Thirty years ago this coming Monday, a sizeable portion of Newton’s population made the trip to Cedar Falls to witness something special.
Inside the UNI-Dome that day, Cardinal football fans watched their team capture a state championship, the second in school history.
With a 28-14 win over Bettendorf, Newton completed a perfect 12-0 season, giving a generation of then-teenagers an abundance of bragging rights and memories to last the next three decades and beyond.
“It’s something I know all the guys on that team will never forget,” said Ed Ergenbright, current Cardinals’ head football coach and a senior defensive back on the 1980 team. “We’ll always cherish those memories.”
The win made coach Frank Gilson a Newton icon, having already led the team to a state runner-up finish in 1977. It was the pinnacle of his outstanding 12-year Cardinals coaching tenure from 1974-1985, in which he compiled an 82-27 record.
Ergenbright and Joe McDermott, who led the team in tackles that year, both said that it doesn’t feel like it’s been 30 years since that unforgettable day in Newton history.
“It really doesn’t,” said McDermott, who’s son Reid just finished his junior season for the Cardinals. “It’s like it was just yesterday.”
“Sometimes when I get up in the morning it does, but no it doesn’t seem like it’s been 30 years ago,” added Ergenbright. “A lot of the things you remember, just little things that went on during the season or in a game make it seem like it wasn’t that long ago.”
The Cardinals began that season with high expectations, garnering a preseason state ranking. Their first test was at Des Moines Roosevelt, which was also ranked. Newton dominated, recording its first of three shutouts with a 26-0 win to set the tone for the season.
Things weren’t so easy the next week at Boone, which had come off a winless season the week before. The Cardinals trailed 7-0 for much of the first half, but a 22-point Cardinal barrage in a span of five minutes blew the game open to make the score 22-7 at half. They would hold on to win, 29-20.
“I remember that kind of being a wake up call,” Ergenbright said about the game. “Realizing that if we don’t play well, then anybody can beat us. From that point on, it was just one week at a time. There wasn’t really another major test until we got into the playoffs.”
Newton cruised through the rest of its regular season schedule, with its closest game a 34-19 win at Grinnell. The Cardinals also picked up wins over Southeast Polk, South Tama, Ankeny, Indianola and Urbandale to set up a home finale vs. Des Moines Lincoln.
As the wins kept coming, the buzz around town kept building.
“I remember the excitement of the whole town,” McDermott said. “Everybody was behind us. Red Pride meant a lot back then. It still does, but not like it did back then, I believe.”
Even though Newton entered the Lincoln game 8-0, it still wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the postseason with a victory. Back then, only eight teams made the playoffs from each class. The only way for the Cardinals to ensure their season would continue was to win by a good margin.
That they did, demolishing the Railsplitters 34-0. The win gave Newton its first perfect season in 28 years.
It had little time to celebrate, though, as the Cardinals then faced West Des Moines Dowling the following Wednesday in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Newton dominated the first half against the Irish, building a 19-0 lead by halftime. But the game was far from a cake walk, as the Cardinals were held to 34 total yards and a single first down in the second half while Dowling scored twice to put the Newton lead in jeopardy at 19-14. The Cardinal defense rose up several times in the fourth quarter, stopping two Irish drives that went inside the Newton 40.
“It seemed like Dowling had the ball the entire second half,” Ergenbright said. “We were just dog tired at the end. We made a fourth down stop to seal the deal.”
Against Sioux City East in the state semifinals, Cardinals’ running back Treye Jackson had one of the most explosive performances in Iowa high school football that season. He had touchdown runs of 69, 65 and 80 yards to total 237 yards on just nine carries as Newton advanced to the state championship with a 28-15 win.
Sioux City led 7-0 before Jackson ripped off back-to-back long touchdown runs to put the Cardinals ahead 14-7. Newton then received a gift as the Black Raiders’ punter dropped the snap, and the Cardinals’ David Samson returned it for a score and a 21-7 lead. Jackson broke loose again for an 80-yard score in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
Jackson, along with fellow running back Steve Morris, made up an unstoppable Newton running game all-season. Jackson finished 1980 with 1,361 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, while Morris ran for 1,129 and nine scores. Both players garnered all-state honors.
McDermott said it was deception that keyed the Cardinals’ running game success.
“The fake handoff between (quarterback) Todd Wheatley and Steve Morris, that’s what made our offense go,” he said. “You couldn’t tell who had the ball.
McDermott recalled one home game where Jackson was running down the sideline with the ball and the referees had blown the play dead where they thought Morris had been tackled at the line of scrimmage.
“That’s how dominant those guys were at ball fakes,” he said.
The state title game looked to be a good one on paper, as both Bettendorf and Newton entered the game undefeated at 11-0, with the Bulldogs ranked No.1 in Iowa.
But the day was the Cardinals’ right from the start. An opportunistic Newton defense forced four first-half turnovers, leading to a 21-0 lead at halftime. The Cardinals got a fumble recovery from Scott Radcliff, and three interceptions — one each by Ergenbright, Jackson and Trai Ehler.
Jackson, Morris and Craig Trotter each had one-yard touchdown plunges in the first half for Newton, which amassed 272 rushing yards.
It was a very clean game for the Cardinals, as they committed only one turnover and a single penalty. They threw just one pass the entire game.
The game broke the then-attendance record for the UNI Dome.
After the victory, the Newton team buses were escorted back from Marshalltown first by Marshalltown and then by Newton police to a gathering of parents and fans at the H.A. Lynn Field locker room.
“I remember waking up on the bus and looking out the window thinking there had been a wreck or something because there were all these lights,” Ergenbright said. “It was pretty cool going down the road and through town.”
“We got back and there was 100-200 people sitting there at 2:00 in the morning waiting for us to get back,” McDermott added.
Two days later, Newton Senior High School held a celebration pep rally on Sunday afternoon, giving the Cardinals a chance to show off the gold trophy they earned.
Asked what he’ll remember most about that magical season, Ergenbright said it’s his teammates.
“I remember it being really cool because it was something you got to do with friends and people you grew up with,” he said. “Guys like Steve Morris, Treye Jackson, Todd Rose. We all went to the same elementary school at Emerson-Huff, same junior high. We played countless games of football in my mom and dad’s backyard. It was really neat to look back and say ‘we were the best football team in the state.’ That’s something that not a lot of people get to say. I always thought that was special.”