Columbia HS football team’s big game vs. Montclair, 66 years ago


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By Jim Van Orden


“That’s as grand a bunch of kids as anybody could ever have to coach ” – Frank Hoffman

It was such a big game…you might call it New Jersey’s first high school “Super Bowl.” Perhaps the largest crowd to ever pack Maplewood’s Underhill Field assembled to watch two unbeaten football powerhouses— Columbia and Montclair— square off to prove which team deserved a shot at the state championship title.

That crisp autumn day 66 years ago—Saturday, October 27, 1951 — also was one of the most important challenges in Columbia Coach Frank Hoffman’s career. Great teams don’t come along very often for most coaches. After several mediocre seasons, Hoffman finally had a winner in his 1950 team, which lost only one game. But fickle fans were disappointed and wondered if he would ever field a state champion.

Most thought the 1950 Cougars, undefeated going into the Montclair game, was the best team in Columbia’s history. Some sports writers compared it to the 1926 and 1937 Cougars, teams that each lost only one game…but didn’t win the state championship. Standing in Columbia’s way in 1950—as it had during four previous seasons—was Montclair. The Mounties beat the Cougars to a pulp—45-13—and ruined their championship chances.

Assembling another winning team in 1951, Hoffman and his Cougars were “out for blood” when their old nemesis roared into Underhill Field. Cougar fans were, too, and expected a donnybrook of epic proportions. But everyone was sorely disappointed during the first half. Like two boxers testing each other during early rounds, gridiron action was slow. Frustrated, the teams went to their locker rooms tied 6-6 at halftime. Fans couldn’t wait for the action to resume.

Fans packed Underhill Field on October 27, 1951 for the big game between undefeated Columbia and Montclair. But they were disappointed when the teams were tied at halftime.

A great time for football

Life, living and football were different in 1951.

Many Maplewood and South Orange fans walked from their homes to the game. They left cars behind because stadium parking was limited and streets near Underhill Field usually were lined with vehicles. On the way, they were greeted by smoke from curbside fires set by neighbors who raked leaves into piles and burned them along the route. The air was saturated with a pungent, sweet smell that permeated clothing and nostrils.

Gridiron fever was in the air, too. The excitement was palpable. Everyone talked Columbia football. Was this the “magic year” the Cougars would win the championship? Only a few people owned televisions then. Imagine a time when professional and college football games weren’t on TV every weeknight and weekends. You got your football news in ice cream parlors and barber shops, or from radio and newspaper stories.

Sports reporters didn’t like Underhill Field because there was no press box at the time. Only a few stadiums had a room where they could write stories and deliver radio play-by-plays. The playing field was composed of real grass, not artificial turf, with lime markers and lines applied by workers who pushed carts resembling today’s lawn fertilizer spreaders. Anchoring end zones were wood goal posts, painted white, which sat on the zero yard line…not ten yards back.

The bleachers were wood, too, with hard planks upon which fans sat, squirmed and squeezed together, many often wrapped in blankets to fend off the cold. Wonderful, powerful food smells—hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, onions and popcorn—emanating from the concession stand behind the bleachers wafted through the crowd and stoked primordial hunger responses.

Stomachs growled. Fans stuffed faces between screams and standing/sitting encouraged by the band, which filled the first two rows. Cheerleaders bounced to the beat and yelled through handheld megaphones. “Roar, Cougar, Roar…Roar, Cougar, roar!” was their constant refrain.

Columbia High School’s band took center stage at halftime. Fans couldn’t wait for the tie game to resume.

Columbia wanted revenge. Montclair wanted to hold on to its championship title.

The screams grew strident when those working the scoreboard behind the end zone inserted a wrong number—say, for yardage or points—in various slots. Electronic scoreboards that operated remotely and provided instant, colorful displays were still in the future. So were decent microphones and speakers. High-pitched announcers screamed inaudibly—their voices masked by static-filled electronic screeches—over the din.

