BY MICHAEL CASPER
It was 1914 when the first Fond du Lac Cardinal football team assembled for practice. And under head coach Ed Fruth, after whom the football field is named, they went 24-25-4 over his nine seasons.
Since then there have been highs and lows, ebbs and flows, but always a prideful tradition.
I spoke with several former players, some of whom had become – and some who still are, coaches for Fondy High. They shared memories and stories of their days wearing the “red and white.”
Tom Gregory quarterbacked in the mid-40’s under head coach Jake Gores.
“Back in 1946,” Tom said “we had a great bunch of guys. Big, strong fellas and we ran a single wing and we lost every game (laugh). Jake and Joe Capicik were coaches and they said, ‘Jeez what are we going to do?’ The class that I was in was small, physically. And we were going to get killed again if we didn’t come up with something. I was the quarterback and I said, ‘there’s this new formation called the ‘T-formation.’ Notre Dame was using it, as were the Chicago Bears. I said we ought to look at that, it’s supposed to be deceptive. I must have been maybe 16 or 17 years old, and Jake took me to Chicago when Sid Luckman was the quarterback for the Bears. I was a student of the game. He said, ‘I’ll watch the line, see what their blocking assignments are, you check the backs and tell me what they’re doing.’ So we watched them run their formations and looked it over pretty good. We drove back and I said, ‘I think we can do that.’ It was a quick hitting type of offense, where you didn’t have to sustain your blocks.”
Fond du Lac’s new offense caught the Valley by surprise.
“They didn’t know where the ball was going,” Tom said “we faked everybody out pretty good. And we had some fast athletes. Bill Parker was a dash man, Rollie Bestor was a tremendous athlete. We popped guys through there and they would go 60 yards for a touchdown which was unheard of in those days. We ran plays that they never saw before. Double flanker stuff that you see the pros using today. We had everybody moving around and went from last place to second place. Then the following year we won the championship!”
Tom remembered one particular game against Sheboygan, a much bigger, and more physical team.
“They had guys like Sonny Kraus who was 6’5,” and in those days, that was pretty big. Another one was Hooks Wimmer. I remember these guys were so big, they’re standing there looking down on us, and we beat them rather handily, by at least 3 touchdowns and as we’re walking off the field, Kraus said to Hooks, ‘Look at these little guys, how could they beat us?‘ I’ll always remember that. We dazzled’em!” (laugh)
Dick Diener was a multi-sport star for Fond du Lac who learned to appreciate the history of the game, and the discipline it takes to become a great athlete from a lifetime of coaches, and also from his father, “Lucky” Lyle Diener.
“My dad was a pilot in World War II,” Dick said “flying 63 missions in a B-17 bomber. He got the name ‘Lucky Lyle’ because he always made it back home.”
Lucky grew up in the depression, and the only sport he played was hockey.
“And he was a real good hockey player,” Dick said. “He wished he could have played more sports, but growing up he had to do whatever kind of odd jobs he could get to help the family. When he was a young he didn’t get to do all these things every kid should have the chance to do, so his philosophy became, ‘My kids are going to get the most out of their youth.’ He loved sports and steered us in that direction, he was quite intense, as was my mother, June. Dad had a temper and believed in doing things right and working hard and competing. My dad always said, ‘Give it everything you’ve got and then a little bit more.’ That was his motto. I always went back to that, whether I was playing or coaching.”
After a teaching and coaching career, and with his wife Sara raising an athletic brood of children of their own, Dick began delving into Fond du Lac football and basketball history.
“I was just interested in finding out more,” he said. “When the Fondy hall of fame began, I thought, ‘We have to find out who the deserving candidates are from year’s past.‘ Everybody is pretty familiar with the last 30 or 40 years, but no one really had a clue what went on in the very beginning, before 1920. I went through the newspapers, The Fond du Lac Reporter and the Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter and decided that I was going to learn about each football and basketball team from the very beginning, 1914 up until the time I played in the mid-1960’s. I went season by season. I read the articles and started to dig into that stuff and the way it was covered, took notes, got some things together and had a great time just learning about it.”
