Some baseball purists cling to the belief that their game is still the Great National Pastime.
They’re wrong, of course. Stuck in the past. Delusional.
Football has long since replaced baseball as North America’s most fervent sports passion — largely due, I suspect, to the National Football League’s masterful marketing skills. “On Any Given Sunday” is an industry slogan that is as relevant today as it was when it was coined in the early 1960s.
But just as radio stimulated baseball’s national popularity in the first half of the 20th century, television thrust football to its No. 1 status in the second half. No other sport, it seems, is captured as perfectly on the family living-room TV as is the 100-yard-long football grid upon which college and pro football teams wage their wars practically every night of the week and all day Saturday and Sunday, from the dog days of August until February’s freeze.
But football is not just a national phenomenon played out on the big-time stage. Its popularity is just as relevant right here in the Walla Walla Valley as it is anywhere else.
We have our own Friday Night Lights.
Borleske Stadium is the epicenter of high school football in Walla Walla. And these days, the funky old ball yard — which doubles as a baseball stadium during the spring and summer months — is the exclusive autumn home of the Walla Walla High School Blue Devils.
But there was a time when Borleske Stadium was the home field for not only the Blue Devils, but the DeSales Irish as well. Class 4A Wa-Hi and Class B-11 DeSales shared the field, with one team hosting a game each Friday night while the other traveled.
Then, on Saturdays, the same interchanging formula was used by Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College. And there were those rare Saturdays when either the Missionaries or the Warriors would play an afternoon game at Borleske and the other would take over the stadium for an evening affair.
Those were the days, my friend.
DeSales has since refurbished its nearby campus gridiron and plays home games under its own set of lights at Ty Baffney Field. There are some magical Friday nights when you can stand in the narrow band of darkness that separates the two lit fields and listen in stereo to the sounds of raucous crowds and spirited pep bands emanating from both venues.
Not so on Saturdays, however. Sadly, Whitman dropped its football program following the 1975 season and WWCC followed suit at the conclusion of the 1996 campaign.
Nevertheless, their legacies live on.
Whitman’s football tradition dates back to the late 1800s when the Missionaries tested their skills against — and were regularly outmanned by — teams from major universities such as Washington, Washington State and Idaho.
There were highs and lows during legendary Nig Borleske’s long coaching tenure (1915-1957), and the stadium bears his name to this day. Roy Thompson, who coached Whitman from 1967 through 1974, led the Whits to their final hurrah, a 6-3 record and a Northwest Conference championship in 1969.
WWCC played its first football game in 1968, a 30-13 victory over a squad from the Washington State Penitentiary, and former Wa-Hi star Gene Bates was the Warriors’ first head coach.
Bates was WWCC’s coach for five seasons, followed by Jerry Anhorn (1973-’75), Gary Knecht (1976-’83), John Volek (1984-’87) and Mike Levens (1988-’96). The Warriors won two Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges championships under Knecht, three under Volek and two under Levens before the league was disbanded following the 1989 season, ultimately leading to WWCC’s decision to drop football.
Perhaps the school’s two greatest football achievements were an undefeated season (9-0) in 1986 and a memorable 34-32 victory over Glendale, Ariz., in the 1990 Valley of the Sun Bowl in Phoenix.
Wa-Hi attained statewide recognition as a prep football powerhouse during the Felix Fletcher years. Fletcher posted a 162-45-10 record during his coaching reign (1947-70), highlighted by three undefeated seasons and a big-school mythical state championship in 1953.
Rumors persist that the old coach’s ashes were scattered on the Borleske Stadium turf.
It was in that same year, 1953, that St. Patrick’s High School, which would later become DeSales High, was voted the small-school mythical state champion. For all of Southeastern Washington — Blue Devil and Irish fans in particular — 1953 was a year to remember.
Mythically speaking, that is.
It was another two decades before Washington decided to officially determine its state champions on the field. High school state playoffs were finally initiated in 1973, with championship games contested beneath the concrete roof of the Kingdome in Seattle.
Since then, Wa-Hi has made it to the state championship game just once, the 1994 Kingbowl, when coach Gary Mires’ Blue Devils lost to South Kitsap 15-10 in the final prep football game ever played in the Kingdome. The state finals were moved 40 miles south to the Tacoma Dome the following year and have been known as the Gridiron Classic ever since.
But Wa-Hi has been recognized through the years for producing dozens upon dozens of top-flight football players who excelled at higher levels.
Among the most noted are Dean Derby and Bobby Cox, who helped Fletcher’s 1953 team go undefeated. Derby went on to star at the University of Washington and then the NFL, where he was an All-Pro defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cox was an All-America quarterback at the University of Minnesota before his promising professional career was struck down by injuries.
Drew Bledsoe, a 1990 Wa-Hi grad, played three seasons at Washington State and was the overall No. 1 college draft pick in 1993 by the New England Patriots, where he began a successful 13-year career as an NFL quarterback. And Peter Sirmon, Class of ’95, earned all-Pac-10 honors at the University of Oregon and played seven seasons as a linebacker with the Tennessee Titans.
Ironically, tiny Prescott became the Valley’s first state champion following the onset of the football playoffs. The Tigers, coached by former Touchet High legend Max Seachris and led by sophomore speedster Pat Barker, defeated Pe Ell 58-0 in the 1975 Class B-8 title game on a frozen field way up north in Whitman County.
Prescott, which in recent years has co-oped with nearby Waitsburg, made two other appearances in the 8-man championship game, losing to Napavine 74-60 in 1976 and to Inchelium 36-29 in 2001.
However, as part of that co-op, Prescott can boast a share of the 2011 Class 2B-11 state title as coach Jeff Bartlow’s Waitsburg-Prescott team ran the table for a 14-0 record by defeating Morton-White Pass 33-7 in the title game.
Of all the schools in the Valley, DeSales and Touchet have enjoyed the greatest success in the postseason.
The Irish have played in no fewer than 11 Class B-11 state championship games and brought home the title five times. The Indians have won four Class B-8 state crowns in their nine appearances in the championship game.
DeSales captured the crown under three different head coaches: Kim Cox (1991, ’97 and ’99), Pat Graham (1998) and Mike Spiess (2007). Wayne Dickey guided the Indians to all four of their championships: 1979, 1994, 1998 and 1999.
South of the border, neither McLoughlin High School nor Weston-McEwen has ever won a state title. But they’ve come close.
The Mac-Hi Pioneers have reached the Oregon Class 4A state semifinals four times, most recently in 1973, and Weston-McEwen lost to Dayton, 49-3, in the 1996 Class 2A state championship game and reached the state semifinals in 2011. Before the consolidation, McEwen reached the state semis in 1959 while Weston lost in the 1964 state championship game and made it to the semifinal round on three other occasions.
Southeast Washington’s reputation as a prep football hotbed was never more evident than it was in 1994, when no fewer than three teams from the Valley played for the state title in the Kingdome.
Wa-Hi fell just short of South Kitsap, 15-10, in the Class 4A finals when the Blue Devils were unable to overcome injuries to key players. Touchet upset unbeaten Pateros, 38-24, to capture the Class 1B-8 crown. And in the Class 2B-11 finals, Dayton made the most of its first and only state championship game appearance by defeating Toutle Lake, 35-22, to polish off an undefeated season under coach Dave Spray.
So much gridiron success to take pride in. Even die-hard baseball fans can agree on that.