Linn returns to the gridiron before huge crowd

By Neal A. Johnson, UD Editor
Posted 8/31/22

LINN  — As Linn R-2 ramped up for its first football game since 1976, a lot of thought went into finalizing not only the field and facilities but also the activities before, during, and …

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Linn returns to the gridiron before huge crowd

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LINN  — As Linn R-2 ramped up for its first football game since 1976, a lot of thought went into finalizing not only the field and facilities but also the activities before, during, and after the game.

“A boatload of work went in behind the scenes involving the football committee and administration to make Friday happen,” said R-2 Board President Dr. Shawn Strong. “All of us called in lots of favors to get everything done. When a grassroots community effort like we had on Friday goes off fairly flawlessly, it is pretty special.”

Dr. Strong is also president of State Tech, which sponsored a tailgate party ahead of the game at the Linn Lions fairgrounds next door to the field.

“We have a great asset with the barns on the Lions Club property that can make tailgating a big thing when we get to regular Friday night games,” said Dr. Strong, estimating that about 500 people turned out. “I hope the community will show up in force for the next three tailgates and keep up the momentum. Next week, we have three different games; we will be tailgating for all three sports.”

State Tech Regents President John A. Klebba agreed that Friday’s event was huge. “What began in 2015 as a vision to improve the Linn school and community by reintroducing football finally came together in an amazing form,” he said. “First of all, the student section was incredible. I actually had someone from Thayer comment to me that they wish their students were as vocal as Linn’s, even when the chips were down. The turnout from the community was more than I could have hoped for. Seeing so many people enjoying Friday Night Lights in Linn for the first time in almost 50 years made the last seven years of work all worthwhile.”

In addition to food and kids’ activities, Mark Baker set up a table to welcome former players, and yearbooks from 1974-76 showed Linn football. He researched much of that period and provided insight to those at the game.

In the fall of 1973, a junior high football program was started at Linn R-2, in the shadow of the Thurman L. Willett Fieldhouse, which had just been constructed the year prior.  

“It is hard to imagine for many of us now, but at that time, the ‘Linn Dome’ was all that stood out on this property,” Baker said. “Over on the hillside by the water tower, a football field was marked out, and a team was started with the intention to gradually ramp up to a varsity-level program.”

The 1973-74 Linn Junior High Wildcats had a 2-2 season, winning against Iberia and Tipton and losing to St. James and Blair Oaks.

In 1974-75, Linn had a perfect (5-0) season, defeating Owensville, School of the Osage, Tipton, Blair Oaks, and St. James. The Wildcats allowed just eight points the whole season. 

The 1975-76 Wildcats had a 2-3 season, with wins against  Iberia and Tipton and losses to Blair Oaks, Fulton, and Owensville.  

The 1975-76 season also added JV football.

According to the 1976 Wildcat yearbook, Linn defeated Iberia 32-0 to open the year and followed with a 32-8 victory over North Callaway.

Though the Wildcats lost the next game, 23-0, to Blair Oaks, Linn recovered with a 12-0 win over Eldon, and the season’s final game ended in a 6-6 tie with Tipton.

Coaches included Bob Larivee and Larry Sommerer, with assistant coaches Brian Ballou and Rodney Bossaller. 

“Sadly, after three successful years, the Wildcat football program was disbanded, with the equipment donated to the next closest team, Blair Oaks,” said Baker. 

That wasn’t the end of sports success for the Wildcats in the 70s, however, as Linn had two Final Four appearances for the boys’ basketball team and the restart of the girls’ basketball team in 1975.  

“To signify that this isn’t a new start, but a continuation of something started 47 years ago, we hand the football over to the new Linn Wildcats team,” said Baker as former players welcomed this year’s team. “It is the start of a new, bright era for our school and our community.”

Several former players recalled their experiences in the 1970s.

Mark Kuster and John Frank have been close friends since playing together in school, beginning with flag football before moving to junior high and then JV.

“We slowly started with our class and then built it up from there,” Kuster said. “And then, in our first year of junior high football, we had a really good team. We went undefeated.”

Kuster and Frank recall that in the 1975-76 season, basketball players were told to stop playing football. 

“In our sophomore year, because our numbers were depleted, they let the juniors ahead of us who had never played football come down and help us,” Frank added. 

There was also a requirement that football players participate in track. “We had a lot of farm boys on the team,” said Kuster. “How many linemen are you going to have do the shot put? I mean, they’re not going to do a lot of running events.”

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1976, the school board voted to terminate football. “Guess what? Nobody told any players, or our parents what was going to come out, and that’s what really pissed us off — that we were just blindsided,” said Kuster, adding there were a lot of hard feelings over that decision.

Ricky Wolfe, who played for three years, feels the same.

“Football was my favorite,” he said. “When I was a kid, and they cut football, that was pretty traumatic. My dad asked me if I wanted to play basketball or get a job and buy a car. That made up my mind real quick.”

Kuster added that he played basketball after football was canceled. “My junior year, I just sat on the bench, but we got second at state, and I got a patch,” he said. “But, I never did put that patch on my leather jacket because I was still mad. I’m still mad about football being canceled.”

Now, with football making its return, Kuster and Frank are excited to see it develop. “I think it’s great because it gets kids that don’t have an opportunity for any other sport,” said Frank. “The thing about it is when you have 11 people playing, everyone relies on each other.”

Frank’s granddaughter, Karly, attended the game wearing his old jersey. Several others had 1970s jerseys as well, which lent an air of nostalgia to the game.

