This is all going to sound like a fairy tale, something so unexpected and almost so magical that it even happened in a place which will probably soon be forgotten. And it was so special it has never happened again, becoming almost mythical.
All the participants are 50 or older now, old enough that today's kids never heard their story. But the men who were there remember, and most of them will gather Friday night at the Comfort Inn Suites to reminisce, renew their bond and enjoy what they accomplished 35 years ago.
They will never forget when Elmhurst won the school's only city football championship.
From its first football season in 1960, Elmhurst always struggled. The Trojans won two games their first four seasons – one by forfeit – and their only winning records were 7-2 in 1969, and 5-4 in 1971 and 1972. Warren “Skeets” Hoover retired after a 1-8 1973 season with a 41-53-3 career record.
Elmhurst Principal Dick Horstmeyer had worked previously at Central and Northrop, where he knew assistant coach Tom Herman, who had moved to Fort Wayne from Ohio in 1968 to assist Buzz Doerffler at Central. The Tigers were 16-1-1 in 1969 and 1970 before the school closed, and Doerffler and Herman moved to Northrop where the Bruins were 21-6 in their first three seasons.
“There were a few people wanting to know why I was going over there, I'm sure,” Herman said with a chuckle. “We had always played Elmhurst when I was at Central and Northrop and it was very evident that there was talent there. They just needed to be developed and somebody had to spend some time with them.”
One of the first things Herman, then 32, did was meet with the graduating ninth graders at Portage and Kekionga junior high schools.
“He told us if we listened, worked hard and did what the coaches told us to do we would win a city championship by the time we were seniors,” recalls former lineman Phil Jacobs.
Easy to say, harder to make happen – even if the Portage and Kekionga kids had some talent.
“I remember the summer before high school, he used to call me every day at 6 a.m. to see if I was coming to conditioning,” Don Culpepper said. “There was no such thing as voice mail or an answering machine so my folks always handed me the phone. I finally went and saw how hard everybody else was working and that started the belief process.”
Herman and assistant Jim Welborn instituted a weight room program which the Trojans had never had before. Elmhurst was built on tunnels, and the coaches used one for the weight room. The room was 20 by 30 feet with a weight machine in the middle, so small a light fog would form from the players' sweat, which they often slipped in.
“You just had to talk yourself into going there in the morning until you got used to it,” Culpepper said. “You'd have guys in there sweating and one window that was broken and boarded up. You were always glad to get the agility station because that was up the ramp to the school hallways where you could get some fresh air.”
The workouts built and forced camaraderie, with Herman and Welborn stressing to the players they'd only be as strong as their weakest link. From the weight room and endless wind sprints, the Trojans learned to rely on each other.
“The summer conditioning programs were at times harder than any football practice,” Mike Rush said. “Coach Herman and Coach Welborn took a group of boys and in three years made them into proud, confident men.”
In 1973, Northrop had beaten Elmhurst 60-0, and appropriately, Herman's first game as the Trojans' boss was against the Bruins in 1974. Herman would yell, “60-0!” to his team and they would respond “Pride!” It was a brutal test for a new system and basically a new team full of starting sophomores, but the Trojans battled despite losing 16-0.
Elmhurst lost its first five games before breaking through in a 35-27 win over South Side. By winning three of the final four games, the Trojans finished 3-6.
When the 1975 season started, so did most of the kids from Portage and Kekionga kids as juniors. They just missed a winning record, losing the final game to Bishop Luers 34-30.
While preparing for the 1976 season, 31 seniors led the way, including nine returning starters on each side of the ball but then tragedy provided a rallying point. On July 2, after working out with their teammates that morning, defensive back Dave Stein and lineman Troi Lee were cleaning up the yard at a youth center when they decided to take down a faulty flag pole. They dug around it and picked it up, but the pole hit a high tension wire. Stein was killed, and Lee was severely injured, ending his football career.
“I really believe that incident brought all of our teammates together,” Herman said.
The Trojans wore a black patch on their left arms that season, and No. 19-ranked Marion felt the full force of their anger and mourning during the first game. The Giants were blown out 48-0, giving up six turnovers and earning only 28 yards in total offense, boosting Elmhurst into the state rankings for the first time ever.
“In my opinion we were overlooked entirely,” quarterback Brian Russell said. “Our timing was impeccable because we had played together for three years. They thought they were going to walk the dog on us, but we whipped them. We knew we were good from the beginning as a unit.”
A 39-10 win over Kokomo and a 38-0 rout of Concordia pushed the Trojans to No. 10 and set up a showdown with Bishop Dwenger. The expectations were so intense, the game was moved to North Side to accommodate a larger than normal crowd.
The game lived up to all the expectations as the Saints held a 13-6 lead late into the fourth quarter. With 2:40 left, Trojans running back Curtis Paschall caught a short pass from Russell and raced 11 yards into the end zone. While deciding what play to run for the two-point conversion, the Trojans were hit with a delay of game penalty, pushing the ball back to the 8-yard line.
On the two-point try, one of the backs ran the wrong direction on a triple-option play. Russell pitched the ball and there was no one there to catch it and run through a hole as wide as a Mack truck. Bishop Dwenger's Tom Isaacs recovered, and the Saints ran out the clock for a 13-12 win.
The Trojans recovered with a 36-0 win the next week over Harding, and then beat South Side and Wayne before taking out Homestead 22-10 in a non-conference rivalry game. That win would cost them playoff position because the Spartans were in a lower classification. A 10-6 win over Bishop Luers clinched the Summit Athletic Conference's South Division title to set up a championship game with Snider.
An already remarkable year, easily the best in Elmhurst history, became legend with a 15-7 win in the title game. Paschall rushed for 124 yards to finish with 1,035 for the season on only 99 carries. Elmhurst's defense took the ball away from the Panthers six times.
“We felt right from the get go that we were going to win the game,” Herman said. “The young men believed in themselves and played as a team. There wasn't anyone out there looking to be the star. They were after the team rewards.”
But there were some individual rewards, too. Seven players received first-team all-SAC honors, Don Culpepper, Ron Culpepper, Curtis Paschall, Mike Rush, Dan Heckley, Earnie Starks and Doug Peters, who was named on both sides of the ball.
“This was at a time when there were still a lot of questions about society and everything,” Russell said. “We had kids from the inner city, kids from the country and a mixture coming together that crossed a lot of economic and social lines. When we got together as a team, it was amazing that we were so united.”
Peters and Russell earned scholarships to Ball State, the Culpepper twins to Wittenberg and Rush to Butler. Almost all of the players have been successful in life, and most are looking forward to Friday's team get-together followed by Saturday's 35-year class reunion.
With so many graduating starters, the Trojans struggled to 4-5 in 1977 but rebounded to 6-3 in 1978. Wanting a chance to watch his own children compete in high school, Herman retired after 1978 with a 27-19 record, the only winning football coach in Elmhurst history. The closest the Trojans came to another winning record was 5-5 in 1981, and that was followed by 28 consecutive losing seasons before the school closed in 2010.
Today no one remembers Elmhurst won a city title except the people who were on the field that season. Bishop Luers is graciously lending the Trojans the “Victory Bell” that goes to SAC champions for one night, and Russell can't wait to bring his son Brian, 13, to meet his teammates and coaches.
“I want him to meet the coaches who made me the man I am,” Russell said. “I want to show him where I came from. The only reason I'm coming back is because it was like family, and this is not a normal reunion. We've all gone different directions in our lives, but we're all still brothers. You know what I mean?”
All his brothers do.