Friday, Oct. 12, 2012
The start of a tradition
1951 Harrisonville football team began winning seasons
By Stephanie Yeagle
They all remember it was cold.
Twelve members of the 1951 Harrisonville football team gathered Oct. 6 at the Harrisonville Alternative School to reunite and share memories of their 10-0 undefeated season, capped by a victory at the Mineral Water Bowl.
The Mineral Water Bowl game, held at Excelsior Springs on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 1951, was the last bowl game ever played at the high school level in the state. The Mineral Water Bowl, started by the Excelsior Sprigns Quarterback Club, was played for only four years in high school. It is now a Division II bowl game for the MIAA Conference.
“I remember at the Mineral Water Bowl game, we went out there and it was wall to wall people on all sides of the field and it was cold as hell,” Gary Sivils, who played back in 1951 as a senior, said. “As the game went on...I forgot about it being cold.”
“I don’t remember too much of the game except it was awful cold and about the only thing I played was defense,” added Edwin McMillen, a junior in 1951, said. “We had a great time to be in a bowl game.”
The Wildcats were ahead 14-7 in the final minutes of the game when Higginsville scored a touchdown, making the score 14-13. But the Cornhuskers never got that extra point to tie up the game, as then-junior fullback Gene Roll broke through on the left side to block the ball and tackle the kicker. The Wildcats tried to run out the clock, but luckily, Higginsville’s field goal attempt in the final seconds went wide.
“I do remember a play where we were down on the 20-yard line,” Sivils said. “(Head coach Jay Anderson) called for one of those famous end sweeps. My job was to get out in front of Gene Roll and block. I got out and blocked my man and Gene had caugth up with me. I fell down with the guy I blocked and Gene jumped over us. It was a really good gain and got us down to the 5-yard line.”
Russell Oesch, a 1951 senior back, remembered the cold and a bootleg play that Higginsville ran in the third quarter.
“They caught everybody by surprise,” Oesch said. “Everybody was yelling and screaming.”
John Foster, a 1951 junior back, recalls things a little bit differently.
“We had two important jobs,” Foster said. “We had to keep the bench warm and keep the water can from freezing over.”
Foster also explained how much just going to the bowl game impacted their lives.
“There were several of us ag boys that were on the team that lived in housing that did not have indoor plumbing and didn’t have showers and they took us to a hotel,” he said. “There were some of us guys that had never seen anything like that before. They even had stools that flushed and hot water.”
The Wildcats stayed at the Oaks Hotel in Excelsior Springs and saw a movie starring Ava Gardner the night before the game.
The good ol’ days
Anderson only coached one year at Harrisonville, replacing beloved head coach Danny Bottero after his sudden retirement.
“Danny Bottero really built this team,” Marion “Shorty” Carlile, a senior right tackle in 1951, said. “...His wife could make good spaghetti. They would have a spaghetti dinner for us in their upstairs apartment. All of us big gooks would go up there and eat spaghetti. It was good. When Danny died, she called us and wanted us to be pallbearers.”
Bottero had to convince Carlile’s father to let him on the field, guaranteeing that Shorty would get all of his chores done, or the rest of the football team would come out and help.
“The first football game I ever saw, I played it,” Carlile said. “I had never seen the pads or seen a football game until the first one I played.”
Anderson wasn’t even left a play book, but he did have a roster full of talented football players. So, to help him get started, he called in Luke Scavuzzo to be his assistant coach.
Scavuzzo, a fresh graduate and football star at Missouri Valley College, accepted the job, one he didn’t get paid for.
“My brothers said that I spent more time on the football field than I did working,” Scavuzzo said. “...I really enjoyed it.”
Football was played a bit differently in 1951. Shoulder pads were smaller, there were no facemasks, and the Harrisonville team could only afford to buy plastic helmets for 15 players. The rest of the squad wore leather helmets.
“Probably the toughest people I ever played against was these guys sitting right here,” Oesch said. “At our scrimmages, they were brutal. The games were actually a lot easier.”
“The best thing about that team, in my opinion, was we were so good,” Jim Schleicher, a senior end in 1951, added. “And first string was really good, so that gave the rest of us a lot of time.”
The team was led by senior quarterback Dudley Childress and had other great players such as senior right end Carl Lathrop and senior left guard and kicker Jerry Crisp.
“What I remember about the team was that we had good running plays,” Jack Lyon, senior left tackle in 1951, said. “...We might run up 30 points in a quarter and then they would take us out and everybody got to play.”
Scavuzzo was just a bit older than the team he coached, so he helped guide the players.
