October 28, 2004
Former NFL star Vai Sikahema created a tape of highlights from his high school playing days and brought 400 copies to his 20-year reunion.
With old Philadelphia Eagles teammate Ron Jaworski providing enthusiastic narration, Sikahema sold every copy, paid for the entire reunion and put the leftover money in an account to help fund the 25th reunion.
"That’s the thing about Mesa High’s football team," said Sikahema, a 1980 Mesa alumnus who now works for NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate. "Everybody has great memories."
The Jackrabbits are close to making another one.
If Mesa beats Skyline tonight in East Valley Region play, the Jackrabbits will record the program’s 600th win — more than any school in Arizona history.
Only 39 schools in the nation (seven west of the Mississippi River) had reached that milestone before this season — a testament to Mesa’s longevity and consistency.
"I was sitting in my office alone the other day thinking about my time at Mesa High," said Westwood defensive coordinator Bill McKane, who coached the Jackrabbits from 1992-2003 and won a state championship. "I started thinking about all those coaches and all those players that went before me.
"Some of those kids overcame huge obstacles. Some of them made great sacrifices. Some of them went off to war and some of them died. I never knew them. I don’t even know their names, but you can’t help but think about them because they’re part of the whole incredible history."
That history includes such names as Don Beasley, Glenn Bowers, Mickey Hatcher, Andy Livingston, Wilford "Whizzer" White and Robert Holcombe.
"It’s amazing when you look at the number of players who made all-state, went on to play in college ball and even the NFL from Mesa High," AIA sports information director Barry Sollenberger said. "The talent that school has produced is as good as any in the state."
Mesa’s football history began on Oct. 24, 1920, when W.A. Wick’s Mesa Bulldogs lost to Phoenix Indian School, 19-0.
At the time, Mesa High’s enrollment was 370 while the entire population of the city of Mesa was 3,036.
"Back in those days Mesa was playing schools that were much bigger," said prep historian and Mesa High alumnus Skip Bryant, a former sports editor for the Tempe Daily News. "Phoenix Union had about 4,000 kids and Tucson was over 1,000."
Mesa overcame its size thanks, in part, to the ingenuity of coach Steve Coutchie, who most alumni credit as the program’s architect.
"Coutchie was a student of the game and came up with a lot of different plays that hadn’t been used before," said Horace Griffen, who starred at quarterback for Mesa from 1936 to 1938. "My sophomore year he installed a spread formation for a game against Yuma and we had them 32-0 at halftime."
Coutchie’s innovation was accompanied by a strong sense of discipline.
"We played Peoria one night and got up 30-0, after which coach told us that if anybody made another touchdown he’d get a swat with the paddle," said Griffen, 83, who lives in Casa Grande. "All of the sudden I’m running in the open. I got to the 10-yard line so I stumbled and fell. I didn’t want that paddle."
Coutchie was fired for striking a student during the 1944-45 school year. His departure precipitated the glory days of Mesa High under Edgar "Mutt" Ford.
With players such as White, Ralph Hunsaker and Warren Livingston leading the way, Mesa posted six state titles between 1945 and 1961 to earn a formidable reputation in and out of the state.
Inside Mesa’s city limits, the coach and players may as well have been rock stars.
"When I was playing, all the attention was focused on what was happening at the school because we were such a small, tight-knit community," White said. "We’d go to ballgames and the stadium was jampacked with people. We were the only game in town."
Ford’s teams played a California school 10 times in the 1950s and went 10-0, including a 40-13 win over Centennial (Compton), which later won the 1954 Southern California Interscholastic Federation title.
Perhaps Mesa’s greatest team was the 9-0-1 1950 state championship team that featured Bowers, an All-American guard, fullback Jay Smith and running backs Willie Harris and Beasley.
The club pummelled instate rivals Phoenix Union, Yuma and Tucson by a combined score of 94-41.
But after an 11-0 season that culminated with a state championship in 1963, Mesa suffered through a 27-year drought brought on by the opening of Westwood the following year.
