By Jim Coombs, Special to Valley Community Newspapers
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles about McClatchy athletes and teams chosen for its new sports Hall of Fame.
The 50 athletes/coaches and teams from 1938 to 1962 will be inducted as part of the 75 year McClatchy celebration on Sept. 20 at the Riverside Elks Lodge.
For information about the athletes and how to get tickets, go to restoretheroar.org.
At noon on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1947, 24,000 frenzied football fans squeezed into Hughes Stadium to see the unbeaten McClatchy Lions and the Sacramento Dragons battle for the Sac-Joaquin League championship.
As a wide-eyed 8-year-old, this was my first football game and would become a Thanksgiving tradition for my family that would last until the 1970s, when the Turkey Day game ended.
Turkey Day 1947 would be the greatest sporting event in Sacramento history with more than half the city attending. After the school opened in 1937, the up-start McClatchy Lions began to chip into Sacramento High School’s athletic dominance by the mid-1940s.
One-half of the city was “Lion Red” while the other half was “Dragon Purple.”
North of Broadway, you were a Dragon; south of Broadway in the suburbs of Sacramento, you were a Lion.
In 1939, McClatchy first beat Sacramento 13-6 behind all-city running back Fred Wristen.* The only tie was in 1940, and Bob Geremia was the star of the 1942 game for the Lions.
1943 brought the Lions a close win 13-12 and the undefeated 1944 McClatchy* team slaughtered the Dragons 44-0 and 25-0. McClatchy had won the last five years, two in 1944 and 45 because there were no night games during World War II, and local teams played each other twice.
The 1947 team
In 1947, Sacramento was coached by George Relles and led by quarter-back Jack Higdon and running backs Henry Barsanti, Vic Frediani and Ed Day.
Burt Delevan and Peter Mering anchored the line. The closest game was against Grant where the team trailed 7-0 at half. The second half was led by Day, Frediani and Mering, and Sacramento ended up winning 19-7.
The Lions, coached by George Bican,* were led by the “high-stepping twins,” John Pappa* (14 touchdowns) and Del Rasmussen* (nine touchdowns).
Rasmussen had run for almost 700 yards and averaged 13.4 yards per carry. Pappa had more than 400 yards and fullback Chuck Marino had almost 300 yards.
Tony Geremia* was an outstanding passer and kicked extra points. Ends Curtis Rowland* and John Matulich were his favorite receivers.
The McClatchy line was led by all-city tackle/linebacker Leon King*, guards Sturmer White and Bill Burns*, all-city center Vern Sampson* and tackle Clarence “Tiger” Orr.
Grant Deary, Bob Farmer* and Bob Norris came in on a strong McClatchy defense that had four shut-outs during the year.
The Lions averaged 33 points per game on offense.
The winning streak
McClatchy started its winning ways on Oct. 4, with a 36-0 win over Christian Brothers with Geremia throwing touchdowns to Pappa and Marino.
The following Friday in the rain at Hughes Stadiums, the Lions beat Woodland 26-0 with Rasmussen running for 121 yards and Pappa 77 yards. At Grant the following week, Geremia threw for more than 200 yards and the “twins” each scored once for a 45-13 victory.
Bican pulled out his bag of tricks and put Leon King at fullback for a touchdown and extra point.
Meanwhile, Sacramento was rolling along beating CBS 27-0, Turlock 12-0, Stockton 12-0, Modesto 25-7, Lodi 13-6, Woodland 21-13 and Grant 19-7.
Defense was the heart of the team, and everyone expected the Lions to give a tough match when they met the Dragons on Thanksgiving Day.
Leading up to the big game, McClatchy visited the Lodi Flames, and before 5,000 fans, Pappa (94 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Rasmussen (68 yards and 2 touchdowns) ran wild for a 39-0 victory.
Rowland blocked a punt and Farmer intercepted a pass to preserve the shutout. The following week against Modesto, with Pappa having a bad heel and Rasmussen the flu, Marino was the workhorse with 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Rasmussen still had 89 yards, Rowland a TD and Deary an interception at linebacker.
