Two minutes remained. Black River 14, Berlin Heights 0. The electricity was unbearable. What once was unimaginable — victory — was inevitable.
Pirates fans and band members trickled onto the sideline to join the players. The band belted the war battle cry “Charge” over and over. People couldn’t contain their excitement.
Most telling of all, the cheerleaders couldn’t perform. There was no room. Instead, some cried.
When the clock finally hit zero, everyone wearing black and gold stormed the field. They weren’t sure how to celebrate as hysteria took hold. Someone had the guts to climb a goalpost.
Exhausted yet jubilated players threw their helmets into the air. Coach Ron Weaver was carried off the field triumphantly by players barely five years his junior. Before Weaver could finish an interview with Gazette reporter Charles Aukerman, he was hauled off again along with assistants Francis Stuart, Larry Brandel and Walt Ramage and thrown into the showers at Berlin Heights High.
The 40-mile trip to Sullivan Township featured a cavalcade of cars with horns echoing through every conceivable mile of the Black River Local School District. Upon returning to the high school, an impromptu bonfire and school dance took place. The coaches again were tossed into water, this time at the pond that still sits on school property.
Two weeks later, the Pirates received a vote in The Associated Press Class A state poll.
All this for a silly high school football game?
This was no ordinary football game. This is the story of the 1967 Black River Pirates, the most inspirational 2-7 team in Medina County history.
Oct. 7, 1967 marked the end of a painful journey. It had been 2,199 days since Black River won a football game.
Think about that for a minute.
Six years. Fifty-two games. Four head coaches. A class of 1967 that went 0-34-1. From Dec. 20, 1962 to Jan. 17, 1963, the football program was disbanded in a budget-crunching move but reinstated when the Inland Conference demanded the school fulfill scheduling commitments.
Even if 50 years, one month and six days have passed, everyone involved on that gorgeous Saturday will never forget the day “The Streak” came to a merciful end.
With the 1958 athletic consolidation of Spencer, Homer and Sullivan — the OHSAA permitted the district to play together despite a new school not being built yet — Black River fielded a team of players who grew up with six-man football. Led by athletic quarterback Tom Davenport and All-Gazette tight end Bud Halada, the Pirates began 4-0 and finished 4-4-1.
Mediocrity hit like a ton of bricks. Coach Larry Marker left and 23-year-old Ron Mack, who later became Cloverleaf athletic director, was thrown into the fire and went 1-6-1. Former Ashland College basketball and baseball star Jack Purtell followed the next year, compiled a 1-14-2 record and, in the process, “The Streak” began after an 18-8 win over Plymouth on Sept. 29, 1961.
No one thought Black River would have to wait six years to taste another “W.”
Purtell flew the coop when football was abolished despite a board member offering to coach for free. When reinstatement was announced, the program was in shambles, the Firelands Conference wasn’t a cakewalk and “home” games were played 11½ miles away at Richman Field in Lodi because, poetically, the freshly seeded grass didn’t grow at the new field behind the high school (now Art Stevenson Field) in the summer of 1962.
The 1963 two-a-days began with athletic director Pat Gallagher grudgingly running the show. He was a wildly successful basketball coach and is still the school’s best with a 74-46 record, but he also had no desire to coach football despite being Baldwin Wallace’s kicker in the late 1950s.
Finally, Norwalk native Harley Campbell was hired all the way from Sacramento, Calif., two weeks before the season opener. Forty-eight hours later, Campbell was a no-show and stunned the school by signing a teaching contract with Ashland City Schools.
The Black River school board had no other option but to formally name Gallagher, who told The Chronicle-Telegram “he’d just as soon get out of it,” as coach.
The results weren’t pretty. Black River went 0-17-1 in Gallagher’s tenure, including losing nine times by 30 points and scoring a grand total of 68 points, an average of 4.0 per game.
Medina native Dave Holt was selected to replace Gallagher in 1964, only to be let go days later when the board of education learned he did not have a college degree. Gallagher instituted a prevent defense designed to limit big plays and hold a lead. Black River never led.
Medina freshman coach Dan Jordan was next up in 1965. He went 14-4 with the Bees’ youngsters and proclaimed he would stick around long enough to raise the sunken ship from the depths. The Pirates went 0-9 and Jordan moved to Chicago. The Streak was at 39.
