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During the war years of 1943-45 the male enrollment of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. dipped to an alltime low of 55, and the school that had once defeated the University of Chicago when it was a power in the Big Ten was forced to give up football. The game was revived after V-J Day, but in the years that followed Carleton teams were so hopelessly outclassed that some school officials considered giving up football permanently. The Carls won only three games in 1952, two in 1953 and were so bad, said one player, "that even the freshmen were beating us."
But the feeling was different when the Carleton football team assembled on campus in the hot September of 1954. "Five of us seniors," remembers End Dick Grein, "were getting awfully tired of getting beat so bad so often. We decided to cut out all our griping, set an example for the sophomores, and—for the first time—pay a little attention to the coaches."
The change was apparent immediately. On the first play from scrimmage in the first game against Cornell College, Carleton Halfback Don Voss took a handoff, broke off right tackle and sprinted down the far sidelines 59 yards for a touchdown. The Carls won 21-6 and, before anyone knew it, had caught Knox and Monmouth by surprise and entered the traditional game with crosstown rival, St. Olaf, unbeaten in three games. "It began to look as if we were getting better each week as our schedule got better," says Mel Taube, then an assistant coach. "Often a young team—as we were—gets beaten so badly by good teams in its early games it never recovers. Fortunately for us, we played the weaker teams first."
Northfield, a dairy town in southern Minnesota where Jesse James was once foiled in an attempt to rob a bank, prides itself in two things—its cows and St. Olaf College's football teams. The Oles in 1954 were on a 13-game winning streak and expected little more trouble from Carleton than they had had the year before, when they won by seven touchdowns.
They couldn't have been more mistaken, although with minutes remaining in the game, they were still ahead 13-7. But Carleton had the ball and was driving for the tying touchdown. "We thought we were going to win," says Halfback Bill Kelly. " Bob Scott, our sophomore quarterback, told us in the huddle that he had never played on the losing side against 'those guys,' and he didn't intend to now." On the very next play Halfback Voss got down to the St. Olaf two, but there he rumbled and the Oles apparently had pulled the game out when they recovered. Not quite, however. "We were determined to get the ball back," said Grein. "On the next play we all overshifted at the last minute. Eight of us hit their ballcarrier, Lee Simso, and the ball squirted out of his hands and into the end zone." Carleton's John Sheagren pounced on the ball for the touchdown that tied the game, and Ted Smebakken, later named the team's most valuable player, kicked the point to win it.
For Carleton, the victory set up the whole season. "After that we knew we could do it," says Kelly. "We thought we were better than St. Olaf, and that game proved it, especially to us." Even Coe College and its slick quarterback, Shady Day, could not stop the Carls. Day was an expert ball handler who often faked officials into blowing apparent running plays dead while he rolled out—the ball hidden on his hip—and rifled passes to his ends. But Coe and Day fell, 20-14.
Next came Grinnell and a neat ploy. Grinnell was a big team; Carleton was not. When the Carls marched off their bus, they were careful to lead with their biggest and heaviest—including 6-foot-7, 270-pound Radio Announcer Tom Fisher, who was not a player—in an attempt to intimidate the Pioneers. Final score: Carleton 16, Grinnell 6. Lawrence fell the next Saturday 14-7, and Carleton wrapped up its first unbeaten season since 1916 by defeating Ripon 20-6.
The season was not quite over. A surprise awaited the team back on the Carleton campus. "At about midnight on November 6," reports the Algol, the school yearbook, "the Carleton College campus witnessed an event the like of which the oldest inhabitant never hoped to see. The occasion was the uproarious 'Victory Celebration' let loose to welcome home the undefeated, untied Carleton football team...."
Even the freshman girls were allowed to skip the midnight curfew to join in the torch parade that greeted the team bus as it turned into the campus road leading down past Gridley Hall. Flares and bombs exploded over the Bald Spot, students sang and chanted and rang bells and sirens, and everybody congregated up at the campus tearoom for hamburgers, potato chips and coffee until the early hours of the morning.