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Mike Firkus - To The Top of the Career Rushing Mountain

I owe a lot to Mike Firkus. His records sort of helped put my record keeping on the map. More about my record keeping later.

In 2000 I read about a sophomore from tiny Hilbert who had run for 2,058 yards on 242 carries and scored 29 touchdowns. He became the first sophomore to run for 2,000 yards and this would be one of several “firsts” for him. At the end of the 1999 season after posting a 4-5 record, the teams coach, Mark Jonas, was replaced by the school’s athletic director, Mile Moreau. Coach Moreau had been the previous head coach for 19 years when he stepped down to have Jonas take over for six seasons. Jonas had posted an overall record of 47-22 with state titles in 1994 and 1996 but the school thought they needed a change at the top. Moreau had been no slouch as he directed Hilbert to the 1989 Division 5 title and had compiled a 146-42 record.

For his work in 2000 Firkus was named to an honorable mention spot on the AP All-State team. He had a big game against Marshall in a Division 5 Level 2 win as he gained 331 yards and scored 3 touchdowns. He led the team to an 11-2 record. The next week after trouncing Marshall, Mike ripped off 191 yards against Pardeeville. He was also named to the Post-Crescent’s All-Area team. Each week the newspaper listed the Honor Roll of prep stars for the week. It would have 12-15 names on it and covered different sports. Mike was listed at least seven times that season and prior to the team’s final game, he was the overall player of the week. Listed as being 6’0, 180 he was a powerful force in the Hilbert Wolves offense. He also had breakaway speed as he showed against Mishicot when he reeled off an impressive 89-yard touchdown run. Against Reedsville he ran 14 times for 270 yards with td runs of 53 and 71 yards. The team would lose in the semi-finals to eventual champion Osseo-Fairchild, 21-14.

Next up was 2001 and Mike Firkus was again leading the team and this time it would be all the way to the state title game. In the Division 6 level 3 game against Black Hawk Mike rushed for a play 77-yard run on the third play of the game and finished with 268 yards four touchdowns. The team would lose to Spring Valley 34-3 in the finals as Firkus rushed 25 time for only 81 yards and was shut out from the goal line. He again made first team All-Area and again earned honorable mention All-State on the AP squad after rushing for 2,078 yards on 206 carries and 35 touchdowns. At the time the 2,078 earned Mike Firkus the only player to gain 2,000 yards in a season as a junior.

Running back Matt Deeley held the Hilbert career record of 4,842 yards on 872 carries and 68 touchdowns, set in the 1992-94 seasons. Matt was, at the time, #20 on my career rushing list. It was posted on Wisconsin High, my first major on-line posting. Going into his senior season in 2002, Mike Firkus had his sights on making the state championship game. He had gained 4,134 yards and scored 64 touchdowns. I’m sure he thought a bit about breaking the school record but it was Madison he thought of. But the records came. In the third game, a 35-0 over Valders, Mike passed Deeley in career touchdowns. Two weeks later, in a 61-0 crushing of Howards Grove he passed Deeley’s career record.

In the 1995-98 seasons Luke Hagel of Random Lake climbed to the top of the carrier rushing mountain. He carried 883 times for 6,495 yards and a state record 112 touchdowns. Firkus would have to go a long way to match that. Was he up to the task? Teams were keying on him more than ever and he was having to carry the ball more often. But he was up to the task. The yards began adding up as the team was winning. In the D-6 semi-final against Thorp, played in the Dells, he gained 212 yards to pull ahead of Hagel with 6,607 yards.

The team would post a 12-2 record and lose a heat breaker to Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs 16-14. The team had a last-minute chance to win on a 50-yard field goal but the snap was bad and a scramble with the ball leading to a pass went incomplete. The win was the first WIAA championship for Springs coach Bob Hyland. Firkus gained 100 yards on 25 carries but again was shut out of the endzone. The team was 36-5 in his three seasons and as coach Moreau said “We’ve played 41 games in the last three years, you can only 42. What else can you ask of these kids? They left their heart out on the field. That’s all you can ask.” Moreau would coach three more seasons and retire only to come back and coach for three years at Kaukauna. His overall record would be 215-59 and earn a spot in the WFCA Hall-of-Fame. Firkus would again earn All-Area, being named as the Player-of-the Year. He followed up these honors with being named to the AP first team All-State squad.

Mike Firkus would end his career with 808 carries, 6,707 yards, an 8.3 yards per carry average and 94 touchdowns. The record would last for 16 seasons when Bryce Huettner of Iola-Scandinavia would pass Firkus up with a total of 6,870 yards. The record would only last one season when in 2019 Tyler Tenner of Racine Lutheran would pass Huettner with a total of 6,932. Below is a chart for 12 all-time career rushers and a breakdown of the top-5 leader’s season-by-season.

I presented the records so you could compare the play of Mike Firkus against others. Westby’s Steve Hougum, as noted in my blog about the 1992 rushing race for the single season rushing record, was the first player to gain 2,000 or more yards in a season. Here are the other significant rushing firsts.

