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May 12, 2011

Friday Night Lights


Our Memorable 1965 Season
John Gunyou I recently ran across a dog-eared season schedule, on which I had chronicled the game scores of our memorable 1965 football season. That find triggered some equally faded flashbacks, which I thought might be of interest for the Celina Senior High archives. The television series Friday Night Lights pretty much captures what Celina football was all about during the 1960s. Like basketball in Indiana, football was king in Ohio. Every baby boy in Massillon and Canton received a football at birth. The Columbus Horseshoe was as revered as any other religious shrine. Wood cutouts of Celina Bulldog mascots adorned our lawns, and our weekly schedules revolved around the Friday night games. Football defined our lives. Our class had played together all through our junior high, freshman, sophomore and junior years, with only a select few of us called up to the varsity squad. Most of us were relegated to the junior varsity and practice squads, where we were manhandled by the starters as we acted out the roles of their opponents of the week. We also populated the special team suicide squads, which typically translated into a couple minutes of playing time in the Friday night varsity games just enough time to get one knee grass stained. Friday game days were the payoff for all the grueling practices. All of us on the team wore identical black blazers adorned with a snarling bulldog crest, thin ties and gray flannel slacks - a touch of prep school in the corn belt. Cheerleaders wore their uniforms, and the school day was capped off with a pep rally where we were the featured attraction. My mother would dutifully prepare the prescribed training meal, which for me consisted of a steak, dry baked potato and unsweetened iced tea. Dairy products were apparently not compatible with unarmed combat. My buddies and fellow scrubs Chuck Gallman, Mark Green, Steve Davis and Jerry Loughridge would usually gather in my basement on Maple Street before the varsity games. Facing no real pressure to put on game faces, wed play ping pong and horse around before suiting up to ride the bench. We once spiked Jerrys apple cider with whisky from my parents liquor cabinet, but Im not sure he ever noticed. There was little consequence for those of us with so little chance of playing under the Friday night lights. But that was then. We were now the seniors of the team, and were starting our 1965 season with something to prove, on the heels of a 6-4 previous season and third-place finish in the Western Buckeye League (WBL).
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Only three starters returned, including quarterback Dick Quilling, who I always suspected served as inspiration for the Chip Hilton sports book series I collected as a boy. You know, those stories of the young lad who worked at the local drug store to help support his single mother, while still managing to pull down straight As and star in every sport imaginable. Dick was a friend and all-around great guy, the kind of natural leader who always did the right thing, and inspired you to live beyond your own limited abilities. He was the consummate team athlete, who was as unselfish on the field as he was in life. Hes the guy you elected as class president, and didnt really mind that he dated the captain of the cheerleading squad. Jim Otis literally grew up in the shadow of Woody Hayes, the legendary OSU coach he would soon play for, on his way to being recognized as a consensus first team All-American and NFL rushing leader for the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Cardinals. He didnt have Dicks innate athletic prowess, but Ive never known a guy as determined to reach his dreams. Coach Norm Decker got him there. Otis inherited his gymnastic abilities from his mother, and in those pre-steroid days, that made a modest sized running back like him tough to knock off his feet. But, it was Stormin Norman Decker who once benched Otis for fumbling too much, and told him that if he wanted to play, it would be as a blocker. Otis accepted the challenge, and when our starting fullback was injured, he went on to set the school rushing record in only half a season. For the rest of his high school, college and NFL careers, Otis would be known for his ball control and abilities as a blocking back. He had Coach Decker to thank for that. Tom Muter was a Montezuma Muskrat who played both ways at tackle, and was the anchor of our innovative offense, which was a precursor to the wishbone and triple option. Catching his breath in the huddle, Moose Muter always stood slightly stooped with one hand on his thigh pad, the other wiping off his steamed-over sports glasses behind the cage framing his helmet. That sight always grounded me as I brought the play in from the bench and took my place beside him as a dumb guard, which Coach Decker usually called us linemen. I was certainly not among the stars of that magical season, and felt myself very fortunate just to have the opportunity to contribute. At our annual awards banquet, Coach Decker introduced me as his best utility infielder, which I guess helped explain why he variously started me at guard, center and linebacker throughout the season. I also liked to think he trusted me to accurately remember the play he called when I relayed it to the huddle. Coach Decker was one of those enigmatic characters who pass through your life and have a profound impact, usually before you even knew the meaning of the word. He was so steeped in football tradition, that he named his two sons after SMU All-Americans Doak Walker and Kyle Rote. One day he would be grabbing your face mask to berate you about missing a blocking assignment, and the next day he would be publicly praising your performance - both on and off the field. There was never any question about whether he cared.
