The Passing Parade

For a state that introduced the passing game to the country in 1906, all be it through the University of St. Louis (with several Wisconsin ties), Wisconsin has been more of a running state throughout the sport's history and still trails other state's in use of the passing attack. In my book, I documented the first forward pass in the game's history when St. Louis University beat Carroll College (now University) in Waukesha on a Saturday in early September, 1906. The Billikens set the sport on its head the first season the pass was allowed. A few weeks later they played Lawrence College (now University) in Appleton followed by an early high school season opener against Delafield St. John's. The first high school pass, at least in Wisconsin, may have been thrown by an unnamed player from St. John's. For that, we will never know for certain. Even though the forward pass started here it wasn't something embraced by many schools. The tradition of run first seemed to be ingrained in the state coaching philosophy until at least the 1980s, thanks to Gerry Uchytil and his Chippewa Falls McDonell "Flying Circus" came along and coaches began to take more notice of how the pass could be used more effectively.


Other states utilized the forward pass to a greater degree earlier than the Badger state. In California, the first 2,000+ passer was Dick Horn from Santa Monica in 1947 with 2,117 yards in 12 games. It took until 1962 for a player from Texas, Randy McCollum of Barbers Hill, to toss for 2,531 yards, also in 12 games. Wisconsin saw Lomira's Steve Sterr pass for 2,245 yards in just 9 games in 1965 but he was by far the exception. Most players needed playoff games to forge over the 2,000 and 3,000 yard marks.


In 1968, Joe Ferguson of Shreveport Woodlawn, Louisiana tossed for 3,290 yards. The next year as a junior, Pat Haden of La Puente Bishop Amat, California tossed for 3,008 yards and then 3,273 as a senior in 1970. In 1974 Wally Woodham of Tallahassee Leon, Florida passed for a state record 3,560 yards. The next season his backup moved into the starter spot and Jimmy Jordan threw for a national record of 4,098 yards. Now, the genie was out of the bottle. It wouldn't be until 1984 that a Wisconsin player gained 3,000+ yards. IN a recent story on MaxPreps.com, you can see how far behind the curve Wisconsin was. The web site has created their own National Football Record Book listed at MaxPreps National High School Football Record Book - MaxPreps


Kevin Askeland is the author and I looked at his career passing leader list. It is a list of 427 quarterbacks who have thrown for 4,000 yards in a season. Expanding to 3,000+ yards would involve a list of nearly 2,000-2,500 names. Josh Weiss of Cedar Grove-Belgium is listed on the 254 spot and is the only Wisconsin player. The list has 92 players from Texas, 73 from California and 33 from Arkansas (15 from one school, Little Rock Pulaski Academy). The Mid-West lags behind as Ohio has 18 names and is followed by Illinois with 6, Indiana and Michigan each with 1 and none from Iowa or Minnesota.


Wisconsin started with the passing game in baby steps. It is often used by teams only as a way to attempt to catch up when they are trailing an opponent. But some teams use it to great effect as a key to moving their game. Players like Chippewa Falls Gus Dorias and Green Bay West's Arnie Herber showed how effective a passing game could be but the main focus of even these teams was the running attack. After a strong 6-1-0 season that featured a strong running game, Racine St. Catherine's, Coach Eddie Race modified his offense to use the arum of his quarterback, Jim Haluska. That man became the first known Wisconsin player to throw for 1,000 yards or more in a season. In fact, I can't, at this time, find any confirmed season passing yardage totals of any state quarterback prior to Haluska's 1949. Thus, he heads my single season passing list with 1,031 yards, a figure that is equaled by Russel Roeber of Medford in 1953.


Francis "Shorty" Young of Sauk City tossed for a new season record, 1,312 in 1956. Luther Silbo of Stoughton in 1963 operated a multi-faceted attack, much like the 1949 St. Catherine's but using the pass as a main weapon. Silbo passed for a then, unheard of, 1,807 yards, about 201 per game. 1965 rolled around and now Steve Sterr and his Lomira teammates were set to take the game to new heights. Sterr would set the bar high at 2,245 yards with an average of 249.4 yards per game. As I highlighted in my February 1, 2021 blog on Sterr he set many records that year. Below is his 1965 season game-by-game stats:

He certainly had a great season. Sixteen years later, Dave Geissler of Chippewa Falls McDonell surpassed the record with 2,507 yards in nine games. Not only were the total yards tops but his season attempts (385) and completions (231) were also records. Continuing the McDonell streak, Todd Harrings threw for 3,156 in a 10 game season. He set season passing records for his 488 attempts. His individual game records were 74 attempts (as well as tossing the pigskin 65 and 54 times in other games). Harrings also tied Steve Sterr with seven touchdown passes in one game. David Huffcutt followed in 1986 with 3,244 yards in 512 attempts and 267 completions but it took him 12 games. The final member of the McDonell foursome to set the record was David Gardow, a sophomore who led the team to a 9-3-1 season as he passed 504 times with 265 completions, 24 interceptions and 34 touchdowns to go with his 3,519 yards. Gardow ended his career in 1989 with 9,046 career passing yards and 83 touchdowns on 1,302 attempts, 711 completions and 48 interceptions. All state records at the time.


It was 16 years later in 2013 when Appleton Xavier's Matt Ferris passed for 3,949 yards. I was at his last game that season, hoping to see him surpass 4,000 yards but it was not to be. He was injured and missed much of the first half, however he still passed for 202 yards in a 44-20 loss to Greendale in the level 4 playoff game. IN the previous two games, Ferris passed for 718 yards so I think if he had played the entire game, he would have made it to 4,000.


Finally, in 2016, Josh Weiss came along and led Cedar Grove-Belgium to the state finals and I had the privilege of watching him toss the ball 51 times, with 36 completions, 383 yards and five touchdowns. It was a wonderful performance in a losing cause as his team dropped the game to Amherst, 38-35 on a 26-yard field goal with nine seconds left to go in the game. Weiss ended with 4,231 yards on the season and currently holds the single season record.

One final note, though it actually deals with the single season rushing record. In the MaxPreps record book, Adrian Davis ranks 63rd out of 285 players who have gained 3,000 yards or more in a season. One other player of note with Wisconsin ties is Max McGee, of White Oak, Texas who, in 1949, gained 3,048 yards. The former Packer end was the second high school player in history to gain 3,000 yards in a season and now ranks #230 on the list.


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