"When they opened Westwood they were supposed to split the boundaries right down the middle, but as it turned out, Westwood opened with about 3,000 students and we had 1,500," said Reed Peterson, who coached Mesa from 1964 to 1978. "You could have been in the suburbs of New York, blindfolded, and drawn better boundaries."
According to Bryant, the lines were the work of Ford, who was close to several school board members and wanted favorable enrollment as he took over the job at Westwood.
"If you took a close look at those boundaries you’d be amazed how it would zig here where there was a family of great football players and then zag back four blocks later," Bryant said, laughing. "Old Mutt had that line gerrymandered to his liking."
Mesa resurfaced in 1990 under Jim Rattay, beating Tucson Amphitheater, 21-7, for the 5A state title.
Two years later the Jackrabbits battled Jesse Parker’s Mountain View Toros in one of the most memorable title games in Arizona history.
The Jackrabbits controlled the game but had a couple of touchdowns called back and saw their 14-0 lead shrink to six points on a Mountain View touchdown and two-point conversion with less than two minutes to play.
But Mesa’s Jason Moncour intercepted Toros quarterback Joe Germaine to seal the Jackrabbits’ last state title and precipitate a brawl that forced school officials to cancel the meeting between the schools the following year.
With four more Mesa high schools coming online in the past 28 years and demographics changing the make-up of its student body, Mesa’s recent fortunes have dipped.
The team has not made the playoffs since 2000, crowds are sparse and this year’s team is just 2-6 heading into tonight’s game.
But alumni insist it will take little to rekindle Mesa’s storied tradition and rabid following.
"I really can’t understand how anyone could not love the Mesa High School football experience based on my experiences there," said Mikel Moreno, a standout quarterback/defensive back on the 1992 state title team. "I had some great times attending ASU and all that, but I’m purple and gold through and through. I have great pride for that program and I love all the teachers and administrators over there.
"I’m sure coach (Dennis) Parker will get things going again. Mesa’s tradition will never die."
By the numbers
There were 39 11-man high school football teams with more than 600 victories entering this season. A look at the top 10 (overall records in parentheses)
813 Valdosta, GA
(813-169-34) 750 Massillon Washington, OH
(750-214-35) 741 Louisville Male, KY
(741-284-49) 737 Mount Carmel, PA
(737-260-57) 737 Little Rock Central, AR
(737-276-48) 725 Fort Thomas Highlands,
(725-212-26) 716 Canton McKinley, OH
(716-299-42) 703 Parkersburg, WV
(703-261-33) 702 Mayfield, KY
(702-222-32) 691 Pine Bluff, AR
(691-280-51) Source: National Federation of High Schools
Mesa’s milestone wins
No. 1: Beat St. Johns Indians, 38-0, Nov. 25, 1920
No. 100: Beat El Paso, Texas, 31-6, Oct. 31, 1936
No. 200: Beat Yuma Union, 45-12, Oct. 30,1948
No. 300: Beat Phoenix North, 31-27, Nov. 18,1961
No. 400: Beat Casa Grande, 48-0, Nov. 8, 1975
No. 500: Beat Dobson, 30-8, Oct. 11, 1991
No. 599: Beat Dobson, 42-28, Oct. 22, 2004
Former Mesa High football players in the Mesa Sports Hall of Fame: John Allen Floyd "Bud" Arnett Frank Armstrong Charles Beall Don Beasley Bill Berkenkamp Lavelle "Lefty" Blackburn Sterling Bonner Glen Bowers Duncan Brown Ray Charles Jon Chesser Berkley Chough Bill Crabtree Hilliard "Junior" Crum Brian Denton Callis Eaves Norris Enloe Cornell Fisher Albert "Lefty" Freestone Bobby Fuller Bill Glazier John Graham Horace Griffen James Gunn Ken Hatcher Mickey Hatcher Robert Holcombe Ralph Hunsaker Auldric Imboden William "Casey" Jones Floyd Langford Andy Livingston Warren Livington Bob Moon Mikel Moreno Karl Nielson Jim Owens Willie Peete Earl Pomeroy Dan Russell Marvin Scott Vai Sikahema Ernest "Bally" Simkins Norman Shill Jess Skousen Norris Steverson Bill Smith John Verney Wilford "Whizzer" White Bill Workman