Lash's Place- Downey High News!

Dream game still alive
Anaheim-Downey continues to stir up memories 50 years later.
Register columnist

The kid, just a teenager, trotted through the tunnel and into the Coliseum, into the noise and presence of who knows how many thousand fans, the moment rising sharply from inside out. All the way out.

"The goosebumps you had," Mickey Flynn says, "all doubled at once."

About the same time, another kid, another teenager, had a similar experience. Similar in action, but a more poignant reaction, one that really illustrated the phrase all the way out. Ron Russell wet his pants.

"Just a little," he says. "But you don't have to put that in the paper."

Sorry, Ron, after 50 years all truths must be told about a football game that still sounds mythical.

Anaheim High and Downey High were draped in a heavy fog the night of Dec.14, 1956. Five decades later, their 13-13 tie seems no less surreal.

"I'm not sure any of us knew beforehand how big the game was," says Anaheim's Flynn, now 68. "But we found out pretty quickly."

Says Downey's Russell, also 68: "The story just built and built and built that season. It was one of those fluke things, I guess. It was just a dream game."

They were playing for a CIF championship and for so much more. They were playing for Anaheim and Downey at a time when high schools genuinely represented towns because many towns had only one high school.

The Colonists and Vikings entered 12-0, their paths seemingly destined to cross again after scrimmaging one another in preseason. The results of that practice game, naturally, were even, both teams scoring twice.

Football was different back then, a fact made clear by newspaper reports noting seven "forward passes" were attempted in the title game. The teams - running identical "Tight-T" offenses, with three backs often lining up within smelling distance of the quarterback - combined for 94 running plays.

Anaheim's quarterback, Johnny McDonald, weighed 136 pounds and wore No.56. Downey averaged fewer than 170 pounds per player.

We also were different back then. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn, the Lakers in Minneapolis and the Angels in the Pacific Coast League. There were no Raiders or Clippers and a trip out West in the NHL meant traveling to Chicago.

The Rams were here and having their worst season - 4-8 - since moving to Los Angeles from Cleveland. USC and UCLA both had winning football seasons in 1956, but bowl bids weren't passed out like M&Ms then. The Trojans and Bruins were tucked away by mid-December.

So officially, 41,383 attended this game, but literally no one ever can be certain. The opening kickoff was pushed back twice because the lines outside the Coliseum were so long.

At one point, officials stopped bothering to hand out tickets at all and simply collected money. The late Kenny Fagans, who was then CIF commissioner, once said it took two days to count the cash, most of which was wadded up in cardboard containers taken from a stadium snack bar.

"There were 60,000 there, at least," says former Register sports writer Carl Sawyer, who attended the game as a USC student. "A bunch of people knocked down a fence to get in."

Anaheim's star was Flynn and its coach was Clare Van Hoorebeke, one of the county's football legends. Downey was led by Randy Meadows and coached by Dick Hill, who, more than 40 years later, would retire as the winningest high school football coach in Orange County history.

Kids would swarm Flynn for autographs after games and dress like him - wearing blue and gold jerseys with No.25 - for Halloween.

Meadows had set state scoring records and averaged 16 yards a carry. That season, the two stars would share - of course, another tie - the CIF player of the year award.

"Mickey Flynn and Randy Meadows ... they sounded like characters at Disneyland," says Art Hansen, a Cal State Fullerton professor who is authoring a book about the sporting and social climates locally in the '50s. "There was a mythical, epic dimension to the players."

When the game finally did kick off, that dimension only grew. Nine minutes in, Flynn scored on a 62-yard run. Less than two minutes later, Meadows went 69 yards for a touchdown.

Downey's Jack Trumbo, however, missed the extra point - his only miss of the season - and Anaheim led, 7-6, an edge that would last into the third quarter.

Up by a point, the Colonists were feeling better, if only slightly. The night before the game, a local men's club honored the team with a chicken dinner. Ten players were ill the next day, the bus ride to the Coliseum featuring several examples of just how ill.

Still, Anaheim extended its lead in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Flynn. But when John Baker's kick sailed low and wide, the score remained 13-6, setting up Downey and Russell. Three minutes into the final quarter, he scored from a yard out.

Football, remember, was different back then. There was no such thing as a two-point conversion; you could only go for one, whether you kicked or ran a play from scrimmage. Hill called for a pitch to Russell, who slid smoothly outside to tie the score.

Both teams had one more possession, the game concluding with Downey near the 50-yard line - the standoff fittingly ending in the middle of the field.

Under CIF rules then, in the event of a tie, the team with more first downs advanced in the playoffs. Since this was the final, it was determined before kickoff that a tie would result in co-champions.

"I think everybody thought the ending was great," Russell says, "except for the players from both teams."

Flynn finished with 134 yards on 17 carries, Meadows 112 yards on 10 carries. The next summer, they would share the same backfield in an all-star game at the Coliseum, a game that would attract 85,931.

That would be the football peak for both as players. Flynn went on to play at Long Beach City College. Meadows started at USC but didn't last there long and never played varsity in college.

The only player from the '56 title game who played professionally was Anaheim tackle Marshall Shirk. After attending UCLA, he spent six years in the CFL.

"It seemed like when that game was over a weight was lifted off our shoulders," Flynn says. "Randy and I looked at each other and just said something like, 'It's over.' We were so tired. We had been hearing all year about how great we were."

Flynn has spent time since in and around football and still serves on the staff at Fullerton College. Life wasn't so kind to Meadows. He had four failed marriages, became a heavy smoker and suffered a heart attack before dying of cancer at age 62 in 2000.

Near the end, he received a visit from Flynn, who brought a message:

"I told him, 'Do you realize what you did for kids? There were kids all over Southern California wearing your jersey and wanting to be you on the sandlot.'"

A couple times a month - still today - someone mentions Dec.14, 1956, to Flynn. Just last week, at an Anaheim game, a fan asked him about that night.

Fifty years gone, but not a minute forgotten. A dream game, indeed.