EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the opening to what will be a much longer story on the 1999 Tyrone Golden Eagles’ state championship season.
Tyrone’s state championship run in 1999 was sealed by a loss in 1998 and a promise to make things right
Shakespeare wrote that what’s past is prologue. What that means in his play The Tempest is that everything that has happened before the moment of a crucial decision has led to that moment. The weight of history has pushed its momentum in a particular direction, and now it is upon the subjects to act accordingly. Fate has guided them to their purpose.
If you’re into Shakespeare, that’s a pretty cool line. If you believe in destiny it may take on added significance.
But for the Tyrone football team in 1999, the idea of the past being prologue and thereby guiding you to a meaningful place in time was more than a line from a play. It was a central element of the story.
Like all good stories, the tale of the 1999 Golden Eagles, who went 15-0 and captured a PIAA championship, has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s got heroes and villains, dramatic reversals of fortune, odds to be overcome, laughter and tears.
But it’s impossible to truly appreciate what occurred over those 15 weeks of the final year of the Twentieth Century without first understanding what happened a year before – the prologue.
So twenty years after the Golden Eagles made their historic trip to Hershey to be coronated as the greatest team in the history of the nearly 100-year old program, in order to completely tell the story it’s important to first re-visit November, 1998. Only in that context can the magnitude of the magical run of 1999 make complete sense.
Everything led to December 11, 1999.
But it all began on November 16, 1998.
“Talk about a bunch of cocky, entitled punks. We thought that was going to be the easiest game, and they scrubbed us.”
Dave McCahan, who played defensive end in 1998 before anchoring the offensive line as the center in 1999, has some vivid memories of his high school playing days, and he can be quite candid. When recalling the Golden Eagles’ District 5-6 semifinal matchup against United in 1998, he doesn’t hold much back.
“The Huntingdon game in ‘98 we knew they were going to be really good and we were a long shot to win, but the United game we shrugged off and clearly it showed,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine overlooking a game against a 10-0 opponent with a trip to the District finals on the line, but it was easy to do in the euphoria surrounding the Tyrone football program in the late 1990s.
By 1998, Tyrone under fifth-year coach John Franco had established itself as the top high school football program in the region. The Golden Eagles had won three consecutive District 5-6 2A championships and were coming off consecutive undefeated regular seasons. In 1996 the team went all the way to the PIAA finals, only to fall to Mount Carmel when the title games were still played at Mansion Park in Altoona.
The program wasn’t yet quite the machine it was to grow into a decade later, when Franco was seemingly yanking kids in street clothes into a huddle and setting them up to run for 1,000 yards just because the system was that good and the belief in it so strong, but make no mistake: Tyrone was a powerhouse, with an array of talent rarely seen since.
At the start of the season it was clear the strength of the unit would be a young but talented offensive line and a running game centered around Jesse Jones, an emerging star who ran for nearly 800 yards as a freshman in 1997 on a team that was loaded with offensive weapons. By 1998, the burden of carrying the offense fell squarely on the shoulders of Jones, and with a line that included five future Big 8 first-team all-conference selections, he was ready.
While the Eagles were humbled in Week 2 in a 47-18 loss to Huntingdon, which would advance as far as the 3A Western Final that season, the remainder of 1998 couldn’t have played out more perfectly. Jones established early on that he was as good as the hype, and 1-2 punch of he and junior Josh Lucas gave the Eagles a ground attack so strong that first-year starter Corey Anderson had all the time he needed to grow into a reliable quarterback.
Outside of the Huntingdon game Tyrone never scored fewer than 27 points and only once allowed more than two touchdowns. The Eagles finished the regular season with a 28-0 shutout on the road of 8-1 Shenandoah and followed that up with a 42-0 blowout of Northern Cambria in the first round of the District playoffs. Jones ran for 1,500 yards and scored 27 touchdowns.
By the time United rolled into town on November 16, Tyrone was 9-1 and thinking about Forest Hills, which had defeated Bedford and was awaiting the winner in Tyrone.
“I had teachers in the school who I knew well, as well as the principal at that time, Dave Helinski, and they all told me, ‘These guys are looking ahead to Forest Hills,’” said Franco. “Everyone in the school district was talking about a championship matchup with Forest Hills. There’s no way the kids were buying into what I was saying.”
The Golden Eagles never knew what hit them. After turning the ball over four times and failing to score on four trips inside the United 30, Tyrone was shutout at home for the first time since 1994 in a 20-0 pasting that was much more lopsided than the final score would indicate.
In the blink of an eye, it was over.
“We just didn’t come to play,” said Scott Gummo, a sophomore in 1998 who would go on to become a two-time All-State defensive lineman. “We took that loss straight to the gut, and it was a tough pill to swallow, but at the end it was a gift because the following year that played a part in our state championship run.”
There’s a lot of soul searching that goes on during the course of a nine-month offseason, and for the Golden Eagles of 1999 it was compounded by the way 1998 ended. At the heart of the loss to United was this nagging feeling that it didn’t happen because the Lions overwhelmed Tyrone with talent but because the Golden Eagles had lost their focus. Franco had preached a game-at-a-time philosophy his entire career at Tyrone, but it’s a mantra that ‘s easy to lose sight of when wins come in volumes like they did in the late 90s. Now it was there for the players in full color. Now they had to listen.
And that’s where the contract was born.
“I want to say it was Josh Lucas and I that drafted it up. It was words we all said daily,” said Doug Roseberry, a junior in 1999 who would go on to become an All-State linebacker before earning a role as a special teams captain at Pitt several years later. “Franco preached it. Play each play like it’s the last play of the state championship.”
