A Game for the Aced

updated 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Though they're fightin' cataracts
Aware of cardiacs
They're gonna give their all
They're slower than molasses
They oughta throw some passes
Good idea...if they can see the ball.

The Codger Bowl theme song

The game had shadowed Cleve Richardson for 50 years, like the gnawing half-memory of an unpaid bill. Even at 68, he could still feel "the light brushing of the pigskin off the back of my fingers" as the pass—the pass that could have turned the game—dropped through his hands and into the snow. "It haunted me," said Richardson of that long-ago showdown on the Colfax High School football field.

When Richardson and his fellow Colfax Bulldogs lined up that day against the Eagles of St. John, their rival 35 miles away in rural southeastern Washington State, it was a contest for crowing rights only. The Eagles, after all, had won the county championship two weeks before, and the best that the Bulldogs could hope for was a face-saving final victory. To make matters worse, six members of the Bulldogs had been dismissed from the team for missing a 10 p.m. curfew.

Then, the night before the contest, a cold snap blanketed the field with six inches of snow. By the fourth quarter the badly weakened Bulldogs trailed 7-0 and decided in desperation to try a trick play, a fake kick followed by a pass to Richardson. Alas, second-string quarterback Ed Lust had to rush his throw, and the toss, Richardson recalls, fell short. Far shorter, it turned out, than his memory of the 14-0 final score.

Eventually, Richardson would wind up in Hollywood, a TV and movie actor who used the stage name John Crawford. He played the sheriff on The Waltons TV series, wrote occasional screenplays (among them The Ballad of Cable Hogue) and kept his ties to the old hometown. Last November, 49 years to the day after the Bulldogs' defeat, he phoned Howard West, former captain of the St. John Eagles and now a farmer. "Howard, do you remember the last time we met?" he asked. "We were standing in snow, and I had on a blue uniform. You wore green."

"That must have been that Armistice Day game, 1938," said West.

"Right," said Richardson. "My point is, Howard, I think the wrong team won that day. I want a rematch. Same men. Same field. Next fall."

West paused. "I think that can be arranged," he replied.

So it came to pass that last week, on the old school field at Colfax High, 60 aging Eagles and balding Bulldogs donned school colors once again for a not-so-instant replay of the long-disputed game. Deacon Tinnell, now 66 and a former lineman from the 1938 Bulldog team, had come despite three hip replacements, insisting that "I wouldn't miss this thing if they had to wheel me out and prop me up." Hal "Babe" Lyons, 65, boasted of the 17 lbs. that he had lost in preparation for the contest, and even 68-year-old ex-quarterback Tommy McClure, who suffered a heart attack in 1974, had been swimming for months to get into shape. "It has bothered me quite a lot," McClure recalled of that fateful day 50 years ago. "I think it's typical to remember past games when you put your heart and soul into playing."

Of course, some things—such as the rules—had changed. "No blocks to the head, no glasses broke or teeth knocked out," explained Eagle captain West, 68. Also, the boys of autumn would play one-hand touch this time round, not tackle, and substitutions would be unrestricted.

Yet if the Bulldogs' bodies had made concessions to time, their memories had not. The team's problems on that dark day 50 years ago had begun, they all agreed, with Elizabeth McSweeney and that Halloween party of hers. Colfax was then a farm town of about 2,800 people, and many of them were still feeling the pinch of the Great Depression. "The South End had money from wheat and farm machinery," recalls Richardson. "The North End, Poverty Flat, had nothing. One house out of 40 had indoor plumbing. Eight had phones. Clothes sometimes came from relief centers, income from working as farm help or on the highway—pick-and-shovel work for $2.50 a day. If you lived on the Flat, people were polite, but you were excluded from any party or gathering in the South End."

Elizabeth McSweeney was a well-to-do Colfax coed, and her South End party had, typically, excluded low-rent guests from the Flat. While Bulldog players from the South End partied inside her family's mansion on the hill, those from the Flat sat on a stone wall across the street. But it was Halloween, recalls Richardson, and "at least we figured we could raise a little hell."

When South End players left the party to meet the curfew that Saturday night, they found their tires flattened and the air valves missing. Then a prankster placed a call from Metzger's Grocery to the home of Howard Moses, the Colfax coach, hoping to draw him to the party.

The coach didn't go, but he found out about the high jinks anyway. The following Monday, before practice, Moses strode into the locker room and announced, "Any of you that were not home in bed on Saturday night by curfew, I want you to turn in your suits."

"All of our mouths flopped open," says Richardson. "He put us on our honor. McClure was half dressed, but he said, 'I guess that does it,' and took off his uniform. Others followed." By the time the big game with St. John rolled around 10 days later, the Colfax Bulldogs could field only five of their regular starters. "Most of the guys who'd been taken off came and cheered," remembers Richardson. "After the game they came to the locker room. Tried hard to be good sports."

In the years following the defeat, the Bulldogs moved on to other places, other dreams. McClure tried playing college football for a while but quit after a year. "It wasn't as much fun as high school," he says. "Too big a production." Hal Lyons went on to become, at 18, one of the youngest B-29 bomber commanders in World War II, then a developer in Washington State. Joe Wagner, once a Bulldog tackle, fought on Iwo Jima, married a Colfax girl and eventually settled in California. Deacon Tinnell left town to try his luck in New York but later returned and became a contractor in nearby Moses Lake. Richardson went to Hollywood. Others simply dropped out of sight.

