It’s Election Day, so let’s...talk about something else.
How about Manhattan High football? Seems a topic we can all agree on. Right?
My fightin’ Indians beat Wichita North in the first round of the 6A playoffs last Friday night. That’s a sentence that I uttered once before: In mid-November, 1985. I was a senior at MHS, and my buddies still talk about that game. I repeat the story here, because, well, you just never know how things are going to turn out. Sometimes you only realize what really happened decades later.
In the fall of ‘85, Manhattan High was having a mediocre year, by its high standards. The year before, we’d been to the state championship game, on the strength of a great defense, a really good offensive line, and a tailback named Mark Wentzel. With the perspective of time, he remains one of the all-time best at MHS. He wasn’t tall, but he was fast, strong, and outrageously quick and shifty.
Remember that description. It’ll come in handy in a minute.
Anyway, Wentzel and nearly all the starters on that team graduated, and so the guys in my class (and the ones a year or two behind us) had to try to fill in. It was a so-so year, with about a .500 record. But we beat Junction City and made it into the playoffs — in those days, not everybody did.
Well, we — and I say “we” because I’m a fan, certainly not a good enough athlete to play on that team — got paired up against Wichita North in the opening round. They had had a similar year, but they’d gotten hot as the weather cooled, and everybody knew what the key was.
His name was Barry Sanders. Not tall. Fast, strong, outrageously quick and shifty. If you haven’t heard the name, you ought to look him up. Ended up winning the Heisman Trophy; many people still say he’s the best running back of all time.
He had started the year at wingback, but the coach moved him to tailback, and he racked up 1,419 yards on 139 carries. The headline in the Mercury story the night before the game: “Indians must stop Sanders.”
Legend has it that the fact that it was the state playoffs meant that there was some choice in which field the game was to be played on. It was rainy that week, so there was some logic to the idea of moving the game to KSU Stadium, which had artificial turf that drained fairly well. Legend further has it that the MHS coaches not only insisted on playing at soupy Bishop Stadium, but that they instructed the grounds crew to run the sprinklers. I don’t know that it’s true, but they like to tell ghost stories at MHS, and that’s one heckuva yarn.
Did that help? Well, possibly.
Sanders had zero yards on his first five carries, and only 37 by halftime. I remember thinking, “What’s the big deal about this guy?” as I watched my buddy Curtis Crawford tackle him for no gain.
But then they threw a pass to him out of the backfield, and he juked a defender out of his shoes and scored, and I thought: “Ah. OK. I get it.” He also scored a rushing touchdown.
He ended up with 140 yards, and North was in position to win the game, up 14-10 with 55 seconds left. MHS had no timeouts and 74 yards to go for a touchdown. It got to 4th and 1 with 26 seconds left, ball on our own 35 yard line — and it looked pretty grim. But quarterback Matt Veatch threw an 8-yard completion to Mike Martin, and we still had life.
(Veatch went on to set records at San Diego State and had an NFL tryout. Cannon of an arm. Martin is back around Manhattan these days as he oversees the local Rally House. Also around town is Gar Ball, who...well, I’m one step ahead of myself.)
Anyway, one play later, Ball beats the defender and hauls in a bomb from Veatch — a 57-yard touchdown — to win the game, 16-14.
Nobody knew what that meant at that time, of course. It just meant the Indians had a shot in the state semifinals against Dodge City. They lost that game, and so ended up a game short of where their predecessors had been. A couple years later, MHS was back in the title game with a powerhouse of a team. The year after that, the Indians won the state title. That’s the last time that happened. Of course, at the time, it felt like it would happen over and over. And it felt like the 1985 team was some sort of underachiever by comparison.
Not true. A couple decades of perspective changes the narrative quite a bit. For those guys, the story is pretty simple: Back in the day, we beat a team with Barry Sanders, the greatest running back of them all.