Thursday, September 25, 2014

Old Bones - Muskegon's Earl Morrall

Morrall engineered a playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns, but Griese replaced him during the AFC title game against the Steelers and sparked a comeback victory. Shula chose Griese to start the Super Bowl game.

“The perfect backup for the perfect team.”

That’s how Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula once described quarterback Earl Morrall.

“He was an unbelievable guy,” Shula told the Miami Herald earlier this year when Morrall passed away. “There were no negatives with him. He was the best guy in the locker room. Great in practice. And on the field he mad
e big plays in big games. He was just a fine human being and that transcended everything else. It wasn’t just about his career. In everything he tried, people recognized what a fine individual he was.”

Shula is the best person to reflect on Morrall’s 21-year NFL career as he played witness to the pivotal moments of the Muskegon native’s professional career. He had coached Earl in Baltimore in 1968 when Morrall, covering for the injured legend Johnny Unitas, led the Colts to a 13-1 record. Morrall’s threw for 2,909 yards and 26 TDs while leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl. Still, most only remember the New York Jets victory over the Colts in the championship game that season.

Morrall accepted this fact about the job. That was part of his brilliance.

Joe Namath’s pre-game guarantee of victory over the heavily favored Colts remains one of the defining moments in league’s past. While recapping the loss over a quarter century later, Morrall, who threw three interceptions that day, told The Baltimore Sun, “I have no excuses.”

Four years after the title game, it appeared Morrall might be out of the league. With what was then considered a large salary, the 38-year-old was released by the Colts in April 1972. Fortunately he had a friend in Shula, now coaching the Dolphins.

“I knew what Earl could do from our time in Baltimore,” recalled Shula in the Herald. “He was an intelligent quarterback who won a lot of ballgames for me. I wanted to pick him up as an insurance policy. I had to talk [then-owner] Joe Robbie into doing it because Earl was making $90,000. I wanted to claim him off waivers, and Robbie said, ‘Paying $90,000 for a backup — are you out of your mind?’ ”

The Dolphins were Morrall’s sixth pro team. Drafted by San Francisco out of Michigan State in 1956, he was moved to Pittsburgh a year later in exchange for two first-round draft picks. Another year passed, and he found himself in Detroit when the Lions traded swashbuckling quarterback Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh. For the next six seasons, Morrall was the starting quarterback for Detroit. After posting an outstanding season in 1963, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury mid-way through the 1964 season. Prior to the 1965 season, he was in New York, playing for the Giants. He was dealt to Baltimore at the start of the 1968 season, and when Unitas went down to injury in the final pre-season game, he became the Colts’ starter.

For Earl, lightning struck a second time in Miami.

When starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his ankle in the fifth game of the season against San Diego . Shula again turned to Morrall. “Old Bones,” as he was nicknamed by his teammates, led the talented team through an undefeated regular season then quarterbacked the team to a playoff opening-round victory over the Cleveland Browns.

“I wanted to play as much as anybody, but I told the coach I wouldn’t make waves,” Morrall told The Boston Globe in 2002. “A younger guy might have sulked.”

At season end, Morrall was named the AFC’s Player of the Year and was selected to the AFC All-Pro team as a member of the first team. He also was presented with the league’s inaugural “Comeback of the Year” award.

Over 40 years later, Muskegon residents continue to beam with pride.

A true prep legend in West Michigan, Morrall guided the Big Reds to a Class A state championship season in 1951. His total of 851passing yards and 11 TDs that season stood alone as a MHS records until 2003. An outstanding all-around athlete, he earned all-state recognition in both football and basketball. In baseball, he helped Muskegon win what was then considered the pinnacle of the sport – the Memorial Day tournament in Battle Creek.

Heavily recruited, he chose Michigan State over Notre Dame and in-state rival Michigan, coached by MHS alum Bennie Oosterbaan. As a Spartan, he led MSC to a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA as a senior. He was rewarded with All-America honors and finished fourth in the Heisman voting.

He also played baseball at State earning three letters as an infielder, and helped the Spartans advance to the semifinals of the College World Series in 1954.

Sadly, health issues prevented Earl from joining the Dolphins at the White House this past August when President Barack Obama honored the 1972 Miami squad for their incredible championship. The President did not forget Morrall.

“In 1972, these guys were a juggernaut,” recalled the President. “They had a grinding running game that wore opponents down. They became the first team ever with two 1,000-yard rushers. They had the league’s best offense. They had the league’s best defense. They posted three shutouts. They doubled the score of their opponents eight times. And they did most of it after their outstanding Pro Bowl starting quarterback, Bob Griese, broke his leg in Week 5. And that brought in backup Earl “Old Bones” Morrall -- who unfortunately couldn’t be here today. As one teammate later said, “Earl couldn’t run and he couldn’t throw.” But Earl could win, and that’s what he and the Dolphins did again and again and again.”

While Muskegon lost a son this past May, he will never be forgotten. Few Big Reds have had the spotlight shine on them as brightly as Morrall. On that stage, he always made us proud.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Michigan's National Champions

