THE DRIVE FOR 35: Tyrone football and the era of the streak

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a preview for a much larger work in production now about the Tyrone football team’s from 2004 through 2008, which put together a school-record 35-game regular season winning streak. The final version is close to completion, recalling the story of this record-setting run through the eyes of he players and coaches who made it happen.

It was a Friday evening in September of 2008, and Matt Murray, then a senior lineman on the Tyrone football team, did what most young people were doing then, an action even more commonplace ten years later.

He sat back at his locker and checked his phone for texts and messages.

What he heard was alarming. But it wasn’t an isolated incident.

Someone had called and left a threatening voicemail, which may not in itself be all that unusual. Teenagers harass each other in all kinds of ways, and in 2008 the cell phone was becoming a popular method for doing just that.

However, this message wasn’t left by a disgruntled ex-girlfriend or an angry buddy from school. It was left by an adult, and the subject of the message was football.

Just minutes earlier the Golden Eagles had lost to Clearfield 35-34 at Hyde Park. The game was a classic – high powered offenses, back and forth action, dramatic plays – and it ended when Johnny Shaffer’s 46-yard field goal attempt with a minute left fell short of the uprights.

The loss snapped a record-setting regular season winning streak that had reached 35 games, and it crushed every player in the Tyrone locker room.

What those players may not have anticipated was the way it affected members of their fan base. Some, like the caller on Murray’s voicemail, were disgusted.

“It was along the lines of, ‘You guys are a disgrace to Tyrone football and all its tradition,’” Murray, now a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune, recalled. “My locker was next to Johnny Shaffer’s, and he had gotten a voice mail that had something along the same lines. Both of us got coach and let him listen, and he said these guys are low-lifes, don’t worry about it, move on.”

As John Franco counseled the boys, another call came through on Murray’s phone, and the voice on the other end made it clear he felt the loss was an embarrassment.

“(The caller) said we were a disgrace and we didn’t deserve to be wearing Tyrone uniforms,” Murray said. “We had speculated on who it might have been, but we never completely figured it out.”

Both calls, Murray said, came from grown men, and they were clear demonstrations of the darker side of the expectations the football team had built during one of the more magical periods in the program’s history.

By then, Tyrone had been a regional powerhouse for more than a decade. The Golden Eagles had played in two state championships, winning one of them in 1999, and gone to the PIAA Final Four on four occasions. These were good times. Friday night at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field was a party, and everyone was going. Big games on the road often drew larger crowds of Tyrone fans than the home-standers. Tyrone football was something young boys wanted to be a part of, often dreaming of the day they would don that black jersey, strap up the white helmet with the orange “T”, and if they were lucky apply the eye black smeared like war paint when the playoffs rolled around.

The flip side of that, as Barry Switzer said of his Oklahoma teams in the 1980s, is by winning the way Tyrone did from 1995 through 2011 you are creating a monster that has to be fed.  And when the monster misses a meal, it gets angry.

“You see the dark side of it,” Murray said. “In small towns, during the fall, you have high school football and not much else. When you’re good, it means more than it would to someone outside of that atmosphere. So when things don’t go as expected, it can make people bitter.”

To the players in 2008, the Clearfield game was a heart-breaking loss in a game they expected to win. Few of them at the time even knew exactly what they had been a part of creating.

It was a run that began on October 8, 2004 with a 35-13 victory over Bellefonte, and it would last for parts of five different seasons. It included many of the blowout wins that became standard procedure during the reign of John Franco, as well as some of the most memorable finishes in program history.

Three different quarterbacks helped construct the streak, while five different running backs gained more than 1,000 yards in a season over that span. One team won a District championship, while another came up just short.

When the run started Facebook was a fledgling social networking website just eight months old and Mark Zuckerberg was relatively unknown. Barack Obama was campaigning in a senate race in Illinois, and the iPhone was three years from its U.S. release. By the time it was finished Americans were using apps on mobile phones to access a new participatory form of technology called social media, and the country was on the verge of electing its first African American president.

The record winning spree allowed the Franco-Era Golden Eagles to catapult themselves past the star teams of the Steve Jacobs era 60 years earlier, establishing once and for all that the greatest era in Tyrone football history not the “Golden Years” of the 1930s and 40s, but the modern era.

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