Completely unaware of the struggles until his interview, Weaver applied for the Black River opening on a recommendation from Mount Union baseball coach Jack Rafeld. He took the challenge no one else dared to.
Weaver believed he knew what he was getting into when he introduced himself to the players on Aug. 18, 1966, two days before he graduated from Mount Union.
Only 16 showed up for the first practice, and two of them played golf.
“Those games are all in the past. Even last week’s game is past. Now, we look forward to the future — and victory. We work hard. We practice hard. If we lose, it is over — part of the past. Next week, we look ahead again. It is a new game and a new chance at victory.” — senior halfback Bruce Larabee, 1967.
Weaver is a legend at Ashtabula County’s Pymatuning Valley High as a track coach and athletic director. He was a state track qualifier at North Lima High and ran on Mount Union’s cross country and track teams, giving up football after his freshman year.
Level-headed, honest and personable, Weaver was smart enough to realize he was as green as his players and also knew Year 1 was going to be difficult with low numbers. The hope was relatively new peewee and freshman teams would develop a pipeline. He installed a wing-T offense — the straight-T ruled the era — and kept preaching that the streak would end come hell or high water.
Weaver’s first season was another winless one with five shutouts, and a media member sarcastically gave the Pirates a vote in the Class A state poll. The finale against Western Reserve was particularly painful because the score was tied with a minute to go.
“I didn’t want to make all the decisions,” Weaver recalled. “The last game we were tied in the fourth quarter and one of my (assistant coaches) said, ‘Hey, tied is as good as a win for us because we haven’t tied in a while (1964).’ I went to some kids, two seniors and other ones, and said, ‘Look, guys, you’ve suffered a lot. What do you want to do? Tie or win this?’ They all said, ‘We want to win.’”
Western Reserve returned an interception for a touchdown and won 6-0.
“I wasn’t ashamed of the kids because those guys had gone through a lot more than me with four years of it,” Weaver said. “I thought that was the right choice.”
Larabee’s can-do attitude could have very easily felt like a lost cause, but seniors Butch Hord, George Chapman, Bud Schuck, John May and Larabee refused to give even a morsel of their hearts to the thought of losing. They loved the game too much to believe anything but victory was possible.
“I remember we lost (62-0) to Northwestern my freshman year,” Larabee said. “I was still a believer and I was crying my eyes out. A senior came up to me and said, ‘It’s OK, you’ll get used to it.’
“I promised myself I’d never get used to that feeling.”
The player count ballooned to approximately 30 in the offseason, not including freshmen, but Black River lost 26-0 to Keystone and 44-0 to Dalton to open 1967. As always, Weaver’s young team remained upbeat.
Then the Pirates smelled blood, as Western Reserve was so depleted by graduation and injuries it started multiple freshmen. Alas, Black River had two potential game-winning drives fail inside the red zone during the fourth quarter and lost 12-6. The Streak hit 51.
The Gazette ran a lengthy column of encouragement with the headline “Black River — this is your life!” the next week. Monroeville was beatable if the Pirates defense played like it did against Western Reserve.
In the first quarter, Black River recovered a fumble on the Eagles 4-yard line and failed on fourth-and-goal from the 1. In the second quarter, the Pirates again failed from the 1. With just 13 seconds left in the first half, they came up a yard shy on fourth-and-goal from the 4.
Despite the Black River defense playing “stingier than John D. Rockefeller with a dollar,” Monroeville broke the scoreless tie with five minutes left. Another loss, 8-0.
The streak lived, but so did optimism. There was light at the end of the tunnel. The catch was figuring out a way to reach it. Minor detail, right?
“I just loved to play, and I played as hard in practice as in any games,” said four-year starting middle linebacker Hord, the great uncle of current Black River free safety Garrett Hord. “I had the mental attitude and lot of us had the mental attitude of ‘We’re going to break this streak.’
“I don’t know if we second-guessed or not, but there were teams we should’ve beat beforehand. We’d have a screw-up and we’d lose or tie. It was hard. It was hard keeping up, but we knew we were getting better and better. We just couldn’t get over the edge.”
Hord then let out a hearty laugh.
“Finally we found a team we could get over the edge to,” he said.
