1963 Gonzaga Prep football team one of best ever
Some of the stories have been told so many times over beers that the yardages tend to get a bit longer, the runs a bit more dramatic and the plays more outstanding.
But a half-century has done nothing to diminish what was arguably the best high school football team ever to take a field in Spokane.
The 1963 Gonzaga Prep Bullpups not only went undefeated, they dominated. G-Prep earned the top spot in the State AA poll over Seattle Prep, and one publication ranked the team among the top 10 in the nation, said former player Jerry McGinn.
The Bullpups’ offense averaged 42 points per game, and the defense that year gave up 26 points – total – in its 10-0 season.
“None of us sat around and talked about how we wanted to be the better team than the year before us. We wanted to be the best team ever,” said McGinn, 67, a senior linebacker on the 1963 squad. “Everybody knew what we were doing, but they just couldn’t stop it. It was an amazing team to play on.”
The team was the 25th coached by the legendary Bill Frazier. In 34 years at G-Prep, Frazier won 15 Spokane City League football championships and 16 baseball championships.
Frazier’s 1940, 1952 and 1965 teams also went undefeated, but he told many that his 1963 squad was the best he’d ever coached.
It was led by a core of players who tended to be on the back end of large families. They watched their older brothers play. They played on all the same baseball and football teams growing up. And when their senior season arrived, the team had speed at every position.
“This was one of those teams that was, to me, leaderless. Whoever had the ball or was blocking was the leader,” McGinn said. “This was a group of people … who were probably 95 percent type A’s, who for the most part went off and created their own businesses and were successes at those businesses.”
Denny McCanna, 67, was the middle linebacker and one of at least eight seniors he said were recruited to play on Division I teams. As an example of the team speed, McCanna said three members of the offensive line – John Luger, Fred Schultz and Emmett Arndt – ran on G-Prep’s mile relay for the track team.
“I had three plays that I ran,” said McCanna, a flanker on offense who ran reverses out of the Wing-T formation. “I averaged 11.9 yards a carry. They knew what was coming. But, we had a hell of a line. They averaged 215 or 220 pounds. I’d come around the corner and there would be a lane.”
The team was led by fullback Ted Gerela, who came to G-Prep from Powell River, B.C. McCanna said the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Gerela was a “grown man playing a boy’s game. They might catch Gerela and then he would drag them 15 or 20 yards down the field. They had to hit him five times before they could get him down.”
Three Gonzaga Prep players led the City League in rushing. Gerela, who went on to become an All-Star Canadian Football League kicker, had 965 yards; tailback Pat Davidson had 938; and McCanna had 608 yards, mostly from his unstoppable reverses.
Gerela, whose brother Roy Gerela later kicked for eight years and won three Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, scored 14 touchdowns and Davidson had 13, according to a history compiled by local author Paul Delaney.
But as seemingly invincible as the Bullpups were, they kicked open a hornet’s nest in the third game when they played Rogers at Joe Albi Stadium.
McGinn said the Rogers squad had several good players, including quarterback Bob Lantz, 250-pound All-City center Bill Kenworthy and a group of guys – like the G-Prep team – who grew up together.
“We were running up against kamikazes. You think you have a guy figured out until he turns rabid on you,” McGinn said. “They were bound and determined to beat us. They almost pulled it off. We walked off going, ‘What just happened?’ ”
After three turnovers inside the Rogers’ 20-yard line, G-Prep finally pulled ahead 13-7 off the running of Gerela and Davidson. Rogers scored its only touchdown on a halfback pass from Dennis Hilsabeck to quarterback Bob Lantz.
Late in the game, Hilsabeck broke free on a screen pass and ran deep into the Bullpups’ territory. But the play was nullified by a clipping penalty.
“That kind of took the steam out of the old sails there,” said Hilsabeck, 66, who was a junior on that Rogers team. “We did surprise them a little bit. We talk about it all the time.”
McGinn jokes that Hilsabeck remembers every play like it was yesterday. Hilsabeck didn’t dispute it.
“We didn’t stop them very much. They were so deep,” Hilsabeck said. “They had one heck of a team – the best team I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around here a long time.”
The two teams played again four games later. McCanna said Coach Frazier was so worked up about the game that he kept breaking up and crying during the pregame prayer.
Hilsabeck said he remembers coming up on the first play to take on Gonzaga Prep’s tight end, who then pitched the ball back to Davidson. Some 63 yards later, G-Prep was already up a touchdown.
“It was one of their trick plays, but they did it quite a bit,” Hilsabeck said. “I keep telling myself that I could have intercepted the pitch. But I didn’t get there fast enough. Then the romp was on.”
The game ended as Rogers’ worst all-time City League defeat up to that point, 47-0.
But that was mercy compared to the final game of the year, when G-Prep unloaded on an overmatched Shadle Park team 74-0.
The game’s highlight actually came on a fluke play.
McGinn noticed that the Highlanders were not properly downing the ball on punts. He pointed out the situation to the referee and asked him not to blow the whistle if it happened again.
Sure enough, the next punt resulted in a live ball that McGinn – whom McCanna jokingly referred to as “Mr. Speed” – picked up the ball and started running.
Amid the confusion of Gonzaga Prep’s offense and the Highlander defense trying to take the field, McGinn kept running.
“Owing to my speed, the play took about five minutes,” McGinn said. “Mike Eugene was a track star. He ran backwards as fast as I ran forward. He kept knocking down guys, even the same guy twice, in order for me to get in the end zone. It was my claim to fame.”
Many years later, McGinn and his wife were at a South Hill bar when the bartender walked over with two drinks.
“I asked, ‘Who is this from?’ He said, ‘This was for the un-downed ball.’ It was one of those signature moments in your life. I can’t believe how many people remembered it.”
Somehow, that play comes up whenever talk of the 1963 team starts rolling, he said.
“It’s pretty cool for a small guy who probably didn’t belong on the field to begin with,” McGinn said.