Bittersweet feeling covering this Friday's game

By Steve Sell
October 23, 2018

Friday is going to be bittersweet for me as I cover McPherson High’s football playoff game against Independence in what will be the first-ever gridiron meeting between the schools.

Everyone has a pretty good idea of what’s going to unfold at McPherson Stadium. It’s going to be more of the same that Bullpup fans have enjoyed the last 7 weeks as MHS has put each of those games into running clock after playing straight-up in the first game against Salina South.

While I’ll enjoy watching the Bullpups put up their usual gaudy numbers, I’ll also be feeling sad for the Bulldogs.

As many of you know, I’m a card-carrying member of the Indy High Class of 1975. We had exactly 200 in our graduating class (yes, even my buddy ‘Mixer Mo’ Chris Morrell graduated as he drew the loudest ovation on Graduation Night at the venerable Civic Center). I graduated at No. 49, so at least I was in the upper 25 percent. Considering that my teachers constantly told me that my effort often was lacking, somehow I scraped by.

Independence still holds a near-and-dear place in my heart since I lived the first 20 years of my life there, and worked for the local paper while in high school and junior college. I still have a lot of my lifelong and closest friends there. While my parents are both deceased after a wonderful life in that town, I still go back once a year to play in the Swinging Bridge Golf Tournament at Independence Country Club, my favorite time of the year. Several of my high school and Indy Juco teammates play in that event and it’s our yearly reunion.

I’ve already heard from numerous Indy folks since the matchup was announced. As far as they’re concerned, they’d just as soon see the Bulldogs mail in the score and not to have to make the 167-mile trip. It’s been a tough year for the ‘Dogs, who are 0-8 and only once were they not blown out. They led Circle 34-12 at halftime in Week 7, only to give up 28 unanswered second-half points. That set up a loser-leave-town game last Friday with Rose Hill, with the loser having to come to McPherson. Rose Hill was a 42-7 winner, the same Rose Hill team that gave up 57 points to the Bullpups in the first half a week before.

Playing Independence makes me harken back to my senior year at IHS. Going into the 1974 season, optimism was running high because the Bulldogs had finished 5-4 in 1973 with a junior-dominated team. We returned our heady quarterback Phil Aitken, our battering ram All-State running back Brian Turner and our quick tailback Bud Kendrick, pound-for-pound maybe the toughest guy on the team.

We had a massive offensive line, led by All-Staters Terry Davis and David Monroe as well as big Randy Burns, along with center Rusty (Tank) Kelley. Depth came in the form of Chuck Goad, Jim Adam and Mike Courtney. We had a quality receiver in Mike Jones and an excellent tight end in Greg Jackson, while Jeff Passauer was tough as nails as a wingback.

Many of those same guys also started on defense, with additions being Rick (Zabu) Mott, Billy Sloop and Kent Holloway. We had only one junior starter that year, Monz Maskus.

Every year we opened with Pittsburg and I really thought ’74 was finally going to be the year we beat the Purple Dragons, who were the gold standard in the Southeast Kansas League as they won it year after year. We had a great chance to win, but late in the game a pass bounced off one of our defensive backs and into the hands of a Pittsburg receiver for a touchdown that tied the game and they later wound up winning 27-21.

We also lost Aitken in that game and we wouldn’t have him the next week when we lost to the second-toughest team on our schedule, Fort Scott. It was a defensive struggle, but a field goal by the Tigers won the defensive slugfest, 3-0.

The following week, we had a hangover effect from those two games. We lost 7-6 to Chanute, a game we felt like we should have won.

But from there, the Bulldogs were a runaway freight train. We blitzed through our final six games of the season, including four shutouts, and the 6-3 season was capped by a 48-7 rout of bitter arch-rival Coffeyville. For an Indy fan in those days, they could have lost every game, but beating The 'Ville would make up for it.

They didn’t have the playoff format back then that we have had the last 30 years. There’s no doubt in my mind had we made the playoffs we would have gone a long way. Our running game was thundering behind the BT Express (Turner) and Kendrick. Aitken was as cerebral as they came. Our line averaged about 230 pounds and pushed people around. Monroe would later go on and make All Big 8 at Oklahoma State as he started at center for the Cowboys. Defensively, we gave up only 50 points all year, more than half of those coming against Pittsburg.

At our class reunions, we still talk about that team. To a man, we know that team should have been playing deep into the postseason.

But Indy has fallen on hard times, though just two years ago it was 8-2 after going 7-3 the year before. The Bulldogs won just 2 games last year and 0 this year, with the squad size numbers falling as well. Injuries have played a major role this year, as many of its standouts have been hurt.

People here probably don’t know, but Independence has had one of the more storied programs in the state. From 1957 to 1962, the team went 8-0 every year. It won its first game in 1963 before Fort Scott ended its winning streak at 49, at the time a state record.

Walter “Kayo” Emmot, for whom the football field is named, was the coach. I had Kayo as a teacher and he was a no-nonsense guy. Stories of his iron-handed coaching style are legendary to this day and it probably wouldn’t fly now in our world of political correctness. He was as strict as they come, but his players would have taken a bullet for him. They were called “Kayo’s Boys” and there’s a statue of him outside the stadium.

So keep that in mind when you watch Independence here on Friday. It’s going through a down cycle, but hopefully the Bulldogs will have some good athletes come through again and they’ll return to their winning ways. Just remember, McPherson won all of 28 games in the decade of the 1990s. It can happen anywhere.

It’s not only going to be difficult for me, but Bullpup defensive coordinator Chet Harlin, who also is an Indy alum. His late father, Tommy, was in high school when I was as he was the starting center for the Bulldogs in 1972. Before his way-too-early passing a few years ago, he had become a Bullpup fan and you can bet he’s looking down on the work Chet has done with that big smile he always had.