As our beloved Piedmont Highlanders football team gears up for its huge, road playoff game tonight against the JFK-Richmond Eagles; earlier this week the San Francisco Chronicle released a story about the wonderful season that the Eagles are having this season, which has become the Eagles most noteworthy season since they won the NCS Championship in 1988.
Back in 1988, that incredibly talented championship Kennedy Eagles team suffered a stunning upset in their regular season finale on their home field during Week Ten of the regular season…courtesy of the Piedmont Highlanders and a final score of 28 to 27 in favor of Piedmont; a remarkable game that remains one of the greatest upsets in the history of Piedmont football.
On that cold and damp late November afternoon in Richmond, Piedmont was led by their outstanding Head Football Coach, Steve Beyrle, and humbly, I served as his Offensive Coordinator. We had a good football team, and we finished that 1988 season at 6 – 4.
All season long we had heard about the major, future college and pro football-level talent of the Kennedy Eagles football team, and when our coaching staff had a couple of chances to scout that Eagles team live and in-person, the rumors were completely true, much to our dismay.
The Eagles were loaded with talent like no other high school football team that I have ever seen in my 25-years of coaching football throughout northern California. They were stocked with future collegiate stars and an eventual NFL Super Bowl Champion, D’Marco Farr (St. Louis Rams) at Defensive Tackle, Jason Harvey (University of Arizona) at Quarterback, Eric McDaniel at Tailback, Omar Thornton at Linebacker, and their roster seemed to be never ending with the number of players that went on to play junior college and/or collegiate football.
Our Piedmont players and coaches clearly understood that we were overwhelming underdogs going into that game vs. Kennedy, and when we watched the Eagles players in their red and white uniforms warm up on the field during that gray afternoon, it was an incredible sight to behold…they were huge, big, strong, fast and agile across the board – no weaknesses anywhere.
Coach Beyrle had devised a brilliant defensive game plan in a valiant attempt to somewhat slow down the Eagles offensive firepower, and we felt good about our multiple offensive attack, built around the simple concept of creating one-on-one matchups designed to isolate each Kennedy player in their 2-5-4 unique defensive scheme.
Kennedy’s two-man defensive front led by D’Marco Farr had been creating nightmares for their opponents all season long, and their remarkably talented 5-man linebacking core had been blitzing opposing backfields relentlessly. Lastly, their 4-man defensive secondary played man-to-man coverage vs. opposing receivers non-stop, because their 11-man defensive unit was unmatched in terms of talent and ability.
In our scouting of the Eagles defensive unit earlier that season, we noticed that when a running back motioned out of the backfield, that one of the Eagles linebackers would always follow him in man coverage.
So, during our game vs. the Eagles that day, we designed a simple plan to have our tough and smart offensive line set up with 4-foot wide splits, and we motioned one of our two running backs out of the backfield to clear out one of the Eagles’ inside linebackers. Then, we often had our quarterback, Watts take the handoff, spin around and give the football to our sprinting single running back coming from the backfield and racing between the guards, either Grimsrud or Austin, whichever running back happened to be in the backfield. Our attack worked brilliantly and we added a twist to our basic dive play because we knew that our offensive lineman could block or shield a big Kennedy linebacker for a split-second, just long enough to allow our speedy running backs to fake right and break left, or vice-versa. Our players executed things perfectly, and very soon into the opening quarter, our running backs were routinely sprinting through gaping holes in the Kennedy defense.
Defensively, Beyrle’s game plan attacked Kennedy’s backfield from all angles, we had to roll the dice on almost every play, they knew it, and we knew it, and fortunately we prevailed. If Kennedy was to score against our defense, Beyrle wanted it to be on a big play, because our physically overmatched defensive unit would not be able to withstand four-quarters of long, sustained offensive drives by the Eagles. Our defense created a couple of big turnovers which helped turn the momentum in our favor during the game; and those breaks also gave our offensive unit a shorter-field to work with to score.