  • Only player to gain 400+ yards in a single game twice…Jim Baier, Elmwood…401 yards in 1961 and 400 yards in 1962

  • First player to gain 2,000 yards or more…Dick Barbour, Hillsboro…1970…2,238 yards

  • First player to gain 4,000 or more yards in a season…Jim Baier, Elmwood…1959-62…4,644. It is also noted that the second player to gain 4,000 yards was ken Helland, Boyceville…1959-1962…4,039 yards.

  • First player to gain 2,000 or more yards in a season as a sophomore…Mike Firkus, Hillbert…2000…2,058 yards

  • First player to gain 2,000 or more yards as a sophomore and a junior…Mike Firkus, Hilbert…2000 and 2001…2,058 and 2,078 yards.

  • Only player to gain 2,000 or more yards in three consecutive seasons…Mike Firkus, Hilbert…2000-2002…2,058, 2,078 and 2,577 yards.

  • First player to gain 5,000 or more yards in a career…Steve Hougum, Westby…1984-86…5,192 yards

  • First player to gain 6,000 or more yards in a career…Luke Hagel, Random Lake…1998-98…6,495 yards

  • Most Games in a Career: 100-yards or more…Mike Firkus, Hilbert…2000-2002…34

There are other possible firsts to mention but as you can see, Mike Firkus ranks right up there with the top backs produced in Wisconsin. Most of the above mentioned, like Firkus, came from small towns, small schools but they had great talent. Few ever played college football. Mike Firkus, by all accounts, did not.

Now, on to my link with Mike Firkus which is sort of a personal history. It’s sort of long so stay with me, please.

In 1994 I responded to a request from the Milwaukee Journal sportswriter Cliff Chrystl who asked for anyone to submit any record that they knew about. Some people responded. I sent 48-pages of various stats to Cliff and he called me within a few days to ask how I came about my records. A few days later Cliff called and asked if he could send a photographer to my house and follow-up on our conversation. I don’t remember the photographer's name but he asked me to show my stats on my dining room table and then asked me to stand behind the pile of pages of information. In the August 28 Sunday edition for the Journal my story was presented along with a list of records that had been known, several I had confirmed and one new record that I had added. That record was the 551-yards passing in a single game set by Lomira’s Steve Steer in 1965.

The next day, Monday, I got a phone request from Jim Austin of The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune asking where one of the Rapids players placed on my list of single game rushing. Jim had seen the story about me in the state edition of the August 28 Journal. Brian Dupuis had rushed for 310 yards and scored three times in a 27-0 win over Wausau East on Friday night, August 26. Dupuis had broken a school record set in 1951 of 293 yards gained by Russ Stimac. He was still short of the Valley Conference single game rushing record of 321 yards by Stevens Point’s Rick Reichardt in 1960. A story in the paper on Thursday, September 1 resulted with my list of players with 300-yards or more. It was only a list of 34 names. That was the total I had found up to that time. At the top of the list was Jim Baier of Elmwood who in 1961 gained 401 yards in a game as a junior. Missing from the list was his second 400 -yard game set in 1962. By the way he was the first player to gain 400-yards in a single game and may be the only one to do so twice.

I continued to gather stats and began to do lists of weekly leaders from around the state and then sending those lists off via e-mail to about 25 newspapers and to a new website called Wisconsin High which is now part of the system. I had asked the WIAA if they would be interested in taking me on full time as a state record keeper for all sports but they declined saying that wasn’t their mission but that of the individual sports organizations. I pointed out that states like New York, Ohio, Indiana Illinois, Arkansas and New Mexico (hat’s all I could find at the time that were state associations that kept their own records) all had people working for their state group and several were sponsored by outside companies that supported the state organizations. It was a no-win battle. I would have to go it alone.

I would work my day job and cruise the web information and the Milwaukee Public Library for weekly information. Then, I got my biggest break thanks to Mike Firkus of Hilbert and the Appleton Post-Crescent. My name had been mentioned in several of the Post-Crescent stories about Mike Firkus and how I supplied the paper with information. At this time the Post-Crescent contacted me to confirm career stat leaders. I sent them information and the word began to spread that I kept records and requests for information came flooding in. In 2004 I contributed stats to WisSports for a season preview yearbook that was being produced. At the same time the Appleton paper asked me for records and I am proud to say they filled an entire Thursday, August 26 sports page with my single game, season and career leaders in passing, rushing, receiving and scoring. In the top center or the page above the list of career rushing leaders was a picture of Mike Firkus. Somehow the story landed in other areas of the state and I became the go-to guy for records. I don’t mean to toot my own horn but think about it. If I hadn’t collected stats, maybe someone else would have been the stats geek. I just got to the forefront ahead of others. I was lucky. I haven’t gotten rich doing my hobby but I love doing it. And, I love it when others send me information to add or correct the records. It isn’t just my record book. It’s everybody’s. And everyone wants some recognition in life. Players would learn that they had set a school or conference record but did Steve Hougum, Luke Hagel or Jim Baier know that they had set state records at the time? No. But Mike Firkus did know. Others...players, coaches, parents, newspapers, other web sites and parents have looked to see if their name is in the records. Keep looking. And if you know where Mike Firkus is, let me know.

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