They had fun and won it all 50 years ago

By Jim Wright, Correspondent

The 30 to 40 young men in purple jerseys ran onto the gridiron yelling, “Aw ski wow wah,” in unison, at the start of every one of their eight games during the 1967 Little Falls High School football season. It was a very unusual Flyer football team.

Flyer Football Head Coach John Ahlin talking strategy with quarterback John Austin during one of the team’s eight wins on the way to an undefeated 1967 season and Mid-State Conference championship.

They didn’t know what “Awskiwowwah” meant — one of the assistant coaches had told them they should yell it — it probably had no definition, but it was fun and it united them as they ran to face their opponents.

“I told them to have fun,” John Ahlin, the head coach at the time, said recently.

Many former football and track athletes have said about Coach Ahlin, what 1967 starting Flyer quarterback John Austin summed up, from his home in Clearwater, Minn. He said, “I loved playing for him.”

Austin spread the praise around, “The coaches that year knew how to teach us.” Ahlin’s assistant coaches were Lou Filippi, Dick Culshaw and Bill Hubbard.                         “They made practice fun,” Austin said. “They were as enthusiastic as we were about our achievements.”

It was high school biology teacher (1963 – 1997) Ahlin’s second year as the head football coach. His first season, 1966, had ended with a rather typical Flyer football record, during the 1960s. They won two games, lost five and had one end in a tie. Four years prior to that, they lost every game.

“Overall my thought was that it should be a fun thing,” Ahlin said “The kids should enjoy it.”

Heading into his second season as the coach, he didn’t ask them to practice more and spend most of their free time running and lifting weights.

“Kids need to have time to do things with their families, maybe do some hunting and fishing,” Ahlin said, “because there’s a lot more going on (than just football).”

Nevertheless, “I told them they should try to realize their potential as much as they could — a lot of kids don’t know what they’re capable of,” he said.

Then he started looking for more kids who had football potential. He heard about some who were showing special athletic abilities in the high school’s physical education classes or in other sports, but who had not tried football.

“We were pretty good at working with kids who hadn’t played much football, if any,” Ahlin said. “The Randall kids, for example, didn’t have any football experience when they got to high school. But, if they were a good athlete — maybe they didn’t even know that — I could make a football player or a track guy out of them.”

“John Ahlin inspired me to love athletic performance and to identify as an athlete,” said Harvey Doucette, a starting guard on the 1967 Flyer offense, who is now retired and living near Brainerd. “It was fun to play with such great athletes.”

They were called the “Sobieski 4,” recruited from farms around that community to help the 1967 Flyers finish the season unbeaten. Adding greatly to the strength and speed of the team, were front row linemen Mel Piekarski, left, and Bob Plakut; Back row: running backs Jerry Frank, left, and Mike Brady.

“We picked up some kids from the Flensburg and Sobieski areas also,” Ahlin said, “Most were working on the family farm. So, often it was more about talking to the parents, and sometimes that was an uphill battle, because they felt like they needed the kids helping on the farm.”

“Unlike today, it was mostly manual labor then, like throwing hay bales onto wagons,” he said. “So, those kids were naturally strong. People would see them and remark, ‘Holy cow, look at the size of that kid’s arms.’ We didn’t have a weight room, no room for it, so it was good that they had that natural strength.”

Bob Plakut, retired now in rural Morrison County, hadn’t played since ninth grade and got injured right away that year — never played in a game. “I’m really glad the coaches came to our farm and talked with me and my mom about joining the team,” Plakut said, “It was the highlight of my senior year.”

“Mom said if John (Ahlin) could talk me into going to college, she would be OK with me playing football,” Plakut said. “And they did; I went to Bemidji State, played football for two years there and got a bachelor of science degree for teaching.”

He said, “I didn’t teach after all, but the degree helped me get a really good job with the railroad, and I worked there for 30 years.”

Plakut, a very strong, 195-pound, two-way starter at offensive and defensive tackle for that 1967 Flyer team, said, “John was a good coach, a fair coach — all positions were open for the best player each week.”

Another former Sobieski farmer-athlete, Jerry Frank, expressed appreciation to Ahlin for prompting assistant coach Filippi to work with him as a running back in his second season on the Flyer varsity.