Only one school in Michigan can lay claim to a national high school football championship.    Of course, the honor is mythical, as it has not been proven through defined organized competition.  Like college football before the establishment of the Bowl Championship Series, (and one can strongly argue, even after the founding of the BCS), a national title has always been purely conjecture.
            The school? Despite leading the state in all-time football victories, it's not Muskegon High. Nor is it perennial gridiron powers, Farmington Hills Harrison, Birmingham Brother Rice, or Detroit Catholic Central.
            Surprising to most, it is Detroit Central.  The year?  1915.
Detroit Central High School.  Some will recognize the building, now known as "Old Main" on southwest corner of the intersection of Cass and Warren Ave, on the campus of Wayne State University.
            Actually, Detroit Central can claim the honor twice.  The 1904 team defeated Toledo (OH) Central 6 to 5 in what some historians consider the first-ever contest to determine a national high school championship.  However, skeptics will note that the opponent was from a short distance away, and that the next such contest was not played until 1908.  Because of this, most lists of national prep football champions begin in 1910.
           It is competitive human nature to want to know who is the “best.”  With the rapid rise in popularity of the high school football in the early 1900’s came the natural outgrowth of declaring championships.  Claims of county or regional titles grew to declarations of mythical state titles.  The next step, of course, was a national championship.
Like today, the pursuit of prep national honors was loosely based around an undefeated record in regular season competition in these early days.  However because of the abundance of teams claiming such honors, things began to change in 1910.
Oak Park (IL) High, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, earned a reputation as a national football power during this era.  Backed by a community interested in gaining national bragging rights, the team traveled from coast-to-coast in pursuit of this honor.  Under the guidance of coach Bob Zuppke, a former head coach at Muskegon, Oak Park traveled coast-to-coast to defend claims of national titles in 1910, 1911 and 1912. 
In 1912, Oak Park tutored Everett (MA) High School, a national powerhouse from the greater Boston area, in the open style of play ushered in by the integration of the forward pass in the game.  Zuppke’s squad won the contest 32-14, and the coach landed head coach duties at the University of Illinois shortly after the season.
            Everett rebounded with a national championship of their own in 1914, capping a perfect 13-0 record by defeating their Midwestern rivals from Oak Park, 80-0.  Coached by future Purdue University mentor Cleo O’Donnell, the squad did not allow a single point during the season, while racking up an incredible 600 points of their own.
            In Michigan, Detroit Central had earned a reputation as one of the top programs in the state.  Between 1903 and 1916, rather than face teams from the city, Central opted to play a schedule dominated by the best opposition from around the state and the Midwest.  Between 1910 and 1914, Central possessed three undefeated seasons and an outstanding 42-3-2 mark.
            The 1915 season was expected to be another strong one for the Blue and White.  Undefeated in 10 contests in 1914, the school returned a solid core of veterans.  However, the single question mark was the line.  Ward Culver, the team’s center and captain, was to lead an inexperienced group into battle. 
            That question was quickly put to rest as the team dispatched their first three opponents with ease.  Pontiac was soundly defeated in the opener, 68-0, followed by Toledo (OH) Waite, 89-0 and Grand Rapids Union, 81-0.  Week four brought Scott High, a perennial powerhouse from Toledo to town, but again Central rolled to a convincing victory.  A Thursday game with Detroit Northwestern was won 25-0.  Their next opponent, Ypsilanti, was expected to provide little opposition, and head coach Edbert Buss substituted the second-string early, in an attempt to preserve his starters for Central’s showdown with Muskegon the following week.  The strategy nearly backfired. Still, Central escaped with a 13-7.
            Entering the contest with an undefeated record, Muskegon certainly presented a threat to Central’s unblemished mark.  Muskegon had downed Central in both 1908 and 1912, and the pending challenge was taken very seriously by staff of the Blue and White.  Coach Buss enlisted assistance from a host of individuals, in preparation for the game, considered by the press as the battle that would determine ownership of the state’s interscholastic football crown. George C. Paterson, a Central alum and ex-University of Michigan football captain, George Lawton, a fullback at the University of Michigan in 1910, (later a renown prep referee and author of the Detroit Free Press All-State teams), and former Central head coach William Stocking were assembled to discuss strategy and assist with team practices.
Quarterback Oscar “Dutch” Hendrian, the team’s top player, plunged through center in the last minute of the first quarter to cap a 65-yard drive as the Blue and White opened up a 7-0 lead.  The game remained tight throughout the second and third quarters before the 5-foot-9 Hendrian broke loose for two more touchdowns.  Central scored three times in the final quarter to capture a convincing 28-0 win over their longtime rivals.
Saginaw was disposed of in fast fashion the following week and the team went about preparation for their match with Grand Rapids Central.  Meanwhile, Detroit Central’s athletic director began to inquire about post-season battles with other undefeated squads.
With a crushing 54-0 win over the “Furniture City” squad from Grand Rapids and in the regular season finale against Ann Arbor, the media pronounced Detroit Central as the rightful claimant to the mythical state title in the Wolverine state, and the chase for national recognition was on. 
“Central is mighty anxious to prove her right to that national title, too, and to that end is willing to meet anybody, anywhere and at any time,” it was noted in the Detroit Free Press.  “The Detroit school’s challenge includes the world and any public high school that cares to get a game will have no trouble whatever so long as reasonable financial arrangements can be made.”
The 1915 Detroit Central's team
            A game was scheduled with Oak Park to settle the championship of the middle western states.  Letters were sent to teams from New York, Ohio and to the reigning national champs from Everett in hopes of arranging a championship meeting, provided, of course, that Oak Park was defeated.
Everett officials discussed the idea and finally agreed to the game, scheduled for December 4 in Detroit.  Everett coach Cleo O’Donnell went about preparing his team for their season finale, to be played against Waltham, MA at Fenway Park in Boston.  A loss in the contest would cancel the trip west.
Coach Buss primed his squad for their Thanksgiving Day game with Oak Park’s team.
Although Central had to play most of the game without the services of Hendrian for the majority of the contest, Buss’ squad rolled to a 26-0 halftime lead and a convincing 39-7 win over the Illinois team.  With Hendrian tossed from the match for an alteration with an Oak Park player, the Blue and White relied on the running of Wayne Brenkert.  The fullback gained solid yardage behind the blocking of guard Don Straw and captain Culver, as well as on end sweeps to the delight of the crowd of 7,000 that packed Grindley field.
Central’s victory, combined with Everett’s 6-0 win over Waltham, set the stage for a December 4th showdown for the national championship.  
The 1915 squad from Everett, MA
The media frenzy began in earnest.  Ten days worth of coverage on the pending game could be found in newspapers across the state.  News of the contest attracted attention around the nation.  Detroit’s three daily papers, the Free Press, the Times and the News cranked out daily reports on game preparations, scouting reports, and Everett history and hype.  Photos of various members of the Everett team populated the sports sections. Rosters with heights and weights added additional fodder for consumption by the local sports fan.
            “The Everett-Central contest is the ‘talk of the town.’  Never has there been such enthusiasm evidenced over a football match as Saturday’s grappling on Navin field,” noted a Free Press article.  “Not even in the old U of M games with Carlisle and Illinois which were determined on the present site of Navin field was there such general intensity expressed as over the big schools clashing for the supremacy of the United States.”
The New England team’s strengths and weaknesses were prominently discussed. News came that coach O’Donnell, a graduate of Holy Cross, had molded a “veritable stonewall” on the line, led by captain Karl “Pike” Johnson, and that Everett had racked up 404 points in 11 victories, while allowing only 3. It was also noted that Everett would “letter” the players, rather than use the conventional identification of numbers on the backs of the jerseys.
            The press reports did not shake Coach Buss or the supporters of Central.  Rather, the team continued serious preparation, receiving assistance at their workouts from University of Michigan’s legendary mentor Fielding Yost and Detroit Tiger trainer Harry Tuthill, among others.  The general consensus was that this would be a tight ballgame matching two strong teams.
Everett Coach Cleo O'Donnell
            Back in Massachusetts, Coach O’Donnell gathered his squad for a final practice before boarding the train on Thursday for the trip to Detroit.  Special emphasis was placed on “polishing off the linemen and backfield players who executed their plays so crudely against Waltham.”  The team was released from school at 11:00 to allow them to “bid their parents goodbye, while the entire student body was allowed out at 1 o’clock, which gave those who wanted to watch the team depart for the west ample time to reach the South station.”  According to a Free Press headline, the Everett team left Boston “On ‘Jinx’ Track 13.
The elite of game officials, including the legendary University of Chicago all-American Walter Eckersall, who served at field judge, arrived at Navin Field.  At 2:15 under bright skies, a crowd of around 8,000 settled in for the showdown.  Although cold, ideal weather conditions prevailed, and with the field cleared of snow, the turf had softened under the bright sunshine.
The game turned into a defense struggle.  An early fumble by Central gave Everett an opportunity, but the visitors from the East were repelled at the Central 15 yard line.  On three separate occasions, Everett held Central within her ten-yard line.  Despite dominating the time of possession, Central could not score, and the game ended in a scoreless tie.  National honors were shared by the two schools.
At a post-game banquet, captain Culver presented the game ball to Everett’s captain, Pike Johnson, as a symbol and bond of friendship.  But the meeting was the last between the schools, and represented the last trip to a national title contest for both.  Only six more “National Championship Games”, the last in 1927.  The formation of statewide Athletic Associations and a general tightening of the regulations that governed prep sports helped curtail these contests staged primarily for bragging rights and the possibility of a large gate for the promoters of such events.
The reputations of at least a few members of the teams were enhanced by the contest and the surrounding media spotlight.   Following the season, O’Donnell, considered one of the finest prep coaches in the nation, was selected to lead Purdue University in the fall of 1916.  He would stay in that position for two seasons and later coach at Holy Cross and St Aneslm College in New Hampshire.  Buss made the jump to the college ranks at head coach at DePauw.  He would again square off against O’Donnell in a gridiron games against Purdue in both 1916 and 1917. 
Brenkert from Central continued his playing days in college at Washington and Jefferson, then for two seasons in the early days of the professional ranks with the Akron Pros, one of the founding members of the National Football League.  Teammate Oscar "Dutch" Hendrian followed Buss to DePauw before transfering to Princeton.  He also played in the early days of the NFL, and later moved to Hollywood, where he carved out a career playing small roles in over 100 films.  Fittingly, he played the roll of assistant coach Heartley “Hunk” Anderson in the 1940 release, Knute Rockne All-American starring Pat O’Brien and Ronald Reagan. 
Karl “Pike” Johnson attended Washington and Lee in Virginia then played professional ball, earning All-Pro honors as a tackle with Massillon in the Ohio Football League, a predecessor of the NFL. 

