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The High Water Mark; "My First Million" Part 5
October 22, 2010 - Charlie Landis
Harrisburg and Dubois: The High Water Mark
We came home for a two week home stand for two big games illustrating the range in the type of teams that we would play in 1977. If you had been reading the sports section in the Grit, you noticed a cartoon of a battered football player bandaged and seeing stars; each week with recent opponents lying on the ground and a comment that said or meant to say “still standing”. Many folks thought these games would be the end of that cartoon. There was the obvious fact that both teams were more talented, bigger, faster, and tougher. Both games were events in town.
The Harrisburg game was the Fez Bowl, hosted by the local Shriners, during our first week back in town, and the Dubois game was our Homecoming game. Attendance was going to be up and for the first time in many years we had a winning record. The Harrisburg game was as much fun as you can have as a participant in violence. I went to the away Harrisburg game in 1974 with the Mextorf family and saw what it meant to play in a tense environment. On the Cougars side of the field, they hung a long, multi-colored banner on the chain linked fence between the bench and the bleachers that read “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” These games through my time at WAHS brought out the trash talking and psychological warfare more than any other games. By the time they played us in 1977, they had assumed that nothing could be more embarrassing than to lose to us. Even the Shriners didn’t respect us much, choosing to add only one picture of the Harrisburg Cougar Marching band along with the two rosters in the program. But our record surprised the Cougars and so they turned up the heat the minute they got off the bus. This game belonged to the participants who were seemingly confined by a fence along the perimeter of the field, almost like a cage match in professional wrestling. It was fun.
But everything was working against them on October 8, 1977. It was raining. The field conditions were soggy, the worst of the season at home. They played the wrong quarterback. The Cougars had all the wrong players on the field except for their talented running back. Their coach quickly became nearly one dimensional after seeing that the pass was not going to be a viable option for them.
They were thin-skinned to any amount of trash talk, and became easily distracted if you challenged their manhood. They acted surprised if we started anything and if we gave it back to them, especially if those sneaky Millionaires could add to the misery. On one recovery, I feigned a spike of the ball to the great howls of social injustice creating at least some doubt that the rules were not going to be applied fairly. It was just all too much fun.
But we fumbled and they rumbled in for a score. We followed-up later with our own TD putting the game at a 7-7 tie. Then, the curtain came-up on Tim Shelb. Being on the field when a teammate plays his best game of the season is quite a thrill. The second half against Harrisburg saw Tim play the best of any individual all season. We all played well that night but Tim played better than he ever had played before. Their coach thought he could run against my six foot, one hundred sixty pound running mate at linebacker.
Yeah, ouch, not so much.
At least two times when the Cougars were looking to get something going on offense, he made drive killing tackles for losses that left the Cougar linemen looking at each other wondering what happened. Tim had the instinctive skill of exploding through his torso at the moment of impact, and well, their coach learned through direct experience how well the idea of running at Tim worked. He was named MVP of the game with his picture in the paper and a license to give me a week’s worth of grief about the whole deal.
The game ended in a tie, but they were never going to score any more that night.
We played a bunch of exciting games in 1977. The Altoona game was the most exciting game for me due to the thrill of reversing the fortunes of our team in the manner we did. The Wyoming Valley West game was the most important game. That game was just thrilling to watch. As a defensive player, we were playing one game almost in parallel to what was happening on offense and special teams. The State College and Lock Haven games were pressure-packed with very high stakes. The Dubois game was one of the most exciting games of the season culminating with great drama in the fourth quarter.
It seems the DuBois game still has special meaning to our coaches, not the least of whom, Coach Bill Olson. To this day, he will tell you about a play in the fourth quarter that he claims was all about him persuading Coach to call. All I know is that there was very little that happened in 1977 that was not a decision by Tim Montgomery so you will have to check with them to correct my accounting of the events. Coach Olson was many things to his position players. Energetic, articulate in the voice of football, knowledgeable, and most notably capable of educating not only at the black board but at the point where that information needed to be scaled to the field, Coach Olson was a wonderful high school football coach. Although he was never a coach of mine, he was loud enough on the practice field to seep into all of our minds. My first use of the term succulent came from Coach Olson not in the description of the poison ivy that rimmed the practice field, but to describe an average effort and result of a player requiring confidence in his abilities. Instilling confidence in the defensive backs of my time was Coach Olson’s unrecognized talent delivering him loyalty, trust and commitment from a diverse group of players. Coach remained on Tim’s staff throughout his tenure so it seems Tim knew an asset when he saw one.
