A 'Galloping Ghost' runs wild
Sixty years ago this fall the Willmar High School Football team finished with an 8-0 record. Your team might finish unbeaten but, funny, there was no place to go for further testing.
Season over. A postseason structure for Minnesota State High School League football was still 13 years up ahead.
Those eight wins in the fall of 1958 stretched the Cardinals' unbeaten streak to 31 games. A 6-6 tie vs. Hutchinson to open the '59 campaign made it 32 (30-0-2). The run would end the following Friday night with a lopsided loss at Alexandria — the same school Willmar whipped to launch its pigskin mastery in the second week of the 1955 season.
The streak drew headlines in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Oct. 26, 1958, issue: "Willmar string to 30; Faces Morris Next." A sidebar listed 26 teams that had already finished unbeaten, topped by Eden Valley with a 17 game unbeaten streak.
Two days earlier, Ted Peterson, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune prep writer, had been in Willmar to cover the Cardinals' 19-0 win over Sauk Centre. The Saturday headline topped the page. The piece was bordered by the paper's 38-year-old sports columnist — surely, long gone by now — named Hartman.
Beset by fumbles, beating the Streeters proved a struggle but Peterson cited two Cards for praise: "A clever dancing master, Gene Spaulding, proved the big offensive spark for Willmar, while Dennis (Red) Harvey, a 6-5, 220-pound end, was a standout in wrecking the Sauk Centre maneuvers."
Spaulding, Harvey and Ralph Engel were elevated to varsity as sophomores; over three years the trio played on Willmar teams that were a combined 23-0-1.
Bill Hansen, the head coach and a mechanical arts teacher, was popular with players and the community. The Wisconsin native would head the football program from 1945 to 1977, his last the first year of the Central Lakes Conference and the debut of the present stadium.
"He was one of the most impressive men I've ever met," said Spaulding in a 1978 retrospective published in the Willmar Reminder. "His optimism, mannerisms and sincerity made you play your heart out for him."
"Bill was always the last on the bus," recalled Engel in an interview this summer over coffee. "He would say, pumping a fist: 'Boys, it's fun to play winning football.' That's all I ever heard in three years."
The Fifties are considered a golden decade in Willmar football. There were six straight West Central Conference titles (one shared) and nothing close to a losing season until a 3-3-1 record in '59.
No doubt, Willmar was the "Big Kid" on the block.
"We knew we were the biggest school in the conference and had the most students to draw from," said Phillip Lindblad, a starting lineman on both the '57 and '58 squads. "You kind of wondered how we would match up with top-rated schools, like Robbinsdale and Austin, both powers back then. I think we were ranked in the top 5 or 10 in those days."
From 1955 on, non-conference games were Hutchinson and Alexandria. Surely, opposing coaches sought to inspire the young gladiators before tackling the mighty Cards: "Remember boys," the coach of an underdog might proclaim before kickoff, "Just like you, they put on their pants on one leg at a time."
"You wanted to beat Willmar; it was like beating Notre Dame," said Kevin Quinn, a young football fan in Benson in the '50s who would go on to play guard for the undefeated 1962 Braves team.
Lindblad had come off a farm near Big Kandiyohi Lake. He would start at right guard as a junior and at right tackle and defensive tackle as a senior, earning All-Area honors. Still, even at a sturdy 5-10, 185-pounds, he must have appeared childlike lining up next to Harvey, a teenage Goliath.
Senior QB Jack Dougherty triggered the offense, which revolved around Spaulding at left-half. Oftentimes, he skirted right end followed the blocks of Lindblad and Harvey — one of only two players on the roster over 200 pounds — tackle Norman Lindquist at 251 pounds was the other.
"We used a T-formation," said Lindblad, who lives in St. Louis Park and is a retired Honeywell engineer. "We sometimes used a straight-T but more often with a split right half [junior Norton Peterson]. We also used a single wing. One of our favorite plays was 46T. Red would block down and I'd block out and kind of pull and lead the play. My cousin, Jerry Johnson, was next to me at right guard."
Besides his athleticism and speed, Spaulding had another advantage that fall. He was older, turning 19 in February. A bout with polio as a child had delayed his schooling.
Howard Iverson, the baseball coach, was the line coach.
Engel: "Iver was gruff, loud, a taskmaster, a character, the kind of coach who you feared but respected. He was an algebra teacher and he'd bellow in class at misdeeds"
On the practice field, he would harass receivers: "Any ball you can see, you should catch."
If slow of foot, you might be singled out: "That's OK; if we were going the other way, you'd be first."