~ Ron Pesch

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Exile Years: Detroit's Public School League drops out of MHSAA competition.

Miraculously, Reggie Harding lived 30 years before a gunshot to the head cost him his life. An admitted drug addict, he had turned to crime to survive. But it's tough to disguise height, especially when many of your crimes are committed within a few city blocks from where you grew up and your abilities with a basketball are legendary.

At 6-foot-11½, Harding stood a full head taller than most of his high school opponents. Legendary Detroit Free Press sportswriter, Hal Schram, known as “The Swami” to his faithful readers, described him as the tallest schoolboy star in Michigan history. Blessed with exceptional mobility and of course height, Harding was a handful. A Parade first-team All-American in 1961, the senior hit on over 60 percent of his shots, averaging 31 points and 20 rebounds per contest. Between 1959 and 1961, he led Detroit Eastern (now Detroit Martin Luther King) to three-consecutive Detroit Public School League crowns. Harding and his teammates also rolled to three straight City Championships, downing the best of the Detroit Catholic League schools.

There are some that still believe he was the finest prep ball player ever turned out by the Motor City. A three-time all-stater, Harding was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Pistons and logged four seasons in the NBA. Yet, as a prep athlete, few basketball fans outside the Detroit area saw him play.

Eastern's victory over previously unbeaten Detroit Catholic Central in the 1961 City Championship game was perhaps Harding's finest moment. A crowd of 9,200 witnessed the event at University of Detroit Memorial. Scalpers were charging $3 for a .70 cent student ticket and $4 per $1.25 adult seat before Detroit police shut things down.

It was Harding's final prep contest and he turned in a stellar all-around performance, scoring 19 points and pulling down 21 rebounds - both game highs. The big center tallied eight of those points in the final three minutes of play to seal a 56-53 win for the Indians. But that was the end of the road for Eastern and their coach Bob Samaras. Beginning with the 1930-31 season, the PSL had chosen not to compete in the MHSAA sponsored state championship tournament. The victory meant Eastern finished the season with a perfect 14-0 mark.

