John D. Oliva '32 (Football, Basketball, Baseball, Boxing, Track)

Inducted 1978

Johnny Oliva competed in all five major sports Catholic University offered in the late 1920s, early 1930s. More amazingly, he played them all as a sophomore (1929-30), the only CUA athlete ever to accomplish such a feat.

“One of the finest athletes ever to represent Catholic University!,” the 1932 Cardinal yearbook proclaimed. “That is the fitting tribute we pay Johnny Oliva, who for four years has won the acclaim and applause of both sports-writers and fans. We may let the sport pages of this annual give evidence of his extraordinary versatility.”

Oliva enjoyed a stellar career at Fitchburg (Mass.) High School. He starred on the 1925-26 basketball team that defeated five teams in Chicago and was proclaimed “National Basketball Champions.” He also played football, baseball and ran track. His final football team was 9-1 and outscored its opponents, 278-7.

When Oliva was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2007, his presenter said:

“Old timers will tell you that the very finest athlete of [the 1920s] was an Italian-American kid who grew up on Haywood Street by the name of Johnny Oliva.”

At CUA, Oliva played forward in basketball, was a high jumper in track and played quarterback in football. In 1935 and 1937, the school’s student newspaper, The Tower, named him second-team quarterback on CUA’s all-time football team. His coach his final two years was Arthur “Dutch” Bergman, who in 1919 played in the same backfield with George Gipp at Notre Dame.

A guard from that team, Hunk Anderson, became Notre Dame’s coach in 1931 after Rockne’s tragic death in an airplane accident. Anderson was so impressed with Oliva’s quarterbacking skills that he called him “one of the greatest passers I have ever seen play.”

Oliva’s career came to an end his senior year when he broke his ankle in a 20-12 victory over Duquesne. The Cardinals won their final eight games to finish 8-1, then the school record for victories in a season.

Oliva coached the Fitchburg High basketball team from 1939 to 1966 – except for a few years during World War II – and earned more than 300 victories. His 1956-57 club was 14-1 during the regular season and drew its first invitation to the Western Massachusetts Tournament in nearly a decade.

Oliva died Oct. 1, 1978 at age 70.

Chris McManes
October 2012