It didn’t take long to learn that Fond du Lac had a rough go of it in football for the first 20 years or so.
“1943’s was the breakthrough team,” Dick said “A kid named Johnny Yungwirth ended up being the Valley player of the year, and it was the first conference football title that Fond du Lac won. An interesting story on Yungwirth, who was a great quarterback…the year they won the championship, they had a game on Friday that they won, and then on Saturday, Manitowoc was going to play Appleton. Appleton needed to win that game to win that title outright. Manitowoc’s athletic director called up Fond du Lac’s coach and asked if they would send Yungwirth over to their game the Saturday night, to see if he could be some sort of motivation, so they could whip up some intensity and beat the Appleton team. So Yungwirth went to Manitowoc! They put him on the PA system to address the fans and the players right before kick-off and gave them a motivational speech to fire them up. Manitowoc then upset Appleton, thereby giving Fond du Lac their first conference title ever. I found it amazing that this Yungwirth guy, as a high school kid, would be mature enough to go over there and rally the troops for an opposing team.”
Diener played varsity football for Fondy all three years.
“Coach Johnson took over my sophomore year,” Dick said “He inherited an 18-game losing streak. Fond du Lac was the laughing stock of the valley, if not the state. The program was viewed upon, and justifiably so, as soft. Coach Johnson’s first mission was to change the culture and instill some mental and physical toughness, which he did. He was a master at it. To give you some idea about mental and physical toughness…that season, every team in the league had a bye week. Our bye week was the last game of the season. I can remember sitting in the locker room after we lost our eighth straight game, saying to myself, ‘I’m glad this s#!t is over.’ I was thinking, ‘it’s time for basketball on Monday.’ Well, coach came into the locker room and went off about how we’re going to separate the men from the boys next week. Now remember, we didn’t have a game! Our season was over! ‘Everybody will be out,’ Johnson said, ‘including the seniors. Everybody will be suited up. If you want to get a letter, you’re going to be out there.’ So we proceed to do nothing but contact drills for two hours every night for five straight nights. Jim Johnson put Lombardi to shame on building toughness. You don’t love it at the time, but you love it afterward and realize what he was doing, and how it worked.”
The next season, Fondy won three games.
“And we were very competitive in all of them,” Dick said “going 3-4-1 and we beat the best two teams in the league, Manitowoc was in the top-three, and Green Bay West was ranked number one in the state when we beat them. In fact, Jerry Tagge, who had a short career with the Packers, the only game he ever lost as a starting quarterback in high school or at Nebraska, was to our team my senior year. The Fond du Lac football culture had changed.”
Larry Bornemann grew up in the same neighborhood with Dick Diener, and quarterbacked the Cardinals through the mid- 60’s.
“We ran a spread offense when I was a sophomore. We were undermanned and did whatever we had to do in a lot ways. We threw the ball a lot.”
Larry also recalls his junior season being integral.
“There were probably three games that I remember that kind of turned it around to help make Fondy a power,” Larry said. “The first one was when Dick and I were juniors. We beat Sheboygan South, ending a 27-game losing streak. Leo Goldapske scored the only touchdown in that game. Leo was a hell of a player. He was small, quick and tough. We won that game 7-0.”
When I asked for a Jim Johnson story, Larry’s reaction rang familiar.
“Many of the stories I can’t repeat,” Larry laughed. “He was a hard worker. I actually spent a lot of time going over to his house in the summer before the season, trying to figure out ways that we could move the ball because in those days, our line hadn’t gotten to the point where they were dominating, like they did later. One time, we were playing an afternoon game and we were waiting to go on the field, and we wondered what the heck we were waiting for? Turned out we were waiting for the JV team, coached by George Trtan, to get back from their game. They had the whole bag of footballs! Jim was going crazy! When the bus finally got back, Johnson and Trtan kind of went at it! We almost didn’t have a game because we didn’t have any footballs.” (laugh)
Joe Guyette said when he was a Fond du Lac sophomore, the varsity football team went 0-8.
