Reliving Niles' loss to Massillon on the 50th anniversaryPublished: 9/19/14 @ 12:07
By, Steve Ruman
It began quietly on Sept. 26, 1959 when the Niles McKinley Red Dragons defeated Lakewood St. Edward 36-6 at Niles’ Riverside Stadium.
Though the 3,500 fans in attendance didn’t know it at the time, they were witnessing the beginning of what became arguably the greatest accomplishment in local high school football history.
The Red Dragons’ win over the Eagles marked the start of a five-year unbeaten streak.
By the time the streak reached its 47th game in November of 1963, Niles was regularly playing in front of crowds in excess of 10,000, both home and away. Along the way, the Red Dragons won a pair of state titles, and were viewed as Ohio’s premiere program.
The unbeaten streak reached 48 games when the Dragons opened the 1964 season by trouncing Cleveland East Tech 54-0.
Then, one week later on Sept. 19, 1964 — 50 years ago today — the streak came to an end when Massillon defeated Niles 14-8. It was perhaps the most highly anticipated regular-season game in the state’s history.
The legendary game was played at the Akron Rubber Bowl in front of 30,128 fans. The contest also garnered national media attention. Wire stories on the outcome were published the following day in newspapers across the country.
“The atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever seen,” said Bob Shaw, a Niles assistant under head coach Glenn Stennett in 1964.
“I just remember telling myself over and over again, ‘this is a high school game.’ It seemed too surreal. I remember telling the players to enjoy the moment, because they were taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The game featured a pair of first-year head coaches. Stennett replaced Tony Mason, who was the architect of the Red Dragons’ unbeaten streak. Mason left the program in January to join the coaching staff at the University of Michigan.
In March, Leo Strang left Massillon to assume the role of head coach at Kent State University. He was replaced by Earle Bruce.
Bruce coached Massillon for two years. He posted a 20-0 record and won a pair of state titles. He went on to serve as a head coach in the college ranks for 21 years, including nine at Ohio State University.
Despite coaching on college’s biggest stage, Bruce said he never felt more pressure to win a single game than on the night his Tigers played the Red Dragons.
“I was reminded about the importance of that Niles game the moment I arrived in Massillon,” Bruce said. “The build-up was something that you can’t appreciate unless you were part of it.
“I probably lost more sleep over the Niles game than any other I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t think I slept for three weeks leading up to that night.”
Bruce recalled an afternoon several months before the game when he was visited by a Massillon booster. The two were in the kitchen when Bruce looked out the window and mentioned how he needed to mow his unkempt backyard.
“The booster says to me, ‘Never mind the yard, you just worry about Niles. If you lose that game you’ll have the biggest load of garbage dumped on your yard and you won’t have to worry about seeing grass,’” Bruce said. “That’s when I knew that the town meant business when it came to its football team.”
Indeed, months before the showdown, Bruce began searching for any edge he could gain over Niles.
Under Mason, Niles was notorious for its ability to mentally wear down an opponent. Much of Mason’s coaching revolved around motivation.
Looking for a psychological edge of his own, Bruce ordered uniforms specially-made for the game which included the words, “Beat Niles” on the back of the jerseys. The jerseys were not unveiled until Sept. 19 when the players returned to the locker room following pregame warmups
“Our guys put those shirts on, and so help me they were just begging to charge back onto that field,” Bruce said. “We knew Niles was going to be chattering at us. We just couldn’t wait to respond by turning our backs to them. It was a cocky thing to do, but gamesmanship was a big part of football back then.”
As the two teams made their way out of the locker room and onto the field, Dave Rowbotham recalled the “surreal atmosphere” which greeted the players. Rowbotham was a senior defensive back for the Red Dragons. He went on to have a 40-year career as an assistant coach at various schools.
“We came out of the tunnel, and the noise was just deafening,” Rowbotham said. “For players on both sides, that moment when we charged onto the field was perhaps the most unbelievable, memorable moment of our high school career.”
Though Niles scored first, and in fact owned a statistical edge over Massillon, a pair of second quarter touchdowns were all the Tigers would need to seal the win.
Niles fullback Cee Ellison ran in from the one-yard line on the fourth play of the second quarter and added a two-point conversion to give the Dragons a 8-0 lead.
The score capped a 15-play, 67-yard drive that included 35 yards through the air from George Infante.
Two series’ later, Tigers halfback Jim Lawrence took a pitch from Steve Kanner, turned the corner and outraced the Niles secondary for Massillon’s first touchdown.
Lawrence was challenged by Rowbotham at the five, but a block from guard Tom Whitfield allowed Lawrence to walk into the end zone. Hewitt ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Looking to answer, Ellison fumbled at the Red Dragons’ own 26-yard line, setting up the other Tigers score.
Three plays later, Kanner connected with Paige from 16 yards out to give Massillon a 14-8 advantage.
“That was a play I designed especially for the game,” Bruce recalled. “The reason I remember it so well was because of how well we ran the play. It was as if we had run it over and over again.”
Play was contained between the 40 yard lines throughout the third quarter, but Ellison and Mel Dixon got the Red Dragons to the Massillon 28 to start the fourth quarter. However, two incompletions and two running plays, which netted just five yards, ended the threat.
Niles had one last chance, with the ball on the Massillon 13-yard line, but couldn’t find the end zone for the game-tying score. They turned the ball back over to the Tigers with 56 seconds showing on the clock.
“If ever a game deserved to end in a tie, it was that game,” Rowbotham said. “It was as evenly-matched as you could get. Both teams were just completely exhausted at the end. I think everyone walked off the field with the utmost respect for the opponent.”
Bruce called the game “the hardest-hitting contest I have ever seen at the high school level.”
Despite the high emotions, the two teams combined for just five penalties.
“It was two teams just fighting tooth and nail from start to finish,” Bruce said. “An extremely clean and well-played game by both sides, but man was there hitting”
Bruce described the victory as “the day I became a Massillon Tiger.” The win was especially rewarding because at the time, Massillon owned the state’s all-time longest unbeaten streak of 52 games.
“We knew we were playing for the entire community, and for those teams that established that streak,” Bruce said. “After the game, the celebration was unlike anything I had ever experienced at any level. I’m pretty sure every citizen of Massillon was inside that locker room.”
On the Niles side, Rowbotham remembers a locker room filled with “more tears than were probably ever shed over a game.” The Dragons exited the stadium through a tunnel of Niles fans who were trying to lift the spirits of their fallen players.
“They were telling us to keep our heads up, that we played a great game, but we were devastated,” Rowbotham said. “The bus ride home was like death.”
Shaw said the loss was heartbreaking for a group of Niles players who had never experienced defeat at the high school level.
“It was brutal, especially in that surrounding,” Shaw said. “We all knew the streak was going to end sooner or later, but that didn’t ease the pain. I remember running off the field thinking that it would have been better to get beat by 30 than to have come so close and not win.”
“As much as the loss hurt, it was a blessing and a privilege to even be involved in something of that magnitude. Anyone who was in Akron that night will never forget the experience.”
Massillon would finish the season 10-0 and win a state title. Niles finished 8-2, dropping its other game to Cincinnati Roger Bacon.