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Local Sports

1977 was a very good year

Camaraderie, coaches and community converged for a memorable 1977 football season for Newton High School’s Cardinals. It was the birth of Red Pride and a start of Cardinal football tradition.

On Nov. 18, 1977, Newton was in the Class 4A state championship football game at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls. The Cardinals faced a much bigger Davenport West squad. They lost the game 21-14.

A dozen or more players from the 1977 Class 4A runner-up football team plan to be at H.A. Lynn Stadium Friday night on the 40th anniversary of their state playoff season. The team recognition will be at halftime of the varsity game between Newton and Fort Dodge.

Kickoff of the varsity game Friday is at 7:30 p.m.

Four of the players offered stories about the 1977 season — Denny Klingensmith and Warren

Braun of Newton, Dave Ver Woert of Cedar Rapids and Denny Griggs of Virginia Beach, Va.. They were seniors on the Cardinal squad that season under the direction of head coach Frank Gilson and assistant coaches Dick Stiles, Dave Rowary and Kevin Merkle.

“This is also the year that RED PRIDE was born,” Griggs said. “The offense was called the Red Pride Offense and the defense was the Black Plague. We also said ‘God is number one and we are number two.’ We expressed this with raising what looked like a peace sign, two fingers. It caught on like fire. Red Pride is still celebrated today.”

To a man, the four former Cardinal played pointed out three things about the 1977 season — the camaraderie of the players, the quality of the coaching staff and the support from the Cardinal fan base. Former NHS senior cheerleader Nancy (Craig) Owens-Munley, who lives in Grinnell, is spearheading the reunion this weekend.

“The key to our success? We were a group of guys who loved each other and loved the game of football. We worked hard together as a team. We were small, but mighty,” Klingensmith said.

Klingensmith played nose guard on defense along with David Norvell, both seniors. Klingensmith played football three of his four years at NHS. He missed his junior season then came back out “because I missed playing football.”

“Coach Gilson came here in the 1973-74 school year and he was the one that got things turned around for Newton football,” Klingensmith said. “He was in his fourth season my senior year. My junior year, our football team missed the 4A playoffs by 5 percentage points then we made the playoffs by that amount our senior year. Only eight teams made the playoffs back then.”

Griggs, who played right tackle for the Cardinal offense, said he comported notes with a bunch of his friends and former players. His stories come from the group.

“The 1977 run for the Iowa Class 4A Championship was a culmination of hard work, good coaching and character from some really great people,” Griggs said. “Yes, I’m talking about the players primarily. I mean after all, we ate the dirt, butted heads, put in a heck of a lot of work for years. But it’s also a story about many others — the cheerleaders, the pep club, the fans, the coaches and the moms and dads.”

Newton opened the 1977 season with wins of 13-0 over Des Moines Roosevelt and 19-7 over Cedar Rapids. The Cardinals went Marshalltown, 14-8, followed by a 19-6 victory against Waterloo Columbus. Then came back-to-back losses — 7-6 to Ames and 21-20 to Sioux Falls (S.D.) Washington.

“After those two mid-season close losses, we really became focused and put a nice run together,” Ver Woert said. “We mostly started and played 22 guys. I’d say we just outworked the other teams.”

The Cardinals got back on track with a 27-6 homecoming win over Dubuque Wahlert. It was a game that spanned two days — Friday night in a pouring rain and Saturday afternoon. The contest was suspended because of lightning.

Klingensmith said Dubuque Wahlert stayed in a motel Friday night. The teams completed the game Saturday.

“All but two of our games that season were played in the mud. We had rain and snow to deal with,” Klingensmith said. 

“Yes, it was Iowa weather. We had the heat during the first of the season, rain and the snow of the playoff game with Marshalltown. Nothing slowed us down,” Braun said. Braun was a defensive lineman for the Cardinals.

Newton blanked Ottumwa 30-0 and decked Des Moines East 41-14 to finish the regular season at 7-2. The Cardinals opened the playoffs on the road at arch rival Marshalltown, rolling to a 42-0 win over the Bobcats in the snow.

The snow was a problem for Newton only in that it had to wait and played the second round of the playoffs later than scheduled. A six-inch snow delayed Sioux City Heelan’s first-round game with West Des Moines Valley until Friday.

Sioux City Heelan, the No. 1 ranked team in Class 4A, came to Newton for a Tuesday afternoon contest. It was estimated there was a crowd of more than 15,000 people at H.A. Lynn Stadium to watch Newton overpower Sioux City Heelan, 41-8, to earn a place in the 4A state championship game.

“What I remember most is the team chemistry that year,” Ver Woert said. “I’m sure it’s always better when you win games, but everyone really seemed to jell and root for each other. That only happens with great leadership, starting with Head Coach Frank Gilson. I don’t think there was a head coach who worked harder or cared more for his players. He was serious, motivating, a tenacious student of the game, always a sense of urgency, but just at the right time a sense of humor too, and knew when to lighten things up.”

Ver Woert played offensive guard with Coach Stiles as the offensive line coach. He said Stiles was a great motivator, and really brought the best out in all of the players. He said the players who played for Coach Stiles kind of laugh among themselves about the special bond they share.

“To put it mildly, Coach Stiles pushed us to be the best we could be. Looking back, and I know I speak for all generations of lineman that played for Coach Stiles, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Thank you Coach Stiles,” Ver Woert said.

Newton’s team and most of the community headed to Cedar Falls for the state championship game against Davenport West.

“Walking out into the UNI Dome and look up to see so much red. It was tremendous to see all those Newton fans there,” Braun said. “We had such a great following that season. Our fans were the best.”

The state title game didn’t come out the way the Cardinals wanted, but it wasn’t a blowout. Newton had an opportunity at the end to win. A pass toward the end zone fell incomplete and Davenport West walked off with a 21-14 win and the 1977 state title.

“Oh, it stung,” Klingensmith said. “But, we all look back and know what our band of brothers accomplished that season and we’re all proud to be a part of it.”

Braun said the team had a lot of outstanding players on it — running back Jeff Girdner was a 4A all-state first team player and halfback Kevin Shipley was a second-team all-state selection. Defensively, Dave Gullett and Norvell had state honors.

The Cardinals ran the wishbone offense guided by quarterback Steve Ogden. Girdner, Ron Corbett and Shipley were the running backs.

“What I remember most are the players who didn’t start for us. They made us better by how hard they practiced. They prepared us. I’m going to say the competition in practice was tough,” Braun said.

“Thanks to my teammates who were awesome, it was fun and obviously a heartbreaker at the Dome,” Ver Woert said. “I live in Cedar Rapids now and am part of an officiating crew working high school games on Friday nights.   Our crew has had the good fortune to work many playoff games in the Dome.  

“Every time there, I stop for a quick second and remember the night we had there 40 years ago. I think the whole town came out to support us. Thanks to our parents, fans and fellow students, teachers and administrators who all encouraged us, it really meant a lot to the players.”

The 1977 team finished 9-3 and brought home the 4A runner-up trophy. It set a foundation for future Newton football teams to build on.

Contact Jocelyn Sheets at
641-792-3121 ext. 6535 or

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