The loss was Catholic Central's first and last on the year. The Shamrocks snaked through post-season play and eventually emerged as king of Class A by defeating Muskegon Heights in the state title game.
Like many athletes before him, Harding did not have the chance to showcase his talent before Michigan's outstate fans. Over the years that list grew to include a parade of high-caliber basketball players and coaches: Cass Tech's George Gatewood, Walt Godfrey, Don Coleman and Steve Jordan; Central's Bob McIntosh, Joe Bale, Sam Taub and Walter "Pinky" Thompson; Chadsey's Dickie Crenshaw and Marvin Mitchell; Eastern's Bob Melkush and Joe Altobelli; Hamtramck's Ken Burell; Highland Park's Walter Spreen; Mckenzie's Dick Hall; Northern's Chuck Holloway, and Blaine Denning; Northeastern's Jumpin' Johnny Kline, Raymond Lee, Ed Stewart and David Gaines; Northwestern's Charles Pink, Jim Boyce, Roosevelt Lee, Murphy Summers, and Charley North; Pershing's Arlie Clark, Wilbert King, Bennie Zenn and Lonnie Sanders; Southeastern's Don Lund, Al Marcangelo and coach Perry Deakin; Southwestern's Frank Sabo, Stan Lopata, Al Barnett and coach Lyle VanDeventer; University of Detroit High's Ken Prather; Western's Oliver Darden.

According to newspaper reports, the City League was formed in the early 1900's. Comprised of three teams in the beginning, it expanded rapidly as new high schools were built. Detroit's fast growing population guaranteed large enrollments and a fine selection of athletes.

That showed in the early years of competition, as schools from Michigan’s largest city claimed numerous mythical cage crowns. Based on their record, Detroit Eastern, for example, claimed a state title in 1910, then played in a national tournament held in Madison, Wisconsin. Detroit Central claimed a state title or finished as runner-up each year from 1906 to 1913. With the start of tournaments to determine a state champion, the city schools backed up their claims of superiority by appearing in 12 of the first 14 Class A state title games between 1917 and 1930.

The city league also excelled in other sports, winning six straight state titles in track and swimming, and four tennis crowns in six attempts and a golf crown

Many remember the departure as spurred by the onset of the Depression and the need to conserve resources. According to veteran Detroit Free Press sports writer George Puscus, there were other factors at play for the PSL.

"Well, part of it was the fact that the large schools from Detroit had dominated the state competition in the early tournaments and they had the idea they would win it all the time. The argument was why bother.”

Vaughn Blanchard, who served as director of health and physical education for the city league schools from 1929 to 1954, believed that there was an overemphasis on competitive athletics. He favored a withdrawal from outside competition and endorsed the development of a program of greater intraschool intramural activity. Frank Cody, superintendent of schools and the board of education agreed. In their mind, Detroit city schools offered a broad range of competitive athletics, including competition in sports not offered by many outstate schools. A self-imposed exile was instituted.

With the break from the state tourney, the PSL devised a four-team playoff to determine the winner of the league’s basketball title. In general, the structure of the tournament meant a team from the East Division and a team from the West Division would meet in the final. In the early years, the victor would take home the Charter House trophy sponsored by S. L. Bird and Sons, a local business.

In those early playoff years, Detroit Southeastern was one of the dominant schools on the basketball court.

"Back when I was there, the league had already stopped going to the state tournament. But as students, we really didn't think about it." recalled Don Lund, a three-sport star from 1939 to 1941 for the Jungaleers, and later a great athlete at the University of Michigan. "By the time I played, that's just the way it was. We were just trying to win the league championship."

"Southeastern had a strong basketball tradition, winning the PSL and the state title in '25 and '26. We played for the title three times when I went there. In 1939 we beat Northeastern. In 1940, we lost to Highland Park. In 1941 we beat Southwestern."

For the first time in league history, two East Side teams met in the league championship game in 1939. It was a classic double overtime affair.

Trailing Northeastern by five points, Southeastern knotted things up at 26 with 90 seconds remaining in regulation on a bucket by Lund. The sophomore hit another basket with seven seconds left to give his team the lead, but it was waved off because he was fouled before the shot. Instead, Lund sank a single free throw to push the Jungaleers ahead, 27-26. On the ensuing possession, Northeastern quickly pushed the ball upcourt. Forward Johnny Wiostowski was fouled as he setup for a shot. Following a timeout, he nailed the single charity toss to send the game to overtime.

Tied 30-30 at the end of the extra frame, the crowd of 5,000 at the Naval Armory roared their approval as the teams began the second three-minute overtime. Lund, who finished with a game-high 13 points, sank another free throw to open the scoring, however a bucket by Roy Gomillion gave the Falcons a 32-31 lead. With 50 seconds to play, Southeastern's Emil Hison, who had replaced All-City center Harvey Pierce, scored the game winner. Pierce had fouled out with four personals in the first overtime.

By the mid-forties, the balance of power had begun to shift. Detroit Miller became the city's newest high school, and was admitted to the prestigious PSL in 1933. Previously used as a junior high, today, it is recognized as the state's first predominately black high school. The team, under coach James Chapman, was battling for the league championship in the spring of 1935.

Coaching legend Will Robinson took over the reigns of the program in 1944. Under his guidance, the Trojans appeared in the PSL title game six consecutive years from 1946 to 1951, winning four titles in a row, 1947-1950. A host of great athletes, including Lorenzo Wright, Charlie Fonville, Bob "Showboat" Hall, Eugene Lipscomb, Jim Johnson, Robert Taylor, Charley Primus and Levi Davis helped to cement the school's reputation as a hotbed of athletic talent.

In 1946, Robinson and his previously unheralded Miller squad announced to the rest of the league that they were a force to be reckoned with in the future. Southwestern, making their seventh consecutive appearance in the league playoffs provided the opposition. Before a sellout crowd of 14,793 at Olympia Stadium, Al Barnett, the Prospectors’ 6-foot-7 center scored with five seconds left in overtime to clinch the title for Southwestern, 30-28.

Despite starting only one player that stood over six feet, Miller rolled to a 12-0 mark in 1947. Notorious for a tenacious full-court press, the Trojan's lineup of high school All-American Sammy Gee, Harold Blackwell, Clarence Norris, Frank Robinson and Gene Hamilton ranks among the state's finest. Miller dismantled Northern 52-21 for the league title, then defeated Detroit St. Joseph 37-34 in the first ever City Championship game.

"A crowd of over 16,000 watched us play in that one," remembered Robinson proudly. "It's still a record in Michigan for a high school basketball game."

In 1948, the UP rejoined the state tournament, but the PSL chose to forge ahead on their own.