Special teams made the difference in the game, and a missed PAT by the Eagles would ultimately be their undoing that day.
After a truly brilliant and exciting game hand unveiled itself over a two-and-a-half-hour period, it all came down to a Fourth down from the Eagles one-yard line. Our Piedmont offense had the football with less than two-minutes to go in the game, and we were trailing 27 to 21.
The stunned and disbelieving Kennedy coaches, players and fans knew that we were going to go for the win, and the shocked and excited Piedmont coaches, players, and fans also knew this was it, do or die, no matter what.
During our final timeout on the sideline with our offensive unit, Coach Beyrle asked me which play did I want to call, and I replied, “The Dive…because it got us this far.”
Beyrle agreed and I called the play, then our mud-and-grass stained Piedmont offensive unit eagerly hustled themselves onto the field. Both teams eventually lined up against each other in ultra-tight formations, pitting their big and talented defense against our smaller but determined and tough team. We put our Goal Line specialist at running back, Rusty Robb, who also played Linebacker for us, and Watts barked out the cadence as dusk settled in the darkening skies.
Watts took the snap from under the center and spun around from left to right, our offensive line fired off the line of scrimmage and created a tiny crease on the right side. Robb bolted towards the line and gobbled up the handoff, he powered his way through the tiny hole and dove head-first into the end zone!
Every single person on the sidelines and in the bleachers rooting for Piedmont jumped into the air and shouted for joy! We proceeded to kick the PAT to take the lead 28 to 27, with one-and-a-half minutes to go in the game.
But, the game was not yet over, Kennedy received our kickoff and proceeded to drive a few plays down the field, and then it happened. Eagles quarterback, Harvey launched a glorious bomb that went spiraling far down the right sideline, and the galloping Eagles receiver had somehow gotten behind our defensive secondary. Then, right in front of Coach Beyrle and I, the perfectly thrown pass hit that Eagles receiver right in the hands, on the money, he was off to the races for the winning score…but fortunately for us, that Eagles amazing receiver dropped the football and the immaculate pass fell incomplete for the Piedmont victory!
Our Piedmont players stormed the field in celebration of our shocking win, and in their joyous glee, the players hoisted Coach Beyrle and I onto their shoulders in the middle of the field, as we all reveled in the incredible win!
And now tonight, in their important playoff game vs. the Kennedy Eagles, it is my hope that the good and strong Piedmont team not only plays like champions with heart, but once again they stun the football world by upsetting a very good and talented Eagles team on their home turf.
Go Highlanders, and may both teams play a great game tonight in the NCS Playoffs!
When the 1995, “Team of Destiny” Varsity Piedmont football teammates were freshmen players under Frosh head coach Humphries in 1992, after their last game of that season, Coach Humphries was luckily captured on video giving a pep talk to them about the possibility of a wonderful football future that lay before them…if they could stick together and work hard to achieve their football dreams.
In 1993, after serving under Coach Beyrle as his offensive coordinator for six-years, I accepted the Varsity head football coaching position at Piedmont. Immediately thereafter, everybody within our Piedmont football family understood one thing for certain – the ACCAL Championship went through Bishop O’Dowd.
During my first-year as varsity head coach in 1993, my excellent assistant coaches such as, Dave Marshall, the late Greg Fox, and Pete Johanssen and I, decided to pull up several of the outstanding frosh players from the 1992 team. From that point on during the 1993 football season and through the 1995 “Team of Destiny” season; quite often, the last names of players such as, “Tollas, Peters, Sullivan, Griffinger, Pacult, Gray, Johnson, Bromley, Adams, Rutzen, Fleming, Dare, Fields and Watanabi” and many others could be heard echoing via the broadcast booming out of the Witter Field loudspeakers – proudly called by the late, great Piedmont announcer, Hunter McCreary.
In 1994, our Varsity football team travelled to play at Bishop O’Dowd. We were ready for the rivalry game vs. the Dragons at their place on a Saturday afternoon. However, our team was fairly and squarely defeated by a better O’Dowd team. After the game during that quick team bus ride back to Piedmont, I decided to look at things differently on behalf the hard-working Piedmont players and assistant coaches.
