Wednesday, December 26, 2012

West Side Story: The Greatest High School Football Game Ever Played?

West Des Moines Valley vs. West Des Moines Dowling: America's best high school rivalry?

Talk about your Friday Nighty Lights. It was 35 years ago that arguably the greatest high school football game in America was played, and the greatest high school rivalry was born. And the game wasn't played in Texas. Or California. It was played in Central Iowa. 

The game in 1977 between the Valley Tigers and the Dowling Maroons, both of West Des Moines, Iowa, was epic. It created a high school rivalry that USA TODAY and others have called one of the greatest in the nation. Well, I say it is the best in the nation.

OK, I'm admittedly biased. I was a senior at Valley that year. But judge for yourself. If you're not familiar with the game, or the rivalry, sit back and enjoy the story.

It was the fall of 1977. The Bee Gees topped the charts. President Jimmy Carter was trying again, and failing again, to cut inflation. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would soon fire another manager. And Dowling's football team was expected to boast yet another perfect record in the Metropolitan Conference in Des Moines.

An absolutely dominant program in the disco decade, Dowling had never lost a conference game to that point, winning an unbelievable 64 straight against Des Moines opponents since the Metro was established in 1968 (the conference changed and expanded to the Central Iowa Metropolitan League - CIML - in 1991).

But the seniors at Valley - Dowling's burgeoning rival - were undaunted. They felt this was the year they would finally defeat the mighty Maroons. They talked about it and prepared for it all summer, and on an electric late-September weekend, they set out to prove it.

While most games don't live up to the hype, this one surpassed it. For drama, significance and pure emotion, the epic Valley-Dowling clash of 1977, which was played out before standing-room-only crowds over two consecutive nights because of lightning and heavy rain, was arguably the greatest high school football game ever played in America, and without question the greatest game ever played in Iowa.

Lee Crawford, Valley's head coach at the time, told me once that it was easily the most exciting game of which he'd ever been a part. "I coached a lot of games in my 35-year career, but I was never involved in one quite like that one, before or since," said Crawford. "It had a lot of meaning for the school and the community. It was big. No, it was huge."

Galvanizing the city's west side, the game, which kicked off the intense rivalry that still exists between the two west-side schools, was the first of many big games for Crawford-coached teams at Valley, which had been a good-but-not-great team in the conference for so long. But even more significantly, it represented the end of Dowling's football invincibility in the city.

For Steve Flood, Valley's senior center that year and a lifelong friend of mine, beating Dowling meant everything. "I must have seen 10 Valley-Dowling games growing up, and every year they would crush us," Flood once told me. "We worked hard all summer preparing for our senior season, but the truth is there was one game most of us were looking toward."

The game was billed as a battle between the city's two flashiest quarterbacks, Valley's Richie Safren, also a good friend to this day, and Dowling's Rory Vacco - both seniors. "It was a huge game. Richie and I both went on a cable TV talk show to talk about the game," Vacco once told me. Vacco was the backup quarterback at the beginning of that season to then-junior Bob Hanson, who went on to basketball stardom at the University of Iowa and the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls.

But when Hanson broke his collarbone, Vacco moved into the starting spot. Hanson, who by then already set his sights on a basketball scholarship, never played football again.

"I would have started that year either way, at quarterback or receiver, but it was too bad Bobby got hurt because a lot of people wonder to this day what would have happened if he would have played in the Valley game," Vacco said. "I was faster, but Hanson was a better passer, and we had the talent to run both types of offenses."

As kickoff approached, there was an abundance of confidence and nervousness in both locker rooms. "We were relaxed and nervous at the same time, but man were we pumped up," said Ken Wilson, a hard-hitting special-teamer for the Tigers that year who also remains a close friend to this day. "We had a sense of purpose, and nothing was going to stop us. We just had the feeling this time was going to be different."

To no one's surprise, the game quickly developed into a defensive struggle. The only scoring in the first half came late in the first quarter when Valley's Steve Lindgren hit a 45-yard field goal - the longest, and sweetest, of his career. "I grew up in the shadow of the (Valley) stadium on Sixth Street (in West Des Moines). I spent hours there by myself kicking field goals, hoping someday we'd beat Dowling," Lindgren once told me. "Just being a part of that game was the biggest thrill of my life to that point."

By halftime, everyone knew they were witnessing something for the ages. But with the skies getting darker, they also knew the game was in real danger of being stopped. Sure enough, just before the players were to return to the field, the rain and lightning came, and the athletic directors from both schools agreed to postpone the affair. Feelings among the players were mixed over who would benefit most from the 23-hour delay.