Former Sheriff Carl Fowler credits playing football for three years for his career path.

“It probably saved me,” said Fowler, calling football the greatest team sport ever created. “There was a time when I didn’t care whether I finished school. I didn’t care whether I dropped out. My coaches in football kept me here, and I went on to a long military and law enforcement career. And it wasn’t until later that I realized how closely those things are related. There are no individual heroes in football. It’s a machine with 11 moving parts.”

Fowler applauded the return of football. “It’s about damn time,” he said. “What the hell took them so long?”

Regardless of why, Fowler said he’s excited to watch this generation of players take the field, though it’s going to be rough. “These boys are about to get an education,” he added. “You will protect the man next to you. You will block; you will guard; you will run interference; you will hit; you will get hit and knocked down, but you will get back up. And the only thing you’ll think about is, what can I do better? And when do I get to do it again? That, my friend, is football.”

Tim Thoenen said playing was a good experience. “I played the first game at St. James, but I didn’t start,” he said. “I played kickoff, and I stood around and goofed off. I got my ass kicked. I went to practice on Monday, figured out what football was all about, and I started every game after that.”

Thoenen explained that the team included a mix of players. “We were a bunch of rebel kids,” he said. “They put the good boys and the bad boys together and turned us into a team. We wouldn’t have been successful without our coaches. They did a good job.”

He is pleased that football has returned to Linn. “My biggest thing about it is there are so many kids that can play football that don’t play basketball, baseball, or run track,” Thoenen said. “They can play football, and they don’t even know it. The players we had were like that.”

Moving forward, Thoenen said he hopes people will be patient. “I know not to expect much of this coming out of the gate, but down the road, I think if they stick with it, football can be a strong program,” he said.

Ron Hoffman loved playing defense and sacking the quarterback. He remembers finishing one year with 11 tackles and 11 assists, just behind Fowler’s 12 and 12.

“I was so aggravated that I never could beat him,” said Hoffman. “I always remembered that.”

Ricky Wolfe said he’s confident this year’s players will learn a lot and believes safety has improved over the years. “A lot of parents are afraid their kids gonna get hurt but from what we played to what it is now is different,” he said. “Your pads, your helmet — everything is better and more sophisticated.”

Hoffman is happy to see the community get involved. “This community organization has done a great job raising the money,” he said. “Everybody did what they could to get it off the ground, and if we just keep it alive and keep it going, I think it will turn out well.”

John Deeken said he learned that being big meant nothing if the other guy was quicker in his one season of play. “It was a positive experience overall, but when they dropped the program, I just moved on,” said Deeken, who played in 1976. “It wasn’t until Friday night that I thought about how good that group of guys really was and the friendships that developed.

“It is good to see them bring football back,” he continued. “If they had left it alone from the beginning, I think we would have been a strong program for all these years because that is how we started — with good coaches and strong athletes.”

Jeff Wolfe played one year with the Wildcats in 1975-76 and was brand-new to the sport. “I remember the first time I got hit,” he said. “I’ll never forget that. I got hit from the blindside, and it rang my bell.”

But he got back up. “That’s really the lesson people can take away,” said Wolfe, a receiver/cornerback. “I’m gonna get hit, but I gotta get back up and do it again. You gotta give as good as you get.”

He looks forward to these young players learning the lessons he did. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to use this and build and get to the varsity level and actually surpass what we did,” Wolfe added. “I’m excited.”

Superintendent Bob James considers Friday night a success. 

“Our football players, cheerleaders, band, and student section had an eventful evening full of great memories,” he said. “Any time we can get them excited and smiling about being a Wildcat is a big win for our district. Secondly, the community atmosphere was phenomenal; the enthusiasm and excitement were outstanding, and we feel blessed to see the community come together to support our students and schools. Lastly, seeing our younger students excited about the event and game was amazing. We definitely planted the Wildcat football seed in a lot of young people on Friday.”

Athletic Director Chris Minnix said seeing the community come together to make the night special was amazing. “I had goosebumps when the ceremonial torch was passed from the ’75 team to the 2022 team,” he added. “We have some plans for how to commemorate that moment with the ball and images.”

Minnix agreed that the student section had a lot of fun. “Our kids got into the spirit and did a great job showing their support for our football team,” Minnix said. “I was very happy to see such a great turnout for our players and program, and I am hoping to see large crowds of students for all of our other sports throughout the year.”

He also praised the community. “We have tons of amazing community members and parents that have gone above and beyond to help make our facilities look great, operations go smoothly, and our kids feel like they are part of something special,” he said. “You don’t find that everywhere. Linn is an amazing place to be!”

Klebba also had plenty of people to thank. “First of all, none of this would have been possible without the support of the R-2 school board,” he said. “My thanks to them for believing in the football boosters and giving us a chance to bring this all together. Then there are the businesses that were generous beyond measure, especially State Tech, whose lead gift was the match that lit the fundraising fire. Hundreds of hours were donated by men and women of this community to accomplish everything from finding and refurbishing equipment to getting the field in shape to planning virtually every aspect of the first game. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the efforts of Chris Minnix, who got thrown into this circus as the ringleader very late in the game and worked tirelessly to provide the professional touch we very much needed to pull off a great event.”

Dr. Strong likewise appreciates Minnix’s efforts. “He stepped into this late and had insight into a lot of things none of us had thought of,” he said. “I am confident Linn R-2 has a team in place that will allow us to support rather than lead the football effort moving forward.”

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