1958 Warriors stand test of time
The Steel Curtain. The Purple People Eaters. The ’85 Bears. The Blackshirts of the 1990s.
Those considered among the best defensive units of all time have plenty of comparisons for judgment.
But how about the 1958 Schuyler Warriors?
Yes, those Warriors 15 minutes to the east. The same program that has won just two games in the last two seasons and that a year ago ended a five-year winless skid.
Many high school football fans of a certain generation likely have no idea just how good Schuyler was for many decades. Many other fans of another generation can remember at least one, and maybe two, of the five state championships the Warriors have sitting in the trophy case.
Yes, that’s right, five - more than Columbus High, Lakeview and Scotus Central Catholic combined.
Greatest among those, at least if you ask a trio of former players who stopped into The Telegram recently, was the 1958 team coached by Don Watchorn.
Roger Wilshusen, Art Polzin and Dan Wolfe were two-way starters for that team that went 9-0 and dominated opponents with six shutouts in those nine wins.
The most memorable, and likely most consequential among those nine was a win over Columbus in the fifth game of the season.
“The week before, when we won (against Seward), (Watchorn) said, ‘The next week is Columbus. Anybody who doesn’t think we’re going to win the game, don’t bother showing up,’” Wilshusen said. “That was the mindset.”
Wilshusen and his former teammates shuffled into the conference room at The Telegram in early December at different speeds. Now in their late 70s, time was beginning to catch up with this group of Schuyler legends.
Yet, while their gridiron abilities are now mostly gone, and something as simple as putting a hand in the dirt at the line of scrimmage may be impossible, the pride of those days long ago was readily apparent.
There was, if you looked closely enough, somewhat of a glow resonating from each that has perhaps dimmed over the past 60 years but in no way ever has, or ever will, completely fade.
“There wasn’t much finesse to it,” remembered Polzin, a running back and defensive back on the 1958 Class B state champions.
Polzin, as well as linemen/teammates Wilshusen and Wolfe, brought yearbooks, photos and a scrapbook Polzin’s wife, and high school sweetheart, put together about those days of old.
One particular photo was Schuyler Superintendent D.E. Nelson and Wolfe accepting a championship plaque handed over by a representative of the Omaha World Herald.
Prior to 1975, the Nebraska State Activities Association had yet to establish a postseason tournament. State champs were most often recognized in the pages of the World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star.
“We had, maybe, 10 plays,” Polzin said. “Run to the right, run to the left, run up the middle. We didn’t need much more. Most of the time, they worked.
“(Coach Don) Watchorn always said he never wanted any less than five yards,” Wolfe interjected.
Schuyler gave up a grand total of 20 points through a nine-game schedule in the fall of 1958.
Polzin, Wilshusen, Wolfe and the Warriors shut out their first five opponents and never allowed more than seven points in any game.
The first team to score on them was Albion in a 53-6 win in Week 6. York managed seven in a 40-7 game the following week, Schuyler shut down Crete 14-0 then Wahoo found the end zone once in a 40-7 season finale.
However, ask the starters, and the three assembled in the conference room that day, and they’ll tell you they only allowed the six points in the win over Albion. The rest were not on their ledger.
“We didn’t take responsibility for those 14 points because we were out of the game at that point,” Wilshusen said. “We had 14 other points scored on us, but those were in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t let the juniors forget it.”
After five weeks of shutouts to start the year, “It sounded like Albion won the game after they scored that one touchdown,” Wolfe remembered.
Schuyler was coached by the legendary Don Watchorn, who eventually went on to Nebraska-Omaha then a 21-year career as football coach and athletic director at Midland University in Fremont.
He won 116 games and nine conference titles leading another group of Warriors.
“He once told us, ’You’re going to hate me before you love me,” Wilshusen said of his former coach’s demanding style. “He loved to serve us watermelon, but we didn’t drink a drop of water ever.”
Watchorn’s most memorable comment came in the postgame speech after the win over Seward, setting the stage for the matchup with Columbus. As Wilshusen mentioned earlier, his directions for the next week were clear.
Though Kramer High School, as Columbus was known at the time, was also unbeaten and one step up in Class A, there was no uncertainty about who had the better squad.
In the days leading up, Kramer High fans, brought their confidence, and their wallets to the Last Chance Bar and Saloon on the edge of Schuyler. Those overconfident supporters slapped $100 bills on the counter.
“Those bills were covered in no time,” Wilshusen said.
He can’t exactly confirm or deny the existence of wagering on the game but had heard such an occurrence was common prior to the two teams going head-to-head.
“We were confident,” Wolfe said. “We were going to win.”
The largest crowd ever, at the time, assembled to see a high school football game that night in Schuyler more than 3,000 fans strong, according to a newspaper report of the game.
Columbus drove down to the Schuyler 7 on the first possession of the game but stalled after a false-start then a failed third-down conversion. Quarterback Tom Ernst had Con Keating open but sailed the pass out of bounds.
Ernst then sailed a field goal attempt wide of the uprights. If there were any nerves, the trio remembered, that first stop helped settle the Warriors in for the remainder of the game.
Schuyler finally struck in the second quarter driving 70 yards and finishing from the 11 on a 7-yard run by Frank Sobota, a four-yard carry by Bob Kasik then a quarterback keeper for a touchdown by Larry Trofholz to make it 7-0.
Eldon Hobza intercepted a pass in the third quarter and returned it to the Columbus 25 setting up another Schuyler score.
Sobota rumbled for 13 and a first down then Trofholz did the honors again from the 1-yard line three plays later capping the scoring 13-0.
Columbus had a chance late to break the shutout streak, went to the passing game and advanced all the way to the Schuyler 1 but was stymied by a Warrior defense that still wasn’t ready to surrender any points.
After stuffing Kramer High at the goal line, Schuyler ran out the remaining 45 seconds and moved to 5-0.
“Columbus was pretty confident the year we played them,” Wilshusen said. “They had just beaten Grand Island the week before, and they were No. 1 in Class A. They came down ripe for the game, and we shut them out. We bolted to No. 1 and they dropped to fifth or sixth in Class A.”
Four more wins followed then a postseason banquet in the Oak Ballroom when the trophy was presented.
Asked what made the defense so effective, Wilshusen pointed out that Wolfe, though a lineman, was the fastest guy on the team.
His play, plus that of Wilshusen and the rest of the offensive and defensive lines, opened up big holes on one side of the ball and constantly put defenders in the backfield on the other.
In the days before weightlifting programs, the trio and their teammates showed up in shape before the season thanks to a summer full of farm work.
Wolfe’s speed, though, was also a byproduct of other motivations.
“Wind sprints, I’d win then I could go to the shower,” he said.
Schuyler went unbeaten in the next two years as well and claimed state championships in the playoff era in the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s the 1958 team, and its total of 20 points against, that perhaps gives it the final say in which Warrior champ is the best ever.
“When I tell (the grandkids) we only allowed 17 points, or 19 points, whatever it was in the season, they say, ‘Impossible,’” Wilshusen said. “The grandkids have had some good teams, but a lot of their games end up 35-34. They can’t believe we could shut out teams for nine weeks in a row.”
Wolfe put it more simply.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We get better every year.”