Then last winter, Richardson and Howard West began searching for their old teammates. A bimonthly Codger Bowl newsletter was launched; phone calls were placed to faraway places. Before long, says Richardson, alumni were calling him, demanding to be included in the upcoming rematch. Of course, some old Colfax players were a little skeptical about the town's reaction to this Codger Bowl scheme. "It's a farm town," notes Wagner, now 68, "and they don't cotton to nonsense."

Fortunately, no one told that to the people of Colfax. At Fonk's five-and-dime, at the Wheat & Barley restaurant, at Digger Dan & Sons excavation company, the Codger Bowl had become the town's No. 1 topic by the time the old boys arrived Sept. 20. To provide the right atmosphere, the Coca-Cola sign from the 1930s was repainted on the side of Ellis' Drugstore, then the old Rip-Proof Overalls ad was restored to the Masonic Temple. Damery's Flower Shop on South Main Street made up gold chrysanthemum corsages for the players' wives and distaff fans (blue and gold were the Bulldog colors), and a bumper sticker was printed: "Why hug a codger? To get 'im up for the game." By late August every room in Colfax had been booked, and out-of-towners were sent packing 15 miles to Step-toe for lodging.

St. John supporters were no less enthusiastic. At the St. John Methodist Church, returning Eagle players were feted at a down-home banquet. There was talk about a letter to the Colfax Gazette hinting at steroid use by the Bulldogs. (It was true, one old Dog joked later, "but they haven't done any good.")

On Friday night, a spirited pep rally with bonfire was staged in the Excell Foods' jam-packed parking lot, and the effigy of an Eagle player was burned. Some of the town's younger, less bloodthirsty fans seemed shocked. By game time the next day, 3,500 fans had gathered at Colfax High, more than 10 times the number who had witnessed the original contest.

Coach Moses, now 78, appeared on the field, armed with a game plan and ready to lead his old charges once more into battle. "I suggested they make the field smaller," Moses fretted. "They wouldn't listen to me." While a medevac helicopter and ambulance took up positions just off the field, 90-year-old Jack Freil, who had refereed the game 50 years earlier, called the team captains together for the coin toss.

The Eagles' opening kick soars 10 yards deep into Bulldog territory, but the return is marred by the game's first injury. Eagle Bob White, in pursuit of the surprisingly sprightly runner, has fallen and bashed his knee. "He cut, and I cut with him and lost it," he tells his teammates back on the sidelines. Thus is born the game's first war story.

From the opening kickoff, the Bulldogs launch a slow (well, glacial) march into enemy territory, calling in substitutes every few moments to replace the winded. Two quick passes are completed, but the advance is tough going indeed. "We thought they were gonna be a lot older," says Bryant Smick, 68, huffing and puffing. What's more, the game seems different somehow. "The field is twice as long and three times as wide," says Smick with surprise.

In the second quarter, Bulldog Babe Lyons intercepts an Eagle pass and churns 40 yards downfield before tripping on the five-yard line ("Must have been the chalk," cracks an onlooker). The Eagle defense holds its ground, and by halftime the game is still scoreless. While the fans saunter to the concession stand for nickel Cokes—1938 prices are being observed—the fast-fading players regroup in the locker rooms. The next two quarters, they decide, will be eight minutes each.

Good thing. Fifty seconds into the second half, Eagle Dick Loomis, 65, limps off the field with a pulled hamstring. "How'd it happen?" inquires a teammate. "I bent over," explains Loomis, pulling down his sweats to have his leg rubbed with mineral ice.

The seesaw battle continues. Substitutes appear and reappear to try their luck. Up in the bleachers, a cheerful matron waves a sign reading, "If you play in this game, you can play with this dame."

In the fourth quarter an announcement is made over the public-address system: Loren Blumenshein of the Eagles has just become a grandfather. Moments later the new granddaddy falls on a loose ball and disappears under a pileup. Miraculously, he emerges unhurt.

Finally, with 54 seconds remaining in the game, Bulldog quarterback John Lothspeich, 64, pumps a quick pass to Babe Lyons, who swings wide, jukes past an Eagle defender and hurries over the goal line. The 55-yard touchdown run surprises everyone, so Lyons has to burst through a crowd of reporters and spectators in the end zone. After 50 years the Bulldogs have their victory, and the coveted Codger Bowl trophy is theirs. Babe Lyons, proclaims a happy Colfax supporter in the stands, "is a stud muffin, the original."

Four hours later, scrubbed and not limping too visibly, the players meet at the Elks Club for a banquet and some Dixieland tunes from a six-piece band. For Bulldogs and Eagles alike, the game just played has been more than they hoped for: a celebration of old age and a fleeting brush with lost youth as well. The Eagles are gracious losers; and there is no mention of a rematch.

There are some, however, who have come away with more than a trophy and a moment of glory. Cleve Richardson, whose dropped pass half a century ago has now been redeemed, is asked if the game provided sweet revenge. Richardson doesn't have to think that one over. "You bet your sweet cheeks," he says.

—By Roger Wolmuth, with Michelle R. Koetke in Colfax

From Our Partners