Before high-school football became glamorized in “Friday Night Lights” and television networks, still in their infancy, ever considered broadcasting pro football, America’s favorite sport was being played – and quite well – by some strong, fast, hard-nosed and very talented boys from Turlock High School.
A group of these players, some of Turlock’s toughest boys turned men, reunited once again on Friday at Latif’s Restaurant.
This very impressive group of now aged men, these former stud players from the 1947-59 era, sat and regaled each other with their still vivid memories of practices and games of years gone past. They were just 16-18 years old in a post WWII world when they reeled off 26 consecutive wins in the two and one-half year period from ’48 to ’50, but as they talked and remembered their playing days, it was as if it all happened days before.
They dominated the gridiron, and even though they graduated some 63 years ago, the old stories seemed new again and the former — make that forever Bulldogs — did not mince words about who they were and what they accomplished.
These talented Turlock kids— almost all 81 years old now— who raised watermelons and sweet potatoes over the summer to help mom and dad pay the bills, followed their high school days with successful careers, happy families, and that now long-forgotten American Dream. Still, when it came time to reminisce the spirit of the Bulldogs was never far from reach.
“It was so much fun playing with these great guys on our great teams,” said Dick Monteith, class of 1950 like so many of the men there. “Playing with guys like (Dick) Conover and (Paul) Larson and all the rest was a wonderful time in all of our lives.”
One Turlock team, the one many call “the best football team Turlock High ever had,” stood above the rest – the state championship squad of 1949 — although many of those same players were also key contributors to the also-undefeated ’48 team.
“This is so great for everyone to get together like this,” said former tailback Jim Conover, the only five-sport letterman (in one year) in Turlock High history, earning letters in baseball, basketball, football, track and golf. “I think we should do this every year.”
Jim Beevers, a self-admitted “mean, ornery” bully of a player from the class of ’50, said, “It’s just fantastic to be here with these guys I grew up with, practiced with and won so many games with and I think we ought to do this every year too. If we could…”
Roy Hedstrom, the former offensive end, was the reunion organizer and had the toughest job on Friday — the last roll call for five former Bulldogs from that era who passed away since the last reunion in 2011. They were Tom Bill (1948), Dan Gonsalves, Dale Ocken (both of the ’49 class), Paul Nazar (’50) and Ed Lucero (’52).
When the teammates, forever locked in history together, heard their former childhood friends and teammates had passed, the sadness and disappointment was audible.
Moment s later, almost on cue, one of the Bulldogs’ most popular teammates, Ebby Myers, appeared in the doorway with his son who drove him to Latif’s from his home in Grass Valley.
“Ebby!” everyone yelled out in unison as the broadly smiling Myers walked into the room to many handshakes and pats on the back— just like the good old days.
“You have to give credit to Jack Kennedy, whose idea it was to have this first reunion two years ago and Jim Stevens (class of ’53) who owns Latif’s and allowed us to have this reunion here,” said Hedstrom.
“We had a great time playing together and we worked well together. Plus we had two outstanding coaches we all loved and respected in (head coach) Joe Debely and our line coach Armon Sighetti.”
Kennedy, who Hedstrom says “was the toughest guy in the league,” and has a vice-grip handshake that proves it, said, “This couldn’t be better. I loved every minute of growing up here and playing with all these great guys.”
Almost to a man, Hedstrom’s former teammates agreed that it was Debely (whose name adorns the THS football stadium) and Sighetti who turned up the intensity and created the environment for 26 consecutive wins and that coveted 1949 Open Division California State Championship.
Said Conover, “We were coached that winning is not everything but losing is nothing.”
“Joe Debely would knock you down and Armon Sighetti (an All-American center at St. Mary’s College) would build you back up,” added Beevers.
Larson, the legendary Turlock quarterback who went on to earn first-team NCAA All-American honors in the old Look magazine during a fabulous career at Cal-Berkeley (earning himself a spot in both the Hula Bowl and East-West Shrine Game), walked into Latif’s and introduced himself, saying, “Hi. I’m Johnny Lujack.”
Lujack, the former Chicago Bears’ QB, was a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame who Larson idolized growing up.
“Did you watch him play on TV when you were a kid?” he was asked.
Larson laughed and said, “There was no television back then so all we could do is read about him in the newspapers.”
Ironically some years later, Larson would be a first-team Look Magazine All-American and would later be featured on what was America’s No. 1 TV program at the time, "The Jackie Gleason Show" in New York City.
“You know, our team was filled with excellent all-around athletes and we had 11 starters from Turlock High who would go on to start in college ball the very next year,” said Larson before posing for a picture with his former backfield mates Monteith (who went on to serve two terms as a State Senator) and Conover.
Monteith would go on to earn a scholarship to Stanford while Conover went to COP, the current University of the Pacific in Stockton. Monteith’s Stanford team and Conover’s COP team would end up facing their former backfield mate Larson’s Cal team a couple years later.
As for their old coach Debely, Larson said, “Papa Joe was a great coach who taught us all the fundamentals and made us believe in ourselves.”
Hedstrom agreed saying, “The only way you could play for Joe Debely’s teams, you had to be able to block and tackle or else you wouldn’t see the field.”
Local attorney Ron Sarhad, who was a 7-year-old during those long-ago days, would go on to lead the undefeated Bulldogs in ’57-‘58, and he was joined by his teammate and friend Jay Smith.
“It was such a wonderful time back then,” said Sarhad, who said he was “honored to be invited” to this very private and personal get-together.
“They inspired us to play the game with everything we had.”
One of the many poignant moments that occurred at the reunion was when Smith presented an old picture of Larson posing ferociously in his Cal uniform, a picture Smith had kept with him for 60 years, waiting for Larson to autograph it.
“When I was 12,” Smith said, “I went to a Cal game with Larson’s parents because they knew my dad, who ran Olson’s Produce Market. We got to go into the locker-room and I remember getting an autograph from Matt Hazeltine (who would go on to play for the 49ers) but I didn’t have time to get Paul’s autograph so I am hoping to do it now, 60 years later.”
Sure enough Larson signed it for the youngster, asking, “Say, aren’t you Jiggs Smith’ boy?” And young Mr. Smith, in his early 70s, couldn’t have been more delighted.
“The way we thought of these guys growing up was near-idolatry. That’s how much we looked up to them,” said Sarhad.
If anyone ever wanted to truly learn what small-town Americana and high-school football is all about, they ought to make plans to appear at the next great reunion of the great Turlock High football teams of years’ past when they gather again next year at Latif’s “to tell all the old lies one more time,” as Hedstrom, the “executive historian of this team,” put it.
“Come to think of it, for a bunch of poor country boys, we did do pretty well for ourselves.”