Just over a month after Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon, the Clarinda Cardinals set out to plant their flag atop the state football rankings in Iowa.
Prior to the Iowa High School Athletic Association establishing a district format for football, the Associated Press and United Press International released rankings encompassing all schools in the state regardless of class. Riding the tails of a 19-game winning streak, Clarinda entered the 1969 season ranked fifth in the state.
Clarinda finished the 1969 season with a record of 9-1 and was tied for fourth in the state rankings with Indianola. Finishing the season ranked above the Cardinals were Waterloo East, Des Moines Dowling and Cedar Rapids Jefferson.
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of that memorable season, Clarinda Activities Director Josh Porter said the team will be honored as part of the Clarinda Homecoming celebration Friday, Oct. 11.
“The team will have a float in the Homecoming parade and then be honored during the coronation and pep rally on the square after the parade. We will have the team members come up in front of the float to be recognized. They will then present the game ball to our four team captains for this year,” Porter said.
Then, prior to the coin flip for the game Friday, Porter said the team will be presented a commemorative football featuring the names of the players from the team that are now deceased.
“That’s quite nice recognition. The whole team was just an outstanding bunch of guys. We had the coaching and the players. It was an exciting part of high school,” Arlen Meyer, a senior offensive tackle for the 1969 Cardinals, said.
In June, Porter said he was contacted by Craig Lundquist, who now lives in Oviedo, Florida, about recognizing the accomplishments of the 1969 Clarinda Cardinals. Lundquist provided a summary of the season and the statistical information about the team referenced in this article.
“I really like learning about the history of Clarinda athletics, so this was a very interesting story that was sent to us. It also includes some Iowa football history like the fact there were no classes at that time,” Porter said.
After winning the final game of the 1966 season, the Cardinals went undefeated over the next two years. This left Clarinda three games shy of the school record of 22 consecutive victories set by the Cardinals in the early 1930s.
Despite having an enrollment of approximately 350 students, the 1969 Clarinda lineup featured a good deal of experience. The Cardinals had 14 seniors that were returning letter winners and half of those players were two-year lettermen. In addition, four of those seniors had earned first team Hawkeye 7 All-Conference honors during the 1968 season.
“That senior class was a miracle group. They really were,” George Crawford said.
“We knew in junior high school we could be pretty good. As we followed through, the team stuck together. We played together and had the coaching that brought us together. Things just worked,” Meyer said.
Therefore, Clarinda head coach John Dornan was looking for a way to challenge the Cardinals. Dornan was named the head coach of Clarinda prior to the 1967 season.
Although Crawford primarily played linebacker for the junior varsity in 1969, he said the season was an enjoyable one he still fondly remembers.
“My greatest memory is just how honored I was to be coached by John Dornan. He made men out of boys. He really brought a lot out of everybody, as did our entire coaching staff, and made them into outstanding players,” Crawford said. “He made you believe in yourself. It was a fun ride.”
Dornan determined the best way to challenge his 1969 team was to issue an ultimatum to the rest of the state and let the Des Moines Register know about the challenge. As a result, two days after Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, the Register published Dornan’s challenge.
“Football brings to mind a recent phone call from Clarinda’s John Dornan, who wants a chance to prove Southwest Iowa teams can hold their own against the state’s best. Dornan, whose club has won 19 straight, is seeking a game with a top notch Class AA school for Sept. 5,” according to the Des Moines Register.
Answering the challenge was Cedar Rapids Washington. The Warriors, who were 16-0-1 over the last two years and ranked third in the Class A preseason ratings, agreed to travel to Clarinda for the Sept. 5 game.
“With the two years we had before that we didn’t have many close games. As a senior your head gets a little big. We were trying to find anybody, we even asked Harlan and Denison, but nobody would play us. So getting to play a top team like Cedar Rapids Washington was really exciting,” Meyer said.
The clash lived up to its billing as Cedar Rapids Washington was able to escape town with a 21-20 win over the host Cardinals.