“And the year prior they were 0-8,” Joe said “and when I was a junior, we went 0-8 (laugh). Jim Johnson became the head football coach my senior year and we won our first game in three years beating Green Bay East 7-0. Somebody, I don’t know who, went up on the water tower and hung a sign up there that said, ‘Beat East 7-0’ so all of Fond du Lac was elated. We ended up 3-6 that year. Coach Johnson, his first three years, only had six wins, 18 losses and one tie.”
But in 1967, the tide really turned.
“They were 7-1,” Joe said “and Coach Johnson had only a total of two losses in the next eight years. State champions in ’69, conference champions in ’69, ’70, ’71, ’74.”
1974 was Johnson’s last year and they went 8-0.
“There was something about Jim Johnson. Probably about 40% of it was the fear of God he put in you,” Joe laughed. “Really, he treated you with respect, but when you screwed up, you knew about it. Some of the things that he did then would not be tolerated today on the football field. But I’ve always had so much respect for him. I feared him, but I had so much respect for him. He would grab you by the face mask and look you square in the eye and would chew you out. And you went, ‘I don’t ever want to go through that again,’ and you worked your butt off to never have that happen again.”
Joe credits Wayne Steffenhagen’s strength program for helping make Fond du Lac football’s about-face.
“We never really had a strength program before,” Joe said “so I asked him, what do I do? How do I get strong enough to play college football? I was only 185 pounds soaking wet. Wayne said, ‘You eat a lot of ice cream, get lots of sleep…and drink a lot of beer.’ (laugh) He meant after I graduated high school, I had to drink a lot of beer. And obviously weight-lifting. So I did that for about a year and a half, and gained 40 pounds in a year and a half.”
Mike Becker echoed Guyette’s praise of Coach Steffenhagen’s regimen.
“Jim Johnson instilled a whole different kind of attitude,” Becker said “but Wayne Steffenhagen brought in weightlifting and powerlifting and that was a huge difference. We had a better weight program in Fond du Lac than we did when I went to Wisconsin, much better! Wisconsin’s was neglected and was in an old, moldy room in the back of Camp Randall. Nobody really cared one way or another. I think that was a really big difference at Fond du Lac. Getting everybody into a systemized program of lifting. We had 7 guys that went both ways. We had 8 guys that went on to college scholarships somewhere. The front four was Dan Adams to Minnesota, Rick Koeck and I to Wisconsin and Mark Keifer to Northern Illinois. Brian Harney went to Wisconsin, Jake DeNell went to Nebraska, Tommy Thurman went to the Air Force Academy and Paul Mumm played at Ripon.”
Becker insists on the adage that offense wins fans, but defense wins games.
“Our offense was fine,” he said “but our defense is what definitely carried us. My sophomore year, we only lost one game, and that was to Manitowoc, 13-7. As juniors, we only lost one game and that was to Oshkosh. And then our senior year, we didn’t lose to anybody. I guess the biggest thing was our senior year…we had a really, really good defense. I don’t know about the defensive records that were set, but I’m sure some of those are still standing because the conference realigned. Manitowoc was the only team to score a touchdown on the defense and Appleton East intercepted a screen pass and scored, so only 13 points were scored on us all year.”
This was pre-playoffs.
“It would have been fun to have a playoff,” Becker said “We had been first or second all year with Oshkosh, just like the year before. We only beat Appleton East 28-0 and Oshkosh beat them 50-0, so we dropped 2 spots in the writer’s poll. We were ranked 4th when we played Oshkosh. Eau Claire Memorial and Wausau were both ahead of us, but they played the next day and both teams lost. We always joked about how it was really nice of them to lose (laugh). That was the year we didn’t play either Green Bay East or Manitowoc, so we were actually Co-FRV Champions because East didn’t have to play any of the three of us.”
Mike recalled the Green Bay West team that ran the option.
