1897 madison team picture.png

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

For over a year of doing research for my book, The Great Teams, the year 1930 was a problem for me. Back around 2005 or 2006 while roving through the internet I ran across a partial list of Wisconsin high school football champions. First, the authors, Andy McKillop and Bob Kieckbusch, had a list of press poll champions that ran from 1958 with the start of the UPI and then listed the AP polls through 1975. I then found another list somewhere that started with 1900 and ran through about 1955 or ’56. I’m no longer sure of the author or how they came upon the listing of teams but it was a guide for me to follow.

As I did my research, I added schools to the list and made a few changes because I didn’t agree with the original findings. For some seasons in the 1900-1924 period there could be as many as 6 or 7 schools claiming to be the state champions. It took a lot of work to determine who was the real champion. Just read the sections in my book on the early Eau Claire and Oshkosh teams. As I filled in the list of yearly champions, I became more comfortable with my choices. I bounced team info off of my editor, my son Tom, who also helped with the research but in the end, I was satisfied with how the yearly champions were determined. But one thing stuck out at me when I looked the list over. We didn’t have a champion or a season record for 1930, the only year except for the 1900 Milwaukee South Side team on the list without a season record. South’s record may never be known since no yearbook is available nor were there many stories, if any, on high school football teams for 1900 being mentioned in the Milwaukee newspapers. South is considered champion because in other papers outside Milwaukee they declared them to be the best.

However, there were lots of reasons for not having a champ recorded for the 1930 season until I got some extra help.

We were ready to go to press except for several read throughs to check for punctuation and verifying the spelling of people’s names. I had contacted the Superior Public Library right when covid-19 caused many places to close. I understood how hard it was for people to get books and information from their local library. My oldest daughter works for the Pewaukee library and she had to do much of her work from home for several months. Schools closed as well and the school librarian wasn’t available. I live in Milwaukee so a hike to Madison to the state historical society wasn’t an option as that had closed as well. I had to live on my subscription to newspapers.com to give me help but they don’t have the Superior Telegram or the Duluth Telegram online. Right when the shutdowns began my son and I determined that the probable champion would be either Waukesha or Superior based on info from other newspapers. We needed to confirm those stories on the two teams.

We had found a listing in one paper that had a number of statewide conference standings for the 1930 season with one or two games left to go in the season. That was a start. We had many “usual suspects” to look at but none fit the bill of being considered a champion team. We looked at the Green Bay area and the Fox River Valley Conference schools but Manitowoc’s 6-1-1 record wasn’t the best and they weren’t an overwhelming team. An OK offense with a good enough defense but not our top choice. Marinette was part of the conference at that time but they finished in the middle of the pack with Green Bay East and West. Eau Claire had a few losses so they were out of the running along with the La Crosse schools. The Big Eight Conference began in 1930 and included the Madison schools, East, West, and Central plus Kenosha, Beloit, Janesville the two Racine schools, Horlick and Park. Park was the top team with a 6-1-1 overall record and they were in the same position as Manitowoc. Good but just not good enough.

The overall sticking point is that in all the seasons between 1901 and 1957 there are 68 champions or co-champions. Only eight of those teams had a tie and nine had a loss. The worst season was 1910 with Oshkosh posting a 5-2-1 record. But their two losses were to college teams and their 0-0 tie was in the “championship” game against Eau Claire. After the tie Oshkosh declared themselves to be the champion as no high school had defeated them in several years and few people disputed the title despite that tie. I was looking for a clear winner. Maybe an undefeated team with a tie would be OK if they played good overall competition.

I then moved my search closer to the Milwaukee area. Watertown had posted a 7-1-0 record with their only defeat at the hands of the University of Wisconsin High School. Wisconsin High was a city of Madison school run by the University to help teach college students classroom presentation. It opened in 1914 and closed in 1974. The school was not as large as the other public high schools in Madison so they were not part of the Big Eight Conference. Despite losing to Wisconsin High, Watertown became a school in the running for the title. Kenosha finished second in the Big Eight but had an overall 7-1-2 record. Could they be number one even with a 12-9 loss to Racine Park and not being the conference champion? I thought not. Since Green Bay East, co-champion with Delafield St. John’s in 1929 when both were 9-0-0, was out of the money could the Lancers be considered for the title? St. John’s posted a 7-1-0 record against tougher competition than what Watertown faced but their loss was a 19-0 defeat at the hands of Culver (IN) Military Academy who won that years National Military Prep School Trophy. Tough for me to say but no, they weren’t they wouldn’t be the state champion. But they were closer than anybody else.