What Roseberry and Lucas had composed was a statement that spoke to the core beliefs of Franco and the Tyrone football program. It was a vow to commit to the goal of bringing home a state championship and giving maximum effort on every play.
“I had been telling them all year in 1998 you can’t be cocky and just think you’re going to show up and win,” said Franco. “When we lost to United I decided to make it a point to remind them of it every week. One day Doug showed me this paper he had written and asked what I thought. That was a special team. Everyone signed it and it went up in the locker room where they could look at it all year.”
Since Franco had arrived at Tyrone in 1994 he had tried to instill a singular, week-to-week focus, and he did it with the visual symbol of a ladder in the locker room, with each rung representing a step in a state championship season. No. 1 Beat Bellwood-Antis. No. 2 Win the conference. No. 3 Win a District championship. No. 4 Win the Western Final. And No. 5, win a state championship.
Understanding the ladder was a commitment to the culture of the program, but for players like McCahan the contract went a step further. This was a commitment not just to the program but to a group of friends, with whom you had played on some level most of your life.
“The contract was a commitment to the team reaching a goal we knew we could reach,” he said. “We also got ‘The Road to Hershey starts today with us’ shirts. We were a special group of guys. I know every class has a group of guys who are close, but what we had was a step up on other classes. We did everything together. We were like a band of brothers, and we fed off each other.”
If a state championship was indeed something the Eagles felt was attainable – at that point no school from Blair County had ever won one – then the contract made it real.
“It was a fun play on a serious thing,” said Roseberry. “It was almost like, ‘Okay boys, you signed the contract! You now have to live that life and play each play like the last play of the state championship. The contract was a way to make guys take some of the words and really put it into an actual ‘thing.” You signed the contract!”
Contract or no contract, the Golden Eagles in 1999 were going to do some incredible things. How could they not? Seventeen players from the squad would ultimately be named first-team all-conference all-stars during their careers, while four made All-State teams. Some, like Jones and Gummo, set records that stand to this day. Others, like quarterback Brandon Hoover and wide receiver Steve Johnson, established marks that would one day be broken, though at the time they were tops for their position.
But as the loss to United in 1998 vividly demonstrated, teams with tremendous talent can be beaten in any singular game if everyone is not dedicated to the same goal.
That was the significance of the contract, and it showed in Week 1 in a 24-0 shutout of Bellwood-Antis in the Backyard Brawl – step No. 1 on the ladder. A week later, at home against Huntingdon, the Eagles won 31-8, gaining an early edge in the race for a Big 8 championship – step 2.
Even after winning the program’s fourth District championship in five years with a 22-8 win over Forest Hills, step 3, nobody was thinking Hershey Kisses because that would have distracted the team from a game against Sharon in the PIAA playoffs, and a win over Sharon meant everything because it led to step 4 – a spot in the Western Final against WPIAL champion Waynesburg.
“At the time we were so singularly focused on one game at a time that I’m not even sure we knew what teams were options for us to play the next week,” said Patrick McNelis, an all-conference lineman in 1999.
And when the day finally came to play for a state championship against storied Mount Carmel on December 11, 1999, the vow each player committed to when signing the contract came full circle.
Tyrone fell behind 6-0 after surrendering a touchdown on the Red Tornadoes’ first possession but took the lead early in the second half on a pick-six from senior Tim Dry, an unlikely hero who had grown into a ferocious pass rusher as a defensive end only after an injury to McCahan had limited him to one-way play, thus opening the door for Dry to become a starter.
Always one with a flair for the dramatic, Jones made it 13-6 with 37 seconds left with an electric 92-yard touchdown run after Tyrone had been backed to its own goal line attempting to simply run out the clock.
However, there was still enough time for the Red Tornadoes to try to tie the game, and with two seconds left they had driven as far as Tyrone’s 36 with a howling wind at their backs.
Everything the team had devoted itself to, everything they had signed on for before they had even been issued pads when Lucas and Roseberry had put in ink the central elements of what it should mean to play at Tyrone, came down to a single moment.
“Little did we know it was going to take every play to get the win,” said Roseberry. “It truly came down to playing the last play of the state championship.”
A last-gasp, desperation heave from Dave Shinske bounced errantly out of the back corner of the end zone, securing Trone the victory, and ensuring that the 1999 Golden Eagles would go down in history as the first team from District 6 and the first from Blair County to win it all in Hershey.
“We were told after we won that people would talk about our team for a long time in Tyrone, and 20 years later, I still get asked about it about once every week or two. Its humbling to think about what we accomplished,” said Mike McNelis, who like his twin brother Patrick was an all-conference lineman in 1999.
McNelis said the team still gets together as a group, though getting everyone together at once doesn’t happen frequently. The closest they got was in 2011 when the group was inducted, as a team, into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame.
Since then, Bishop Guilfoyle won three 1A titles, but as Franco said in his induction speech eight years ago, while there will be others, Tyrone will always be the first, and the experience is something special for all of the players involved.
“Twenty years later, it still means the world. What a special day and year for the whole town,” said Roseberry. “Every single one of us want the town and team to experience what we did. We’re the only ones, yet we want every Tyrone player to feel it – an undefeated season where a whole town is behind you.”
It takes a lot to win a state championship. Primarily, it takes great talent, and rosters like the one Tyrone had in 1999 don’t come along very often. But it also takes hard work, favorable matchups, and even a bit of luck.
There’s also the idea that what you are doing is bigger than you. You are a part of a continuum, and that includes those that came before, those that will come after, and the collective lessons learned by all.
For the state championship team of 1999, the greatest lesson was learned in 1998.
“We knew after ‘98 if we overlooked anyone or thought about who we’d play next, we weren’t going to be playing anybody the following week,” McCahan said.