Golden anniversary of football's 'Biggest Little Big Game'

Photo courtesy of Bo Crane.

The 1967 Little Big Game was the biggest of the football series between Palo Alto and Sequoia high schools and was played on Thanksgiving Day, as it had since 1920. The two undefeated powerhouses met at Stanford Stadium in front of 27,000 fans, with another 2,000 walking away due to long lines at the too few ticket booths.

The Human Be-In occurred in January 14, 1967 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Some 30,000 showed in the proclaimed “Gathering of the Tribes.” Several local bands played, including the Jefferson Airplane, whose lead singer was Palo Alto’s own Gracie Slick. The first Super Bowl was the next day, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Psychedelic and Super Bowl were brought into the lexicon the same weekend.

That night, on the Ed Sullivan Show, during a Rolling Stones live performance, Mick Jagger, then 26, changed the lyric “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.” It wasn’t right but he did punctuate “now!” and 'now' was what it was all about.

The Doors’ Light My Fire album was released that January with a seven-minute version of the title song. But song didn’t take off until April with the introduction of a 3-minute version and then it became radio play all summer long.

The biggest big deal was the Monterey Pop Festival in mid-June, kicking off the summer and introducing Jimi Hendrix, whose Purple Haze was released the day after the festival. It may not have gotten big play across America but it did in the Bay Area.

Big Brother & the Holding Company also played at Monterey and released their album that August. Their group featured a female singer: Janis Joplin. Otis Redding performed his Respect at Monterey, but Aretha Franklin had run away with his song, released in April. All those singers were between 24 and 25 years old.

Another 25-year-old was Muhammad Ali, who had refused induction in April and was stripped of his heavyweight title. The Vietnam War, in a faraway place, was in the papers and we felt it.

Our parents didn’t care for our music at all. But for that lively summer, it was car radios and record stores when we weren’t working, with those of us on the team awaiting for football season.

We were seniors at Palo Alto High School. The prior year, our team had finished second to undefeated Woodside, led by quarterback, the late Don Bunce, who would later quarterback Stanford to a Rose Bowl win, second in a row.

The Doors appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 17, 1967. Morrison agreed to change “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to “much better.” But then, live, he kept “higher,” and was forever banned from the show. Of course as watchers, we didn’t know he was supposed to change the words. Sure, we knew what getting high meant drug-wise but it was a rumbling love song and included “the time to hesitate is through.” Yep, that was how our generation felt.

The Doors television performance was Sunday night. The next Friday night, our football season opened in Fremont against Mission San Jose. Our quarterback, Peter Graves, also played safety. In the first quarter, he returned an interception 98 yards, which was all we needed, winning 17-6.

Our second game was also at night and at St. Francis. Being shutout 6-0 in a loss was especially tough because many of the Lancer players, including the quarterback and fullback, Bob and Joe Klatt, still lived in Palo Alto neighborhoods and were local friends.

Graves threw three touchdown passes against San Carlos and then we went to Woodside to play the defending league champions on a sunbaked, concrete-hard field. Halfback Mike Harrison ran for a touchdown and returned an interception 56-yards for another as we held on 14-7. During the game, I felt a twinge in my right foot, coming out of my three-point stance at guard. My foot would bother me for the rest of the season.

That night, Hair premiered on Broadway, kicking off the Age of Aquarius and delivering a powerful anti-war message as it later opened across the country.

Our next opponent was Ravenswood, undefeated in league play. The Trojans had two of the league’s best players: a tall halfback Lincoln Minor and a powerful end Seymour Jones. Based on a safety, they were up 8-6 in the fourth quarter. But their punt attempt was blocked with six minutes left and we recovered near their goal line. Harrison scored and we held on, 13-8.

After a 0-0 first half, we rolled 35-13 over Menlo-Atherton. Ravenswood lost that same Friday to Sequoia 44-0. That should have told us something about our Redwood City rival. But the next week, we had a giddy 56-0 win over Carlmont, setting a league scoring record, but barely. That same Friday, Sequoia won 52-19 and Cubberley beat M-A 54-20.

Our game at Paly against the Scots had been a romp with Harrison going 86 yards and Phil Therrien 74 yards for touchdowns. Graves threw three touchdown passes, including a 55-yarder to Rick Wolfrom.

Our next two games were against our city rivals. Rolling Stone magazine published their first issue that week with John Lennon on the cover.

At home against Cubberley, linebacker Scott Yeaman returned an interception 69 yards to open the game and the Cougars never caught up in a 28-13 loss, setting us up against winless Gunn.

Graves, our quarterback, was out with a shoulder separation. Our starting split end, Hamilton, was out for the season with a bruised kidney. My foot was hurting too much for me to play and we sat it out. A touchdown after a successful 4th-and-2 on the Gunn four-yard line gave us a 7-0 lead, which is how the game ended. The Titans back was stopped on our one-yard line on the game’s final play.

So the league title was on the line for Thanksgiving Day, a tradition dating from when both were the only two public high schools between San Mateo and Mountain View.

The Little Big Game was highly publicized all week. The Palo Alto Times picked Sequoia to win “with a ‘bomb’ by the score of 20-14.” More than one bomb fell. Sequoia’s single-wing tailback, Barr Curry, a junior, scored on three short touchdown runs in the first quarter. Then the Cherokees (as they were named until 2001) returned a block punt.

Our only highlight was Mike Harrison’s 92-yard kickoff return on Sequoia’s last touchdown of the first half, cutting the ridiculous score to 39-7, announced by The Redwood City Tribune, which went to press at mid-day with the headline.

The second half wasn’t much better and seemed to go on forever. By not playing the previous week, my foot was better but I still couldn’t get into my stance as guard but I was able to play outside linebacker, my other usual spot.

Once the season was over, I finally had the foot X-rayed and learned I had a stress fracture, dating from the Woodside game, a month ago. Our best lineman, Bob Thorup, was pulled from the game with a concussion (and still doesn’t remember it).

Mike returned a punt 48 yards for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass from Graves, who was tackled on another series for a safety, adding insult to insult.

Previously, Sequoia had taken one of our few kickoffs back 79 yards for their own touchdown. Rob Bush scored the game’s final touchdown, ending the slaughter at 48-27. It wasn’t the most points scored by a Little Big Game winner, it only tied that mark, but it was the most scored by a Little Big Game loser, absolutely no consolation.

A few days later, former Sequoia tailback Gary Beban, a senior at UCLA won the Heisman Trophy; a good week for the Redwood City high school.

There were no statewide playoffs back then. Anaheim finished 12-1 by beating Santa Ana 27-6 in the Southern California championship game before 26,000 in Anaheim Stadium. By beating us worse, before 27,000 (almost the same number who had attended the January Be-In), Sequoia wound up tied with Anaheim in a poll conducted by Imperial Sports.

And so our title hopes ended with a crash. In a few years, the leagues were shifted around and the Thanksgiving Game became history.

Palo Alto High School did eventually win a state championship – the Division I title in December 2010.

The team was coached by Earl Hansen, who played end for Cubberley as a junior in our 1968 game.

One of the star backs on the 2011 team was junior B.J. Boyd, now playing professional baseball in the Oakland Athletics system.

Boyd’s grandmother, Nadine Brown, was Paly class of ’68, one of those in attendance at the biggest Little Big Game in the “Fall of Love,” 1967.

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