His players also reveled in their own subculture on the team. While all of them were students of their responsibilities, hard hitters and fundamentally sound, they were able to maintain a dual existence on an otherwise blue collar defense. Coach Olson was able to teach a brutal game of football to them while creating an aura that the hard work which dirtied uniforms will be done by the crass and crude Landis and Shelb. Shelb and I had longer hair and were irreverent enough to fall well below the minimum requirements of social acceptance to qualify for the higher learning of secondary play. His players poured water on their heads and combed their hair like James Dean before games. They treated their game uniforms like tuxedos making sure the shirts were properly tucked-in and that their belt buckle aligned perfectly with their chin with the goal of perfect symmetry.
I can’t imagine what he thought of Coach Kriner’s defensive linemen.
But thank God the barbarians brought their mouthpieces to the Dubois game, the team needed us.
The Dubois game was one of the biggest games of the year showcasing the range of teams the Millionaires played in that era. Dubois was our longest road trip during away years amounting to a Nebraska-Penn State game to our working class fans when the price of gas was figured into the equation. So even as a sophomore in 1975, it felt like an unusually big deal to have this team make the journey to Billtown to play us. Adding to the intrigue of the game, Dubois was a unique if not peculiar team. Dubois exaggerated the least about the height and weight of the players. To add height and weight would have made them appear as a circus freak show. The team was big and in 1977 had a separate personality for both the offense and the defense. On offense they were a snow plough with a darting tailback named Jeff Heath. This lad ran wild on us that night accumulating over 150 yards on the ground. Only after the game could a fan realize that it was more about Heath than the snow plough, as the rushing yardage for the rest of the team was essentially nil.
On defense, they had three different lines of defenders. The defensive line was like five large dog houses with four or five fifty pound bags of sand thrown in each one in order to make them immovable at the snap of the ball. The secondary was composed of guys whose mothers obviously missed the weekly potato sales limiting the critical mass their coaches required to play what must have been the glamorous position of defensive line. But then, there were the two linebackers. In 1977, they were brutes. One lad was well over two hundred pounds, in the 220 lb range, the other lad ate nails and weighed about 200lbs. These boys ran well and delivered blows upon arrival. They outweighed our guards that night by a minimum of thirty pounds. Lovely.
The halftime score was tied 7-7. We scored our touchdown on a deflected pass caught by Matt Brennan whose high stepping jaunt is still vivid on the film. Meanwhile, Heath ran wild using all the Billtown pasture he wanted, learning that he could not outrun Victor Wise and his three running mates in the secondary. When Heath ran the ball, our defense deployed a smash and save strategy with the front seven getting smashed and the secondary making touchdown saving tackles. But when Heath wasn’t running the ball, it was a different story. Coach Mayer used the full inventory of sets from putting Shelb and me on the outside with inside stunts, to the standard inside stacks and stunts that did keep them off-balance enough to basically make the mighty Beaver offense much like a downhill skier who falls on his butt when he hits an artesian water spring barren of snow.
But the third quarter started out as all snow plough. The Beavers marched down the field like Patton took back Europe. They missed the extra point. We hadn’t been manhandled like that yet in the season, so all of us were checking our parts and our hearts as we walked off the field for their kick-off. Our heads were hanging after the missed extra point, and during the film review the following Monday, Tim made the point to remind us. That would become the difference in the game.
The game became “the beatings will continue until the morale improves” which meant well into the fourth quarter with score remaining 13-7.
But then the tricky Tim Montgomery took over. Yes that Tim Montgomery, the unexpected guest at the dinner table released from the witness protection program in the 28th quarter of his first season. Although we scored on a tipped pass, Tim remained committed to the run despite its limited results. Earlier he ran Carl Braggs directly into the same aforementioned stud Beaver linebacker twice in a row, in both cases for no gain or a small loss. By the time he called “17 Quickie” in the fourth quarter, everyone in the stadium was expecting us to run within the wingspan of Tom Mextorf, our center. But of course, none of us among the uninitiated had experienced the trickeration of Tim Montgomery, or perhaps Coach Olson.