“I was a pulling guard,” Don Foster, a junior right guard in 1951, said. “Luke Scavuzzo was the one who made it comfortable for me. I was a little bity guard and I pulled at the time and I had to get out of the way of all those big guys.”
But those 1951 players were tough and a lot bigger than they were listed on their roster. The heaviest guy listed was Carlile at 200 pounds, but, according to the players, coaches took off 20-30 pounds of each guy when he listed their names.
“I was more than that,” Carlile said. “There were several of us that weighed 210-215 pounds. Danny (Bottero) would always subtract about 20 pounds. We had linemen that we put in on defense that would average 210 pounds.”
McMillen was one of the biggest players on the team, and John had an up-close experience with Mac in practice that he will never forget.
John said that McMillen was always begging Anderson to let him practice kicking off the ball. So finally, in the last scrimmage they had, McMillen got to kickoff the ball.
“He kicked that thing about a half mile high and I saw that thing was coming to me and so was he,” John said. “It was not a good situation...I caught the ball and fell to the ground and Mac hurdled me. Just as he hurdled me, I raised my little patootie up and caught his back foot and he spread-eagled out. When he got up, the only thing he had around his neck was his jersey and his T-shirt, all rolled up. His chest was hamburger red and he never did ask to kickoff again. I thought I was going to be killed.”
The Wildcats were also amazing athletes and good at other sports such as track and field and basketball.
Robin Wright, the 1951 junior left halfback, recalled how he and two of his teammates were the top three shot putters in the state, all able to throw the shot put over 50 feet.
“We went to the state indoor track meet and Robin ad never even held a pole vault in his hands,” Sivils said. “As the day went on, he was watching the guys pole vault. He said he wanted to try out the pole vault and asked if it was too late for him to enter. He won second place in state that day.”
But the violence of the sport had an impact on the players, such as Roll, who couldn’t attend the reunion due to health concerns. He did write a letter to his former teammates and assistant coach.
“...Football has been an integral part of my life with many remarkable experiences along the way, including playing for Harrisonville, University of Missouri and the United States Marine Corp where I have made many life-long friends,” Roll wrote. “It has sometimes been difficult to get over the bumps and bruises that I’ve incurred, such as knee replacement, hip replacement, shoulder surgery and back surgery, which keeps me from attending today.”
Impact on the future
There have been many great Harrisonville football teams, but the 1951 team was most definitely the first earn that mark.
And the members were not only good players, but turned out to have an impact on the world around them, starting with helping build the football field that the current Wildcat team plays on.
Memorial Stadium was graded by Oesch’s father in 1949 and Roll’s father poured out the molds for the bleachers in 1950.
“Some of us here did that the hard way,” John remembered. “They had an old portable mixer, with rock and sand and you poured the cement in.”
Memorial Stadium, named for the Cass County soldiers that lost their lives in World War II, was rededicated and remodeled in 2003, adding aluminum bleachers to replace the old concrete ones.
The players not only helped build the stadium, but they were also all soldiers themselves.
“One thing you have to remember about our age group, was that when Eisenhower became president, he wanted more boots on the ground, so he formed the active army reserve,” John said. “...Every one of us had some type of military obligation, unless we couldn’t pass the physical. In most cases, you could be flat-footed with lots of things wrong and they would still take you.”
John Foster and McMillen served together in the army reserves.
“Mac ended up being my tank driver, if you can believe that,” John said. “We had to butter him up to get him down the hatch.”
Carlile, who was recruited by the University of Missouri, didn’t get the chance to play for the Tigers.
“As soon as my older brother came home, they drafted me,” Carlile said. “At the time, they wouldn’t let two boys out of the same family serve at the same time. I spent a year in Ft. Riley, Kan., but I played football for the Army while I was out there.”
Five of the players have been inducted into the Harrisonville High School Distinguished Alumni Wall of Fame, John Foster, Roll, Childress, Ed Hartzler and Scavuzzo.
Childress is one of the foremost leaders of prosthetics in the country. He developed and sponsored 25 doctorate candidates at Northwestern University and spoke all over the world.
“I am fortunate to have teammates at several different levels and I never knew a bunch of better guys,” Wright said.
“It was an honor to play with all of these guys,” Sivils added. “I came from Rich Hill, a team that had a losing era and attitude. The attitude of these guys was we don’t lose. And man for man, all 45 of them, there wasn’t an ego on any of them. It was a real team.”
Scavuzzo agreed, saying that that 1951 season had nothing to do with the coaches, but with the determination and greatness of the players.
“1951 was the best team we ever had,” Scavuzzo said. “...It was my privilege to coach them. It was a great team.”