"Back when I was coaching, George Mead headed up athletics in the Detroit Public Schools,” explained Will Robinson, an administrative assistant and longtime scout for the Detroit Pistons. “At the time I think he believed the schools in the PSL were too good for the rest of the competition around the state. He was right.”

Miller trounced Cooley 44-29 in the 1948 championship, but was forced to relinquish the title due to using an ineligible player. The player, a substitute, saw only a couple minutes of action in the contest.

"There is no question, Miller had some great teams," stated Puscus, who covered the PSL extensively after joining the staff of the Free Press following his discharge from the service in 1946. "I'm sure they could have won state titles if they had played in the tournaments."

The Trojans downed coach Eddie Powers and his Northern squad in another all-East final at Olympia Stadium in 1949. In 1950, they squared off against a rising power in Frank "Ace" Cudillo's Cass Tech team for the 1950 crown. Miller again emerged victorious for their fourth consecutive crown, but would fall to the Technicians in 1951. Cudillo's squad, featuring Gatewood and Godfrey, scored their 25th win in a row en route to the 1952 title.

In 1953, after a five-year layoff, the City Championship game pitting the PSL champion against the city’s Catholic League titlist was resumed. In 1955, a third prong was added to the path for recognition, as the 16-team Metropolitan tourney debuted. The series of games was perceived by some as poor substitutes for the state tournament. Add to the mix “The Swami’s” weekly ratings of the state’s top teams, and confusion reigned. Fans couldn’t help but wonder how the PSL, now numbering 20 teams, would do against outstate squads. Strong sentiment was building within the city limits for a return to state competition.

The mid-fifties saw the emergence of Detroit Northwestern as the dominating squad from the West Side. Between 1952 and 1961 the Colts, led by coach Ed Demerjian, challenged for the league crown on eight occasions, winning titles in 1954 and 1957. From 1959 to 1961, the focus was on Harding and Eastern.

By 1960, the debate on returning to the state had reached an apex. A 27-member Citizens Advisory Committee was assembled to debate the subject. In late April of 1961, the two-year study was brought to the Board of Education for a decision.

Despite opposition by Superintendent Samuel Brownell, and the Detroit Education Association, the board voted 4-3 to accept the recommendation of Citizens Advisory Committee to rejoin the rest of the state in tournament beginning in 1962.

"At one time, they may have been superior," said Puscus, reflecting on the board's action, "but when they returned I think they learned that the rest of the state knew how to play."

In that first basketball campaign, Northwestern, Eastern and Pershing all advanced to the quarterfinals. Pershing, now coached by Will Robinson and featuring Ted Sizemore and Mel Daniels, lost to eventual Class A titlist Saginaw in the semis.

"Looking back, I think we would have had reasonable chance against outstate schools," said Lund, contemplating the impossible. "But you have to be thankful for what you got."

~ Ron Pesch, MHSAA Historian

Besides those quoted, a number of other individuals helped immeasurably in the compilation of this article. Thanks to: Richard Cunningham; Jon Gallimore; Bill Hoover; Orlin Jones; Jim Moyes; Bob Sampson.

Check out Detroit PSL Basketball, put together by Bill Hoover, Lovelle Rivers, and Doug Hill, for much more on the Detroit Public School League.

This article originally appeared in the 1999 MHSAA Basketball Finals program.  Click here to see the original.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Let There Be Lights

The early years of high school football in Michigan had featured many exciting contests as teams pursued the state's mythical state championship. Huge crowds would gather for some of the state's top showdowns and regional rivalries.

From the beginnings of the sport in the late 1800's, prep football games were reliant on daylight. Due to this fact, games were traditionally played on Saturday afternoon. Thanksgiving Day contests were also popular. This remained true for larger schools throughout the 1920's.

However, the college game was growing in popularity. Schools like the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, with large new stadiums competed with high schools for fans. In addition, the depression years were hard on sporting event attendance at high schools across the state. School officials were faced with new challenges as crowds began to dwindle. School officials began to look for new ways to draw the people back to the prep game.

Beginning in the early 1930's, a number of high schools began to change their schedules, shifting their games to Friday afternoons. At parochial schools, Sunday afternoon contests were quite common. A handful of schools in the state began to install artificial lights. Slowly, high school games made the move to Friday nights. The novelty of football "under the floodlights" had the desired effect, as once again, large crowds gathered to watch their local squad compete.

The lighting of high school gridirons continues today, and with much the same controversies and successes. After a successful test with portable lights during the 1997 season, Dearborn community schools added permanent lights at Dearborn, Edsel Ford and Fordson in 1998. The schools joined the fray at a cost of more than $350,000. Livonia Franklin and the Grosse Pointe schools installed lights in 1997 amid pockets of resistance from various members of the community.

But who was the first high school to play under the lights? The answer to that question has been lost in time, but the pursuit of an answer continues.

The first baseball game under artificial light occurred on September 2, 1880 when two Boston area department stores, Jordan Marsh and R.H. White, squared off in a 16 - 16 tie in Hull MA, before 300 spectators. The event was sponsored by Boston's Northern Electric Light Company, with the goal of selling street lights. Thomas Edison had perfected William Wallace's prototype for an electric light only a year before. On September 28, 1892 in Mansfield, PA, Mansfield State Normal and Wyoming Seminary played to a 0-0 tie in the first football game under the lights.

The Des Moines, Iowa Demons of the now defunct Class A Western League became the first baseball team in America to host a game under permanent lights. They defeated the Wichita Aviators 13-6 on May 2, 1930.

For many in the Midwest, their first introduction to a game under the lights came courtesy of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Barnstorming throughout the area, the team carried a portable lighting system beginning in 1930. "People came from miles around to marvel at the electric curiosity," writes Janet Bruce in The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. "The team and the lights brought between three and twelve thousand spectators to every game."

A few months later in Michigan, the Vikings of Jackson High School hosted St. Johns High in one of the state's first gridiron contests under the lights. On Thursday, September 18, more then 1,000 fans showed up for the Vikings' team practice session and a final test of the 58,000 watt lighting equipment that had been installed at Withingham Stadium. The following night, approximately 4,500 attended as Jackson rolled to a 26-0 victory behind the running of Charlie Brown and Don Vaughn. The crowd was double that of the 1929 home opener.