On the other side of the field was the “enemy,” opponents’ families and friends who had endured New Jersey traffic as well as long walks. They were “out for blood,” too, and I don’t imagine they were happy with their accommodations. Guest team bleachers were more primitive than what the home team audience endured. They were much smaller, which meant some folks were forced to stand along the wood-and-bailing wire fence that circled the field. Adding insult to injury, they had to walk half the field’s circumference to buy food and drinks.

A great Columbia team

Because many star Columbia players graduated in June, 1951—among them “Tank” George Wallen, Dave Sterling, Jack Coffin, Chuck Van Orden, Joe Spangenberger, Al Lauber, Walt Walsh and Charley Marratt—sports writers wondered whether enough talent remained for Hoffman to build another juggernaut.

But new stars emerged from the ranks and caught everyone’s attention. Some had unique nicknames reporters and fans loved. Among them were captain and tailback Jimmy “The Horse” Valestin, halfback Al “The Jet” Battle (perhaps Columbia football’s first African-American starter), guard Ronald “Rocky” Rauchmiller, quarterback Frankie “The Arm” Penn, and tackle Vincent “Doc” Nardone.

Other excellent players without nicknames came on the scene, too, such as wingback Eddie Zipf, center Warren Davis. Twins Tom and Jim Conlin at end positions, and tackles Frank Abt and Ray Van Orden. Altogether, Hoffman and his undermanned staff of three—which included Bus Stranahan, Perry Tyson and Phil Seitzer—had 72 young men to train and motivate.

Despite all the new 1951 talent and his previous year’s 8-1 record, reporters still questioned Hoffman’s coaching ability. Stories compared Hoffman with his predecessor, Phil Marvel, who coached the Columbia football team—and won the majority of his games—for 20 years through the end of World War-II.

What reporters failed to see, according to sports writer Owen Larry Keefe, whose weekly column “from the press box…” appeared in the Maplewood-South Orange News-Record, was that Hoffman’s new team had “balance. There are stars but there are others who are above average. Hoffman can fill in with reserves without any great loss of efficiency.”

Hoffman had something else, too, wrote Keefe. “We think we have the key to Hoffman’s success,” he wrote. “Hoff(man) has shown in the last three years that he can make the boys want to play football—probably the biggest task a coach has in this particular district.”

“Hoff’s boys” didn’t disappoint. They really wanted to play and, despite a mediocre 13-6 win in the opener against Kearny High School, displayed flashes of talent, hard hitting and speed.

There was concern, however, among fans and reporters about the Cougars’ second game against Plainfield High School, led by perhaps the fastest high school fullback in the nation: Milt Campbell, who would become the first African-American to win the gold medal in the decathlon during the 1956 Olympic Games.

It had been eight years since Columbia had beaten Plainfield at Underhill Field. Tension built quickly when Plainfield went ahead by 12 points in the first quarter. But the Cougars roared back, scoring 30 points and shutting down speedy Campbell’s running game. With that win, Columbia proved it had “arrived” and the team rolled on to back-to-back 27-0 victories over Morristown and Orange in the following weeks.

The Cougars, nervous over the upcoming Oct. 27 duel with Montclair, almost lost a hard-fought game with Westfield, 19-14, the week before. As a result, sports writers gave Montclair a three-point edge to beat Columbia and retain its state championship title.

 A game for the ages

The memory of 1950’s 45-13 drubbing by Montclair still hung in the air when the Mounties and Cougars took the field, fans filling Underhill’s bleachers to capacity and standing three-deep along the perimeter fence. It was a do-or-die game for Columbia.

To everyone’s surprise, the game got off to a slow start. Both teams looked sluggish, almost tentative. There was plenty of hard-hitting action, but little scoring. It certainly wasn’t the game fans came to see, especially when the teams left the field tied at halftime.

“We had seen Montclair, and we felt Columbia had a real chance to win although we never dreamed there would be such a rout in the last half,” wrote Keefe.

“But from the start Saturday, Columbia was hitting, and there was no sign of ‘Montclairitis’ at any time,” he continued. “This was a Columbia team that was out for revenge and which was going to get it.”