It happened that 1958 would be the last fall in the high school on Minnesota Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth streets.
Players would dress for practice there and walk three blocks to Eighth Street to practice at the south end of Garfield Park.
Games were played at Hodapp Field, what is now the soccer pitch. The city baseball field was where the football stadium now sets and the new high school (now Kennedy Elementary) was rising along Seventh Street.
Sports Editor Lefty Ranweiler, in his seventh year at the West Central Daily Tribune, wrote in "Portside Slants by Lefty" that he could hardly wait for the '58 campaign to begin.
A big reason: No. 14, listed in the program at 160 pounds.
"All-Conference Gene Spaulding ... will be a great one," gushed Lefty, also a football referee. "I have never seen a high school athlete run with less effort...He instinctively does the the right thing all the time. He knows how to best use his interference, when to cut back, and when to spin away from tackles."
Engel, who started his schooling in Belgrade before several family moves, met Spaulding in sixth grade at Washington Elementary. They hit it off immediately. Engel lived on Limit Avenue, which defined the city's southern border and is now called Willmar Avenue. The Spauldings lived in a neighborhood a little farther to the west.
During his freshman year, Engel started dating Janice Soland, his wife-to-be. Janice was from Svea and she introduced her Svea friend, Judy Soderberg, to Gene. The couples began double-dating.
Engel started at center as a junior and was converted to fullback his senior year, while also starting at linebacker. The three-sport athlete, who also worked at Central Dairy, would play every down, at least until the outcome no longer was in doubt. He would score 5 TDs in league games and rush for over 300 yards and be named the team's Honorary captain.
He loved to watch his friend run, in both fall and spring. "He was liquid in motion," said Engel.
Some called him the "Galloping Ghost," a reference to legendary halfback Red Grange.
As a junior, Spaulding set the school's pole vault record at 11-feet, one-quarter inch while winning the WCC first-place medal. He also ran a leg on the winning 880-yard relay.
At the end of fall '58, Lefty compiled the team and individual stats. They showed Spaulding, whose dad Harvey was the county sheriff and a former highway patrolman, had outrun the pursuit for 1,140 yards in 120 snaps, a 9.5 yard average. Pass receptions put him over 1,500 yards which the editor rounded out to 1,700 counting kick returns. His 14 TDs in league play doubled the next best total.
Those feats earned him a spot on the 11-man offensive unit of the "Prep Parade All-State Football Team,' sponsored by WCCO Radio and Cities Service Oil Company. He gained national recognition for running for 1,000 yards and scoring 100 points.
Blared one headline in the local paper: "Gene Spaulding, Willmar's Greatest Runner, Leads WCC."
That cast some outstanding backs the past decade in his shadow, including 1950 grad Harlen Brogen, like Coach Hansen a member of the initial class of the Cardinal Pride HOF in 2002.
Spaulding was inducted in 2017 and gave perhaps the most concise acceptance speech in the history of the banquet.
In less time than some of his longer TD runs, he modestly expressed his appreciation and thanked his coaches, teammates and Cardinal Pride, saying his friend Engel's introductory remarks had said enough.
"He was so thrilled to be selected," his widow Judy told me. "The recognition meant so much to him."
Sadly, it came none too soon. Gene died suddenly June 4 of this year. Judy said her husband for several days had not been feeling well; doctors attributed his death to a blood clot that had moved from lung to his heart. He was 79. The Svea girl and the running back had been married 59 years, sweethearts for longer than that.
Author's note: Though, regrettably, I had never met him, I attended Gene's funeral at Calvary Lutheran at which Rev. Dean Johnson presided. In the foyer, Gene's Hall of Fame plaque was nicely displayed among family photos. At the lunch in the church basement, I asked for help locating former teammates and found Lindblad and Engel (Red Harvey died in April 1999), and got their phone numbers, explaining my aim to write about Gene, whose name came up quite often during my years with Tribune sports (former sports editor Steve Palmer wrote about Gene in a 1973 retrospective). Phillip mailed me articles and the 1958 Homecoming Program, as well as his playbook detailed with the precision of a future engineer. Judy shared a scrapbook kept by Gene's mom and other helpful memorabilia. Ralph displayed a keen memory of the those long-ago school days (and paid for the coffee); and who knew? He and Janice provide the initials for R&J Tours that they started 29 years ago. While the focus here is one autumn, a few players and two coaches, the writer is well aware football is an all-hands-on-board sport; what coach worth his salt has not exclaimed "A chain is no stronger than its weakest link."