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On the one hand, Coach Decker was a Neanderthal who used crude analogies to stress football fundamentals. On the other, he was a role model of what it means to be a member of a team. His policy was simple: if you were willing to stick out the two-a-day hot and muggy August practices on a dusty hardscrabble practice field, you made the team. No one was cut. Everyone dressed for the games, and everyone wore the same uniform. On game days, everyone wore the same blazer and slacks, and if you couldnt afford it, he found some way to pay for it. There were no second class-citizens in Norm Deckers world. When you were a senior, you rode on the first bus. It didnt matter if you were a starter or a scrub. If you stuck it out for four years, you made the A list. Coach Decker knew that feeling special lived in the details: new jerseys for the first game of the season, freshly painted helmets every week, state-of-the-art equipment that no doubt broke the athletic department budget, but he felt essential for the safety of his boys. During the summer, he was the unofficial stadium groundskeeper, and the lush field he groomed carpeted our weekly endorphin rush as we ran out of the locker rooms and into the roar of the crowd under those Friday night lights. Norm Decker was larger than any life we had known, and he made you proud to be a part of it all. As so with many of my teammates, he and Celina Football gave me a pride of quiet confidence that I would carry throughout my life. No other person had as much bearing on my success in meeting the challenges of my arduous first year at the Air Force Academy. He developed in me the assurance that I had the ability to rise to any challenge, and most of all, that the reward would be worth the struggle. As it so happened, our 1965 season would test that resolve, and those three months would forever define the rest of our lives. We started strongly by beating Defiance 22-8, with Quilling and Otis compiling impressive stats behind tackles Muter and fellow Montezumian Larry Klosterman. Jerry Loughridge and Junior Bob Schelick had great games as defensive backs. My childhood friend and deep back Chuck Gallman had been sidelined for the season with a broken tibia. That meant I had to drive him on double dates so he could prop his full-length leg cast over the bench seat. It made going to drive-ins a real challenge. You pretty much know how the game is going to go after the first couple of series - how easy its going to be to block the guy across from you, how predictable their offense is going to be. I was the smallest starter on the team, even with a program listing that added ten phantom pounds, and despite my nightly milkshakes laced with raw eggs. That meant I needed to rely on quickness off the line. Well, that and some pretty exceptional teammates, like the two guards I alternated with, Juniors Jim Dock and Stan Gage. It was actually pretty easy to block for the Big O, because all he needed was the first pop. If I could beat the much larger lummox across from me to the punch, it was enough to spring Otis, and he would do the rest. Decker used to say we linemen were responsible for the first two yards, and Otis had to get the rest. That he did.
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Before the inaugural game of our 1965 season, Decker gave one of his memorable Knute Rockne locker room speeches that had us all ready to run through brick walls. I remember it had something to do with a Rudy-like defensive player with more heart than size, yelling at the other teams offense to, send him at me! There was also some allusion to him going off to war, and his sergeant not being able to hold him back from charging the enemy. I was standing next to defensive center Joe Mayes, and we charged out onto the field screaming wildly, which Im sure Decker took credit for. In truth, it had more to do with the fact that we had both forgotten to shave our ankles before they were taped to prevent strains, so each step was like slowly pulling off a Band-Aid that covered most of your lower leg. Im pretty sure none of that hair ever grew back. Parkway was our home opener, and we swamped them 42-0. I started at center, replacing Bill Mustard, and Im sure it was a handicap for quarterback Dick Quilling to bend over so much lower to get the snap from me. Bill was a lot broader in the beam. Mel Steinbrunner replaced injured Junior Carl Furwerk at defensive end on the Green Raiders defense, which was coached by Tom Hogrefe an imposing man indistinguishable from Dolph Lundgren, Rocky Balboas bionic nemesis. Except that Hogrefe wasnt quietly menacing; he tended to scream and wave his arms a lot. I didnt know it at the time, but the Parkway cheerleading squad included Kathy Arnold, the girl who would eventually become my wife and mother of my two children. I would later inherit three more preteens with my sweet wife Kim, and four of my combined brood were girls who grew up benefiting from Title IX. But in those Paleolithic days, cheerleading was about as close as girls were allowed to get to any actual sporting activity. We boys were limited to one sport each season in the fall and winter football and basketball. Spring brought baseball, tennis, golf and track, which Coach Decker ran as a conditioning program for football. To escape the extended football training cycle, my best friend Mark Green and I played doubles tennis, albeit pretty badly. Suffice it to say, we had a more relaxed approach to the game than others. During one tournament at the Lima Country Club, the loudspeaker announced, Would the gentlemen on Court 10 please replace their shirts. Mark and I had decided to catch some rays, and that was apparently frowned upon. We had another impressive win in our next game at Greenville, with the 40-6 score nearly the reverse of the previous year. Otis scored three times, Tom Loughridge, Jerrys twin brother, scored twice and Quilling added another. With our opening wins, talk began about how good the team might be, but our real tests were yet to come.