“I think everybody in town must have been at that football field. There wasn’t even standing room. It was unbelievable,” Meyer said.
The Warriors held a 21-6 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Cardinals cut the deficit to 21-14. Then, with only 1:23 left in the game, Clarinda scored on a sweep play from eight yards out to cut the margin to a single point.
Dornan elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win over one of the largest schools in Class A. However, the Warriors managed to preserve the 21-20 win when Norm Mier was ruled down just shy of the goal line for Clarinda.
Mier went on to lead the Cardinals with 1,082 yards rushing on 163 carries in 1969. He also had 19 touchdowns on the year.
“We still think we beat Cedar Rapids Washington. It was a close call at the goal line and the call didn’t go our way,” Crawford said.
“We had that on tape. It showed Norm Mier was over the line, but there was no replay. We just saw it afterwards. I went on to play at Ellsworth and played against eight or 10 of those same people. They all admitted they lost. Still, being the underdog and playing a huge team like that, we felt like we played our best,” Meyer said.
Clarinda bounced back with a dominating 60-0 home win over Maryville, Missouri, in its second game of the year. The Cardinals then went to Atlantic and returned with a 32-8 win over the Trojans.
“When we went to a football game, it was a parade of cars. The whole town went. The enthusiasm from the community was like The Big Red (Nebraska) had in its heyday,” Crawford said.
The Cardinals added back-to-back home wins over Red Oak and Glenwood to improve to 4-1 on the season. After stopping the Tigers 38-7, Clarinda steamrolled the Rams 82-0 behind 469 yards rushing and 600 yards of total offense.
Besides the running of Mier, Mark Tarrant provided Clarinda with a dual threat at quarterback. He completed 60 of 118 pass attempts for 1,203 yards and 18 touchdowns. His favorite target was Dennis Behrhorst, who hauled in 28 passes for 636 yards and nine touchdowns.
Tarrant was also second on the team in rushing with 88 carries for 507 yards. Behrhorst added 456 yards on the ground as he toted the rock 57 times on the year.
Clarinda continued the offensive fireworks the next week with a 74-0 win at Corning. The Cardinals then extended their scoreless streak to four straight games on the strength of shutouts at home over Creston, 52-0, and at Villisca, 42-0.
Bruce Schenck anchored the Clarinda defense in 1969 with 139 tackles. Ray Neville followed with 126 stops. Gene Prather and Dick Woodard also surpassed the century mark with 114 and 109 tackles respectively. Dave Steeve just missed joining the club as he ended the year with 99 stops.
“We had a lot of fun at different games. If we had a game won, the coaches would let you play different positions. That was always fun for us. If you were on offense, you could get in on defense or a lineman might get to carry the ball,” Meyer said.
The Cardinals then journeyed to Shenandoah and collected a 22-14 win over the Mustangs. Clarinda concluded its season with a 30-16 win at Council Bluffs St. Albert.
Based on their stellar play during the 1969 season, the Cardinals had four players honored as all-state selections by the Des Moines Register and three players named to the all-state team by the Iowa Daily Press Association. Clarinda also had five players named as All-Southwest Iowa selections and five Hawkeye 7 Conference first team selections.
Several of the Clarinda players from the 1969 team continued their football careers in college.
The Cardinals went on to play at South Dakota State University, Drake University, Morningside College, Simpson College and Northwestern College. Three players, including Meyer, also followed Dornan to Ellsworth Junior College.
Although the team members went their separate ways after high school, Meyer said they have stayed a close-knit group over the last 50 years.
“I am extremely happy with what we accomplished. We were all real close and have stayed together. As a team, you have that team spirit and make relationships with the other players that are still there today,” Meyer said.
Porter said he was pleased many of the team members from around the country will be returning to Clarinda to join the Homecoming festivities. He said he was also looking forward to hearing some of their war stories.
“I am excited to have them come be part of our Homecoming and look forward to getting to meet more of the team in person,” Porter said. “They were among the best of the best. This group of guys, and together as a team, had to be tougher than nails. That was my impression of them based on what I have learned.”