’58 team lays claim to best Warriors ever
The Steel Curtain. The Purple People Eaters. The ’85 Bears. The Blackshirts of the ’90s. Great defenses don’t have to look far for a comparison when being judged among the greats.
Depending on age and generation, football fans have a handful of legendary groups to point to as a frame of reference.
But what about the ’58 Warriors?
Yes, those Warriors. The ones who just finished a second straight 1-8 season and most recently struggled through a five-year losing skid.
Though success on the gridiron has been tough to come by lately for Schuyler High School, there was once a time SCHS set the standard in Nebraska High School football.
Granted, it was a different era. Schuyler had just affixed crossbars to its helmets the year before. But 60 years after the 1958 team completed a perfect season and claimed the school’s second-ever state football championship, members of that group still have quite the argument about who’s the best ever.
“There wasn’t much finesse to it,” remembered Art Polzin one afternoon in a meeting at the Columbus Telegram. Polzin was a running back and defensive back on that team six decades ago.
He was joined by teammates Roger Wilshusen and Dan Wolfe, stalwarts on both the offensive and defensive lines.
The trio brought with them old yearbooks, a scrapbook Polzin’s wife had put and a framed photo when Wolfe and members of the Schuyler administration accepted the state championship trophy on behalf of a representative from the Omaha World Herald.
Prior to 1975, the Nebraska State Activities Association had yet to establish a postseason tournament. State champs were most often recognized in the pages of the World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star.
“We had, maybe, 10 plays,” Polzin said. “Run to the right, run to the left, run up the middle. We didn’t need much more. Most of the time, they worked.
“(Coach Don) Watchorn always said he never wanted any less than five yards,” Wolfe interjected.
Each of the three shuffled into the conference room at The Telegram in different speeds. Now in their late 70’s, time was beginning to catch up to this group of Schuyler legends.
Yet, while the spry may be out of their bones and something as simple as putting a hand in the dirt at the line of scrimmage might be quite the challenge, the pride of those days long ago was still quite apparent.
There was, if you looked closely enough, somewhat of a glow resonating from each that has perhaps dimmed over the past 60 years but in no way ever has, or ever will, completely extinguish.
“The defense was like the “Steel Curtain,” Wilshusen said. “Our offense was more like four yards and a cloud of dust.”
Schuyler gave up a grand total of 20 points through a nine-game schedule in the fall of 1958.
Polzin, Wilshusen, Wolfe and the Warriors shut out their first five opponents and never allowed more than seven points in any game.
The first team to score on them was Albion in a 53-6 win in Week 6. York managed seven in a 40-7 game the following week, Schuyler shut down Crete 14-0 then Wahoo found the end zone once in a 40-7 season finale.
However, ask the starters, as all three were, and they’ll tell you they only allowed the six points in the win over Albion. The rest were not on their ledger.
“We didn’t take responsibility for those 14 points because we were out of the game at that point,” Wilshusen said. “We had 14 other points scored on us, but those were in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t let the juniors forget it.”
After five weeks of shutouts to start the year, “It sounded like Albion won the game after they scored that one touchdown,” Wolfe remembered.
Schuyler was coached by the legendary Don Watchorn who eventually went on to Nebraska-Omaha then a 21-year career as football coach and athletic director at Midland University in Fremont.
He won 116 games and nine conference titles leading another group of Warriors.
“He once told us, ’You’re going to hate me before you love me,” Wilshusen said of his former coach’s demanding style. “He loved to serve us Watermelon, but we didn’t drink a drop of water ever.”
Perhaps the most memorable comment from Watchorn was the one he made to the team immediately after a 28-0 win over Seward set up a showdown with Columbus.
“The week before, when we won the game, he said, ‘The next week is Columbus. Anybody who doesn’t think we’re going to win the game, don’t bother showing up,’” Wilshusen said. “That was the mindset.”
But everybody showed up, including a crowd estimated at 3,000 strong according to a newspaper report of the game. The largest crowd to see a high school football game in Schuyler at the time.
In the days leading up, Kramer High fans, as Columbus High School was known back then, brought their confidence, and their wallets to the Last Chance Bar and Saloon on the edge of Schuyler. Those overconfident slapped $100 bills onto the counter.
“Those bills were covered in no time,” Wilshusen said.
He can’t exactly confirm or deny the existence of wagering on the game but had heard such an occurrence was common prior to the two teams going head-to-head.
“We were confident,” Wolfe said. “We were going to win.”
Columbus drove down to the Schuyler 7 on the first possession of the game but stalled after a false-start then a failed third-down conversion.
A field goal attempt sailed wide of the uprights. If there were any nerves, the trio remembered, that first stop helped settle the Warriors in for the remainder of the game.
Schuyler finally struck in the second quarter driving 70 yards and finishing from the 11 on a 7-yard run by Frank Sobota, a four-yard carry by Bob Kasik then a quarterback keeper for a touchdown by Larry Trofholz to make it 7-0.
Eldon Hobza intercepted a pass in the third quarter and returned it to the Columbus 25 setting up another Schuyler score.
Sobota rumbled for 13 and a first down then Trofholz did the honors again from the 1-yard line three plays later capping the scoring 13-0.
Columbus had a chance late to break the shutout streak, went to the passing game and advanced all the way to the Schuyler 1 but was stymied by a Warrior defense that still wasn’t ready to surrender any points.
After stuffing Kramer High at the goal line, Schuyler ran out the remaining 45 seconds and moved to 5-0.
“Columbus was pretty confident the year we played them,” Wilshusen said. “They had just beaten Grand Island the week before, and they were No. 1 in Class A. They came down ripe for the game, and we shut them out. We bolted to No. 1 and they dropped to fifth or sixth in Class A.”
Four more wins followed then a postseason banquet in the Oak Ballroom when the trophy was presented.
Asked what made the defense so effective, Wilshusen pointed out that Wolfe, though a lineman, was the fastest guy on the team.
His play, plus that of Wilshusen and the rest of the offensive and defensive lines, opened up big holes on one side of the ball and constantly put defenders in the backfield on the other.
In the days before weightlifting programs, the trio and their teammates showed up in shape before the season due to the farm work they completed all summer.
Wolfe’s speed, though, was also a byproduct of other motivations.
“Wind sprints, I’d win then I could go to the shower,” he said.
Schuyler went unbeaten in the next two years as well and claimed state championships in the playoff era in the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s the 1958 team, and its total of 20 points against that perhaps gives it the final say in which Warrior champ is the best ever.
“When I tell (the grandkids) we only allowed 17 points, or 19 points, whatever it was in the season, they say, ‘Impossible,’” Wilshusen said. “The grandkids have had some good teams, but a lot of their games end up 35-34. They can’t believe we could shut out teams for nine weeks in a row.”
Wolfe put it more simply.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We get better every year.”
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at SCHsports@lee.net