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Playing High School Football in the 60s
High School Football
Interest in Football as a Youth
Since childhood, I have had a special love for American football. As early as the third grade, I can remember playing tackle football in the snow on school playgrounds. The professional football player cards which came wrapped with bubble gum also excited me. Elroy Hirsch, Tank Younger, Marion Motley, and Bobbie Layne were some of the players' faces I can remember. I can also recall Alan Ameche playing in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1954.
After my folks moved to the countryside, I continued to collect football cards. On one Christmas, I received shoulder pads. I was so happy that I wore them to school for a few days. We used to play tag football games during recess and lunch hour in the 4th-7th grades, and by the time I was in 8th grade, our Catholic school had organized a flag football team. The team captain put me at left guard because I was one of the bigger kids. As I remember, we did play a couple of games against the public school in our village.
By the time I entered the 9th grade or my first year of high school, the football coach at Burlington High wanted me to start playing junior varsity football due to my size. At that time, I was completely grown at 5'9 and 165 pounds. Although I couldn't play during my freshman year because of farm chores, dad relented and let me play football during my sophomore year. The only catch was that the school had to give me a ride home after practice. Fortunately, my JV coach and also speech teacher was willing to take me home after practice every day. Mr. Anderson assigned me to play left tackle and taught me the techniques of blocking and tackling. I started in a few games and really enjoyed playing.
In the fall of 1960 when I was a junior, I was invited by Coach B to be on the varsity. You just can't imagine how proud I felt to be on the school stage at a pep assembly and be announced by the coach as the starting left tackle for the opening game of the season. I played in every game that year, but our team was awful ending the season with a 0-8-1 record. The best we could do in 1960 is tie the Mukwonago Chiefs. When the season ended, all of the juniors on the team who would be returning as seniors in 1961 vowed that our upcoming season would be much better. In this article, I recall my 1961 high school football season and how it taught me lessons for life.
Football Offensive and Defensive Formations
Training Camp for the 1961 Football Season
During the summer of 1961, I anxiously awaited the start of my senior year of football. It began with a 2-3 week training camp commencing during the last two weeks in August. Prior to the camp, I had to pass a physical exam and get a dental exam.
On the first day of training camp, we drew our equipment and received a play book after a general meeting called by the head coach. I remember receiving shoulder pads, rib pads, hip pads, thigh pads, knee pads, football pants and jersey, and a helmet from the team equipment manager. There were three things we had to supply ourselves: a protective cup or athletic support, mouth piece, and cleats. The playbook had a bunch of diagrammed plays designated by three digit numbers like 172 or 183.
The next morning, we started our two-a-day practices for the first week. There was a lot of conditioning work in the first few practices. We began every practice with stretching, and then calisthenics led by the team captains. The calisthenics included jumping jacks, wood chucks, push ups, sit ups, laying on the ground and doing leg lifts, running in place, and other exercises. Next, we would run 40-yard wind sprints, and then finish every practice by taking two or three laps around the big practice field.
Before we even started to line up for scrimmages, we had to refine our individual position techniques. Since I was both an offensive and a defensive lineman, there were blocking and tackling drills. For blocking, the first thing we did in practice was popping from a correct three point stance, and then hitting a dummy held by the line coach. After that, two linemen would hit a blocking sled and push the coach who was riding it. For defensive drills, we would accelerate from a four point stance and grasp a tackling dummy.
After the line coach determined we had correct technique, all linemen participated in the tough "hamburger drill." In this drill, two blocking dummies were held with a two-yard interval between them. On one side was a defensive player in a four point stance. On the other side was an offensive player with a running back behind him. When coach blew his whistle, the offensive player tried to block the defensive player and push him back so that the running back could pass through the hole between the dummies. If the offensive player didn't move the defensive player, many times the running back would run right over the offensive player unless tackled by the defensive player. There were some violent collisions in this drill.
While the linemen were going at it, the backs were practicing running and cutting drills, and the quarterbacks were throwing to ends.
When coach determined it was time, we would start scrimmaging on the practice field. It was 11 against 11 with plays being called and live blocking and tackling. We would huddle up before each play in which the quarterback would call a play from the playbook. These plays were designated by three digit numbers followed by right or left. When we got into our formation on the line, the quarterback would say, "Ready, set" and then "Hut one, Hut two, Hut three, Hut four." In the huddle, the quarterback would tell us on which "hut" the center will pass the ball between his legs to the quarterback. For running plays, the second number of the three digit number indicated the running back who would receive the ball from the quarterback while the third number was the hole on the line where the back would run. The hole over center was notated by "1", "2" was for over the guard position, "3" over the tackle positions, "4" over the end position, and "9" on the outside of the end position. If the play called, for example, was 183 left on "3", that meant that when the quarterback said "hut 3," he would hand the ball to the right half back who would run over the left tackle position hole where I lined up. This was all done out of a "T" formation in which we lined up. It was my job to move the defensive tackle opposite me out of the way, so that the half back could get through the hole.
