The team that time forgot

Tyrone’s football team in 1987 was defined by its disdain for the boundaries of time.

On three occasions with the game in the balance, time stood still for the Golden Eagles of 1987. The game clock read all zeroes in the fourth quarter.

And on three occasions Tyrone used the absence of time to define moments that, in terms of minutes and seconds – real time – never existed.

But along the broad spectrum of life, time is undefeated, and as the years roll on it’s settling old scores with the Golden Eagles of 1987.

More than three decades have come and gone since Tyrone followed two straight losses to open the season with ten consecutive victories and the school’s first District 6 football championship.

And with each passing year Tyrone’s first District title continues to blend further into the mist of memory for many reasons. Despite the mythic stature of Pennsylvania high school football, 1987 was still the dark ages for the sport in the commonwealth when compared to other states primarily because it lacked a statewide football playoff. That would come in 1988 and evolve through several phases, but thirty years ago teams who won District championships were finished with football by Thanksgiving, making their thrilling rides sources of great pride locally but also rather provincial.

“I wish we could have continued on,” said Tom Getz, a senior receiver in 1987. “It would have been nice to see how far we could have gone.”

Add to that the rapid decline of the program just two seasons later. After winning it all in 1987 and then playing in the District semifinals in 1988, the program quickly descended into a malaise from which it would not rise until the mid-1990s. From 1989 through the 1992 the Eagles went 4-35, at one point losing a school-record 19 in a row. In that way it was easy to forget the first District crown because there was genuinely a time when people would have just as soon forgotten Tyrone football in general.

That period was followed by the most successful era in the program’s history, when John Franco won 190 games from 1994 through 2011, capturing eight District championships, appearing in the state finals three times, and winning the whole thing in 1999. It was a period of accomplishment that was all about the next championship and the next record-setting win. Who had time for old trophies when so many new ones were up for grabs?

At that confluence of events sit the 1987 Golden Eagles, perhaps the best Tyrone football squad that nobody talks about.

It’s a long drop from the days of the Cardiac Kids who, under first-year head coach Chuck Hoover, spent a season coming from behind and defying the odds.

“It seemed to us like every second counted,” said Bob Mertiff, the Jim McMahon-like punky QB who during his senior season authored one of the greatest comeback victories in school history. “As the game wound down, every tick of the clock helped us.”

Truth be told, the clock was ticking for Hoover and his staff two weeks into the regular season after committing a pair of sins that in 1987 were nearly unforgivable. First, the Eagles lost to Bellwood-Antis on the road to open the season. The modern fan understands the severity of this gaff in connection with a game that has since been dubbed the Backyard Brawl. For generations the opening chapter of Tyrone Football 101 has begun with Beat Bellwood, so the 13-9 loss was no minor setback.

What may be less familiar is that for decades before 1987 and extending at least as long as the destruction of the Big 8 in 2003, Huntingdon was as big a rival as the Blue Devils. In this case, the 18-7 loss at home in Week 2 was compounded by the fact that the Golden Eagles had lost to the ‘Cats 6-0 10 months earlier in the 3A championship, and Coach Hoover, along with several members of his staff, had jumped ship in the aftermath to come to Tyrone.

“Because the Bellwood game was so big, and because Coach Hoover and I were both from the Huntingdon coaching staff, we said if we open the season 0-2 we’ll get run out of town,” said Jim Zauzig, Tyrone’s defensive coordinator in 1987 who went on to win five District titles at Huntingdon in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Hoover saw the first two losses as the normal growing pains any group of players experience when acclimating themselves to a new system. Under Tom Miller, who had coached the Golden Eagles from 1979 through 1986, Tyrone ran the veer offense.  Hoover’s system was the power-I, and while both were predicated upon the run, the two offenses are quite different.

“They were good teams we opened the season with,” Coach Hoover said. “Our kids were adjusting to the system and the coaches. It just took a spark for us.”

The flint was a game at Mitchell Field in Week 3 against Lewistown. Tyrone limited the Panthers to 91 yards of total offense in a 14-0 victory, a garden variety 80’s game against Lewistown if ever there was one, but a precursor for the fireworks that would follow over the next four weeks.

In one month, Tyrone pulled out three last-second victories, won four consecutive games, dethroned the last unbeaten team in the Big 8, and moved into the driver’s seat for the conference championship by the time the October leaves were burning bright orange. As Halloween approached, Tyrone residents were calling the Golden Eagles a team of destiny.

It started with a home game against Bellefonte in which Tyrone overcame every self-imposed obstacle imaginable to win 7-6. The Golden Eagles lost four fumbles, threw two interceptions, had a punt and a field goal attempt blocked, and put the Red Raiders in position to attempt two game-winning field goals inside the Tyrone 7, the last one sailing wide with no time left.

Tyrone finally had a winning streak to build on, but for the wry Coach Hoover there wasn’t a lot of reason to celebrate as the team moved toward the caravan to return to the high school field house.

“I told them to just get on the bus before something else happens,” said Coach Hoover.

Fortune shined on the team once again a week later, despite a torrential downpour in Wingate against Bald Eagle Area.

Tyrone trailed 20-14 with eight seconds left, but for the Eagles to be within a single score was nothing short of miraculous after BEA had outgained them in total yards 335-51. Tyrone’s offense was yet to produce a touchdown, and now here they were, preparing to field a kickoff in almost zero visibility that most of the remaining spectators assumed was nothing more than a formality to run out the clock. One squib kick, one tackle, game over.

Scott Hoover

But it didn’t happen that way, and the reason was Scott Hoover. A special teams demon who would go on to be named to the All Big 8 first team as a kick returner and running back, Hoover snatched the ball as it hydroplaned to the 30, and broke through the wall on his way to a 70-yard touchdown to tie the game. John Supina kicked the extra-point to win it, and Tyrone was now 3-2.

It was Scott Hoover’s second kickoff return for a touchdown that game, leaving most of the Tyrone sideline incredulous that BEA would test him one more time with the game on the line. Joe Steinbugl scored the Eagles’ other touchdown on a 46-yard return of a fumble recovery.

“We were literally beaten on the scoreboard and on the field,” said Zauzig. “But somehow we pulled it out.”

The Golden Eagles won their fourth straight a week later, shutting out Central 17-0. Mertiff passed for 119 yards and a touchdown as Tyrone set the stage for a Homecoming showdown against Philipsburg-Osceola the next week.

“The circumstances of that game and the rivalry with P-O made it the biggest game of the year,” Getz recalled. “At the time, that game was as big as Bellwood.”

The Mounties went into the game averaging 28 points per game as the Big 8 leader, so no one was surprised when they took the opening kickoff and drove 69 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.

The Golden Eagles tied the game on the last play of the first half with an exchange that typified the Eagles in 1987. Supina lined up for a 20-yard field goal, but the kick was blocked; a backup quarterback by trade, Supina calmly gathered up the loose change, avoided traffic, and tossed a touchdown pass to Getz to tie the game at 7-7.

It remained tied as Tyrone began the game-winning drive at its own 28 with 13 seconds left. In an era before high school overtime in Pennsylvania, when ties were still quite common, a draw would have derailed Tyrone’s hopes for a piece of the Big 8 championship.

Always the gunslinger, Mertiff threw to Steinbugl for 42 yards to set the Golden Eagles up at the P-O 33. With the capacity crowd at Gray Memorial Field now in a frenzy, Mertiff unloaded a pass he said he never actually saw, but will never forget.

“I was on my back and never saw what happened,” said Mertiff. “Then I heard the crowd scream and I knew something good happened.”

What happened was the ball was tipped as it spiraled across the goal line in the south end zone, near where the scoreboard remains to this day. Senior tight end Bill Kimberling, falling on his back, maintained his concentration on the ball and cradled it into his belly for the game winner.

Bill Kimberling

“(Former Tyrone coach) John Shoenwolf once told me there’s no such thing as luck,” said Kimberling. “He said, ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ I just yelled at Bob and told him where I would be. It was instinctual.”

The play has since been immortalized in Tyrone lore as simply The Catch, but at the time it was one more link in a chain of belief. Any team that has championship aspirations first has to commit to a shared narrative. In modern coach speak it’s called buying in.

What wasn’t there to like about what Tyrone’s coaches were selling in 87, when the narrative was play to the final whistle and something good will happen?

“We won three games with no time on the clock,” said Zauzig. “That might happen to a team once in a lifetime.”

Tyrone went on to close out the regular season with three more wins, including a 9-7 Big 8 title clinching victory at Chief Logan, which later consolidated with Kishacoquillas to form Indian Valley, and now is known a part of Mifflin County High School.

The Golden Eagles emerging defense, featuring Rick Day, Kevin Diebold, Steve Lewis, Shawn Johnson, Jamie Zang, and Alan Walls, held the Mingoes to three first downs and 56 total yards to vault Tyrone into the first round of the District 6 3A playoffs.

An opening-round pairing with Cambria Heights was little more than a preamble, for as the Golden Eagles were whipping the Highlanders 32-0, Huntingdon was beating P-O 15-3.

A unique showdown was set: Huntingdon, the defending 3A champion, which had already dismantled Tyrone once that season, for whom Coach Hoover had spent years working as an assistant, against the Cardiac Kids, the junior laden, upstart that had somehow patched together nine straight wins.

And this one would take place not at Mansion Park, the traditional home of District 6 finals in 2018, but at War Vets Field.

Mertiff had two touchdown passes in the first half – 7 yards to Kimberling and 49 yards to Hoover – to put the Golden Eagles up 13-7 at halftime, but Tyrone fell behind in the fourth quarter when, on the heels of an interception, Bearcat quarterback Mike Hudy found Cleveland Walker behind the defense for the go-ahead score.

The ‘Cats missed the extra-point, but led 19-13 with under nine minutes remaining, setting the stage for one more last-ditch effort by the Golden Eagles.

The drive for it all began at the Huntingdon 46 with a hook-and-lateral play from Mertiff to Kimberling to Hoover covering 16 yards. Two plays later Mertiff connected with Hoover for 29 yards before the drive stalled at the Huntingdon 10.

Coach Hoover’s options were dwindling, but at the climax of a season spent making lemonade from lemons, the rookie head coach had one more trick up his sleeve. It was a play called the Friday Night Special.

In a move that may well have gone unnoticed by the ‘Cats’ defense, Supina lined up at tailback on fourth down. Taking a pitch from Mertiff, he swept left, stopped on a dime, and threw back across the field to a wide-open Getz in the right corner of the end zone. He then kicked the tie-breaking extra-point to give the Golden Eagles a 20-19 lead and the program’s first District 6 title.

Tom Getz makes the game-winning catch against Huntingdon.

“That was the biggest catch I’ve ever made, but it was kind of weird,” said Getz. “We really felt we weren’t going to be beaten. It wasn’t arrogant. It was just the way things happened.”

Coach Hoover said with the District championship came a great sense of fulfillment.

“We were destined to win it,” he said. “It had to do with the way the players carried themselves and their refusal to quit.”

“It was always our goal,” said Kimberling. “We wanted to be the first Tyrone football team to win a District title.”

It’s now 31 years later. Nine other teams have since claimed District championships, and the success spawned in the Franco Era made many of those title wins look like small potatoes when compared to what happened after – trips to Hershey, dominance over the WPIAL in the regional playoffs, 35 consecutive regular-season wins at one point. Getz himself had two sons who won District 6 championships, and his oldest boy Christian even played for a PIAA crown in 2011.

Success bred success. It added to the legend and shined a bright light on Tyrone’s program from across the commonwealth, but it also made the question of who did it first a little cloudy.

But the 1987 team remembers, and as Kimberling said every now and then they get out the old scrapbook.

And they wonder – what if?

What if they could have gone on? What if they could have played the best of the best in Pennsylvania? Perhaps then everyone would remember.

And then the Golden Eagles of 1987 would no longer be the team that time forgot.

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