The next week, multiple newspapers predicted the unthinkable: Black River was favored in a Saturday afternoon game at winless Berlin Heights, which was playing with a heavy heart and dedicated the homecoming game to a local youth who was killed in an automobile accident.
“I remember it was such a beautiful fall day,” Hord said. “Seventy-two degrees, sun shining and there wasn’t much breeze. I felt good and everyone felt good about our chances at that time.”
Deja vu tried all it could to kill that optimism.
Like so many times before, Black River’s run-heavy offense chugged along and reached the red zone before being stonewalled at the 1-yard line. Like so many times before, the hard-hitting defense that sometimes injured more players than it allowed touchdowns held firm and forced a punt.
Larabee went back to receive, and the crowd went bonkers when the senior returned the punt 35 yards for a touchdown. Excitement turned to despair when a clipping penalty was called.
“I specifically remember getting to the end zone and not knowing what in the hell to do,” Larabee said. “I just started jumping up and down. I probably looked like a fool.”
After getting the ball back, the scrappy Pirates weren’t going to be denied. Black River needed just five plays to cover 50 yards, with All-Gazette halfback May (22 carries, 117 yards) going 28 yards on an end run to open the scoring.
Again the defense held — Berlin Heights had only 85 yards total — and again the offense failed painstakingly close to paydirt, this time from the 2. Heartbreak led to fortune, however, as Hord snatched the first of his two interceptions.
Another short drive (6 plays, 28 yards) took place and Larabee scored from the 3. May added a two-point conversion and Black River led 14-0 with 25 seconds remaining before halftime.
The desperate Tigers were forced to the air. Hord took advantage with another pick — “I think the quarterback was throwing to me instead of their tight end because (the passes) were nowhere near their tight end,” he said — and the defense saved a suddenly dormant Black River offense that had only 47 yards and zero first downs over the final 24 minutes.
The Pirates had the ball in the closing minutes, yet had no idea what to do. Weaver sent one of three rotating tight ends to the huddle with a play. Before the ball was snapped, the disheveled Weaver had grabbed another player and sent out another play. He was getting ahead of himself and trying to suppress the demons in his head.
“I kept thinking — you know, I guess I was a pessimist — ‘Is something going to go wrong? Are we going to blow it? Are we going to fumble and are they going to score two touchdowns in the final minute?’” Weaver said. “I kept thinking that if something is going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong now. Then in the last two minutes it was, ‘Hey, do we have this?”‘
Hord had a similar mindset. He’d been beaten down too many times.
“I just determined, ‘It’s not over yet, it’s not over yet,”’ he said.
The game ended with Black River on the Berlin Heights 4-yard line, and celebration spread like wildfire. Berlin Heights officials presented the game ball and streamers from the goalposts to Pirates athletic director Rollie Haring. Both were placed in the school’s trophy case but have long since been lost.
Weaver and his players don’t remember their immediate reactions. The next few minutes were a blur. What Weaver recalled was Larabee heading to the stunned Berlin Heights locker room to give condolences on behalf of Black River for the student who had died in a car accident. Going 52 games without a win was difficult, but nothing compared to a school dealing with a tragedy.
But the bus ride to County Road 40? Everyone remembers that.
“We were lucky the highway patrol wasn’t following us,” Weaver quipped.
The band originally was scheduled to leave at halftime to fulfill dinner obligations before the Medina County Band-O-Rama at Medina Memorial Stadium, but that idea was unanimously squashed when Black River forged the two-touchdown lead. Dinner was late and the Pirates opened Band-O-Rama by announcing news of “national importance” to the crowd of 2,000, leading to a two-minute standing ovation.
Principal Don Larabee made the quick decision to have a bonfire at Black River High after Band-O-Rama. Telephone calls went out to provide refreshments, and the school glowed into the night.
While a sense of relief engulfed the team, there were still four games to play, and thoughts of the winning streak since 1958 were extinguished immediately in a 14-0 loss to South Central.
Breaking a 52-game winless streak was one thing, but that’s only part of the story. What the Pirates almost pulled off at undefeated Milan was astonishing.
Ranked sixth in The Associated Press state poll, the Indians had a 16-game winning streak, a star quarterback in Mark Vanderpool and five all-conference players on defense. Milan also had defeated Berlin Heights 36-0 and was highly motivated to achieve perfection before consolidating with Berlin Heights to create Edison High in the fall of 1968.