It seemed we had not beaten Lima Shawnee in my lifetime, but it was more like a dozen years, which included a 22-0 drubbing the year before. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon in math teacher and line coach Les Bowser. He was an exceptional scout, and was dispatched to ferret out the secrets of our opponents each week. Like tells in poker, Coach Bowser would prime us for what to expect: when to widen our splits between linemen to better block their star linebacker; what plays our opponents were likely to run when their right guard leaned a certain way. It was like having the answer sheet before the exam. His reconnaissance skills also continued during the games. From his vantage in the new press box that Decker had somehow managed to fund, Bowser would chart the first half, and outline our necessary adjustments at halftime. Coach Decker was the motivator, Hogrefe was the intimidator, and Bowser was the recon man. It also helped that our hometown crowd was over the top with school spirit for the game. Their shouts of, Beat Shawnee! Beat Shawnee! started sometime around midweek, and didnt abate until after the game, which we won convincingly in a 26-0 shutout. It was a game in which we made our own breaks, capitalizing on three fumbles, one of which resulted in a touchdown in the first four minutes of play. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to recover a fumbled punt. But, the real star of the game was the Green Raider defense, which booked its second shutout of the year, holding our cake-eating nemesis to 80 yards rushing and half as many passing. Linebacker Bill Youngs was a standout, as were deep backs Don Reasoner and Junior Bob Schelich. I also remember Juniors Steve Harter, Dan McKirnan and Carl Fuhrwerk as being particularly impenetrable that night. Nearing the seasons midpoint, and feeling a little too overconfident, we nearly stumbled at Wapakoneta, home of astronaut Neil Armstrong. The following spring, and years before sanctioned Senior Skip Days, a bunch of us ditched school to attend his homecoming parade, four years before he would take that one small step for mankind on the moon. When our classmates headed for the bars, fellow coconspirators Denny Anderson, Pam Hoffman, Becky Crumrine and I convinced the security guards to let us into Armstrongs lunch reception by claiming we were reporters for our school newspaper. We got his autograph, had a nice chat with his wife and made the TV news. Ironically, my graduation class prophecy predicted I would be the first man on the moon. One degree of separation. I had switched from offense to defense the week before, filling in for my buddy and outside linebacker Mark Green, who was forced to sit out three games with a broken hand. We werent playing that badly that night, but found ourselves trailing by a couple of touchdowns at halftime. We filed into the locker room for Coach Bowsers chalk talk, feeling frustrated, but not really all that concerned about the score.