A host of dignitaries, including mayor Milo Hulliberger, Superintendent of Schools, Harold Steele, and Ralph Carolyn of Consumers Power were on hand for the dedication ceremony. Harry Waha of the Junior Chamber of Commerce - the organization responsible for the purchase of the lights - was also in attendance.

The same evening in Lansing, the Big Reds of Lansing Central downed East Lansing 20-0 under 16 huge, newly installed floodlights at Pattengill field. An estimated crowd of 7,000 showed up for the town's first ever night contest. On Saturday night, Lansing Eastern and Albion battled to a 7-7 tie before approximately 5,000 in the city's second nocturnal game.

The success at the gate inspired others to pursue light for their fields. Benton Harbor, under new head coach Bill Moss launched the 1936 season under the lights before the largest opening game crowd on school record. A number of coaches from opposing squads paid a visit to Filstrup Field, both to scout the squad and to check out the floodlights.

Grand Rapids fired up the newly installed lights at Houseman Field on Friday, September 18, 1936 as the Detroit Lions played their annual Blue-White game, their final training contest of the pre-league season. The Lions, who had spent Thursday afternoon visiting with local students at the eight Grand Rapids area football fields, celebrated the end of camp before a crowd of over 5,000. The White squad, sparked by a 29-yard touchdown by Glenn Presnell, former All-American from Nebraska, defeated their teammates 7-0. A week later, Grand Rapids Central and Mt Pleasant faced off in the city's first ever night contest. The same night Godwin traveled to Lowell for another evening contest.

On October 9, Ann Arbor High School officials illuminated Wines Field for the first time, squaring off against Lincoln High of Ferndale. Comprised of 60 1,500-watt bulbs mounted on ten 52-foot poles surrounding the field, the system cost approximately $6,000. On hand for the event were Richard Remington, well-respected football official whose gridiron all-state selections for the Detroit News were considered the official squad in Michigan, L.L. Forsythe, principal at Ann Arbor High School, and Charles C. Forsythe, director of scholastic athletics in the state of Michigan.

The evening contest proved to be a real test for the equipment, as a fog settled over the field following a drizzling afternoon rain. The game ended in a 6-6 deadlock.

A report in the Ann Arbor Daily News stated that Remington felt "it was one of the most satisfactory lighting systems under which he had ever worked."

Charles Forsythe addressed the crowd over the public address system, and said the Ann Arbor system was "the best he had seen in the state." According to Forsythe, 13 fields in the state were now lighted: Albion; Ann Arbor; Coldwater; Detroit; Dowagiac; Grand Rapids; Iron Mountain; Ironwood; Jackson; Kalamazoo; Lansing; Lowell; and Monroe. Additional newspaper reports indicate that there were others. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, Niles and St. Joseph both had lighting plants in 1936.

The decision to add lights to an existing stadium was not always a popular decision. In 1937, Muskegon traveled to Benton Harbor for their first game under the lights. It was a huge event, as around 1,500 local fans made the trip to watch the contest.

"As I recall, the lights were too low," stated Rudy Kolenic, a halfback with the '37 Big Reds. "There was a lot of mist on the field, and it was hard to see. We called it the swamp land." Despite conditions that, according to Muskegon Chronicle sports editor Jimmy Henderson, were "far less effective for play than sunlight," Muskegon downed their Southwestern Conference rivals, 19-0.

Muskegon played their second night game in the fall of 1939 - again against the Tigers of Benton Harbor. Another large group followed the Big Reds south, and again, Muskegon emerged victorious.

The games had proven two things to the Muskegon officials. First - the Big Reds could still play football under what many considered inferior artificial light. Second - night football attracted people. The decision to light Muskegon's Hackley field was made.

Although located on the school's campus, the stadium is surrounded by many private homes. Fears about the effect on the surrounding neighborhood, worries about increased crime and the school's break with tradition were all cited as reasons not to light the field. The high cost of the job was also mentioned. The price was tagged at $4,000 - a huge sum of money in an era when adult tickets were 60 cents per game.

School officials went about the task of selling the project to a skeptical public. They circulated fliers to "Patrons of the Big Reds" requesting that 600 supporters of the project respond by purchasing season tickets in advance, at the reduced cost of $2.50 for five home contests. Four of the games were to be played at night. The fifth game, Muskegon's traditional season ending showdown with crosstown rival Muskegon Heights, remained on Saturday afternoon. The campaign was a success and lights were installed during the summer of 1940.

On September 20, 1940, a record season-opening crowd of 7,500 fans packed Hackley Stadium for the debut of Friday night football in Muskegon. The fans enjoyed a 22-0 Big Red victory over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The same evening, 5,000 turned out in Flint for Northern High School's 18-7 victory over Toledo Catholic Central played under the lights at Atwood Stadium. The Flint Journal reported that this was "the first nocturnal grid clash here since 1930 when General Motors Tech and St. Michael and St. Matthew made use of an earlier version of a lighting plant." The following night, 3,200 gathered for Flint Central's 33-12 win over Caro also played under the artificial illumination at Atwood.

The process of lighting gridirons continued throughout the forties and fifties. The majority of suburban schools erected in the late fifties and sixties included money in their budgets for halogen gridiron lights. First installed at a high school in the Cleveland, Ohio area, the produce case a stronger light, more closely replicating natural illumination. Today, prep football under Friday night lights is the norm rather than the exception.

The original version of this article appeared in the MHSAA's 1998 Football State Championships game-day program.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Classic Michigan High School Football Stadiums

Port Huron's Memorial Stadium

If you build it, will they come?

Both spectators and sportswriters at every level often romanticize the sports stadium. In Chicago, hope springs eternal for Cubs fans, as they reunite within the cozy confines of Wrigley Field. Red Wings faithful treasure winter nights at “the Joe” – the nickname for Joe Louis Arena located in downtown Detroit. Crazed University of Michigan fans and school officials, numbering 110,000 plus, celebrate being part of “the largest crowd attending a college football game in America,” at every home date at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Passionate battles were staged to save various sports cathedrals like Tiger Stadium and Chicago Stadium over the years.