“Lou (a former small college All-American halfback) got the best out of me,” Frank said.

His “best” got Frank honored with selection to the 1967 All-State team. The speedster also was highly respected as a defensive cornerback for the Flyers.

Frank was quick to spread the honor to the linemen who blocked when he had the ball.

“I never once got caught behind the line of scrimmage, the blocking was that good, and they also gave John Austin (quarterback) time to find me and our other receivers for long passes; John had a good arm,” Frank said.

The 1967 Flyer football team’s elected captain, Curt Bailey, now living near Austin, Texas, also benefited from Austin’s arm, as well as his own speed, while starting at wide receiver and as a sterling safety on defense.

“John (Ahlin) was a very strong coach. He gave everyone a chance to shine, while he pushed us to excel,” Bailey said.

“He was a man of few words,” assistant coach Hubbard said about Ahlin. “But when he talked, the kids listened carefully, and everything he said was positive.”

“He instilled a great work ethic in the kids. John and Louie (Filippi) got those guys into great shape, so much so that, I think, they just wore down other teams,” Hubbard said.

Ahlin knew about conditioning and realizing potential. He became the fastest high school runner in the state with a 1959 record, 10-second, 100-yard dash. He was also a varsity running back for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, for two years, then for Mankato State College, the next year, before a hip injury ended his college sports achievements.

He wasn’t asking the kids to do anything he wouldn’t do.

“He was a quiet, confident guy, a role model I looked up to,” said Austin. “He inspired us to want to do our best.”

Awskiwowwah! Their best turned out to be unbeatable. They won every game, finishing the season with eight wins and no losses, beating several perennial powerhouse teams, on their way to the Mid-State Conference championship. They were ranked 12th best in the state, by the official poll, including the state’s biggest schools from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and so on.

They averaged 24.9 points per game, while allowing their opponents an average of just 7.8 points. They totaled 3,230 yards on offense versus their opponents’ 1390 yards.

The game results were: Little Falls (LF) 13, Morris 7; LF 26, St. John’s 7; LF 33, Staples 13; LF 31, Aitkin 0; LF 28, Brainerd 7; LF 22, Park Rapids 14; LF 26, Wadena 0, and LF 20, Crosby Ironton 14.

The 1967 Flyers honored on the Mid-State All-Conference Team included: John Austin, quarterback; Curt Bailey, end; Mike Brady, back; Jerry Frank, back; Jim Gwost, tackle; and John Raymond, center.

A 1967 Flyer cheerleader and homecoming queen Linnea (Lindquist) Dietrich described the championship season as, “exciting, exhilarating and so much fun!”

“Everybody had their spot where they could help us win,” Ahlin said about the total team effort and every player having chances to shine.

“It feels great to be part of Flyer history, as one of only two undefeated Flyer football teams,” Bailey said.

The 1951 Flyers wowed with a 7-0 record, while allowing only six points to be scored on them during the entire season.

Ahlin coached varsity football for five more years, with successful teams including the next season’s five wins and three losses, and was the high school’s track coach for 17 years.

Ahlin and his wife, Carol still live near Little Falls, while especially enjoying their grandchildren, their lake cabin and their frequent travels.

The 1967 Flyer Football team had a reunion in 1983 in Little Falls, to savor the memories of their undefeated season. In the 1983 photo above are front row (from left): Jim Wright, Bob Kapsner, Jim DeLaHunt, Chuck Kern, Jim Carlson and Jon Riitters. Second row,: Coaches Bill Hubbard and Dick Culshaw, George Suska, Tim Raymond, Harvey Doucette, Jerry Sandberg, John Austin and Curt Bailey. Third row: Doug Jones, Dan Green, Coach Lou Filippi, Bob Plakut, Lonnie Liebel, Mel Pierkarski, Rich Trutwin, Jerry Frank and Coach John Ahlin. Also on the team, but not in the photo were: Ross Arvidson, Greg Bigalke, Greg Bourdon, Tom Edlund, Jim Pierkarski, Dave Ringwelski, Nick Ripperger and Julian Yourczek.