I guess we should have been. Coach Hogrefe stormed to the front of the room, literally foaming at the mouth. I had never seen an adult that out-of-control angry. He was screaming something about how a Wapak fan had thrust a hotdog into his hand, calling us yellow. Yellow as mustard on a hotdog. At some point in mid-scream, he slammed the hotdog against the blackboard, and we all watched the mustard slowly drool down the slate, desperately trying not to make eye contact. It was a surreal moment. As Hogrefe continued to rant, Coach Bowser unassumingly made his rounds among the wood benches, quietly talking to individual players about our second half adjustments. One or the other must have worked, because we came back to win the game 36-26, with Otis scoring five rushing touchdowns, a school record that still stands. Before the Wapak game, we had always dominated our opponents with superior coaching, conditioning and athletic ability. It had been too easy. Wapak came into the game with the motivation to knock us off, and they almost did. We didnt win that second half with big plays, lucky breaks or Hogrefe-induced adrenalin. We won it by buckling down and doing our jobs, methodically grinding out one touchdown after another, each one affirming our determination. It was a turning point in our quest, because it gave us the confidence that we knew how to win. It was the psychological epiphany we needed for a perfect season. With the Shawnee and comeback Wapak wins under our belts, St. Marys was The Big Game, and it lived up to all the hype. It was standing room only at Celina Stadium, with the reported attendance over 5,000 pretty much the entire town. Although everyone in a green jersey played well, it was the Green Raider defense that continued to dominate, and the 24-14 final score was closer than the actual game. Our defense held the previously vaunted St. Marys Rider offense, which had been averaging 300 yards a game, to only 12 yards rushing for the entire game, only one first down and no touchdowns until late in the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt. The only other Roughrider score was a fluke when their defending player stole a punt received by Jerry Loughridge and ran it in. I got to play outside linebacker again, and on the first play from scrimmage, I knew we were going to have a big night when Moose Muter and Bill Youngs stopped their star running back Button Nose Keith for no gain. Jarrin Jim Otis scored three times and passed 1,000 yards rushing in our first six games, while our defense held St. Marys Keith to only 30 yards, a fraction of his 10+ yard pe r carry game average. That prompted a letter from me to the Columbus Dispatch sports editor to point out the discrepancy of their coverage of the Roughriders phenom. Admitting that he had grown up in St. Marys, the writer followed up with a piece on Otis, pointing out that his rushing and scoring production during this single season had eclipsed the precious school record, which covered a three year period. Maybe I should have pursued a career in press relations.
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With our big win, the sock hop was particularly sweet that night, and in Celina, it truly was socks on the gym floor in the best of small town traditions. Exhausted, but not yet too sore from your bruises, slow dancing with your best girl, followed by a little grappling in the car, and finally going home to slip between crisp cotton sheets, and melt away in dreams of glory. It didnt get any better than that. The weekend respite always seemed too short. Sundays meant game films at Coach Deckers house, where we were alternatively praised and vilified as the tape was run forward and backward on his ancient projector. It wasnt HDTV or YouTube, but the results were clearly documented for all to see, as we fruitlessly hoped he would or would not recognize our performance on any given play. To make sure we werent looking beyond the next Kenton game, an upended hulk of a car mysteriously appeared near the practice field on Monday. Although the coaches disclaimed any knowledge of the apparition, someone had painted upset on the side of the car, along with 7-0 or 6-1? Norm Decker, master motivator. We did win handily, 36-20. My buddy Mark returned to action, and while I enjoyed playing defense, I was merely a placeholder. Green led the team in interceptions with three in the three games he had played, while I had to jump to reach the top of a door frame. Junior Fred Stemen and Sophomore Denny Dysert alternated at running back for academically ineligible Junior Boise, who had to sit out our next several games. It was a loss for the team, and I always felt badly for Junior, unrelated to the fact that I was dating his sister. There was a nice notice in the paper that week about some of our off-field activities. Dick Quilling and Tom Loughridge were cited as president and vice president of the senior and junior classes, respectively. The sports writer noted that I was president of our schools student council, which also included Jerry Loughridge, Bill Youngs, Ron Garman and George Stott. Not all football players say, duh. Kenton was homecoming, and marked the debut of our Kelly green 1931 Model A that had been restored as a fitting carriage for our cheerleaders. Sandy Brown was captain, and one of those lovely people youre always pleased to call a friend. The squad also included my dear friend Pam Hoffman, who the fall before had taught me the few steps that let us out-dance everyone at the prom. More accurately, for me to follow Pam around the floor while she outdanced everyone at the prom. We handily beat nearby Coldwater 20-8 to notch our eighth consecutive win. Otis set the schools individual game rushing record with a 281 yard performance, and that record still stands. Many years later I would learn that Coldwater was captained by quarterback Frank Tangeman, and his future wife Debbie was a cheerleader for the team. Now friends and avid Bulldog fans, Frank and Deb built their home next to my mothers on Kingswood Drive.

