By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal
Whitehall has fielded a high school football team for close to a full century, but ironically enough, only one Viking team can boast of an undefeated season.
The unbeaten Vikings of 1962 will be honored at halftime of the Whitehall-North Muskegon game on Friday night, commemorating the 50thanniversary of this special group.
Most of the surviving players, coaches, cheerleaders, band director, band members, and even the 96 year old PA announcer from this era will be on hand to renew friendships and share stories from this Golden Era of Viking athletics.
“We have teammates coming into town from all over the states,” said former Viking lineman Frank Lundell, one of the organizers of the reunion. From Maine to California, these Vikings from yesteryear will be introduced to the local fans after first getting together in the late afternoon at Pub 111 in downtown Whitehall.
Whitehall football began in 1921 under the coaching of Carl Gee and, fittingly, the school’s first-ever victory was an 18-12 conquest of archrival Montague High School, in the first of more than 100 games that have since been played between these two neighbors.
Interest, as well as enrollment was miniscule in the White Lake Village in the early years, as Whitehall did not field a team from 1933-1940.
Football was resurrected after an 8-year hiatus in time for the 1941 campaign, but survived for just this one season before the sport was dropped once again. It resurfaced for good in 1944.
As a cub reporter covering North Muskegon athletics in the 1950s, I recall a Whitehall squad that fell just short of pulling off the perfect season.
The 1958 Vikings, featuring the battering ram ‘Bull’ Jordan, was a perfect 7-0 going into the traditional season ending battle with long time adversary Montague. For a number of years these two crosslake communities would sandwich a pair of games into a regular- season schedule.
The season opener was a non-conference thriller that was won by the Vikings 19-14. However, the tables would be turned when the ‘Cats’ and Vikings squared off in front of an overflow crowd in the season finale.
Montague’s lone loss in 1958 was that opening defeat to Whitehall. A second victory for the Vikings would not only clinch the first perfect season in Whitehall history, but also their first-ever WMC conference championship.
Montague dashed those Vikings’ hopes, emerging victorious by the slimmest of margins, 13-12, to win their fourth straight WMC title.
While roving the sidelines in 1957, I witnessed perhaps the strangest play I have seen in all my years covering high school football.
North Muskegon was hosting Whitehall when, late in the game, Norsemen halfback Bill McIntyre broke into the clear and was headed for an apparent touchdown.
While McIntyre was racing down the sideline in front of the Viking bench, Whitehall reserve Jack Peterson, removed his parka and sneaked off the sidelines to tackle the startled McIntyre.
Game officials, after huddling together for a few moments, awarded North Muskegon a touchdown - a game won by the Norsemen 19-18.
Appropriately, it will be North Muskegon that will be Whitehall’s opponent this Friday night.
Local sports historians may recall that Whitehall and North Muskegon bolted from the West Michigan Conference at the start of the 1961-62 school year to join the Seaway Conference. The Norsemen would return to the WMC in 1966, but Whitehall would not return until 1985.
Playing an eight-game schedule, the Vikings of 1962 did suffer a little bump in the road en route to their undefeated season. After posting lopsided wins over Montague, Ravenna and Coopersville, the Vikings were held to a surprising 6-6 tie against former WMC foe Hart.
That deadlock still rankles former Whitehall defensive back, and one of the reunion organizers, Grant Belinger, to this day.
“What a mess,”recalled Belinger recently. To say that Belinger did not recall fondly the officials from that deadlocked affair would be a gross understatement.
“We had three touchdowns called back,” lamented the former Viking star, and our quarterback (Dick Grossenbacher) got thrown out of the game early,” a fact doubted by Grant’s brother, Viking star running back Jack Belinger.
Grossenbacher’s early exit from the game certainly didn’t tarnish his resume down the road. The former Whitehall signal caller would serve in the secret service as a personal bodyguard for President Richard Nixon.
One can only imagine the stories Dick could share with his Viking buddies from his years working at the White House.
The 1962 Vikes did bounce back nicely with wins over North Muskegon, Fremont and Shelby to set up their final contest with Reeths Puffer.
R-P was an impressive 6-1 heading into the campaign’s final game, with the winner to be crowned Seaway Conference champions. The Vikings capped their only undefeated season with a hard fought 21-14 victory over Coach Gale Bolthouse’s Rockets.
