Remembering Gloucester's unbeaten football teams of 1969-70-71

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The Gloucester defense huddles in 1970. Marty Rafferty is No. 22 on the far right.

Hal Batdorf still can see the punt return, all these years later.

He still can see the blocks, one crisp crack-back after another – “’Boom,’ one guy down; ‘Boom,’ next guy down,” he said – and still can see his teammate, Leon Harris, running free and clear on his way to the end zone.

“Nobody touched him,” Batdorf said. “I still can see him, running down the sideline, toward [Route] 130. It was perfect.”

Perfect. That’s close to the proper definition of the  1969, 1970, and 1971 Gloucester High School football teams that will be inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame May 12.

Just not quite.

And even after nearly 50 years, some of those guys still lament the smudges on their otherwise unblemished record, the two ties in three seasons, including the 8-8 deadlock with Delsea in 1971 in a battle of unbeaten teams in freezing rain in one of the most famous Thanksgiving Day games in South Jersey history.

But those Gloucester guys would do well to remember that when they walked off the field in Franklinville following their final game, soaked with sweat and splattered with mud after a tie they all swore felt like a loss, they had compiled the best three-year record ever by a South Jersey football team.

They also had set a South Jersey record for points in a season with 366.

And their three-year mark of 25-0-2 looks only better with age, especially since those feats on football fields on fall mornings have come to symbolize a magical time in the sports-crazed, tight-knit town that sits beneath the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

“As good as it gets,” Harris, the team’s star quarterback as well as the school’s future coach and athletic director, said of those days. “Great teammates. Great coaches. The community was so involved. It really was a time that you tend to romanticize.”

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Gloucester head coach Leon Harris surrounded by his team in 2015.

Harris was the starting quarterback for all three undefeated teams, a slick and quick lefthander who wore No. 19. That punt return against Collingswood was one of about 100 big plays he made in his career. He went to Maryland, where one of his teammates was future Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy White.

Batdorf, another three-year starter, played at Kansas State. He was teammates with future NFL quarterback Steve Grogan.

Those Gloucester teams were loaded with talent, from end Fred McCormick and linebacker Marty Rafferty, who were seniors on the 1970 team, to running back John Chiodi, who led South Jersey in scoring as a senior in 1971.

That 1971 team also featured seniors such as the Howey twins, linemen Dan and Dave, as well as running back Jack Raczka, among several other top players.

“We just had so many good athletes,” Dan Howey said. “We were hard-nosed kids, Gloucester kids. But we had guys who could really play.”

The 1970 team, with Rafferty and Batdorf leading a defense nicknamed “The Huns,” allowed 33 points all season. But nearly half of them were in a 16-16 tie with Pennsville.

“The less said about that game, the better,” said Batdorf, a retired steam-fitter still sore over the two ties.

The Lions were coached by the late Steve Shimkus, a great Gloucester athlete in his own right who played football at Maryland in the 1950s.

“I can still hear him, calling out to our kickoff team, ‘Screaming Eagles, go!’” Howey said.

Shimkus was part of a coaching fraternity at Gloucester that included  Jim Kelly, whose baseball team won the Group 1 state title in 1971, and Art DiPatri, whose basketball team lost by a bucket in the 1971 Group 1 state finals to an East Rutherford team coached by Dick Vitale.

Across town, Gloucester Catholic basketball coach Ralph Saquella produced Parochial B state title teams in 1970 and 1972 and Rams football coach Bob McQuillan led a 9-0 team in 1971.

If Gloucester wasn’t small-town sports Camelot in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was close enough.

“Every neighborhood had guys,” Harris said. “It was just a special place.”

Chiodi and Gloucester Catholic’s Jackie Long went 1-2 in South Jersey in scoring in 1971. Folks figured it was a crime that undefeated teams that shared the same field and represented schools separated by 10 blocks never played that season, although the imaginary showdown has served a larger purpose: Igniting thousands of debates in the ensuing 47 years.

“I would have loved to have played them,” Batdorf said of Gloucester Catholic.

Gloucester’s big rival in those days was Delsea, the teams meeting every Thanksgiving with the Tri-County Conference title on the line.

No game was bigger than the one in 1971, when both teams were 8-0 and ranked among the top five in South Jersey.

The weather couldn’t have been worse – cold, sleet, rain, with the field quickly turning into a quagmire. Almost every other game that day was postponed.

“It was horrible,” said John Oberg Jr., son of Delsea coach John Oberg, Sr. “Everyone wanted to cancel, but Pop thought the team was ready.”

Contemporary reports estimated the crowd at between 7,000 and 8,000. It was one of the games – along with Collingswood’s win over Woodbury in 1948, Vineland’s upset of Millville in 1955, and the epic 26-26 tie between Haddonfield and Haddon Heights in 1970 – that crystallized the mystique of Thanksgiving Day football.

“It was one of the games, like the night when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points,” Harris said. “Everybody I ever met swore they were at that game.”

Gloucester led, 8-0, at halftime, thanks to Harris’ 53-yard interception return to the 2-yard line. But the Lions claim to this day that the Crusaders gained an edge by changing uniforms at intermission.

“I think my uniform was so wet it must have weighed 20 pounds at halftime,” said Gregg Francis, a junior two-way starter on that Gloucester team.

Said the younger Oberg : “I remember one kid had to change because he was shivering so bad he couldn’t warm up.”

Delsea scored a late touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score, 8-8, although Batdorf swears he was inches away from making a stop on both plays.

“I was right there,” Batdorf said.

At the final gun, Delsea celebrated a tie that felt like a win, with players lifting the senior Oberg  on their shoulders. And you can trace a line from that game to today – the Crusaders have been that good ever since.

Gloucester mourned a tie that felt like a loss.

“Most miserable bus ride of my life,” Batdorf said of the bumpy trip back up Delsea Drive.

But there’s good news, as the old Lions get set to gather again: The years tend to heal all wounds, even the sting of an 8-8 tie in the final game of a remarkable three-year run.

Sure, 27-0 would have been perfect. And 26-0-1 would have been great, too.

But 25-0-2, after all these years, still has that special ring to it.

The Huns and Screaming Eagles are in their 60s now. They are turning gray and slowing down, and every few years, they lose another one to the passage of time.

But in Gloucester, those teams always will be like their star quarterback on that punt return, running free and clear, and nobody ever will touch them.

Gloucester High School Athletic Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

When: May 12.

Where: Elizabeth’s Ballroom in Gloucester.

Who: Players from undefeated football teams in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

Who else: Other inductees are Rhonda Bennett (Class of 2001), Ashley Boulden-Myers (2003), Walt Burrows (1945), Erin James-Gorman (2000), Mike Hutchinson (1975), Sean Gorman (1998), MollyAnne Light (1999), Jason McDonnell (1999), Joe Murphy (1981), and Harry Thomas (2000).

Tickets: $40 and must be purchased in advance.

For more information: Contact Lynda Spingler in the Gloucester High School athletic department office.