When the final whistle blew, Columbia walloped the state’s best high school football team and previous year’s state champion 27-6. Sitting high on his players’ shoulders as they triumphantly carried him around the field, and surrounded by a wall of cheering students, parents and children, Hoffman couldn’t believe his good fortune.

He didn’t realize at that moment, however, that Montclair Coach Clary Anderson was running across the field to congratulate him. Anderson, who had lost but three games in his entire coaching career and had several state championship titles under his belt, wanted to shake Hoffman’s hand. But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t muscle his way through the crowd.

It wasn’t until Hoffman, a modest man unaccustomed to adulation, asked to be put down that Anderson finally reached him.

Columnist Keefe described the meeting.

“Frank was being carried around, but Clary didn’t leave until he paid tribute to his rival. From all reports we’ve had, Anderson simply said he lost to a better team. Seeing his reaction in defeat, when a man’s worth is really tested, showed us that our admiration for him was correct.”

Turkey Day shocker

Hoffman admired Anderson, too, whose teams had beaten the Cougars every year since the young coach started in 1947. Humiliating Montclair defeats, such as the 61-0 licking in 1948, as well as several mediocre seasons had put Hoffman’s job in jeopardy.

But now, big game behind them, Hoffman and the Cougars had redeemed themselves and were on course to win the state championship title. Only three games remained in the season. The Cougars didn’t know it then, of course, but the final game—a Turkey Day shocker—would threaten their title chances.

“The nearness of the end of the season should act as a stimulant to the locals,” Keefe wrote.

“They can’t afford a letdown Saturday, for the Zebras (New Brunswick High School) are too big and are coming along too fast to ease up. West Orange on Turkey Day also could be trouble.”

Keefe was right, the Cougars were very stimulated when they faced the East Orange High School “Panthers” the following week. The game was a blow-out with Columbia winning 41-7. Many thought the final score would have gone higher had Hoffman not taken out the first team and replaced it with reserves in the second half.

Next was the New Brunswick High School “Zebras.”

“SMASH NEW BRUNSWICK SATURDAY!” the News-Record headline proclaimed on Thursday, November 15, 1951. “Smash” they did. Once again, the Cougars delivered, beating the Zebras 27-0…the third time Columbia achieved that score during the season.

“The score could very well have gone up into the 40s or 50s,” Keefe wrote. “However, Coach Frank Hoffman, looking both toward next year and the Thanksgiving encounter with West Orange, used his first team no more than a half altogether.”

South Orange and Maplewood fans showed up in force at Underhill Field when the Thanksgiving Day game rolled around on Thursday, November 22. It was a cold, gray day with a hint of snow in the damp air. Chatter filled the bleachers. Fans wondered if the Cougars would go into the game too cocky and confident. A loss would mean no title.

Sports writers remembered an undefeated Columbia losing its title chances when it battled New Brunswick to a 0-0 tie in 1937. “There’s no reason to get jittery now,” Keefe wrote. “At the same time, there must be the realization that West Orange would love nothing better than to snap the Cougars’ string and end any hopes of a mythical state crown.”

Like the big Montclair game, the Cougars gave fans little excuse to jump, shout and cheer during the first half, which was scoreless. If anything, it appeared West Orange was more aggressive, threatening to score on several occasions. The Cougars, looking tired, retreated to their locker room.

What happened there displayed the leadership ability of the team’s captain, Jimmy Valestin.

“Coming down the dressing room stairs too soon and hearing Captain Valestin’s final talk before the Cougars went out for the second half of the West Orange game,” wrote Keefe, “that, to us, was enough proof of what a great leader Valestin was. You had to hear it to believe it. No emotional effect. Just one boy talking to his mates.”

Whatever Valestin said made a difference. The Cougars returned to the field revitalized. But West Orange, hyped and ready, kept the game scoreless going into the final minutes. The game looked like it might be a repeat of the 1937 tie with New Brunswick.

It was the final minutes of Valestin’s final game and he wanted the championship more than anything else. It was revealed later that Valestin had injured his leg during the game…but didn’t tell anyone.