Since I also played defense, we also had defensive line formations of attacking the ball which were called by the defensive captain. As a lineman, I was responsible for clogging up my space opposite the offensive player, so the half back couldn't get through. On passing downs, I had to penetrate and get pressure on the quarterback.
I remember scrimmaging a lot during the last week of training camp, and culminating the scrimmaging with a practice scrimmage against a neighboring high school.
High School Football Stadium
Playing High School Football in the 1960s
What was the biggest difference between high school football in the early 60s and football today?
First Three Games of 1961 Season: Success and Optimism
Our 1961 nine game season began on the first Friday after Labor Day in September. It was an away game scheduled against the Mukwonago Chiefs, a team that we were able to tie during my junior year. We had a very good week of practice leading up to the game, and everyone on our team was confident of victory. As it was, our team's offensive line blocked very well, and Burlington High was victorious 18-14. I remember doing a lot of trash talking during the game because some of the Mukwonago players were my grade school classmates. Since none of the juniors on our team had any game playing experience, I played every snap of the 48 minute game on offense, defense, and special teams.
In preparation for the second and home opening game, we watched film of the Mukwonago game on Monday, and then heard scouting reports about our next opponent, the Walworth Big Foot Chiefs. The film was taken by our school's audio-visual teacher who had a movie camera mounted on a tripod on top of our school team bus which was parked not far from the sideline of the gridiron were we had our benches. The film which was rewound and played in slow motion highlighted all missed assignments during the game. It also showed us what we had to do to correct our mistakes.
We had another good week of practice, and once again we came away with another win in the Walworth game, 13-6. The highlight of the game was my blocking of an extra point.
It was the start of the third week of the season, and the Burlington Demons were really sky high and probably too overconfident with a 2-0 record. Our next scheduled game was at Elkhorn against the Elks, a team we should have beaten. As it was, our team was very lethargic during the game which finished in a 12-12 tie. I remember that Coach B really chewed us out at halftime of the game.
Games 4-6: Anger, Disappointment, and Failure
The fourth game of the season was another away game at Wilmot against the Panthers. We probably should have won this game, too; however, on a fourth and goal from the one-yard line, we failed to run the ball into the end zone. Coach B was furious and adamant that the referee gave us a bad spot of the ball and denied our team a touchdown. Many of my teammates also felt the same way. After being denied at the goal line, we never threatened again during the game and finished losing 6-0. Sensing that the team was still very angry about being cheated by the referee, our school principal, Mr. Hanrath, came on the team bus right after the game before we departed back to Burlington. He gave us all a very short pep talk. He complimented us for playing our hearts out during the game, and then I remember him saying that in life the referee never beats you.
The fifth game of the year was against the Lake Geneva Badgers, probably our toughest game of the season so far. On game day right after I got home from school at about 3:45, my mother took a phone call and found out that her father had just passed away. She started to cry, and I know that seeing this seemed to affect me. Needless to say, I played my worst game of the season against the Badgers. I was up against a much bigger offensive lineman who had his way blocking me very easily. The Badger backs ran over my defensive position two times for touchdowns. The coach was so angry that I was benched during the second half on both offense and defense. We lost the game 24-13. The only bright spot in the game was a touchdown scored on a reverse by a junior half back.
During the sixth week of the season leading up to the home game against the Delavan Comets, I was removed from the defensive team and only played on offense. Wanting to atone for my horrible play in the Lake Geneva game, I had a good week of practice and was graded by the coaches as one of the best offensive linemen during the Delevan game. It wasn't good enough as our team was over matched and went down in defeat 28-6.
Victory and Once Again Defeat
The seventh and last home game of the season was our Homecoming Game against the East Troy Trojans. It was fun riding in the Homecoming parade around the town of Burlington, and even more, fun to win the game 14-13. As I recall, I played an excellent first half and opened many big holes on the left side of the line allowing our backs to score two running touchdowns. We almost lost the game due to a bad exchange between our center and the quarterback. Fortunately, our defense which now had many junior players was able to send everyone home happy by denying East Troy a game ending winning touchdown.
Our team did not play very well during the last two away games against Whitewater and the Union Grove Broncos. On a Friday afternoon game against Whitewater, we lost 30-0, and on the next Friday afternoon against the Broncos we were shut out 19-0.
All in all, the 1961 Burlington High School football season was a success. Although BHS didn't have a winning season, its final record of 3-5-1 was a turning point in Demon football. The lessons of fair play, hard work, team work, and persistence made Burlington a better team the following year when it won a conference championship.
Playing High School Football in the 60s
© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn