In the days leading up to the District 6 2A championship in 2004, Ben Gummo, then a key senior member of the Tyrone football team, was faced with as tough a decision as an 18-year old student athlete will have to make.
A week earlier he had torn the meniscus in his left knee, but seven days of rehab, combined with the best sports-specific knee brace available, had him to the point where physically he could play. The knee was going to require surgery at the end of the season no matter what, and there wasn’t much more damage it could suffer.
The doctors cleared him, and then the verdict rested with Gummo. At the heart of the decision was the central question of pain: how much could he bear?
Now pause. Consider what would impel a young man to choose to endure the pain and play the game. For Gummo, it was something very deep. It was what he called the honor of playing for Tyrone. The simple idea of never again having the opportunity to don his black jersey was sufficient for Gummo to say, in essence, “If this is it, I’m riding to the end of the line.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what separated Tyrone from most other teams around the Commonwealth for more than a generation. It was the tradition. It was the idea that other players who came before left a legacy – one that every player afterwards had an obligation to uphold. It was an understanding passed down from one generation of Golden Eagles to the next.
Now think back two decades to 1995, when the Golden Eagles were less like heirs to a proud tradition, and more like orphans of a forgotten program.
Before that season, a 5-5 record was considered a watershed year. In fact, the seniors of 1995 were sophomores when the Tyrone football program bottomed out in 1993 with what amounted to the end of a 19-game losing streak, a low in Tyrone history unparalleled before or since.
From 1989, when the Eagles fell from a District 6 semifinalist to 1-9, through 1993, when a 4-1 finish allowed Tyrone to finish playing .500 for the first time in half a decade, the program posted a record of 9-40, including an 0-9 mark in 1992.
So what was there for the football Class of 1996 to draw from? On the eve of fall camp in August 1995, could they possibly have expected that over the next 16 weeks they would become the team that would resurrect football in the borough and establish a new golden era in Tyrone sports – a pattern of consistency and dominance that lasted well into the 21st Century?
If you ask the coach, definitely.
Using the metaphor of architecture, building a winning football program is every bit like building a house. The most important part is the foundation, and if it is strong, what rests on top of it will always be sturdy, and most problems can always be repaired. But the funny thing about foundations, be they for a home or for a team, is that once they’re in place, they go unnoticed.
Such was the case for the seniors of 1994, the first seniors to play under coach John Franco, who that season came to Tyrone after his coaching contract was not renewed by Altoona High School.
He had considered taking a year off before pursuing another job, but when the Tyrone Area School District decided to open up the Eagles’ head coaching position – despite 1993 coach Tom Miller’s 4-1 finish – boosters in the borough began pursuing him.
Franco was given the job by a 7-1 vote and set to work immediately to reverse the culture of losing that gripped the Golden Eagles for five seasons. Tyrone opened the season with a 16-6 loss to Bellwood-Antis, extending the Blue Devils’ dominance over their fiercest rival to eight seasons, but the game was close and competitive. Over the next three weeks, Tyrone improved to 3-1 with victories over Huntingdon, Lewistown and Bellefonte. A 6-0 loss to Bald Eagle Area followed, and then the Golden Eagles hosted Central on October 6.
The Scarlett Dragons were unbeaten, and had allowed only one team to score on them in five games.
Tyrone dominated Central.
The final score was 14-6, but the game without question belonged to Tyrone. That is where the roots of the 1995 season began to take shape according to Luke Rhoades, a junior in 1994 who became one of four team captains in 1995. Rhoades is now the Athletic Director at Tyrone, as well as the girls basketball coach.
“Central was undefeated and supposed to be one of the best teams in the District,” said Rhoades. “After that game, Tyrone football really stepped up. We believed we could win. We became very close as a team.”
It turned out that the Central victory would be the high-point of Franco’s first season, as the Eagles ended the campaign 1-4, with close losses to Philipsburg-Osceola and Indian Valley. But the Valley game was special because a win would have given Tyrone a piece of the Big 8 championship for the first time since 1988.
“Nineteen Ninety-Four was my first year, and we sat down and looked at what we had, and we came out with a goal not to just put in time,” said Franco. “We believed that we were good enough to compete for a spot in the playoffs. We had a ton of young kids and there were a lot of seniors who didn’t come out because of the coaching change. A lot of the kids looked at me skeptically at first like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But we came close in that first year and the kids saw how close they were against some very good teams that were mostly seniors.”
The foundations had been laid for a marvelous ride in 1995.
“The roots of the 1995 season came the year before,” Franco said. “That 1994 season sprung the 1995 group. The next year, it was full speed ahead.”
September, 1995 was a coming out party for Tyrone, when the Golden Eagles exorcised some long-haunting demons.
It started with a 34-14 win over Bellwood-Antis, Tyrone’s first win over its archrival since 1986. A week later, the Eagles beat Huntingdon for their first home victory over the Bearcats since 1984.
“To be honest, our big goal that season was to beat Bellwood,” said Marcus Owens, a junior running back in 1995 whose smile and enthusiasm for the game quickly made him the poster child for the Tyrone football program. “We had lost to them for eight straight years, and it all seemed to come together after that, but we had no idea how good we could be.”
Victories over Lewistown and Bellefonte followed before Tyrone demolished Bald Eagle Area 41-0 on September 29, snapping a six-game losing streak to BEA that dated back to 1989. Tyrone was now 5-0, and facing the most challenging portion of its schedule.
That made the month of October less a party and more a trial of wills. Over the next four weeks, Tyrone would face two of the top teams in the conference, and a set of four that were responsible for 1994’s 1-4 finish down the stretch.
It started with a game against Central in Roaring Spring on October 7.
The Dragons were bent on using their Homecoming emotion to avenge the previous year’s loss in Tyrone and went ahead 7-0 in the first quarter to put the Golden Eagles in the hole for the first time all season. That was when Tyrone’s defense knuckled up, allowing only 160 yards the rest of the game.
By the time Central’s euphoric start wore off in the second quarter, Tyrone’s big-play offense was ready to roll. Owens tied the game with an 80-yard run, and Buddy Daughenbaugh put the Eagles ahead with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Jarrod Anderson.
Owens closed the scoring in the fourth quarter with another touchdown, but the game belonged to Tyrone’s emerging defense. The Eagles intercepted Josh Krider four times, recovered a fumble, and stopped the Dragons for 45 yards in losses.
It was the kind of defensive effort Tyrone would need if it was to have a shot at winning a Big 8 championship because waiting in the wings was Philipsburg-Osceola, the only remaining conference team with an unblemished record.
Never before that season did Tyrone’s defense stand as tall as it did against the Mounties. P-O invaded the Tyrone 26-yard line five times, with only a single field goal to show for it. However, the Mounties completely smothered Owens, limiting the junior to a season-low eight yards on 14 carries, while holding the Eagles to a mere 53 total yards.
But although Tyrone’s offense was stifled, its defense was as strong as ever, particularly when its back was to the wall. Joe Thomas came up with a huge interception to end one Mountie drive that had penetrated the T-15. Matt Campbell had a pair of big stops that forced P-O into an errant field goal after reaching the 26. Jim Bob Shawley penetrated for a tackle on fourth-and-1 that ended a P-O drive at the 35.
Perhaps the biggest defensive play was turned in by sophomore defensive back Matt Sharer, who recovered a fumble on a botched punt to set Tyrone up at the Mountie 20 with time winding down in the first half and the Eagles trailing 3-0. Not long after, Owens darted in from the 1 to give Tyrone a 6-3 halftime lead.
Tyrone’s edge lasted until the final minutes of the game when P-O blocked a Tyrone punt with 3:19 to play, setting up a potential game-tying 26-yard field goal by Jim Soltis, but after a high snap, Soltis came up short. The Eagles ran down the clock, Thomas took a safety as time expired, and the Golden Eagles assured themselves of at least a share of the Big 8 crown for the first time in seven years with a 6-5 victory.
“We started to get an idea of how good we could be with the Philipsburg win,” said Owens. “That was a pretty good football team.”
More than the title, the P-O game brought about a dramatic shift in Tyrone’s fan support. In a 21-7 loss at P-O a season earlier, when a deflated Tyrone needed a boost from the crowd most, most fans were piling to the gate.
That all changed with the raucous support at Gray Memorial Field in 1995.
“The Philipsburg game was where we really noticed a turning point in our fan support,” said Anderson. “We fed off the crowd, and at that moment we knew we had turned a corner in fan support.”
“If it wasn’t for the fans, we might not have done what we did,” said Matt Campbell. “That was the reason. They really helped us.”
The support never waned, even a week later when Tyrone topped Mount Union 21-0 at home in a torrential downpour. Nor did it fade a week after that, when the Golden Eagles hosted a 2-6 Indian Valley team in a game that for all intents and purposes looked like a coronation.
No Tyrone team had finished the regular season unbeaten since 1948. Members of that squad were invited to the game to help the Eagles cap off one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Tyrone football history.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Indian Valley that the game was a mere formality.
Valley forced three turnovers – two by interception – and kept Tyrone from crossing the IV 47-yard line on five second-half possessions. The Warriors scored the game’s first touchdown after recovering a Golden Eagle fumble to go up 7-0, and they scored the game’s final touchdown with 31 seconds to play to snap a 7-7 tie and completely deflate a Tyrone contingent that was ready to celebrate.
The lone bright spot of the game was Owens’ touchdown reception with seven seconds left in the first half, which gave him sole possession of the TAHS single-season touchdown record with 21.
After that, there were few positives to draw on at first glance. Tyrone shot itself in the foot with five penalties and uncharacteristic turnovers, and was now heading into its first playoff appearance in seven years trying to cope with its first loss of the season.
But from Anderson’s vantage point, the loss, while painful at the time, actually helped the Eagles in the long run.
“It brought us back down to earth,” Anderson said. “After that, we knew that teams weren’t just going to fall over for us.”
Owens said that, while you never want to lose a game, the loss allowed the Eagles to “reset our drive.”
“It was disappointing. I’m not saying our heads were big going into that game, but we might have been overconfident,” said Owens. “The Indian Valley game leveled us back.”
From that point on, Tyrone was able to do something that was quite amazing when you consider they were about to set sail on a journey into the postseason that at the time was unprecedented. The Golden Eagles put aside the hype, the media attention and the fanfare, and just played football.
There would be no more premature celebrations. The next time the Eagles celebrated, it would be because they earned it.
Stomping to Mansion Park
The road to a District 6 championship was different in 1995 than it is today. It was the final year before District 6 combined with District 5 to create a subregional championship game in the 2A division that changed the complexion of getting to Mansion Park. There were only two rounds of District playoffs, so a postseason berth put a team in the District semifinals, but the format also assured that only the top four teams qualified.
As the No. 2 seed, Tyrone faced No. 3 Bald Eagle-Nittany, which four years later consolidated with Lock Haven and Sugar Valley to create what is now Central Mountain.
BEN had an athletic tradition as strong as any team in the District, and they had dominated teams within the A and AA classifications, with their only losses coming to 3A Montoursville and Lock Haven. Against similarly sized schools, the Panthers were 7-0 and outscoring the opposition 223-43.
So despite a No. 2 seed and an 8-1 record, the Eagles were still the underdog when the teams played in Wingate at Bald Eagle Area High School. Undeterred, Tyrone used the game to set in motion a pattern that worked throughout their playoff ride: the Eagles jumped in front early, taking a 13-0 halftime lead on touchdowns by Owens and Daughenbaugh, and then turned the game over to its unwavering defense. An interception by Sharer and two by Rhoades – one on the game’s final play – bottled up the Panthers and sent Tyrone to Altoona for the Class AA final with a 13-9 victory.
It was Tyrone’s third District championship game, and the opponent was Bishop McCort, which had knocked off the top-seeded Westmont Hilltop Hilltoppers.
Most Golden Eagle fans remember the game for the monsoon that hit Mansion Park late in the chilly fourth quarter when McCort was driving towards a game-tying score. But the players remember it for something that happened before they stepped on the field, while they were kneeling for a team prayer.
“We all had our heads bowed, and the locker room was quiet, and then we heard Tyrone’s fans stomping on the bleachers above us and cheering,” recalled Rhoades. “We all looked up and looked in each others eyes like ‘Wow, this is pretty incredible.’ It’s something I’ll never forget.”
No one else could forget it either.
“That was a pretty big moment,” said Anderson. “I remember it, too. That was awe-inspiring.”
“As a high school football player, that was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Matt Campbell said. “I’ll always remember that.”
Owens said he felt the first title game appearance under Franco was something the football-starved community needed.
“Hearing those fans stomping was surreal,” he said. “I’m 40 years old and I still remember being in that locker room hearing that. Then when they drove on us and the rain picked up, it was like it made us play better. We didn’t want to let the fans down or ourselves.”
Equally hard to forget was Tyrone’s passionate defensive effort, which produced interceptions by Rhoades, Sharer and Daughenbaugh, or its fourth-quarter offensive explosion that put the Eagles ahead 13-0. Owens scored both touchdowns on 12- and 1-yard runs, but before the Eagles could relax the Crushers were knocking on the door.
An 80-yard McCort drive made it 13-7, and with 1:39 remaining the Crushers began their drive to tie. That was when the clouds opened up, and the winds from an early winter storm pushed the drops across the turf in waves.
The harder it poured, the louder Tyrone’s faithful cheered.