"We thought it was an act of God," Rick Henson, Valley's senior wide receiver, once told me. "But considering that Dowling was a Catholic school and our quarterback was Jewish, we weren't sure which god was behind it."

Most of the Dowling players wanted to get back on the field as quickly as possible to prove they were still unbeatable. "When we went into the locker room, we were behind but we still felt that physically we were beating them up," said Dowling's Vacco. But when the game was postponed, Vacco noted, "it changed everything. We prided ourselves on conditioning. Valley had six or seven guys that played both ways (offense and defense); we didn't have any. We felt we could have worn them down in the second half."

That night, few players or coaches on either team got much sleep. "It was the longest halftime of my career," said Crawford, who on Saturday afternoon reviewed the game films and made a few adjustments to the blocking scheme that helped free up his freelancing quarterback. "They (Dowling) were stunting and containing Richie (Safren) on the outside," he explains. "We changed the blocking set-up a bit to free him up."

Dowling's starting defensive tackle and team captain, Frank Harty once told me that the changes Crawford made took him right out of the game: "Nothing against (Dowling Coach Jim) Jorgensen, but Lee (Crawford) absolutely out-coached him in that game."

After reviewing the films and putting his players through a light workout, Crawford went home to rest up. As he lay on the couch, he says he received an omen: "I was watching the Oklahoma-Ohio State game on TV, and Oklahoma, which ran the wishbone then like we did, upset the Buckeyes. When that game ended I jumped off the couch and said, 'We're gonna win this thing!'"

By game time Saturday, the bleachers were bulging and the sidelines were 10-deep with fans. No official count was made because tickets were sold the previous night and this night the gates were left wide open. But estimates ran as high as 10,000, including high school football coaches, players, and fans from as far away as Grinnel and Oskaloosa.

The first score of the second half came with just over a minute gone in the third period when Valley's Safren pitched the ball to senior wide receiver Henson, a city track champ who sprinted 50 yards to the end zone. "Richie's pitch was behind me and low, but I turned around and grabbed it, and all I could see was green grass," Henson once told me. "I ran past the Dowling bench on the way to the end zone and just said 'see ya'."

Dowling coach Jorgensen later complained that Safren was down before he gave up the ball to Henson. "It was a blown call," he told the Des Moines Register after viewing the film. "He (Safren) was sitting down when he made the pitch."

A little over six minutes after Henson scored, Safren took it in himself from the 16, putting the game virtually out of reach. When the clock ran out, the scoreboard read "Valley 17, Dowling 8." Dowling's dynasty was finally over, and the Valley faithful went wild. Chanting "we're number one," thousands of fans flooded the field like so many Jim Valvanos looking for a player to hug. Police protected the goal posts, but the celebration was unstoppable. 

"It was total euphoria," recalled Crawford.

Said Valley's Flood, "As I walked very slowly back to the locker room, I just kept looking up at the scoreboard. It took a few days for it to really sink in that we had won."

By midnight, most of West Des Moines - it seemed - was celebrating at the house of Sam Bernabe, a Valley senior that year whose postgame get-together quickly became the mother of all high school parties. "It went beyond anyone's expectations," Bernabe once told me. "The police tried to contain it to just our house, but it got to the point where it took up several neighbor's yards and the street. But the police cooperated 100 percent; they were great. Everyone had a good time."

There were, however, some ugly aftershocks to this game. In an unfortunate act, a Valley player and some friends spray-painted "VHS #1" on signs around the Dowling campus. Then, in an ugly retaliation, a few Dowling players spray-painted racist comments - and, inexplicably, their jersey numbers -  on the Valley building, and broke a number of the school's windows. Players on both sides were disciplined; the Dowling players were kicked off the team.

Dowling's Frank Harty, who was not involved in the vandalism incident, apologized before Valley's student council. "For me, the loss on the field was terrible but what happened afterward was worse," Harty told me. "There was no excuse for that, and I know to this day the guys involved regret it. My dad went to Dowling and my kids will go to Dowling. It's something we're all still ashamed of."

But today, most players on both sides agree that, for the most part, this was a healthy rivalry whose passions remained on the field. Dowling's Vacco told me, "For most of the guys, I don't think there ever were any hard feelings. It was a huge game, a great rivalry then and now, but it was just a football game."

John Hayes, who was in his first year as Dowling's athletic director in '77, told me once that the game forever changed the face of Des Moines high school football. "It used to be Roosevelt, but Valley became our number one rival after this game," said Hayes, who noted that while both teams "played their hearts out, it's as if the adrenaline was all gone for us by the second night. Richie (Safren) really hurt us with the option."

However, Hayes added, "I always like to remind people that it took Valley two days to beat us."