The Milwaukee City Conference had co-champions with Washington and East Side tied with 5-1-1 records. They tied in the season finale and both had losses to Tech, a middle of the conference team so things boiled down to two teams. Waukesha and Superior but I had no final record for either. Finally, in August I was able to make an appointment to look at microfilm at the State Historical Society. I would have to wait three weeks to get in. I knew Waukesha, the Suburban Conference champion had a 6-0-1 record based on the information in the newspaper that had posted conference records. What I found in Madison was that they had lost a game to Wauwatosa 2-0 and ended with a 6-1-1 record. Disappointing. Some of the information I found on Superior showed that school with a 6-0-1 record. Could they be the number one team? I had contacted the Superior Public Library in mid-September and the reference desk was now open to help…for four hours a week. I was only asking if they had the 1931 Superior High School year book and to pull it out and read me the scores for 1930. I was told there were several requests ahead of me and I would have to wait. So, I waited. I also called the Superior High School and left message for the school librarian to look the info up. I got no response.

Friday night, October 2, as I was reviewing the bibliography section of my book, I saw that I had mentioned the Monroe County Historical Society which had helped me with information on the 1907 Sparta championship team. Several other historical societies had closed because of the pandemic and were probably open now but hadn’t responded to my message from four to five months previous on other subjects. I wondered if the Douglas County Society would have what was needed so at about 8 pm I wrote a request. A few minutes later I was astounded to find an e-mail from Jon Winter, the business manager for the Douglas County Historical Society. I had requested yearbook information on the 1918-20 Superior teams to help fill in any gaps I might have. I also asked about the 1930 team. Here it was, nearly 9 pm on a Friday and someone was willing to help. And to offer to send me information the next day!!! He did so and I was surprised with about 35 jpeg files on the four teams. Jon led me to discover that 1930 Superior had a 8-0-1 record, best in the state. Their tie was against Ironwood (MI), the Michigan Upper Peninsula champ.

There I had it. I could fill in the open spot for 1930 with a team name and a record. It was a long and drawn out process but worth it.

Here is their record:

Now, anybody have info on 1900 Milwaukee South Side? Maybe a grandparent's or great-grandparent's yearbook from 1901 that I could look at?

It’s said records are made to be broken and in early October a new one was set in Wisconsin high school football. How did we get to the record? It’s sort of a long and twisting story but first let’s talk about the game that the new record was set.

It was Friday, October 9, 2020.

New Holstein was visiting Kohler to battle the co-opted schools of Kohler, Sheboygan Lutheran and Sheboygan Christion.

The game was nearly over. Only 17 seconds left on the clock and Kohler/Sheboygan Lutheran/Christian was on their 21-yard line, 79 yards away from the New Holstein goal. On first down quarterback Robby Michael threw his 34th pass. It went Incomplete. On second down he completed pass number 35 for a short five-yard gain to Casey Verhagen. It was his eighth and final catch of the game on a night any receiver would be proud of as he gained 128 yards and a touchdown. With 10 seconds left KLC quickly got to the line and Michael tossed a 50-yard pass to the fastest player on the field, Colin Girdaukes who hauled the ball in on about the 25-yard line and ran toward the goal. He stumbled at the 15 but stayed upright and went untouched into the endzone and KLH tied the score 50-50. Or did they? A flag had been thrown. The officials discussed for a moment if Girdaukes has stepped out of bounds. The flag was picked up and the score stood. By making the catch and gaining 74 yards Girdaukes ended up catching seven passes for a state single game record 339-yards plus three touchdowns and two 2-point conversions. With the game tied and no time left on the clock coach Ryan Eigenberger did something unusual for his team. He sent Justin Hendrikse out to kick the team’s first of the season 1-point conversion. KLC usually went for two points and now they were trying their first conversion kick of the season. With no timeouts left Eigenberger didn’t have time to discuss what 2-point play his team would run so he chose to kick. It worked out.

The snap was perfect. So was the hold. And so was the kick and KLC won a 51-50 barnburner. Besides the state record receiving yards put up by Girdaukes, quarterback completed 24 of 36 attempts for 579 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception. The 579 yards placed Michael in the third spot on the all-time single game passing list. It was a great night for KLC. But how did we get to this record?

Well, I’ve spent many hours in libraries and online doing research for my files on state football records that are posted on the WFCA website at https://www.wifca.org/staterecords . I’ll bet I’ve scoured nearly a hundred different newspapers from Wisconsin and nearby Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, running down leads supplied by coaches, players and fans. Sometimes my eyes are blurry from looking at microfilm or printed papers after a “long day at the office”. But in the end, it is the finding of important information and confirming a reported stat that I love. Before I bought a computer and began e-mailing coaches and newspapers for information it was all library work. In the early days I spent most of my spare time at the Milwaukee Public Library in downtown or made treks to Madison to scan microfilm at the State Historical Society building on the University of Wisconsin campus. My biggest break was when the Milwaukee Journal asked for state records information in 1995 and I sent them 48 pages of hand written stats. They did a story on me and the information came flooding in from others wanting to confirm a school, conference or state record or just wanting to contribute. They wanted to know, according to what I had, where a player placed on a single game, season or career list. I contributed to several websites, mainly in their football forum section and then began to collate weekly leader lists for passing, rushing, receiving and scoring and sent them out to newspapers free of charge. Some printed my stats but most didn’t. Still, the papers would contact me with questions concerning a certain player or team. I would be asked to confirm the status of a certain record. So here is how we got to the new receiving record.