With the Coldwater win, people were starting to believe. I remember Coach Decker being concerned about school spirit early in the season, but no more. It seemed every shop in town had some form of Bulldog bling in their windows, led by The Coffee Shop on Main Street, which was owned by the parents of linebacker Dan McKirnan. George & Dennys barber shop on West Logan hosted Saturday morning play by play discussions, and Im pretty certain our Presbyterian minister committed some form of sacrilege by wearing Kelly Green vestments during the wrong liturgical season. The Paulding game was pretty much a walk across, although we only scored eight of our points in the first half on the way to a 42-14 win. The vestiges of Coach Hografes halftime hotdog must have remained indelibly etched on our psyches. With that game, we became the first nine game winners in our schools long history, and only two teams had ever won eight Bob Day in 1939, and our current principal and my next door neighbor Bob Brandon in 1951. St. Marys held down second place in the WBL, with their only loss being to us. It was a special Parents Night, because everyone got to play. Freshman Halfback Bill Simons scored our final touchdown, and he wasnt even listed on the program. Bowlegged Bill was my sisters boyfriend, and our dad used to say he couldnt stop a pig in a ditch. I got the first and only points of my gridiron career when I saw a Paulding player touch the ball on the twenty yard line on the second half kickoff. Apparently one of the few players on the field who knew the play was still live, I dove on the ball in the end zone for a TD. I was thrilled, but my mother was more than a little irritated when the paper referred to me as Johnnie Gunyou. Otis sat out most of the second half with an ankle injury, and Sophomore Denny Dysert filled in for him. Playing both ways, Denny also intercepted a pass late in the game, and Green got his fifth interception in six games. Junior Tom Hartwig led the team in rushing for the night, and Quilling had two touchdowns. We didnt have a kicker, so Dick usually scored most of the PATs for the team with his option rollouts. Otis rushing dominated the offense, but Dick was our field marshal. His running and passing abilities kept the defense honest, and more than once, a Quilling to Dave Klenz or Tom Reasoner pass helped solidify our inside running game. For the nine games of the season, we were averaging more than 30 points a game on offense, and holding our opponents to less than 10 points. Otis was averaging six yards in a cloud of dust, and scoring two and half touchdowns per game. The Paulding win finally gained us state recognition, with the Lima News calling us the team to be reckoned with, the Columbus Dispatch now carrying our box scores, and the Dayton Journal Herald touting we had only one game to play for a perfect season. In another first, we were now ranked among the top 20 teams of the state. Although far behind perennial powerhouse Massillon, it was gratifying to receive some affirmation of our achievements.

The buildup to our final game was more than a little disquieting for those of us who would be involved at ground zero. Seemingly daily articles talked about how only two Celina teams had ever been WBL champs, and only one had a perfect record of seven wins and no losses way back in 1932. I remember one column noting the significance of a 10-0 season by pointing out our opportunity to be the team against which all others would forever be measured. We were only 17 years old, but hey, no pressure. Our finale was an away game at Van Wert, and it had rained all week in that cold midNovember way, turning their field into a muddy bog. It was a subdued twenty mile bus ride to their stadium, with most of us concentrating on our assignments for the game, and trying not to think about the import of those coming 48 minutes. At least I think that was the case. Guys didnt really talk about things like that in those days. We had gotten the breaks throughout the season, and while most were of our own making, a season can be easily derailed by the smallest of detours along the way. Despite our grueling and highly competitive schedule, we had been blessed with very few injuries, and Coach Deckers fanatical conditioning during the preseason and throughout each succeeding week had paid off. I hated the daily conditioning drills and wind sprints that closed every practice, but they had made the difference in the second half of every game. We were as ready as we could ever have been, but that night, it just wasnt meant to be. Thinking back now, some 46 years later, the game remains a blur. I can still remember the slightest details of some games, but Van Wert remains steeped in vague frustration. Nothing seemed to go right. Not really anything of terrible consequence, but rather, nothing ever seemed to click. The conditions of the field and the cold gusting winds were not the cause of our troubles, they simply heightened the growing melancholy as the game wore on. We really werent playing that badly, and I remember remaining confident throughout most of the game, but we just couldnt seem to get on track. Van Wert scored first, and we held them the rest of the game, but our offense had stalled. Otis scored our lone touchdown early in the second half, but we missed the PAT, so it remained 6-6. An interference call against Van Wert late in the game actually prevented what might have been a winning score. Reasoner broke free and was all alone for a Quilling pass, but was tripped by a defender lying on the ground, so the interference call simply gave us a first down. The final five minutes of the game were the longest and most exhausting of the season. I learned later there were 23 plays run during those five agonizing minutes, with 14 in the final minute of play. At times, it seemed we were all acting out our roles in slow motion during those interminable closing minutes of our last game.