At the high school level in Michigan, similar feelings permeate the air on Friday nights. From aluminum bleachers in a farmer’s field to brick-and-mortar architectural marvels in the city, the facilities come in all shapes and sizes. These athletic facilities are part of the pageantry that makes the prep game as thrilling as any professional or university athletic event. Memories are cast in these surroundings.

Owosso High School football stadium

Reinforced concrete stadiums from as early as the 1920’s, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects from the thirties and forties survive and thrive in Michigan. For many fans, these classic designs offer features not found in modern multi-use facilities. Arcades and covered passages created by the seating area provide unique opportunities, while design and architectural details inspire. Talk to a Muskegon High School aficionado about the band’s post game march through the “tunnel” following a home game at Hackley Stadium, or a Fordson follower about the old stadium in Dearborn. Quickly, you understand how the gridiron experience can differ. But what created the need for such memorials to athletic achievement?

Throughout the 1920’s the popularity of the gridiron grew exponentially. The rapid rise in interest was reflected throughout popular culture. Football was featured in magazines, in movies, and in song. Along with the popularity came larges masses of football fans.

At both the college and high school levels, contests against traditional opponents drew huge crowds. Athletic facilities were quickly becoming taxed by the demands of these large gatherings of humanity. Immediately, stadium fever had hit both college and high school campuses across the nation. New facilities were opened across the Midwest, including the horseshoe at Ohio State, Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois, and, of course, the Big House at Michigan – the largest football only facility in the nation.

At the prep level in Michigan, the first city to act on the need for a larger facility was Bay City. Attendance at the 1924 season-ending game between Bay City Central and Flint Central - the outcome of which determined the Saginaw Valley championship and the mythical state title - overwhelmed Bay City’s athletic field. Attendance was expected to reach 1,500 fans; instead an estimated crowd of 10,000 arrived.

“The crowd that turned out for that game is well remembered,” reported the Bay City Times Tribune one year later, “as is the trouble that was experienced in seating them. Thousands of people were discouraged over conditions – there was but one small bleacher for seating purposes and finally the crowd overflowed onto the field, making play difficult.”

As a result, a number of businessmen from the city took it upon themselves to plan construction of an athletic stadium to handle the growing crowds. Ten month’s later, they proudly unveiled the result of their efforts.

Funded by the sale of bonds to the public, the structure was erected during the summer of 1925 at a cost of $45,000. Featuring two stands of solid concrete with 16 rows of seats, the stadium could seat 7,100 fans. Access to the seating area was provided by entry ramps located under the stands. At the time, the capacity ranked third in the state, behind the facilities of the University of Michigan and at Michigan State.

“In the new stadium, Central high of Bay City can boast of the finest athletic plant possessed by any high school in the state of Michigan,” stated the Times Tribune, “and the fact that it was procured and built without a penny’s cost to the board of education or the taxpayers of the city, but entirely through the efforts of a small group of local business men, makes the gift to the school – for that is what it virtually amounts to – all the more appreciated.”

The was facility was opened to the public on Saturday, September 26, 1926 for a gridiron contest between Bay City Central and Detroit Western. A crowd of 3,000 gathered for the season opener, won by Central, 14-0.

Elaborate dedication ceremonies were planned for the Saginaw Arthur Hill contest late in the season. The only Valley opponent on the Central schedule, the contest was expected to draw a crowd of over 5,000. However, nature did not cooperate as heavy rains force cancellation of the event.

The ceremony was re-scheduled for Thanksgiving Day against Pontiac Central allowing many of the local businessmen who had helped with the planning, financing and creation of the stadium to attend the event. Stands were decorated in the school colors of Purple and White, and a large speaker system was erected on the site to allow fans to listen to the speeches of the guest of honor. The newspaper ran an aerial photograph of the contest - a real rarity during that era. Bay City emerged victorious, 13-0.

Over 75 years later, the results are still on display. Re-christened Elmer Engel Stadium, (in honor of school’s greatest head coach) on September 23, 1973, over a million dollars have flowed into repair, renovation, and restoration of the facility. The results are indeed impressive.

In Jackson, high school officials opened a new high school and athletic complex in the fall of 1927. Built at a cost of $100,000, Withington Stadium opened for gridiron use on September 24 as Jackson faced Hastings. Named in honor of the Withington family, descendants of Jackson's Civil War hero, William Herbert Withington and donors of the property upon which the facility is built, the facility utilizes a classic horseshoe design. Featuring locker rooms for players, a ticket window, and an arched main entrance, the stadium was said to have a seating capacity of 10,000.

Two weeks later in the dedication contest played on October 8, Jackson downed Detroit Central 43-7. Festivities were held before the game featuring a parade of dignitaries, led by the high school band sporting new uniforms. Snaking through the business district, the group marched to the high school and on to the field. A crowd of 6,500 who had gathered for the ceremony and contest greeted them upon their arrival. A souvenir game program, featuring pictures of former J.H.S. gridiron stars from years past was also produced to commemorate the event.

After numerous alterations and improvements spanning 75 years of use, Withington still plays host to classic contests. Lights were added in 1931, and after years of debate, Astro turf was installed in 1980 as part of a $2.5 million renovation. The refurbished facility was christened in early September with a game between Jackson Parkside and Portage Northern, and rededicated before 2,000 spectators in November of 1980. Again, a host of dignitaries and marching bands entertained those in attendance. Since that time, the site has hosted numerous MHSAA playoff contests.

The 1920’s represent a period of gridiron dominance for Muskegon High School. During the seven-year span 1920-26, Muskegon won or shared the mythical state championship four times. The success of the Big Reds, and the resulting demand for tickets brought to light the need for a new facility. It became apparent that the old wooden bleacher at Hackley Field needed attention.

"We walked out to the bleachers at the football field" recalled former Muskegon head coach C. Leo Redmond years later, "(the director of finances for athletics) pulled out his pocket knife. He then pushed the blade completely into one of the wooden beams supporting the bleachers. ‘Dry rot’ he said. They would fall down if they have to support another season.”

A plan to replace the bleachers was publicly announced following the 1926 season at the football team's annual banquet in December. Students from the classes of '27, '28, '29 and '30 were asked to undertake the job of selling the bonds to the public.

