La Vernia's first 11-man football team reunites

La Vernia's first 11-man football team reunites
MIKE STAHL/ Members of the 1957 Bears reunite Oct. 20 for La Vernia’s Homecoming game, 60 years after donning the uniforms as the school’s first 11-man football team.

"I didn’t know you could get hit that hard!" John Winkler recalled, wincing in memory, then laughing. "It was all new."

"I never got hit so hard in all my life!" Wally Watson said, echoing his former teammate. "I was a little runt. I couldn’t breathe. It scared me to death!"

The two were reminiscing Oct. 20, as La Vernia High School’s first-ever 11-man football team reunited prior to the 2017 Homecoming game.

Over a meal at Witte’s Bar-B-Que and Catering organized by one of the team’s co-captains, Elton "Buddy" Strey, members of the inaugural Bears team laughed, joked, and grimaced at remembered injuries from their first season.

There had been a six-man team some years before, Strey told the La Vernia News, but the school had ceased playing; no one could recall why. Then, in 1957, several interested young men approached the school board, which gave its approval for a new 11-man team.

"We were out threshing peanuts," recalled Donald Reneau. "Billy Brietzke came and asked where I’d been. I didn’t know they’d already been practicing!"

They practiced and played on pastureland -- there was no proper football field -- which was rife with sticker burs. Every time a player went down, he’d come up covered in stickers.

"My mom used to take the grass burs out with tongs and throw ’em in the fire before washing my uniform!" Alfred Rosebrock recalled with a laugh.

The stickers weren’t only bad in La Vernia, however.

"I think the worst was Charlotte," Rosebrock said. "I think they mowed those burs the day before, just for us!"

They practiced in leather helmets and uniforms left over from the previous six-man team; the uniforms were black and gold, La Vernia’s first colors.

"We each had one uniform shirt and pants," Strey said. These were washed after each game.

That first season, they played only four games. This established La Vernia as a team, and allowed them to play a regular season the following year.

"Our first game was in Pawnee," Reneau said.

Three minutes into the game, senior Gilbert Woitena got his nose broken.

"I got sent in as a sub, never having practiced!" Reneau said.

It was a season of "no," former co-captain Strey recalled. No showers. No lockers. No extra padding. No nose guards (face masks). No gloves. No playing field. No band. No dance team.

They forfeited one game, due to too much rain and no grass on the field.

But the team had heart, and the coaches encouraged the players to be physical.

"We were told to pile on," Strey recalled. "Pinch. Bite or grab when in a pile-up."

That physicality paid off.

"The first player to receive a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness also received the outstanding player of the game award!" Strey said.

"I remember in practice we’d have to wash my nose out, because it was so bloody," Calvin Dieckow said. Despite the injuries, "It was fun! I still block people in bed at night."

His grandson, Ty Halsey, is a member of this year’s Bears team.

"He’s a linebacker, just like me," Dieckow beamed with pride.

The 1957 Bears played four games -- and lost all four. But the scores were respectable, Strey said.

"We didn’t know the game of football," he said. "It is amazing how much you can learn in four games."

"It was a good group to play with," Watson said. "We were all spirit!"

Reneau echoed his teammate’s summation.

"Looking back, it was fun!"

1957 Bears roster

10 - Daniel Llanez, freshman

11 -- Wally Watson, freshman

14 -- Richard Taylor, freshman

15 -- Donald Schroeder, senior

16 -- Billy Brietzke, senior

18 -- Donald Reneau, senior

19 -- Alton Lenz, senior

20 -- Buddy Strey, sophomore

21 -- Johnny Leslie, sophomore

22 -- Allan Mattke, senior

23 -- Jack Fowler, sophomore

24 -- Gilbert Woitena, senior

25 -- Calvin Dieckow, freshman

26 -- Alfred Rosebrock, senior

27 -- John Winkler, senior

30 -- Ulrich Koepp, senior

33 -- Robert Zuehl, sophomore

Managers -- Ernest Woitena, seventh grade; Donnie Hormuth, senior

Cheering on the 1957 Bears were 30 pep squad members, four cheerleaders, and a drummer.

La Vernia High School had a total of 73 students in 1957. The 2016 graduating class was more than 230.

Did you know?

Many of the students who attended La Vernia High School still attend games and school activities now, said Buddy Strey.

"We like the Bears," he said.

"By the way, all you old people can get a Gold Card that will admit you to all the home UIL events for free," Strey added.

To get your senior Gold Card, check with the school administration office.