Nov. 27 was here at last.
Turkey Day game
The city was in a frenzy.
The local radio station KFBK had a huge pep rally on the air at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with Tony Koester, the Sacramento Solons announcer, as the MC. On Thanksgiving morning, people began lining up for tickets four hours early at 8 a.m.
The headline of the Sacramento Bee on Friday, Nov. 28, read: “Lions roar to 35-14 victory over Dragons before record 24,000.”
The article read: “A storming fireball C. K. McClatchy High School eleven collaborated with the greatest crowd in the annals of Sacramento sports yesterday to bust the record books wide open in the most dynamic and colorful Thanksgiving Day football game ever produced within the confines of Hughes Memorial Stadium.
While more than 24,000 gridiron enthusiasts crammed into every cranny of the arena for the first time in its history, overflowing into the aisles, hanging precariously on the rims, and spilling out on to the track surrounding the playing turf, THE RAZZLE DAZZLE LIONS cannonaded their way to the Sac-Joaquin section championship with a glittering 35-14 conquest of the Sacramento Dragons.”**
The Lions struck early and often building up a 21-0 halftime lead. Del Rasmussen* carried only nine times for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Sacramento Bee article continued: “The fair haired boy…was dashing Del Rasmussen, a swivel hipped, squirming, prancing ball packer of all-conference magnitude who broke the Dragons’ backs with two long touchdown scampers. Fronting the way for him and sidekick John Papa was a dominant offensive line led by the 220 pound Leon King…who was tremendously effective at tackle and linebacker. Geremia had an outstanding game, with fourth and goal at the three, he crossed up Sacramento with an end-around to Curtis Rowland for a touchdown and a 21-0 halftime lead.”**
McClatchy scored twice more in the third quarter with Marino scoring a touchdown in his fourth straight game against the Dragons.
Sacramento blocked a punt and scored to start the fourth quarter. Again in the fourth quarter, a missed handoff resulted in a fumble at the Dragon 22.
“Henry Barsanti caught the ball in mid air and set sail for the goal line. Pappa, however, picked himself up off the turf and, after spotting Barsanti 15 yards, amazingly overhauled him on the Lion nine. Fumbleistis set in on the second play, and Rasmussen recovered to thwart any hope of a Dragon rally.”**
When the game ended, it took Bican and Principal S. A. Pepper 20 minutes to break through the many well-wishers to celebrate the Lions’ first section title in football. When they arrived at the locker room, the team went crazy.
“The Lions coach waited for the cheering to subside. Bican tried to speak but was choked up with emotion before he finally said, ‘My 45 boys all looked good.’ My boys all blocked in excellent fashion and we were ready for this one.’”**
The 1948 graduating class had many outstanding athletes. Section championships were won in football and track, a tie with Sacramento for the baseball championship, and the basketball team led by Rasmussen, Dick Balfour and Matulich won the northern section, but lost to Stockton for the Sac Joaquin title.
Roger Osenbaugh* and Jim Westlake would go on to play professional baseball with the Solons.
Balfour would win the section pole vault and Pappa would win the section 100 and 220 for the third straight year.
Pappa would go on to UC Berkeley and score two touchdowns in the 1951 “Big Game” and play in two Rose Bowls.
Rasmussen would become a star running back at Santa Clara, and King would be a starter at Stanford and play in the 1952 Rose Bowl.
However, 65 years later, I think I remember Rasmussen dashing for long gains, Pappa chasing Barsanti over 60 yards to catch him on the nine, crushing hits by King and Sampson, and Geremia throwing darts to Rowland, Rasmussen, Matulich, and Pappa for big gains.
24,000 people in Hughes Stadium for one exciting, colorful, afternoon – I definitely remember that.
*Denotes Hall of Fame inductees
**Sacramento Bee quotes from sports writer Murray Olderman and Tom Kane