Gladbrook Greats: 1961 Gladbrook Panthers Football

The 1961 Gladbrook Panthers football team. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEAN HOPPE

On a cool November night, the lights shown down on Wentzien Athletic Field in Gladbrook as the 1961 Gladbrook Panther football team ran on to the gridiron to play the final game of their undefeated season. The Traer-Clutier Redhawks provided the opposition. Like most communities, Gladbrook took great pride in the achievements of their athletic teams, and the 1961 Panthers were no exception.

Before the introduction of Iowa High School Football playoffs in 1972, it was not uncommon for good teams to go undefeated. But this Gladbrook team was unique in that it allowed its eight opponents to score a total of only seven points during the entire season. Only Alden managed to cross the goal line against the stout Gladbrook defense. The term “juggernaut” is overworked in today’s sports vernacular but it applies to the 1961 Panthers.

Dick Norton was the head coach for the Panthers. He was a motivator, disciplinarian, and had a high football IQ. Mark Beichley recalls that Coach Norton installed the Wing T offense that was a great fit for a team with undersized but fast players. The starting lineup included: Ends, Doug Gethmann, Bud Grimmius and Dale Sienknecht; Tackles, Jim Rice and Tom Street; Guards, Jerry Lage and Jim Bauch; and Center, Bob Mundt. The backfield had a combination of speed and power as the quarterback was Carl Zoffka; halfbacks were Mark Beichley and John Putney; and fullback was Ralph Thomsen. Thomsen provided the power, and Beichley and Putney had the speed. By today’s standards, the offensive line was small, averaging less than 160 pounds, but they were tough, fast and well-coached.

Ken Clar and Jerry Hassman were junior lettermen who were important backups to the starting lineup.

While the success of the defense was the result of a total team effort, there were individual performances that deserve mention. One of these was the play of junior tackle Tom Street in the game against Traer-Clutier. Throughout the game, Tom was disrupting the Redhawk’s offensive drives. In the third quarter, his presence on defense rose to a higher level as on three consecutive plays he powered his way into the Redhawk backfield to sack the helpless quarterback for substantial losses. Tom was a “human wrecking ball” who refused to be blocked. The opposition finally assigned two players to block Tom to slow him down. It was an amazing display of strength and resolve.

While the defense was shutting out opponents, the Panther’s high-powered offense was scoring an average of 40 points per game. Led by Beichley, who was selected to the IDPA All-State third team, the Gladbrook offense was impossible to contain. Beichley was a 146-pound speedster who had an uncanny ability to accelerate through holes in the opponent’s defensive line. Once Mark burst into the open field, nobody could catch him from behind. He scored 29 touchdowns during the season. A teammate observed that Beichley was one of the most talented athletes of his era but also probably one of the most humble. If the defense keyed on Beichley, John Putney was another fast back who could outrun the opposition. While Beichley led the IRVC in scoring Thomson, Putney and Grimmius were ranked 2nd, 4th, and 5th in total touchdowns scored in the conference

Gladbrook faces Alden

The highlight of the 1961 season was an October clash at Alden which had dealt Gladbrook its only loss of the 1960 season. John Putney recalled that Coach Norton really had the team focus on the Alden game, knowing it would likely determine the conference title. In preseason calisthenics, he encouraged the boys to chant “Beat Alden” as they warmed up! From the start of the season the Redskins were rated No. 1 in Iowa in the Des Moines Registers’ rankings of small schools. Most fans considered Alden to be unbeatable as they had won 17 games in a row. Gladbrook was clearly the underdog in this clash between the two undefeated teams. It promised to be a huge matchup, and area newspapers were well-represented as they dispatched reporters to cover the big game.

Alden was led by a star running back, Randy Schultz, who went on to achieve Little All American status at UNI and played in the NFL. Not surprisingly, Schultz scored the first touchdown of the game and Alden led 7-0. What happened next shocked everyone in attendance. Ralph Thomsen scored to even the game at 7-7. Just before the half Ralph slung a “Hail Mary” pass across the width of the field to Bud Grimmius who carried the ball across the goal line. John Putney and Mark Beichley said the Panther halftime locker room could best be described as over the top exhilaration. The Panthers were leading a team that had not been scored upon in the previous 10 games. Suddenly the impossible was within reach and the boys believed they could actually win the game. They carried that confidence and high energy onto the field for the second half. The defense played inspired football and smothered Schultz’s runs with multiple tacklers. The opportunistic offense converted Alden’s turnovers into touchdowns. The final score (41-7) shocked the Iowa high school sporting world. In fact, the Des Moines Register discontinued its ratings of small school teams the week after the Panthers dominated the top-ranked Redskins. To celebrate the win, the team bus stopped in Eldora on the drive back to Gladbrook and coach Norton bought the entire team ice cream cones.

Gladbrook’s dominance was not due to weak competition but the fact that the Panthers had experienced, motivated and skilled players at all positions. Nine of the starting players received All-Conference recognition which is an indication of the depth of talent on the roster.

As this author reflects back, it is never too late to honor champions. Representing their hometown and playing the game they loved with their lifelong buddies before a crowd of friends, family and neighbors was more rewarding than any trophy or high ratings by the press. The Gladbrook Panther football team of 1961 was indeed a team of champions.

1961 Season’s Record | We | They

ISTC Eldora 57 0

Hubbard 44 0

Union-Whitten 27 0

Radcliffe 45 0

Alden 41 7

Wellsburg 49 0

Beaman-Conrad 27 0

Traer-Clutier 44 0

Thanks to Mark Beichley, John Putney, Jim Bauch, Ken Storjohann, and Ralph Thomson for sharing the memories that comprised the content of this article.

This article is the first in a series titled ‘Gladbrook Greats’ written by Dean Hoppe, a proud graduate of the Gladbrook High School Class of 1963. The series will focus on individuals educated in the community of Gladbrook. The Gladbrook school district officially reorganized with Reinbeck on July 1, 1998 – becoming one-half of the new Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District. Gladbrook’s K-8 building was shuttered following the 2014-2015 school year, and the entire complex razed in 2022. Hoppe, now retired and living in the Twin Cities, intends for this series to bring back positive memories of his hometown community.