Before the 1950's there were few newspaper stories that the reader would find individual player statistics. Oh, there would be a mention of a player with a long run and the distance but usually very little statistical game information. Often nothing more than who scored a touchdown and who scored an extra point. Often there was no explanation as to if the extra point was a run or a kick.

A rare find in searching various early 20th century newspapers was a story, while researching the great Superior high school teams of 1918-20 that I found a huge bit of information. In 1918 when the Superior Telegram mentioned in a game story between Superior high school and Two Harbors Minnesota, Superior quarterback Harold “Fat” Steel completed nine passes to end Ted Whereatt for 279 yards and three touchdowns. Superior crushed Two Harbors 75-0. The 279 yards wasn’t mentioned as being a record, just as a matter of fact in the story. No other stat information other than a record of which player scored was in the article. Superiors offense was unusual for its time as instead of the players lining up close to each other and always smashing the opposition with a powerful run game, the players lined up in what could be called a spread formation. Each lineman would spread their arms out and line up finger-tip to finger-tip. The linemen would be about six feet apart. The quarterback would line up behind center with the fullback right behind him and the halfbacks spread on either side, also finger-tip to finger-tip. By spreading out they could make better angle blocking on the line and open up the field. According to the newspaper stories, like other teams from the era Superior was a run orientated team and only passed occasionally to loosen up the defense. Superior would maybe throw three to five times a game, which was a lot in those days. Aside from a few good throwing quarterbacks in the 1910’s through the 1940’s there was little chance for a receiver to haul in many passes. An end was a blocker on offense and a defensive end or linebacker on defense. Not a major offensive tool.

The record for receiving would stand 63 years when it was broken by Waukesha North’s Jeff Sanford who hauled in nine passes for 311 yards and three scores. Sanford was the first player to gain 300 yards or more in a game. Jeff would set the record but I wouldn’t discover it until 2009. The single game receiving record would change hands a few times starting in 1998 when Chippewa Fall McDonell end Bryan Dahl gained 286 yards. The next season West Bend East’s Ryan Rohlinger would catch passes for 292 yards. Two years later Stratford coach Cal Tackes sent me an e-mail stating that he and his staff had reviewed game film and confirmed that end Ryan Pachinak had caught eight passes for 299 yards and three scores. Pachinak now moved to the top of the list. By now, if a coach had game film and they could make a copy and send it to me or sit down with a local reporter and review the footage for confirmation I would certify a record. In 2003, on consecutive Fridays the state receiving record was broken. First by Jordan Zimmerman of Auburndale who gained 304 yards. I had just finished reviewing the video sent to me when I got a call from the stats man at Mosinee who told me that Eric Vehlow had caught nine passes for 307 yards. By the next Thursday I had the game film in hand and confirmed the new record. Remember, I still didn’t know about Jeff Sanford’s 1981 performance.

In late 2009 while looking up other information at the Waukesha Public Library I ran across a Waukesha Freeman story about Sanford’s big game. He now moved to the top of my list…for about four months. It was early 2010, just after my latest set of records was posted on the WFCA website, when I received an e-mail from Justin Last of Winneconne who said he had caught 12 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns in a game in 1996. His former coach also e-mailed to confirm totals and he said that the newspaper story on the game against Ripon had the totals wrong. The Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper had him with 11 catches for 320 yards (still a record) but Last had one more reception for four more yards. I looked up the story but with the coach confirming the new set of figures I went with 324 yards. One thing not in dispute was that Last caught five of those passes for touchdowns. The first Wisconsin player to get to that standard. In 2013 Tanner Vik of Spooner moved past Last into first place with 331 yards worth of receptions. The newspaper reports had Vik with seven receptions for 293 yards and five scores but the coaches or stats person reported on WisSports.net eight catches for 331 yards and the five td’s so I took it as gospel. And so, the record stood until October 9, 2020.

I can’t wait to hear of a new record.