Adjustments had to be made…
A sharp truth pierced my brain like a bolt of lightning during that short ride back to Piedmont, “From now on, everything we do within the framework of Piedmont Football will be designed to defeat Bishop O’Dowd…and then we will adjust to our other opponents along the way.”
Entering the 1995 football season, our 31-man varsity football roster was led by a core group of players, many launched from that 1992 frosh team referenced earlier, “Tollas, Peters, Griffinger, Sullivan, Pacult, Gray, Johnson, Adams, Rutzen, and Bromley” among several other quality young men.
The 1995, “Team of Destiny” ended up finishing (8-1-1) that season. Prior to that, we had our committed players doing massive amounts of training in the off-season. Also, the assistant coaches and I spent a few months transforming our offensive, defensive and special teams’ systems into a more-narrow approach focused on defeating Bishop O’Dowd in order to win the ACCAL Championship outright. More adjustments were needed.
To be clear, our excellent 1995 football team caught two bad breaks to begin the season. In Week #1 at Pacific Grove, our outstanding Place Kicker, Schwartzman, drilled the game winning PAT that should have given our team its opening win of the season. But, even with our entire JV team standing on the track behind the uprights and jumping for joy after the PAT sailed through the uprights, the homegrown Monterey referees somehow signaled ‘No Good’ because the kick had been blasted too high through the uprights. So, the befuddled referees gave that egregious call to Pacific Grove, and the game ended in a tie, 13 to 13.
In Week #2, we hosted a powerhouse Berkeley High team in our home opener at Piedmont. The game was a masterful defensive slugfest and we held the lead with less than two-minutes to go. However, we were down to our third-string long-snapper due to injuries, and were forced to Punt from our own end zone. The long snap went whistling high over our Punter’s outstretched arms and hands through the back of the end zone for a two-point safety. We dropped that game, 8 to 7.
However, our players and assistant coaches were resilient. In Week #3 we travelled to San Leandro High and defeated a tough Pirates team to earn our first victory of the season.
We kept on winning games and stunned very highly ranked De Anza team at their place 31-8 for the win. Suddenly, the Piedmont 1995 “Team of Destiny” was for seemingly for real.
Heading into the O’Dowd game, the SF Chronicle had our two teams highly ranked and they were covering the game that night as well.
*In late October 1995, the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons and their highly-touted, Oregon State bound, star Running Back, Ricky Walker trekked to Piedmont to battle our team on a crisp night. A fantastic football game was about to take place in front of several thousand crazed football fans from both camps that jammed our Witter Field bleachers to standing room only.
Our worn out grass field had a brutally harsh runway of hard-packed devil dirt down the center of it that ran the length of the entire field. And, under the dimly lit cloudy lights of old Witter Field, the pregame aura and energy pulsing through the anticipatory crowd was surreal.
Prior to kick-off, each of our respective football teams linked-up with their teammates hand-to-hand and fanned out down the sidelines. Both units strode out to midfield to face one another and then proceeded to conduct a massive player-to-player, glare to glare hardcore stare-down, replete with some players barking and howling at their opponents with wildly painted game faces and grimaces.
Watching the incredible pre-game scene unfold, the bipartisan crowd went totally berserk, and from out over the loudspeakers came blaring that legendary song with the famous lyrics, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” and “Ya’ All Ready for This!” It was nuts!
Going into the game that night vs. O’Dowd, our game plan was to run the football as much as possible, in order to keep their star running back, Ricky Walker off the field.
After the kickoff, it was our turn to go on offense. Our Piedmont team marched down the field and scored a touchdown with our very good tailback Johnson punching it into the end zone from a few yards out. That was a good sign, our powerful offensive line could get the job done.
