1944 state champ Wildcats keep on truckin'


It was September 1944. The Allies, after liberating Paris, had entered Germany. In December, Germany would begin its last-ditch offensive at the Battle of the Bulge. Soon, it would all be over.

The following April, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in a bunker as Russian troops advanced on Berlin. In May, Germany would surrender. In August, Japan would surrender. If you were a high school football player, it was hard to foretell any of this. News traveled slowly. There was no Internet, no CNN. Wolf Blitzer wouldn't be born for another four years.

If you were a high school football player in 1944, there were a lot of questions floating around inside your leather helmet as World War II raged.

When will it end? Will I be called? Will I return a hero, with battle scars and medals? Or, like 27 of my classmates, will I return in a pine box?

But if you were a member of the 1944 Las Vegas High School football team, bouncing around in the bed of an old pickup to play a game in San Bernardino, Calif., these questions of paramount significance were temporarily pushed to the back of the mind while a more fundamental one came forward.

"Are we there yet?"

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In 1944, just getting to the games was a chore. There was gas rationing, because of the war. It took about six hours to travel to San Bernardino on U.S. Highway 91. Air conditioning? Ha! It didn't exist until 1954, and then only on the Nash Ambassador.

Don Benson was a freshman fullback on the 1944 Las Vegas High football team. Roland Cram was a sophomore tackle. The first thing they recalled about that season was riding in the back of that pickup to play San Bernardino. The truck belonged to Cram's dad, who owned a construction business. That's how he was able to get gas tickets.

By the time those Wildcats scraped the bugs from their teeth, they were ready to play some football. They defeated big, bad San Bernardino, 14-0. The week before, they beat Kingman, 32-0. They would go on to defeat Needles, 19-0. And Basic, 37-0. And Panaca, 48-0. And Needles again, 25-0. And Boulder City, 21-0. And finally, Sparks, 19-0, in the state title game.

At the end of the season, the Wildcats had scored 215 points. Their opponents had scored none. They were unbeaten, unscored on, unbelievable.

On Saturday, the 1944 Wildcats were honored at the annual Las Vegas High Reunion at Sam's Town. It has been nearly 66 years since they were unbeaten, unscored on, unbelievable. But people still remember. 

"I had no idea," said Benson, 81, a retired engineer who came in from Salt Lake City for the reunion. "It was fun, and we had a pretty good season. But once I got out of school, I thought that would be it."

Good teams come, great teams go. Teams that distinguish themselves off the field as well as on, well, those are the ones people remember.

There were 34 players on the 1944 team. Ten would become lawyers. John Mendoza, the team captain, went to Notre Dame and became a district court judge. Al Rivero was his bailiff. Myron Leavitt was a Nevada Supreme Court justice who ran for governor, Herman Fisher a municipal court judge. Phil Mirabelli was a Las Vegas city councilman. Bill "Wildcat" Morris owned the Landmark Casino. Frank Smoke was a Marine colonel, Martin Hardy a Navy pilot. Bobby Schofield was a psychiatrist.

Other Wildcats became real estate agents and engineers and dentists and business owners. Frank Wolverton became a sports writer. He was a tackle. Too much time in the trenches, one would assume.

Their coach was Harvey Stanford, 87 when he died in 1991. The old Wildcats said Stanford was a disciplinarian who made them sign a code of conduct, swearing, among other things, they would not swear. Or eat candy.

"The thing I remember most about Coach Stanford was the shine on his shoes," said former Nevada governor and U.S. Senator Richard "Dick" Bryan, LVHS Class of '55. "You could see the reflection of your face in his wing tips."

Bryan said Stanford would write inspirational messages on the chalkboard before geometry class, such as, "If the elevator to success is not working, take the stairs."

The 1944 Las Vegas Wildcats took the stairs. They rode to games in the backs of old pickups.

Unbeaten, unscored on, unbelievable.

And undeniable.

In 2005, a newspaper report claimed there were only eight surviving team members.

On Saturday night, Bryan introduced nine. Seven more, I was told, are living out of town and couldn't make it.

The 1944 Wildcats are still accomplishing things once thought impossible.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.