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Great Teams: A History of Wisconsin High School Football

The 1897 Madison High School football squad was Wisconsin’s first great team. Not only that but Madison has the honor of being the first acknowledged high school national champion. Their team manager, Joseph Jackson, a student at Madison High School was also the coach. Jackson, who also acted as a scheduler and promoter, set up games with as many opponents as he could. The year before he tried playing football but quit as a player when he lost a tooth. He decided to stick to pitching on the school baseball team. Football, at the time, was still more like rugby and the scoring was different from today as a touchdown was worth four points and an extra point was worth two. When Madison played against the University of Wisconsin, they faced a team led by 25-year-old college all-American fullback Pat O’Dea, known as the “Kangaroo Kicker”. A prolific kicker, O’Dea once drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal vs Northwestern and had a 110-yard punt vs Minnesota. O’Dea was from Australia where he had played Australian rules football before coming to the United States. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame one day before his death in 1962. In early December, Jackson heard about a team from New York who claimed to be the “Champion of the East”. He contacted the team and set up a game for Christmas Day in Detroit. Jackson, with the help of Henry F. Cochems (an assistant athletic director and backup football player for the University of Wisconsin) and Joe Dean (Captain of the 1896 team and, later, founder of the Madison based Dean Medical Clinic in 1904) prepared three hours a day for the game.

Buffalo Evening News - 27 Dec 1897

From the outset it was clear that Madison, with its larger size (165 pounds per man vs North Tonawanda’s 138 pounds) would prevail. One story stated that with the Madison squad leading 14-0 at halftime on a cold and snowy afternoon, North Tonawanda refused to come out and finish the game. However, a story dated December 26, 1897 in the Buffalo Courier (NY) had a game report that Madison led 4-0 on a touchdown by end Bob Rathbun who carried the ball on a reverse pitch following the wedge formed by the other players. After 30 minutes of play the first half ended and there was a short rest before the onslaught by Madison began. In the second half, (25 minutes long) they plowed in for two more touchdowns, both attributed by the Courier to right tackle Arthur Curtis and two goals after touchdown by fullback Duffy Powell. However, given their positions it was likely the fullback Powell who scored the touchdowns and the lineman/kicker Curtis who kicked the goals. The newspapers praised Rathbun, Curtis and Powell for their great play. Madison was declared the winner and the first “national champion”. News stories, most just brief mentions of the game, appeared throughout the country in such cities as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, St. Joseph (MO), Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Spokane (WA), New York City and others. All the stories mentioned that it was a national championship game.

The team was 8-0-0 vs high school teams (which does not include a forfeit win against Eau Claire) and 0-2-1 vs known college teams. It is believed that they played at least a total of 14 games, but newspaper accounts are incomplete.

Spokane Chronicle - 24 Dec 1897

The stars on the team were many as most had a lot of experience starting for the 1896, 5-2-0 team (both losses were to the University of Wisconsin). Billy Roys was the quarterback, Bemis Pierce was the left halfback, Paul Newman played right halfback and Duffy Powell was the fullback. On the line Bob Rathbun was the left end, team captain Lucius Donkle was the left tackle, Harry Keenan played left guard. Ed Height was the team’s center, Earl Schreiber covered the right guard spot, Arthur Curtis was the right tackle and right end was covered by Matt Conlin.

Along with the 1896 captain, Joe Dean, six members of the 1897 team would later become physicians, Harry Keenen, Lucius Donkle, Dave Wheeler, Stanley Welch, Earl Schreiber and Arthur Hale Curtis. Manager Joseph Jackson would later manage the Jackson clinic, manned by his brother Dr James Jackson who acted as “team mascot” and appears about twelve in the official team picture. Joseph Jackson would later become a major Madison city civic leader.

Besides becoming a doctor in 1920, Curtis was head coach at Kansas (6-4-0 in 1902) and the head coach at Wisconsin from 1903-04, posting an 11-6-1 record. Art Curtis was a member of the Northwestern University Medical School faculty specializing as a gynecologist. He died in 1955 at age 74.

As you will see later with the 1909 Chippewa Falls state champion team roster, age eligibility in these early days was different than what is accepted today. In 1938, a Buffalo, New York newspaper rehashed the game between Madison and Tonawanda and stated that several North Tonawanda fans and players who were at the game remembered Madison playing athletes who were “21-28 years old”. While two players who are known to have played in the game were each 20 years old, if there were even older players, we may never know as the New York newspaper article written 40 years after the game is the only evidence. None of the contemporary newspaper accounts made such claims.

However, Madison would face eligibility problems for the next several years. The WIAA would rule that for various reasons the school played with “part-time” students. These players were ruled ineligible by the state athletic governing board, but the school still played them. It bothered some schools like Milwaukee South Side who cancelled their games with Madison in 1897 and 1898. Other schools kept Madison on the schedule. Notably, the 1909 Chippewa Falls team which featured several players over 18 years of age had none of these eligibility issues and all players were considered full-time students and acceptable under WIAA rules of the time.