The play “17 Quickie” is again vintage Tim. Our fastest guy on offense was going to take a pitch maybe six feet to the right of where all of our other running backs had been crushed all night, and after reading a block by our stud right tackle, Robbie Williams, he was to run as if he would never be tackled. Those six feet covered all the ground between a predictable offense and letting it rip in 1977.
And it happened that way. Cipriani made the pitch, Williams and the line made their blocks, and Tony DiSalvo put ten farmers in his rear view mirror faster than crap off a high cow’s butt. The Millionaire faithful simultaneously exploded from their seats causing the field to subduct under the home field side and Tony to lean into the pursuit of the lone Beaver running towards him in a state of shock that one of our running backs had made it into their secondary. The leaning tower of Pisa collided with Big Bird inside the red zone for what was one of the biggest plays of the season. Zippies, trickeration, execution and exhilaration, it was all that. Our line was as excited as five prom dates and we scored our second touchdown. Our kicker Bob Lundy, who had the lowest body to football mass ratio of any player on the field that night, made the extra point. The new mighty Millionaires are in the lead 14-13 with the clock now against Goliath from Dubois.
With the big run setting up the touchdown, Tony DiSalvo had made his second big play of the season, again in one of our biggest games. Tony arrived as a sophomore known to be fast. He was fast at Stevens. He loved being fast. He loved to talk about being fast, not so much him as much as other fast guys. Tony still runs today, where I only run if time is tight during a commercial in a Penn State game. Speed, even to this day, is the one talent that in and of itself is supposed to guarantee excellence. Strength alone doesn’t do it, smarts alone helps but Harvard never plays for the national title, size is important but not primary. Unfortunately, speed is also the amphetamine for optimism among players, coaches and fans alike. Fast guys arrive carrying the burden that they are the first and farthest to fall if they can’t capitalize on their speed to become good football players. It was nice to see Tim find a way to utilize Tony to position us to win games.
This game wasn’t in the bag by a long shot but the clock was against Dubois. The mighty Beavers took the kick-off and promptly knocked the wind out of me early in the drive with the ball in their territory. By the time Tim and I negotiated my return to the field – Landis, you ready? Yes coach. Get in there – they had moved over thirty yards into our territory. It felt ominous.
What followed was another great few minutes of Pennsylvania high school football. I ran to the huddle and witnessed the only moment of chaos I saw from my teammates all season. Two or three guys were asking “where is Charlie?” another four or five guys are trying to reassure each other and Shelb is trying to get the huddle set to take the call from the sideline. It was a mess. But three plays later, it was fourth and ball game.
Their coach had watched their running back run all over us all night behind their huge line. This stampede had started from either an I-formation or split backfield. The other running backs were not factors in the game. The coach had witnessed us habitually setting our defense to the strength of their offense almost always to the side of the tight end. The distance to make was about a yard too far for a quarterback sneak. So who do you think was going to get the ball?
Well, the running back with over 150 yards was going to get the ball. In a decision never defended on C-SPAN as wise, their coach deviated from success and positioned this kid as a slot to my side of the field. Then either the coach or the QB decided on a long snap count giving me enough time to call the defense and hopefully a blitz to their star’s side of the field taking half of the pursuit away from their slot reverse. The count was so long it seemed their coach wanted the extra seconds to admire his genius. They were messing with a future Ph.D. and a coach Mayer disciple, so it was a fool’s spectacle. We called a blitz but I disregarded the plan and shot through the first gap on the wide side of the field right into their reverse. I joined two more teammates and “Down goes Frazier”, I mean Heath. The offense took the field on downs and chewed enough time to reveal the state of their passing game in the final few seconds of the game.
The next thing I knew, Al Twine and I were running off the field among a bunch of big guys with their hands on their hips waiting for someone to add a field goal to their score. You spend weeks in the heat for those few minutes of achievement but it is all worth it. In our locker room, the coaches are separated from the players in their own office behind closed doors. In that setting, the coaches and players enjoy separate celebrations and recollections of the game. That night, I would have given anything to have heard what they had to say because none of them acted as if they knew it all along.
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Just a few of us who were waiting on the hill for the Cougars that night