Dave Price: Memories great for Sierra College grads
So much has changed in the last 40 years for the young men who played for that 1966 Sierra College championship football team.
These guys have seen immense growth in the area where they went to school in Rocklin. So, too, the world has changed since they were teenagers who had only heard and read about news of a conflict halfway around the world in Southeast Asia – though in time they would come to know about Vietnam all too well. The faces have changed, though not beyond recognition, and even some of the memories have changed a little.
What hasn’t changed are the friendships of one-time teammates – including a handful of Nevada County products – who had a chance to reunite for two days last month when they were inducted together as a unit into the Sierra College Wolverine Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
“That was a heckuva team, and yes, it did bring back a lot of great memories ” said John Volek, a Placer High graduate who played center for the Wolverines and now serves as director of athletics at Sierra College. “We had some great players and Buzz Ostrom was a heckuva coach. He taught us a lot – I know he’s still coaching me.”
Homer “Buzz” Ostrom, who came out of Grass Valley, was the head coach and architect of a team that went 8-1 during the 1966 regular season, won the Golden Valley Conference championship, and ended its season with a loss against Hartnell in the Lettuce Bowl in Salinas.
The championship season was big at that time, not only in Rocklin, but to the various foothill communities ranging from Truckee to the Feather River area and points beyond that sent players to Sierra College. To this day, it’s a memorable part of the lives of the 40 players who were on the team, 22 of whom returned for the Hall of Fame reunion.
“It was a lot of fun. People showed up that I hadn’t seen in 40 years,” said Norm Doolittle, a quarterback who played football at Tahoe-Truckee and Placer and is now a Grass Valley businessman. ” It was a great experience. I know we’re vowing to get together more often.”
Bob Eason, a 1965 Nevada Union graduate and the current athletic director at Center High School in Antelope, added that some of the players traveled great distances to get to Rocklin.
“I think everybody would like to do this as often as possible. It’s just hard because everyone is so spread out. We had people come from Hawaii, Nebraska, Washington, Montana,” he said.
Bud Journey, who spent his freshman year at Nevada Union and finished in Paso Robles, played as a running back at Sierra College and went on to play two more seasons at UC-Davis, where he set a single-season rushing record and was named to the school’s all-decade team for the ’60s. He traveled from Libby, Mont., to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“It was fun getting together with a bunch of crotchety old men with limps,” Journey said, laughing. “I’ve never seen so many limps in my life.”
Dan Miller, a Nevada Union graduate who still lives and sells insurance here, chuckled when asked about the changes he has seen since 1966.
“We’re all a little older and a little grayer now,” said Miller, who is still involved with Nevada Union football as a play-by-play announcer for KNCO. “Rocklin a tiny place out in the country all by itself. It was smaller than the school, so there was a lot of community atmosphere, which was really great. At the time, we lived here in Grass Valley and the commute was easy. There was only one stoplight between here and Rocklin – 35 minutes later and we were there.”
The Wolverines rebounded from an early loss to Sacramento City College and ran the table on their way to the conference title. There were some close calls along the way, including a championship-clinching 13-12 victory against Shasta on a rain-soaked day in Redding.
“We had to play the game on their practice field, that’s how much it rained,” Miller said. “Their main football field was under six inches of water; the practice field was only under two inches, so that’s where we played.
“We all went in at halftime and changed uniforms so we were able to come out dry for the second half. But it didn’t last long. There was so much water, if you went down, you’d hydroplane 10 yards across the field.”
Interestingly enough, especially given the field conditions, the game was decided on the PAT delivered by kicker Louis Montequi, a Truckee product.
In the process, the Wolverines suffered a setback when Doolittle sustained a broken shoulder during practice.
“I was blocking on a play – my job was to lead, so on any running play, I was the lead blocker – I blocked a big guy, he fell on me and I broke my shoulder,” Doolittle said.
Not having their starting quarterback was critical in the bowl game loss against Hartnell.
“That hurt to lose such an integral part of our team as Norm was,” Journey said. “He could scramble, and he could throw the ball further than anyone I’ve ever seen. He was, what, 5-9, 150? But he could throw the ball 80 yards, and I’m not exaggerating.”
It was Doolittle who, in an earlier game, threw the long touchdown pass to All-American running back Greg Moore that beat Santa Rosa in the final seconds.
“We had pushed them all over the field, but for whatever reason, we weren’t able to score. Then, in the last 45, 50 seconds, we went something like 80 yards and beat them,” Doolittle recalled.
He went on to add that the play was relived many times during the reunion, although the versions did tend to vary.
“If you got around the table, the pass either got longer or it got shorter, or the amount of time it took changed,” Doolittle said. “We were on something like the 18, I was running back and forth … Greg was supposed to be blocking for me and he ended up 60, 70 yards downfield … I saw him and just threw the ball as far as I could.”
Volek remembers the play as being longer.
“It was 90 yards,” he said with a chuckle. “Trust me, I was chasing it all the way.”
Moore, another Truckee product, was among the team’s most gifted athletes and a player eventually recruited to play at the University of Washington.
“Greg didn’t have a lot of speed. He just had balance galore,” Doolittle said. “He was on the ski team, he played baseball, he was solid. If you were to just look at him, you wouldn’t see all of this talent locked up in there.”
Ed Norton, a 205-pound offensive guard from Colfax, was another player who received community college All-America recognition that season.
“We had a lot of good talent,” Eason said. “Overall, of our 11 offensive starters, I think seven got full rides.”
Yet, talent alone didn’t win those games.
“We had good talent, but we had more guts than talent,” Doolittle said. “We took on guys that were bigger and faster and won. And when we were way ahead, we’d ease up and have fun. We weren’t there to kill people, we were there to win.”
This Sierra College team also had veterans who had just returned from military stints in Vietnam, such as 6-3, 230-pound fullback Ward Harrington, who came in with who came in with special forces experience.
“These were guys who had been in situations where their lives had been in peril, so this was a game they wanted to play for lots of reasons,” Eason said. “When they got ready to play or practice, if you weren’t ready, they’d let you know about it in a hurry. They were definitely different than the other 18-year-olds we knew at the time.”
The players had a chance to see some other familar faces from the past, such as Jim Guinn, Nevada Union’s head coach between 1961 and ’71; former Tahoe-Truckee coach Guy Wilson; and George Goto.
Coach Ostrom, who won more than 150 games and four conference titles between 1958 and 1975, passed away in February of 1997 but his widow, Elise, was on hand to present the team at the Hall of Fame ceremony.
Of interest, the school’s first permanent stadium will be dedicated in Buzz Ostrom’s memory on Sept. 9 when Sierra plays host to Sacramento City College.
These days, the scores are only vague memories, yet in some ways, that championship season is every bit as important today as it was 40 years ago. Maybe more so.
“It’s like anything else, it’s not so much what did happen as who was around when it did happen,” Eason said. “You will remember the people you were with at the time.”
Miller, who missed much of the 1966 due to two concussions, played one more season as a wide receiver at Sierra then went to San Francisco State. But his football plans were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. Looking back now, he has nothing but fond memories about Rocklin.
“Sierra College was a fun place to go to school. It was probably the best college experience I ever had,” he said.
To contact Dave Price, e-mail him via firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4240.
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Another week on the track and another win for Brad Sweet.