Jon Winter had known for a long time about Superior’s powerhouse high school football teams of a century ago, but he didn’t quite know just how good those teams were until last spring.
It was early on in the coronavirus pandemic, around March or April, and Winter, business manager with the Douglas County Historical Society at 1101 John Ave., was there alone because the other employees had been laid off.
“A skeleton crew,” Winter said. “I was just making sure the building was warm and doing whatever needed to be done. So I started to look up information on the pandemic of 1918. I was looking in the newspaper (archive) for that stuff, but then I ran across this story about the 1918 Superior football team.”
Winter fleshed it out and discovered more of the particulars of that team, which included future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers. Superior Central, as it came to be known, outscored opponents by 427-7 in winning the Wisconsin state championship with an 8-0 record.
After going a relatively modest 6-2-1 the following year, the Vikings won another state championship in 1920, outscoring opponents by a combined 331-34 in going 9-0.
Six months after doing his due diligence on the topic, Winter received an inquiry from one Kevin Patrowsky of Milwaukee, who was compiling a book about the great high school football teams in Wisconsin history and wanted to know a little more about those Superior juggernauts of a century ago.
Patrowsky came to the right place.
“Kevin was finishing up some stuff, and I think I sent him more than he was really ready for,” Winter said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Well, how much do you want? I’ll just send you all of it.’ He was pretty thrilled. But it’s kind of like where I’m at with our schools exhibit. At some point you run out of real estate.”
What to keep in, what to keep out
Patrowsky's newly published book is called, “The Great Teams: A History of Wisconsin High School Football,” and is available for purchase at wihifootball.com/the-great-teams for $20 plus $5.99 for shipping and handling.
Patrowsky devoted four pages to the 1918 and 1920 Superior football teams.
Coached by Irl Tubbs, Superior was so good that legend has it some opponents found excuses not to play them.
“They feared the big Vikings from up north,” Patrowsky said.
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Based on the results, one can see why.
Sorry fans of Duluth Denfeld, this one wasn’t good.
The 1918 Superior team trounced the Hunters 117-0. The Vikings were clearly at another level, as evidenced the following week when they blanked the Superior Normal School — now Wisconsin-Superior — 27-0. Add 75, 81 and 61 routs of Two Harbors, Hibbing and Ashland, respectively, and you get the idea. The closest thing Superior had to a nail biter that season was a 20-7 victory over Duluth Central and a 19-0 win over Eau Claire in the finale.
The 1920 Superior team wasn’t quite as dominant, including a 7-6 squeaker over Duluth Cathedral, but the Vikings capped the year in style by trouncing Madison 47-7 in the season finale.
Nevers was on the 1918 team and a captain on the 1919 team, but wasn’t part of the 1920 team. And contrary to what some might believe, Nevers wasn’t the star.
Those honors belonged to halfback John “Ronc” Hancock and quarterback Harold “Fat” Steel.
“Ernie Nevers was really a better basketball player at that point,” Winter said. “He played on the line — so if he led in anything, he led in blocking, and he was a phenomenal blocker, but it was Hancock and Steel, those were really the stars of the team. Nevers was a great athlete, they all knew it, but he was surrounded by great high school athletes.”
Preserving the past
Patrowsky, 68, has long been a believer in preserving history and honoring the greats, no matter what size a school they may come from.
“When I was in high school, I ended up on the short end of a 73-to-nothing game against Chilton in 1969,” Patrowsky recalled. “They had an all-state player — he only made the second team, and why? — because he was at a small school. After all that, he gets a scholarship to Notre Dame, earns All-American honors as a tight end, goes to Oakland and becomes an All-Pro multiple times, gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that was Dave Casper.”
Casper was part of the legendary Chilton team that outscored its opponents 363-0 in eight games in 1969.
Superior’s legendary 1918 and 1920 teams certainly put up their share of crazy numbers as well, as Patrowsky talks about in his book.
In that rout of Denfeld mentioned earlier, Hancock scored 49 points on six touchdowns and 13 extra points. Against Hibbing that year, he had 51 points on eight touchdowns and three extra points.
Against Two Harbors, Steel connected with a name Superior sports fans will remember, Ted Whereatt, on nine catches for 279 yards — a single-game state record that stood until 1981 — and three touchdowns.
“Totals that were unheard of for that era,” Patrowsky pointed out in his book. “The 1918 Superior Central squad scored 427 points in just eight games for a 53.4 points per game average. That per game average is a record that stands to this day with every other top 10 scoring team having played in just the last 25 years.”
While Patrowsky’s travels took him out of state, when he returned to Wisconsin in 1993 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sportswriter Cliff Christl put together the state’s all-time team as part of the 100th anniversary of the Milwaukee City Conference. One of the people who received honorable mention was John Hancock.
Hancock went on to play at the University of Iowa before getting into college coaching. In 1932 he went to the Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley (now the University of Northern Colorado) and served as the school’s athletic director for 34 years. While there, he had an interesting connection to Patrowsky, whose mother was born and raised in Greeley and worked in the athletic department while attending college.
“The all-time team had the years Hancock had played, so one day when I was at the historical society in Madison, I just looked up Superior for 1918 and I was just blown away with the information about the team,” Patrowsky said. “Then I started thinking, if Hancock was only a sophomore, what did he do the next two years?”
Hancock continued to put up gaudy numbers the next two years to finish off a stellar high school career. Despite dealing with injuries, he finished with 485 career points on 73 touchdowns and 47 extra points, the stuff of legend, for sure.
“Yeah, for whatever reason, whatever excuse they made, with the 1918 state championship team, there were some refusals to play them,” Winter said. “So other teams that maybe could have claimed the state championship just refused to play them — they were that good.”