise that was situated in the Pottstown
community for the three years between 1968 and 1970. The Firebirds, a “farm” team
for the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles, achieved fame by winning Atlantic Coast Football League championships in 1969 and
1970 before it was merged into another ACFL franchise
the next year.
Academic, activist, advocate and athlete.
Those were the various and contrasting paths Bernard Demczuk followed in the course of a unique life. As different in scope as they may be, for Demczuk they encompassed the similar design of pursuing them with equal zeal and energy.
Coming of age in the 1960s, the 72-year-old Baltimore, Md. native and current resident of Washington, D.C. became involved in the country’s civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements. As part of those activist leanings, Demczuk went on to become a professor and vice-president at George Washington University; a union official and widely-traveled lecturer on international relations, civil and human rights; and an advocate for community, corporate, academic, labor and government relations.
During that same decade, Demczuk played college football at the University of Maryland. He got a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles after graduation, and from there he landed with the Pottstown/ Pennsylvania Firebirds to be part of their 1970 Atlantic
Coast Football League championship squad.
At the heart of those pursuits, he revealed the binding philosophy “It’s important to dream, to be the best you can be, and try to do it.”
Demczuk’s involvement in football followed its own unique path.
Because his high school — Patapsco High in Dundalk, Md. — didn’t have a football program, “Sonny” developed and honed his gridiron skills in sandlot play around the age of 5-6. His interest in the sport was influenced by the great Baltimore Colt teams of the era, and legendary players like Johnny Unitas, Ray Berry, John Mackey and Tom Matte.
“I became a real bug about the sport,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”
After high school, Demczuk walked on to the University of Maryland’s NCAA Division I program. Through his perseverance and performance, he was awarded a scholarship and played for three years, earning letters two seasons.
“I showed up for practice Aug. 1, 1965,” Demczuk recalled. “I was one of 150 ballplayers from around the country ... one of 17 quarterbacks, all bigger, from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
Lasting only two days as a quarterback, he switched to defensive back and played that position for two years. A move to wide receiver followed.
“Sonny” had two teammates who made their ways to the National Football League, both with the Denver Broncos. Billy Van Heusen, a wide receiver who was on the Denver roster eight seasons (1968-76) and Alan Pastrana, a quarterback with the Broncos 1969 to 1970.
“We had mediocre teams, but a lot of good players,” he recalled.
Demczuk had a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles the summer after his 1969 graduation from Maryland. After getting cut during the summer, it was suggested he check out the Pottstown Firebirds.
“Somebody told me to play at Pottstown for a while,” he said. “It was attractive to me. I was 22 years old. What else would I do?”
One of 3-4 wide receivers on the Firebirds roster, Demczuk’s offensive statistics were limited to three receptions for 38 yards. He saw more action on the “bomb squad,” a role in which “Sonny” had two of his more interesting experiences ... both during the ACFL’s championship game against the Hartford Knights Dec. 12.
“My helmet got busted, and a piece went into my forehead,” he recalled. “There was blood everywhere.”
At another point in the game — one played under blizzard conditions — Hartford tried an onside kick. Demczuk remembered not being certain the ball went the minimum required distance.
“I didn’t think the ball went 10 yards,” he said. “The Ball was live, and they (Hartford) recovered it. It was spinning around in front of me.”
The play’s impact didn’t prove to be critical. The Firebirds went on to post a 31-0 victory for a second straight ACFL title.
While playing in Pottstown, “Sonny” worked as a carpenter and resided at the “Firebirds Roost,” located at the intersection of Hanover and third streets. He remembers being friends with such teammates as Joe Green, Johnny Lamb, Claude Daly, and Jack Dolbin in particular.
“He was very fast,” Demczuk said of Dolbin, who played college ball at Wake Forest and ultimately landed with the NFL’s Denver Broncos in the late 1970s. “We played against each other in college.”
“Sonny” also described the Firebirds’ flamboyant quarterback, Jim “King” Corcoran, as “Smart, talented ... but he didn’t pay enough attention to the coaches.”
Like many of his teammates, Demczuk reveled in the way the Pottstown community embraced and respected the players.
“We were small-town local heroes,” he recalled. “We got invited to stores to get free clothes.
“It brings back great memories. We brought a lot of pride and happiness to the town.”
The turbulent ‘60s sparked Demczuk’s involvement in America’s civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements. He became involved with the Friends of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) between 1964 and 1966; taught Black Studies to inmates and employees of maximum-security facilities between 1971 and 1980; and went on to join Rev. Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition as its Labor Director in 1980.
As that involvement blossomed, “Sonny” found himself less drawn to his athletic pursuits. His gridiron career ended with Pottstown’s second leaguechampionship season.
“Football became minor,” he noted. “I was a student in the 60s; campuses were exploding. It was a time when athletes were becoming political.”
“Activism was the main focus. I worked at a mental hospital, got involved in the union movement ... became a top public union leader. When I left football, I never looked back.”
Demczuk holds a doctorate in American Studies and African American History and Culture, along with Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from Maryland and American universities, respectively. He lectures widely on Black history and culture, labor history, community relations and governmental policy.
After serving as a corrections officer at the D.C. Jail from 1977 to 1980, Bernard became National Political Director for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Union. While at AFGE, he sat on the Metropolitan Labor Council, the AFL-CIO’s Board of Directors. In 1989, the local D.C. AFL-CIO selected him as the “Outstanding Trade Unionist of the Year.”
Demczuk’s feelings about race relations are encompassed in his response to the situation former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is facing. Kaepernick, who played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers and led them to the Super Bowl in 2012, attracted national attention and backlash for his stance of kneeling during the national anthem at the start of NFL games in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.
“He took a knee against racial profiling,” Demczuk noted. “It took a year for (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell to say he was sorry.”
Among the numerous credits on his extensive resume’ are current service as an African American Cultural Historian at the University of the District of Columbia, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the District of Columbia Police Academy and chairman/historian of Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation. The Foundation was founded to provide service to the D.C. community and its neighborhoods by engaging in community projects throughout the year at various locations around the city.
Among the numerous prestigious awards Demczuk received in the 2000s were the George Washington (2003) and Martin Luther King Jr. (2010) awards, both bestowed by GWU on students, faculty and staff for “outstanding contributions to the university” and “outstanding service to the GWU People of Color Community;” the Whitney M. Young Award for Outstanding Community service, presented by the Greater Washington Urban League in 2013; and the BSU Professor of the Year Award from GWU’s Black Student Union (2016).
His motto is the old African proverb symbolized by the Sankofa bird: “Know thy history, know thyself.” ***
The Firebird Memorial Project continues to move closer to a finished tribute to a tangible recognition of the storied semi-pro football franchise.
Pottstown Borough Council offered its approval to the installation of a historical marker in the community’s business district, commemorating the Firebirds’ success during their three-year association with the borough. A design and final quote for the historical marker has been established.
A GoFundMe site has been set up to accept contributions toward a $2,900 goal (Street name landmark Pottstown Firebirds). The site’s address is https://gofund.me/c0815ab0. The committee is waiting for pledges to come in; $610.00 in actual money has been received to date,