Grossenbacher tallied a pair of rushing touchdowns and hooked up with fleet-footed Viking halfback Jack Belinger on a 40-yard pass play for a third tally. Sophomore kicker Bruce Finkbeiner, who would also stand out as one the Red and White’s all-time baseball greats, was perfect on all three of his extra point attempts.
Finkbeiner’s three successful place kicks were the difference in the North Muskegon game as the Vikings, behind three touchdowns by Jack Belinger, nipped the Norse 21-19.
The undefeated Vikings were loaded with athletes who excelled, not only in football, but also in basketball, baseball and track.
The 1962-63 Viking basketball team would prove to be the most successful since the end of World War II. Coach Jerry Jacobson welcomed many of the football players to the hardwoods, including such All-Conference stalwarts as Jim Patterson and Tom Bloomberg.
This well-rounded group of athletes will not only be remembered as the only undefeated football team, but Coach Jerry Jacobson’s basketball squad would be the last Vikings team to win a regional championship and a berth in the state Class B quarterfinals.
Junior halfback Don Witt will make his second trip this past year from his residence in Arizona back to his old hometown to receive additional kudos. Witt, a state hurdles champion in 1964, is a charter member of the Whitehall Athletic Hall of Fame.
Four of the five coaches from the team of 1962 are expected to be in attendance Friday, including the head coach Bob DeYoung,
“He is still today placed very high on a pedestal by all us players,” fondly recalled Viking spokesman and retired Reeths-Puffer administrator Frank Lundell.
“Coach DeYoung was an incredible leader and motivator” added Lundell. Now retired from Hope College, DeYoung will be appearing at the reunion along with three of his four former assistants.
DeYoung served but one glorious year at Whitehall before moving on, but his replacement the following year is well known to area sport fans. Only two years removed from leaving Western Michigan University, Dave Cooke would take over the head coaching duties from DeYoung, and begin an outstanding career that would last for decades.
Bob Mikkelson, who would later become head football coach at Hart, and longtime Whitehall coach Ron Bekius will also be on the sidelines this Friday sharing stories with their former Viking players.
“Organizing this reunion has been a pleasure and the response from teammates has been overwhelming,” Grant Belinger said.
Returning home and in attendance will be as many as 26 of the 31 players from that roster.
Committee members were quick to invite the all-important support group for this team and again, the response has been most impressive.
A number of cheerleaders, who once wore those long billowy skirts that draped down to their ankles, will be on hand, as well as Stan Armstrong, the band director at Whitehall High in 1962, along with a few members from the marching band.
A very special guest on this occasion will be the man who called the action as the PA announcer 50 years ago. Now a sprightly 96 years of age, this reunion wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of one of Whitehall’s leading all-time sports figures, Rex Funnell.
Prior to the 1961 football season, all Whitehall games were played at Funnell Field, named after Rex’s father, Ray Funnell.
Only three-sport star Jim Patterson has passed away over the years, but his widow, Jamie Bloomberg Lloyd, a cheerleader for that Viking squad, and sister of defensive back Tom Bloomberg, will represent him.
The gang will also undoubtedly have fond memories of their team manager during the reunion. Sylvester Sagin gave his life for this country while serving in Vietnam. His sister, Chris Scott, will represent Sylvester.
It may be many years before a Whitehall team will be able to post another undefeated season. With today’s playoff format, a team would have to post a perfect 14-0 record and win a state championship.
To be fair, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Whitehall did produce a team that had a perfect regular-season record. Coach Bruce Baxter’s 1998 Vikings, quarterbacked by Nate McLouth, had a 9-0 mark before losing their opening game of the playoffs to a powerful Orchard View Cardinal team.
The 1983 Vikings, whose defense gave up but 28 points for the entire season, went 8-1, with their only loss a 3-0 shutout versus Spring Lake.
Lundell, Belinger, and the rest of the committee were indebted for the cooperation given from athletic director Greg Russell and current Viking coach Cliff Sandee to make this reunion a reality.
It promises to be a most memorable weekend for these Vikings of yesteryear as a group dinner also is planned for the following evening at the White Lake Eagles.
Maybe somebody can get some inside info on the Watergate scandal from Dick Grossenbacher.
You can reach Jim Moyes by email at [email protected]