McCort made it as far as the Tyrone 32 before fumbling, and with the recovery began the celebration of the Eagles’ first District championship since 1987.
“We approached the playoffs one game at a time, and each win was a boost for us,” Rhoades said.
It was a high Tyrone would stay on for weeks. The following Saturday, the Eagles leveled Bedford 32-0 at Mansion Park in the program’s first Inter-District game with a performance that was sharp and precise. The defense allowed only 78 total yards and forced five turnovers, while the offense, led by Owens’ 197 rushing yards and two touchdowns, churned out 378 total yards.
“That whole season there was no pressure on us,” said Owens. “Beating Bellwood was our No. 1 goal. After winning Districts, we were just happy to have won that. It was house money, and we were just able to relax and go at it.”
The win put Tyrone in the PIAA quarterfinals against undefeated District 10 champion Wilmington, which was ranked No. 3 in the state and allowing only 4.2 points per game.
Despite the Greyhounds reputation and credentials, Tyrone again jumped to an early lead, with Owens and Daughenbaugh pulling in touchdown passes from Anderson to stake the Eagles to a 14-0 lead at halftime. The game was then again put in the hands of the Golden Eagles’ defense, which by that time invited the pressure of stopping an opponent to seal a victory.
Tyrone forced Wilmington into three second-half turnovers, including a fumble recovery at the T-4 by Matt Campbell and an interception at the 4 by Sam Cowher.
“Marcus was a tremendous running back and Jarrod was such a great quarterback that once we got points on the board, we really knew we could hold a team defensively,” said Rhoades. “We were a team that rallied around our defense and our heart.”
The 14-7 win sent Tyrone riding into the PIAA Western Region finals against WPIAL champion Burrell at Peters Township High School, and that was where the magical season came to an end.
Against a defense as fast and swarming as its own, Tyrone turned the ball over four times and managed only 29 yards in total offense in a 34-14 loss that ended the careers of eight Golden Eagle seniors who paved the way for the PIAA title charges that were to come.
“You never want to go out on a loss, but I really felt bad for the seniors more than anything,” said Anderson. “I still had another year left, but that was it for them. It was disappointing, but we still had a great season.”
It was a great season that is often overlooked two decades later, after Franco had molded the Eagles into one of the premier Class AA schools in Pennsylvania – one that sets as one of its goals every season a PIAA championship. But the legacy lives on.
The real secret to Tyrone’s team success in 1995 was the character of its individuals.
“It was a group that wanted to win so badly, and they were just waiting for someone to say ‘We’re good enough to win,’” Franco said.
The numbers the team posted were staggering, even though most have been surpassed in the 23 years since. Owens gained a single-season record 1,553 yards and scored 28 touchdowns. Anderson passed for 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. And Daughenbaugh set a standard of productivity that may never be matched. He caught 28 passes for 397 yards and a school-record 10 scores, with every one of his receptions going for either a first down or a touchdown.
The Eagles also landed seven spots on the All-Big 8 first team, 15 total.
Beyond individual talent, the Eagles’ had leaders, none greater than the Campbell brothers, whose heart, intensity and quiet demeanor set a standard Franco has never seen since.
“They set the tone, and they put fear in the hearts of players in Blair County,” Franco said. “If there was anyone on that team that was not 100 percent committed to winning, they would have to deal with the Campbells. They are the two toughest kids I have ever coached.”
The humble and soft-spoken Matt Campbell still deflects that kind of individual praise.
“We did it as a team,” he said. “We wanted to push ourselves that much harder, and we wanted to try to get that across to everyone else. It was really the leadership of the guys from the year before that showed me what I should do.”
Many of the players from 1995 still return on Friday nights to see the latest incarnations of the tradition they began two decades ago. Some even reflect on what their championship season has meant in the larger scheme of Franco’s program.
“It’s been the stability in coaching. The stability Franco gave the program changed things more than us,” said Rhoades.
Owens echoed Rhoades’ sentiments, saying without Franco the team may have still been good, but with him it was special.
“I’m pretty proud that we were the flame that set the fire for Tyrone football,” he said. “We would have never have been that good without Franco and his preparation. The way he motivated himself and they guys on the team, he was the perfect one for the job. Would we have been alright without him? We probably would have won some games. But it’s one thing to be 8-2 and another to be 12-2 and 13-1. He believed in us. It was like we were the perfect fit. We were meant for each other.”
The stable Franco still remembers the 1995 team as the team that started it all, and as a model of what a team at Tyrone should be.
“Of all the teams I coached, that 1995 team is dearest to my heart,” he said. “That’s the team that got everything going and said ‘We can do this.’”