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times under those Friday night lights. With time running out and Van Wert driving, my buddy Mark intercepted his sixth pass of the season, and ran it back for what would be the winning touchdown. But. And it was a but we would never forget. The yard markings on the field were so obliterated by the mud, when he crossed what he thought was the goal line and threw the ball into the air in celebration, it was only the ten yard line. Van Wert recovered the fumble, and took possession. Somehow we held them and got the ball back with a couple minutes to go. Playing on adrenaline fumes, we moved to within field goal range with a couple seconds left on the clock. We had never even attempted to kick a field goal the entire season, but it was our only hope. Nobody could find the flat tee we had never had any occasion to use, so Denny Dysert kicked the ball out of a shallow puddle. Looking up from my vantage point at the center of the line, I honestly thought it was going to be good. It was straight and it had the distance, but a gust of wind seemed to blow it ever so slightly, and just outside the goal post. The game was over, and so was our perfect season. Our locker room was silent, and I mostly remember just being numb as we slowly showered with our thoughts. Numb from the cold, and numb from the emotional rollercoaster. The bus ride home seemed to take forever, despite the hollow words of encouragement from our coaches. I found Mark, but he was inconsolable. Guys dont really know what to say anyway. My best friend had a great season, and none of us would ever blame him, but he would forever feel the goat. Not fair. Somewhere along the way back to Celina, a few players started talking softly, but we were utterly drained, both physically and emotionally. When we pulled into the high school parking lot, all I could think about was dumping my equipment and heading home to nurse my bones and disappointment. But as we walked hangdog down the dark hallway to the locker room, we were surprised to discover a brightly lighted gymnasium at the end of the tunnel, filled with cheering fans. It took a moment to sink in, but the deafening sound was unlike anything we had heard in the countless pep rallies that marked our season. The band was playing, the cheerleaders were cheering, and what seemed to be the entire town rose to their feet as one when we walked into their overwhelming ovation. Principal Bob Brandon, who had coached our schools last WBL champions in 1951 , took the microphone in the center of the gym and said, I want to present this trophy to Norm Decker, coach of the finest football team in the history of Celina. Coach Decker then handed off the WBL trophy to co-captains Dick Quilling and Tom Muter, who managed a few heartfelt thank yous to our coaches and fans.

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Starting with the seniors, we were all called to the microphone for a few words. When someone started to say, I guess we owe you people an apology . . . he was quickly drowned out by a chorus of Nos!! I remember stammering out something about not knowing why I was up there, and being immediately shouted down by more wild cheering. As someone who was never before and never again at a loss for words, it was a profoundly humbling moment. That single night was both the low and the high of an unforgettable season. It would be followed by all the appropriate accolades and selections to league and state honors. Some of our teammates would go on to play college and even professional ball, while some of us would hang up our cleats for the last time on that memorable night. Much would be said and written about our 1965 season, and Im certain those tales of heroism have been magnified by those of us who lived it. They say a tie is like kissing your sister, and its an apt analogy. Even after more than four decades, its still a bit unfulfilling to have our 9-0-1 year referred to as an undefeated season. All in all, it was truly magical, but a no hitter is still a notch below a perfect game. A few years after our implausible run, my sisters senior class of 1968 would achieve the first, and yet to this day, only perfect season in the history of the school. We had only come close. Still, there was that one night. That one last night under the Friday night lights. To be brought from the depths to the heights. Once during the game, and again in its aftermath. That was pretty sweet.

John Gunyou now lives and works in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

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