However, if we were going to beat O’Dowd and claim victory, then our great defense would have to lead the way. Our defensive squad was led by Tollas, Sullivan, Griffinger, Peters and Pacult, and across the board to a man, we did not have one weak link on that stalwart unit.
When the Dragons got the ball back, our defense stuffed them deep in O’Dowd territory, and forced a fumble. Suddenly, our Piedmont offense was back on the field in the First Quarter and deep within Dragon turf. We executed a few nice running plays, and a great play action pass on 4th down from quarterback, Adams to receiver, Fleming that brought us down to the one-yard line. One play later we scored on another touchdown run, but we scuffed the PAT, and were up, 13 to 0. The raucous hometown Highlander crowd was delirious with joy!
But then, the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons woke up and their star running back, Ricky Walker unleashed a torrent of game breaking runs to turn the tide in their favor. Walker went left, Walker went right, and Walker went up the middle of our defense.
Our hometown crowd grew pensive, and the visiting army of O’Dowd supporters voiced their enthusiastic glee for their Dragons who had taken back the lead, 20 to 13 at the half.
At halftime on the way to our locker room while I was jogging up the bleacher stairs through the heart of the crowd with our Piedmont players and coaches, a warm and comforting feeling came over me, and it was then that I knew we were going to win the game that night. Our excellent football team had taken O’Dowd’s best shots during the first-half, and we were only down by a touchdown.
During halftime, our Defensive Coordinator, Dave Marshall made some key adjustments with his defensive unit, and as we departed the locker room to return back down to the field, Dave looked at me and said, “They’re done…they won’t score another point on us.”
I smirked at him and replied, “If you’re right, then we got this.”
After the second-half kickoff, our Piedmont team dominated virtually every facet of the game. We scored another touchdown on a short run after a nice offensive drive and kicked the PAT, now the score was tied, 20 to 20.
Our physical and smart defensive unit began to pound away at O’Dowd’s offensive line, and for the entire second-half, their great running back, Ricky Walker had little room to do much at all.
Our defense shut down O’Dowd and we got the football back. Our offense executed another beautiful play action pass for a big gain down inside the O’Dowd 10-yard line, and two plays later we scored again on a short run. Now we were up, 27 to 20.
The next play sealed the game for us to begin the fourth quarter. We kicked off after scoring the go ahead touchdown, and our stud linebacker and special teams’ warrior, Sullivan, attacked the O’Dowd kick returner like a tackling madman and he ripped the football out of the stunned ball carrier’s arm. Sullivan pounced on the tumbling football and suddenly our Piedmont offense was back out on the field inside the O’Dowd twenty-yard line, and we had the football.
Our offense continued to pound away at the fatigued O’Dowd defense and a few plays later we scored again to make the score, 33 to 20.
Now, with less than seven-minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, our defense was humming on all cylinders and the Dragons were out of gas. It was obvious, and our hometown crowd was screaming for joy, and jumping and dancing around in the stands with abandon!
As the official clock on the scoreboard wound down to show there was under one-minute to go in the game, several of the players and assistant coaches and I began exchanging hugs and high-fives in celebration.
Our Piedmont Football program had earned the win vs. Bishop O’Dowd in a classic rivalry game, and it was due to the hard work of the outstanding players and assistant coaches that spanned the course of several years.
That night after the game, all of us were exhausted but thrilled with the accomplishment. The next morning, the SF Chronicle featured the Piedmont vs. Bishop O’Dowd game in the high school football section, and the headline read, “Highlanders Live by the Sword!”
Our 1995, “Team of Destiny” finished that season 8-1-1, with a 7-0 undefeated league record and an ACCAL League Championship.
What a marvelous rivalry it was between Piedmont and Bishop O’Dowd “back in the day.”
Hopefully, on Friday night, October 7th at Witter Field, the very exciting matchup between these two great football programs will be the beginning of a once Great Rivalry Reborn?
Kurt Bryan is a graduate of Piedmont High (82′) and a former Head Varsity Football Coach (1993-1996) and (2006-2010)