Jeff Morris, the Maroons' place-kicker and starting offensive guard who missed a 31-yard field goal as time ran out in the first half, put the game in perspective: "It was a tough loss, but it wasn't the end of the world. Valley has beaten Dowling enough times since that it doesn't mean as much to them. But the parents still remember the game."

Valley went on to win its first Metro championship that year - the first team other than Dowling to win one - before falling to Sioux City Heelan in a sub-freezing away game in the first round of the state playoffs. But no one remembers much about the bitter-cold Heelan loss. It's the Dowling win that will be remembered. Because it transcended football.

The men and women who attended Valley High 35 years ago will tell you that this one football game created a unique bond at the school that went beyond the football field and lasted the rest of that year, especially among the seniors. The chant "17-8" echoed in the hallways, classrooms, and locker rooms for months.

"The win seemed to bring the whole school together," said Mike Stauffer, a starting offensive tackle on that Valley team, and my best friend then and still. "It's hard to explain, but everyone just got along after that - the way a high school should be. It was a magic year."

Mike is right. It was indeed a magic year. All because of that game. That epic game.


  1. Jamie -- I absolutely LOVED this! There is nothing like high school football. I pride myself on being the only girl on our cheerleading squad who knew what "1st and 10" meant! :-) Our senior year, we had a lousy football team. Lost every game of the season, and the last one was with our arch rival (who went on to win the State championship). That night we beat them! It made up for all the rest of the disappointing season. And yes, we still talk about it!

    1. Thanks Sue. That's a great story, too!!

  2. Jamie, I fell asleep at that game! OK...I was 5 years old and up way past my bedtime, but I do remember the absolute hysteria surrounding the game. I can still picture my brother Mike's picture on the cover of the morning newspaper - arms outstretched in victory, helmet in one hand, outstretched index finger on the other, exclaiming "We're number 1".

    1. Andy, that is a legendary picture of Mike. I remember!

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  4. Hi Jamie,

    I found your reference to Dowling Coach Jim Jorgensen being out-coached an interesting observation. I went to Alleman High School in Rock Island, Ill., a small, Catholic school where Jorgensen in three years turned a sad football program into a winner, culminating in the varsity team in the fall of 1975 going undefeated during the regular season before losing a bruising game in the quarterfinals to the much larger Rockford Boylan High. (I was on the sophomore football team at that time.) Jorgensen was lauded for the turnaround, and he was hired by Dowling to head its program beginning in the fall of 1976. What Dowling didn't realize was what most of us in the Alleman program knew — that the person most responsible for our success was the assistant coach, Tim Mash. His year-round conditioning and strength-training regimen was ahead of its time, and it led to many of our victories (even at the sophomore level) coming from being in better shape and suffering fewer injuries than our opponents. Mash also had an offensive scheme that got the most out the talent available, and he called the plays during the varsity games. With Jorgensen at the helm, Dowling went downhill. He was fired (or he resigned) after the 1978 season.... Mash also left Alleman to take the head coaching job at Murphysboro High in southern Illinois, which he led to the state playoffs the next two years. (Mash took that job shortly before Jorgensen announced he was going to Dowling, and he told us he wouldn't have left if he'd known Jorgensen was looking to move on.) Mash was inducted into the Illinois High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 2011. I haven't found where Jorgensen ended up.

  5. Such a nice and informative article. I am impressed with your deep knowledge about this topic, I always love to read about new informative posts. I really enjoy your article

  6. Truly a great work is here. This is the article to whom I was searching for a long time and now I found it here, I enjoy after finding this precious post and also would like to say thanks to you for such a informative post. You have done a very impressive work.

  7. Coach Mash was my coach at Topeka High School in 1979 and 1980. He was incredible way ahead of the times in high school football as you said. I wish I could get ahold of him somehow. If anyone has his email or location, please let me know.

    Mike Hanika

    1. Hi Mike, he should be in California. He was last coaching Taft High School in the last few years. I played with him in 1984-1985 when we came in second in the state. What a great coach

  8. Mash went on to Downers Grove South High School in Illinois and had many state championships. Then moved to California and coached Taft High School. He should have gone on to coach college football, he was an AWESOME coach!!

  9. Such a nice and informative article. I am impressed with your deep knowledge about this topic, I always love to read about new informative posts. I really enjoy your article

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  10. I played for Coach Mash from 2000-2001 at Taft Union High School and it was the time of my life. He turned around our program and captivated the kids, the school, and the community with his intensity and committment to detailed, hard work. I will never forget him.

    Coach moved to Las Vegas sometime around 2005 or so and still has a home there. I would love to chat him up sometime.