"Principal John Craig talked to us Thursday night after practice," remembered Gont Miller, captain of the 1929 Big Reds. He said, 'We're going to ask you to get out and sell some bonds.' People really supported Big Red football. We sold all the bonds, and they built the stadium. It was quite an experience for a kid."

The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio (builders of Michigan Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Notre Dame Stadium, among others) was employed to design and oversee the construction of the facility. Actual work started on June 15, 1927 and was completed in time for the first game against Muskegon Heights on Saturday, September 17. According to the files of Osborn Engineering, the concrete structure was completed in 24 days - July 20 to August 12.

"Impressive and colorful flag raising ceremonies marked the dedication of the new stands," stated the Muskegon Chronicle. "A massed assemblage of over 2,000 students who paraded on the field following the Heights and Muskegon High school bands, and close to 3,000 spectators in the stands stood at attention while the massed bands under the leadership of Ronald Hinchman played the national anthem, as the new flag was slowly raised to its position over the stadium."

The Big Reds posted a crushing 89-0 victory over the Heights. It was the first of nine shutouts posted by Muskegon en route to a 10-0 season and another mythical state title.

Hackley Stadium underwent massive renovations in the spring of 1996, Workers descended upon the facility and removed and replaced large timeworn sections of the concrete grandstand. With a host of improvements, the stadium sparkles like new.

On November 17, 1928, Muskegon shared in the opening of another grand structure – this one in Dearborn. Located on the north side of Fordson high school, the single concrete structure seated 5,000. Designed to mimic the high school’s English 16th Century Renaissance architecture, the stadium was a grand site. It featured an electric heat and lighting in the press box and outside telephone service. The arcade at street level, which included steam-heated locker rooms for both teams and space for concession sales, could be closed with iron gates at each arch. Muskegon picked up their 29th consecutive win in the contest by a score of 13-6, as more than 5,000 witnessed the event.
(Click here to watch newsreel coverage of the ceremony)

Sadly, the stadium was removed in the 1970’s due to its deteriorating condition.

Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck was the first WPA project (a massive employment relief program launched in the spring of 1935 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal) completed in the Detroit area. Named after Dr. Maurice R. Keyworth, longtime Superintendent of Schools in the Hamtramck district, construction began in May 1935, and was completed in time for the football season. FDR himself attended the gala dedication ceremony on October 15, 1936. Since that time, the facility has hosted a number of events, including a performance by the legendary comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on August 17, 1942. The show was staged for area residents who purchased at least $1 in bonds to support the World War II effort.
A renovation of the facility, including the installation of a new synthetic field was completed in 1999.

Wisner Stadium in Pontiac, Willman Field at Owosso and C.W. Post Field, dedicated in 1961, are other outstanding examples of the intimacy and beautiful setting created by some of these older facilities. Multi-purpose community fields, like Flint’s Atwood Stadium, built in the 1930s, Port Huron's Memorial Stadium and recently renovated Houseman Field in Grand Rapids have certainly hosted huge crowds and classic contests over the years. Recently constructed stadiums like Thirby Field in Traverse City, Rockford, and Lowell add luster to the array of facilities available in Michigan. Ford Field, the future home of the Detroit Lions, mixes the old with the new and will demonstrate the possibilities that the future holds for stadium design. Still, for many sports fans, there is nothing like a classic.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mythical State Champions in Football

The fun of mythical state championships is perfectly described in the phrase itself. They are mythical - existing in only the imagination. There was no series of playoff contests to determine rightful claim on the honor. There was no computer simulation that ranked teams based on strength of schedule. Instead, the titles were claimed based on swagger and sweat: by players who played the game; coaches who lead the teams into battle; administrators and townspeople looking for a little notoriety for the city, town or burg; press writers who compared the scores and final results against schools in the same classification, then pronounced a winner.

The news traveled by word of mouth, conversation, a phone call, letter, or via a well traveled copy of a newspaper. Claims to the crown were often made by schools on opposite coasts of the state. Seldom were the claimants able to square off in contest to narrow the field. Instead, the prize - bragging rights - was simply shared.

Or, subdivided...

Early on, it became obvious that the state's small schools could not compete with the juggernauts from the Michigan's biggest cities. Good old-fashioned American ingenuity quickly solved the problem. Claimants simply appended a little more descriptive text to the the phrase "Mythical State Champs".

I'm told East Grand Rapids claimed Michigan's "Class D" gridiron crown in 1926.

Richmond and Paw Paw battled to a 0-0 tie in their 1928 season finale, with each squad laying claim to Michigan's Class C mythical gridiron title.

Fortune Sullo's crack Class C squad from Michigan Center grabbed the 1936 title.

A banner at Bath High School proclaims their 1947 and 1948 Class D football teams as mythical state champs.

North Muskegon's teams from 1941 and 1942 are certainly strong contenders for Class C honors.
The North Muskegon football squads of 1941 and 1942 compiled a streak of 15 consecutive shutout victories, going undefeated, untied and unscored upon from the sixth game of the 1940 season through the fourth game of the 1942 schedule. No other Muskegon area prep grid team have gone through a single season of all shutout victories, let alone compile such a record over a two-year period.

Click on the image for a larger view

At Dearborn Fordson High School, a plaque on a school wall lists the 1930 team as "Class B Football Champions"

But the '30 season might also show Bessemer, Coldwater, Lowell, Ovid and Vicksburg as "Football Champions" as it appears each may have finished the year undefeated.

Some years back, I penned an article on Mythical State Titles that focused on Class A stake-holders in Michigan. Research was lacking beyond Class A.

Not much has changed in that area - so I post this entry.

I'm chasing names of other schools in Classes B, C and D that have laid claim on the crown to add to the schools listed above. My focus is primarily on the span 1950 and prior as I've assembled data from 1950 and beyond from Associated Press Polls.

I would, however, love to see what you have. Scans from scrapbooks, newspapers and yearbooks. Photos of banners, signs and plaques denoting a claim. I'd be thrilled to be able to compile a complete run of the final Free Press or News polls, as my collection is spotty at best.

Drop me a line at

I'd love to hear your stories!