“We took the opening kickoff,” Becker said “drove down and scored. They got the ball and we got a safety on them, so it was 9-0 after the first 2 possessions and that’s how it stayed the whole game until they scored on us making it 9-7, so that was our scare. With them running the option, I was supposed to take the inside pitch, but they kept handing off, and they had the inside blocked pretty well and I remember finally in the 3rd quarter I thought, I’m changing this up. I started diving in on the play, and that started shutting that down. I figured they saw me doing that and they stopped handing it off and then I was able to grab their quarterback a few times. It’s a team game. If they didn’t want to run at me, they got to run at Rick Koeck at the other end…which wasn’t a pleasant option (laugh). We shut’em down pretty well…to the point where Jake Denell, who was at safety, came back to the huddle and said, ‘Come on guys, let somebody through, I don’t have anything to do back here!’ “
Brian Harney was a hard-nosed linebacker and Larry Czonka-like halfback.
“Coming into the fall of ’69, we knew we had a pretty good team,” Harney said “and that Oshkosh was going to be one of the teams to beat. We really only had one close call, and that was against Manitowoc, who we beat 9-7. That was a real tough game. But it ended up being Oshkosh for the last game of the year, and basically for the state championship and we shut them out, 21-0. We only gave up one touchdown from scrimmage the whole year, to say the least, we had a pretty good defense.
Fondy ran a full-house backfield offense.
“Rick Koeck was the fullback, Nick Koepke and Jerry Klosterman were the tailbacks, I was halfback, and Doug West was the quarterback.”
Harney played varsity all three years under Coach Johnson.
“I was fortunate to play varsity as a sophomore,” Harney said “and he’d be talking and start his speech, and I couldn’t really look him in the eye. Then as a junior I could look a bit. As a senior, I could look him right in the eye as he was talking. We had the utmost respect for him and his coaching staff. He was a tremendous leader.”
Homecoming that year was a vivid memory for Harney.
“We were big favorites,” Brian said “but at halftime it was only 6-0. In the locker room Jim Johnson writes on the chalkboard – and of course we held him in high regard, and a had a little bit of fear of him – ‘If you don’t score 30 points in the second half, nobody goes to homecoming.’ And of course, everybody’s eyes got real big and we said, ‘What?!’ So we went out and scored 50 points in the second half. (laugh) That was the homecoming game in the fall of ’69.”
Jim Bond was a football star on the field, and a state championship winning coach for Fondy High.
“My first introduction to Fond du Lac football was going to the games in the mid-1960s,” Jim said. “We were in the midst of a massive losing streak. Prior to the Johnson-era, at the homecoming game, the head coach at the time was hung from the goalpost in effigy. So that’s where we were when I started watching games. Of course, Jim Johnson came along and guys like Wayne Steffenhagen and George Trtan. That’s when Fond du Lac turned the corner. We started to get bigger and faster and stronger.”
It didn’t take long for Jim to recall a memory.
“We practiced at Woodworth because they were redoing the field at the high school,” Bond said “and Ken Krause was our center. I was standing next to Jim Johnson and George Trtan, and Ken, who’s about 6’4,” 260 came up to the coaches, and he had a note from a doctor, and Jim read it out loud…it said, ‘Ken cannot block or tackle,’ and George Trtan never missed a beat, laughed and said, ‘Well no kidding! For that you need a doctor’s excuse?’ (laugh) So coach Johnson said, ‘Fine. Start running.’ After practice finally ended, somebody said to coach, ‘Hey…Kenny’s still running.’ He kept running for about 2 and a half hours around that field.” (laugh)
Kenny went on to become an All-State center and accepted a full ride to the University of Kentucky.
“My senior year we were 7-1,” Bond said “and that’s the year it turned around. We had good underclassmen, and a good group of seniors, that was just a great team. And we lost to a great team in Oshkosh, which was the state championship team. We lost 13-6. That game was one of those where the crowd was amazing. In fact, I’ve talked to former Packers over the years and they said they’d come watch us play on Friday nights. Sawyer Field was wall to wall people. They put up extra bleachers. I remember coming onto the field and getting spit on. We were covered in spit from the stands because it was just a real narrow gap to run through. That game was probably one of the most brutal I remember. I didn’t realize we only gave up like 34 points my senior year. That’s what I remember most, the big games.”