“We thought Black River was a patsy,” Indians coach Bill Taraschke told The Norwalk Reflector.
Instead of rolling over like in a 45-6 loss in 1966, David slung a rock directly into Goliath’s lip.
Spotting Milan an 8-0 lead, Black River used a new play four times for big yardage and rallied to take the lead on a Paul Pomeroy TD pass to Schuck and a Pomeroy 5-yard scamper. Then Gay Kast returned an interception to the 15, where Pomeroy found Bruce Larabee all alone on a flare for a is-this-really-happening 18-8 advantage with 5ﾽ minutes to play.
“When Black River got ahead, they were tough, and they were a really hard-hitting ball team, too,” said Taraschke, who later became a hall of fame cross country coach at Baldwin Wallace. “They hit so hard they put three of our players out of the game, two with concussions and one with a pinched nerve.”
The defense, which had starred all game with Hord moving to nose tackle, just had to hold on, but the strong-armed Vanderpool proved why he was the best quarterback in the conference.
A 52-yard pass set up a 10-yard touchdown run to cut the hole to 18-14. The Pirates went three-and-out quickly, and Vanderpool eluded pressure on third down to move the chains to the Black River 18. Somehow, the Pirates regrouped and forced a fourth down with 3:30 left.
Vanderpool dropped back to pass, fired near the goal line and the ball was dropped by the intended receiver, but Larabee was called for a bang-bang pass interference penalty and Vanderpool scored on the next play. The Pirates were mentally finished and lost 22-18.
“We were just playing our hearts out that day,” Larabee said. “We just showed up to play no matter whether they were bigger than us or not. Sometimes that happens when the underdog team plays well.
“It was a crying shame we didn’t win that game. I was part of the reason that we didn’t, and I don’t think I would have played it any differently. It could have easily not have been called pass interference.”
Old habits loomed in a 14-6 loss to Mapleton as a fumble set up the game-deciding score with 1:53 remaining, but Black River rushed for a season-high 235 yards on a wet field to beat Hillsdale, which entered with a respectable 2-3-3 record, by another 14-0 score in the finale.
A 2-7 record normally isn’t anything to write home about, but Black River was anything but normal.
“I’d be a liar if I told you I had this great emotion I carried with me all these years,” Bruce Larabee said as his voice ironically wavered. “But I’ll tell you, what I carry with me all these years and one of the things I’m most proud of is we just didn’t give up. We believed that we were going to win, and we did.”
The Pirates went 2-7, 0-9 and 3-6 over the next three seasons. Ever honest with himself, Weaver resigned because he believed his limited football background was unqualified to take the program to the next level — his first love was track — and left for Pymatuning Valley.
Fiery Medina native Dave Ring was next and had an impressive resume as an assistant at Inland Conference superpower Highland. The Pirates went 3-6 in 1971 and lost four times by 12 points or fewer with the all-too-recent past hovering like a dark cloud.
“I can tell you most people around here are sick and tired of hearing about that losing streak,” he told The Chronicle-Telegram before the 1972 season. “I know I am.
“Every time I tell anybody I’m from Black River, they say, ‘Isn’t that the school that lost all those football games?’ I just think it’s about time we get some recognition on the winning side. That’s basically what we want to do this season.”
Black River got over the hump with its first winning record at 5-4 that fall. Five years later, the Pirates went 10-0 and won The Associated Press Class A state poll championship.
Black River has a 261-155-2 record (.627) since 1977 and will play in the Division V, Region 17 championship Friday. The Streak has long been forgotten, but to Weaver, Hord, Larabee and the rest of the boys, Oct. 7, 1967 will live forever, .
There may be gloom in Granger
Or Heartbreak in Hardscrabble
But no tears flow in old Pawnee
For our brave Pirates sailed free
Get out the roles of honor
For we’ve many names to add
There’s May. And Larabee and Hord
Pirates who put a win on the board
Afternoons grow short in October
And the seasons slip by suddenly
So pause, raise a toast to Black River
A team of gridiron destiny
And a score of years from now
When the talk turns to heroes
Tell them about the ’67 Pirates
Who ended the string of zeroes
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.