When I think of high school football, the first thing that comes to mind is not grass or the Friday night lights, but the dust behind the gym, because that’s where we practiced: on a ragged patch of dirt dotted with patchy clumps of tough grass, the kind of grass that camels are only too happy to eat on painful treks through murderous deserts, grass that taunts and damns, grass that says, “You are weak and insignificant and the world is cruel and relentless, now hit the ground and give me twenty.” More often than not, the person barking out the orders was Coach Squires, who when not instilling discipline in the football team kept the valley from descending into chaos as the local sheriff.
The dust was an inch thick, and caked your skin and pads and even your mouthpiece if you weren’t careful. We jumped in the dust, ran on it, rolled in it, fell in it, hated it, swallowed it, but respected it on game day, when we realized that the dust and Coach Squires and endless repetitions of firing out and staying low shaped us into a team, any green grass a luxury that we had earned.
As many of you know, there’s an alumni football game Saturday night at the Boonville Fairgrounds. I’ll be in the stands, watching my friends and family knock heads, and remembering other teammates and players and games. Here is a handful of the guys who, in my own experience, stood out.
Larry Carr — The best pure football guy I played with, and definitely the hardest hitter. Larry ruled the offensive line from the center position, ferociously hurling his body against opponents. On defense, his specialty was wreaking havoc. I saw Larry hit guys so hard they quit, just lay there on the field blubbering and refusing to go on.
Steve Waggoner — Steve, a classmate of Larry’s, was another hard guy. Steve never backed down, never complained, never stopped smashing the other guy in the face and, frankly, he made a lot of his own teammates (myself included) nervous. Thank god he was on my team. A great lineman on both sides of the ball.
Brent Roberts — Brent won Mr. Hardnose as a star for the late and legendary Brad Shear’s powerhouse Ukiah Pop Warner squads, and it showed. A linebacker and offensive back, Brent was as smart a football player as I ever played with. Tough as bucket of crooked nails, and always in the right place at the right time.
Jerry Tolman — If memory serves me right, Jerry was All-League in football, basketball and baseball for three straight years, league MVP in basketball three years, and league MVP in football and baseball a couple of times too. What else can I say? Well, I think that if he wasn’t such a good hoops player, going on to captain the Sonoma State squad, he could have played college football and baseball too. The football coach at Santa Rosa Junior College wanted Jerry, 6’3” and fast, to play linebacker. The Sonoma State baseball coach once got Jerry to throw off the mound, and Jerry, haven’t picked up a baseball in a few years, got his fastball clocked in the mid-90s. My teams from 4th through 12th grade rode Jerry’s brilliance to what modest success we enjoyed, and we loved every minute of it.
Olie Erickson — Like Jerry, I played every sport with Olie since the 4th Grade. When I was a senior and Jerry was QB, Coach Squires and Coach Miller kept it simple: either Jerry ran the ball behind Olie, or Jerry handed it off to me or Brent Roberts to run behind Olie, or Olie dropped back for pass protection so Jerry could throw the ball. A three-time All League player on both the offensive and defensive lines, Olie was a tenacious player who never made a dumb play. As soon as the statue of limitations runs out, I’ll talk about some of our other exploits together.
Tony Pardini — Growing up in Boonville Tony was the standard at QB that all other signal callers measured themselves. He was the leader of those legendary championship squads on the early to mid 70s that routinely thumped much larger schools like Upper Lake and Calistoga. He was on the field when the Panthers crushed Geyserville, 103-0, and had a cannon for an arm.
Danny Kuny — What Tony was to offense, Danny was to defense. Danny played strong, fast and mean, and was a legend in the Mendocino County area. When Danny hit someone, they stayed hit. Danny also deserves kudos for volunteering countless hours as a coach for Boonville pee wee, JV, and varsity squads.
Coach Squires — Demanding, tough, smart, honest. Keith got more from us than we ever believed possible. We shared one league title my sophomore season, and just missed another championship on a 4th and goal touchdown pass from the 25-yard line my senior year, the only two years Keith coached my teams.
Coach Jim Miller — Coach Miller was my baseball coach, my football coach, my algebra teacher, and my driver’s ed instructor. On a normal day, I might spend five hours with Coach Miller. What do I remember? A friendly, big-hearted man whose love of life was infectious, and taught us a lot about sports. I heard Coach Miller is still patrolling the sidelines down someplace like Coachella, and best of luck to you, Coach.
Other Panther gridiron standouts who deserve mention: Jason Squires and Ryan Parrish (two more stars for Brad Shear’s awesome Pop Warner squads), running back and linebacker Willie Housely, serious tough guy Mike Abbott, crazy man on and off the field Ted Waggoner, Ted’s famous older brother Gale Waggoner, super naturally tough guy Logo Tevaseu (all-state at SRJC and who won a full ride to TCU), QB Derek Wyant, his uncle Rick Wyant and his dad Brian Wyant, Ken Hurst, Don Summit, Jerry Kuny, John Toohey who went on to star at Mendocino J.C. and Chadron State in Nebraska, the list goes on and on. I apologize to anyone not mentioned who deserves to be on the list. This is just one guy’s recollections.
My favorite football memory. Mendocino High School, 1980. A cold, raw day. The enemy Cardinals are undefeated and so are we. A league showdown. It’s a tough, close game, with neither offense able to get untracked. Larry Carr, Steve Waggoner and Mike Hilton lead an A.V. defense that keeps Greg Burke, Mendocino’s star running back, in check. Burke went on to star at Sonoma State, but that day he was confronted at every turn by 11 leaping and clawing Panthers. Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Boonville needs to score. A pass play is called. Jerry Tolman throws a pass over the middle, I think either to Nick Pallazola or Eric June. The ball sails a little high but then, out of nowhere, comes G.P. Price’s giant right hand to snag the ball, a superb highlight reel catch that moves the chains and leads to the winning touchdown. G.P. had run the wrong route, but at the right time.
And since we’re saluting old Panthers, I’d like to say that I was greatly saddened to hear that Richard Day recently left the valley for greater glories. It is the world’s loss. Richard, whom I knew as Dick, was Jerry Tolman’s great-uncle, and a fixture at our games all through high school. He was a generous man who always had a kind or encouraging word. I’ll always remember Dick in the stands, with that smile that could light up a hundred dark gyms and fields, Dick by his very presence encouraging kids like me to play hard and to play right, to compete with respect for our opponents and for ourselves. Dick, you gave the greatest gift of all, your time. I’m proud to have played for Boonville, just like you.