“The poise of the Columbia team throughout the year came through,” wrote Keefe. “That fortitude showed in the final minutes of the game when the chips were down. Valestin going 42 yards and 82 yards in the clutch. Little wonder we pick him…as one of the four greatest backs we’ve ever seen.”9

The final decision

Columbia beat West Orange, but the score, 6-0, created concern. Was it enough to convince the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, as well as the Newark News, which annually picked the high school footbal  champion, to select Columbia?

The newspaper relied on rankings provided by Dr. Roger B. Saylor, associate professor of economics and statistics at Penn State College.

“Under his figuring, Columbia topped the Jersey field with 541 points, 15 more than the total given Montclair, last year’s winner of the Newark News trophy and beaten only by Columbia this season,” according to the News-Record. Editor Gregory Hewlett was gushing in his praise for the team:

“All hats are off, including mine, to our new state champions—the Columbia High School football team—to the boys and to the coaches. “Twas a grand job they did this year and I’m sure I can tell them that every one of you is proud of them. As far as I’m concerned, this was the best high school football team I’ve ever seen— and I happened to see even that great Columbia team of 1926.”

Although Columbia High School hasn’t fielded a football champion since 1951, it has done so in swimming (1955 and 56…coached by Frank Hoffman), Lacrosse (1977, 78 and 79), girls basketball (1970), soccer (1988), track (1994) and many other sports over the years.

The 1951 Columbia football team was inducted into the high school’s “Athletic Hall of Fame” in 2006. The team’s achievements were summarized as follows:

“Led by Coach Frank Hoffman the 1951 Football team established themselves as one of the top teams in the history of Columbia. They captured the 1951 State Championship by going undefeated in the tough 9 game schedule. That year the Cougars averaged almost 300 yards per game while allowing their opponents only 50 yards per game. Through the Colliton rating system the Cougars garnered 747 points that season, prior to that year no team had reached more than 587 points. Many of the members of the team continued their football careers at various colleges and universities.”

Note: Jim Van Orden, who currently lives in a suburb of Dallas, Tex., is a CHS graduate, Class of 1962. His brothers, Chuck and Ray, played on the 1950 and 1951 Cougar football teams respectively.

Photo captions

Photo 1: The 1951 undefeated Columbia High School football team was inducted into the Columbia High School Athletic Hall of Fame on May 11, 2006. Front row, left to right: Lou Schwarz, Manager, Ricky Ericsson, Ray Van Orden, Al Battle, Bill Chambers, Doc Nardone, Jim Conlin, Captain, Jim Valestin, Tom Conlin, Frank Abt, Rocky Rauchmiller, Frank Penn, Ed Zipf, Bill Wogisch, Manager, Frank Fabrizio. Second row: Advisor, Edwin Spear, Coach Frank Hoffman, Sonny Scola, Sal Rizzolo, Al Suter, Warren Davis, Dick Boyko, Bernie Lang, Hal Zaffuto, Guido De Torrice, Frank McGrath, Red Ronnie, Larry Chambers, Don Ort, Trainer, Phil Seitzer, Assistant Coach, Bus Stranahan. Third Row: Howard Watkins, Bbo Calkins, Bill Hartke, Bob Sickley, Harry Axt, Dick Walters, Bruce Wallin, Jim Rose, Al Lambert, Paul Stille, Chuck Hoover, Conrad Folino, Bill Wind, Karl Huelsenbeck, Manager, George McLaughlin. Not pictured: Peter Kastner, Asst. Coaches; Perry Tyson, Dick Barba, Jack Denardo.

Photo 2:  Tom and Jim Conlin were among Columbia’s young players in 1951 who wanted to avenge the team’s only loss to state champion Montclair High School the previous year. (Maplewood-South Orange News-Record)

Photo 3: Sports writers wondered whether Columbia Coach Frank Hoffman (far right) could snap his team’s losing streak to Montclair and claim the championship. (Photo: CHS Mirror).

Photo 4; Montclair High School football coach Clary Anderson had lost only three games in his career when his team locked horns with the Cougars on October 27, 1951 (photo: NJ State Interscholastic Athletic Association).