This was before the institution of playoffs.
“That sometimes bothers me,” Bond said “people say, ‘Well you didn’t go through the playoff process.’ At that time there was no playoff process and I don’t believe anybody wanted to play Fond du Lac in a playoff back in those days. We were just dominant. A lot of the records for track; shot-put, bench and dead lift…all those records are from the 60’s. Shot and discus records are still there from the 1960’s, early 70’s. The guys that were just big, strong athletes. Even to this day, those records still stand.”
Bond then went on to win a state championship as a coach.
“John Redding and I talk about this all the time,” Bond said. “We lost 7 games in 8 years when we were JV coaches. We had great teams. On Friday nights, we had to scout. We never saw the varsity team play. Those games were a lot of fun. You coach differently, more footloose and fancy free. You take more risks. One of the mistakes I made as varsity coach was too often coaching ‘not to lose.’ It was a whole different experience. I was 29 years old when I got the job. I was very appreciative. I had a great staff. Sal Curcurrio, Tom Sabel, Jim Steinberg, Dave Krizizke, Tommy Lemke, and Joe Guyette. The JV coaches were John Redding and Ed Hammer. You don’t get any better than that. Steve Zimmerman and John Smedberg were great coaches at the junior high level. All those things helped put this together.”
Camp Randall here we come!
“We were the underdog every game we played in the playoffs,” Bond said. “We were 6-3 during the regular season, but if you were second in the conference you got to go to the playoffs. We were fortunate to get in, and we had such a nice group of seniors. Just a great team that really didn’t come together until mid-season. And I can think of eight plays that year, that if we don’t make those plays, we don’t go the playoffs.”
Bond said they had a little luck along the way.
“We beat teams that were better than we were,” Jim said “we beat teams that were a combined 48-0. A little old 6-3 team. Then the state championship game we won 3-0 over Oconomowoc…who by the way, before the game had already had hats made up that said Division I State Champions. Dave Krizizke got ahold of one of those and wrote on the bill of the hat, “Almost!” That’s a great memory, a once in a lifetime thing for most schools.”
Bond is optimistic about the future of Fond du Lac football.
“Hopefully it’s coming back,” Bond said. “This year’s team is big and strong again. We had a few years where the weight room, in my opinion, got let go…but now we have the best high school weight room in the state, bar none. And that’s where it starts. All summer and all school year at 6:30 in the morning that weight room is packed.”
Like Dick Diener, Joe Guyette has an appetite and appreciation for preserving Fond du Lac athletic history, and has taken up the task of organizing, collating, listing, and categorizing all the athletic records and old yearbooks, and is housing them on a website.
“In 1992 I started coaching football at Goodrich,” Joe explains “but there were times in the past when I would ask a question about this person or that, about what happened back then, or on this or that team? And a lot of people didn’t know or couldn’t recall. Working with the Hall of Fame and Dick Diener, who came up with a lot of great, interesting things, I took it to the next level. Dick had written everything down by hand, and then I went up to the yearbook room to see what they had. I started scanning yearbooks, and that’s when I found the 1915 yearbook which was the first interscholastic year. I’m missing 1946, but somebody down the road will find it.”
If you’re a former Fondy player, coach or cheerleader, you’re encouraged to register on the website cardinalathleticalumni.com then click on the FDL Football Registration tab.
The 100th anniversary will be celebrated at all five home football games this season.
Fondy Football Schedule 2014
Aug 22 @ Appleton North
Aug 29 home vs. Appleton West
Sept 5 home vs. Marshfield
Sept 12 @ SPASH
Sept 19 home vs. Neenah
Sept 26 home vs. Oshkosh
Oct 3 @ Oshkosh West
Oct 10 home vs. Hortonville
Oct 16 @ Wisconsin Rapids
Fond du Lac Football: 100 Years Old
BY MICHAEL CASPER