There is only one chance to win the first state championship. Seventy-five years ago, a group of ‘giant-killers’ took the state by storm to do just that. This is the story of Bend High’s 1940 ‘Grid kings’

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Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

Bend was a true mill town. Plain and simple. Pat Metke recalled as much.

There were fights on every street corner, he remembered. Kids “grew up rough and tough.”

In an era long before face masks, advanced padding or concussion-reducing helmets, a mere hunk of leather was the buffer between collisions. In a 1980 interview, Metke, quarterback of the 1940 Bend High football team, said the sawmills produced more than timber products. They produced a rawboned cut of young men.

The Lava Bears were “woefully weak in reserve strength,” as it was described in The Bulletin. No matter. They were only average in size. Not an issue. By the end of the season, the Bears evolved into a team that “probably could have walloped any high school team in the Pacific northwest.”

This was 1940, when 19 players composed a surprising Bend High squad that raised its slingshot and slayed the giants of Oregon high school football. When the Lava Bears reeled off an 8-1-1 record, and when, that November, as The Sunday Oregonian put it, Bend’s “burly gang cleaned house,” defeating mighty Medford 20-7 for the first state football championship ever officially recognized in Oregon.

“Football has been and always will be a tough-guy sport,” says Matt Craven, a 1993 Bend graduate and now the Bears’ football coach. “If you look at some of the guys (in pictures), they look like they’re straight out of the Old Mill before they were selling clothes down there. It’s a part of the fabric of Bend High, part of the Bend High tradition, the community.”

The 2015 Lava Bears have no immediate connection to that historic team of 75 years ago. But a replica of that 1940 state championship trophy that stands in the display case at the high school, that photo of the 1940 Bears in front of the old school gymnasium downtown, all of that, Craven says, “makes you feel like you’re a part of a time continuum bigger than yourself.”

“It really is a glue that can tie people together that have played at Bend High or been a part of Bend High, that have fond memories of going to games on Friday night,” he says. “It’s really a binder for the school and for the alumni.”

‘Surprising strength’

Graduation had hit the Lava Bears hard following the 1939 season. Reports from spring 1940 indicated the team was lacking in experience. The Bears were described as “medium in size” and did not boast tremendous depth, nor were they heavily favored in their season opener at Prineville — if they were favored at all. A week earlier, the Cowboys had blasted Fossil 28-0 and seemed poised to knock off the Lava Bears.

Yet, beneath a blazing Saturday sun on Sept. 21 and behind an offensive line that opened running lanes “large enough for an armored tank,” as it was written in The Bulletin, the Bears showed “surprising strength.”

Bend continued its dominance the following week, a 26-0 shutout against visiting Oregon City, during which the “surprising Lava Bears” racked up 326 yards from scrimmage while limiting the Pioneers to just 30. In its third game, against Albany, which Portland sports writers considered among the best three high school teams in the state, Bend rallied from a 7-0 halftime deficit to win 20-7.

The train was in motion, a truly special season underway. It seemed no force could slow down the Lava Bears, much less stop them — that is, until Oct. 11.

‘Giant-killer’

Bend mustered a mere 60 rushing yards and managed just two first downs in its fourth game of the season, a 12-0 loss at The Dalles. It was the first time the Lava Bears allowed more than a touchdown in a game, and it would be the last.

After a week filled with the team’s “heaviest workouts of the season,” Bend returned to the gridiron with fury. The Bears piled up 485 yards from scrimmage on their way to a 36-0 drubbing of Redmond High, setting up a matchup between the one-loss Lava Bears and visiting Medford, a team not beaten in its previous 26 games.

“Bend to Be on Short Side Of Odds for Friday Night’s Game” read a headline in the Oct. 22 edition of The Bulletin. Bend was “assigned the role of giant-killer,” according to the pregame account, as mighty Medford, coached by Bill Bowerman (the same Bowerman who would become the University of Oregon’s legendary track and field coach and also the co-founder of Nike) was “apparently on a march toward a state championship.”

Enter Jim Byers, who rushed for three touchdowns and nearly 200 yards, leading the Lava Bears to a 19-6 victory and earning the distinction from experts as “one of the greatest high school backs ever seen in Oregon.”

‘Shrouded in mystery’

In previous years, with no playoffs in place, Oregon’s state champions were determined by sports writers. In 1940, La Grande went untied and unbeaten, the only team in Oregon to do so, and declared itself the state champ.

Yet the Tigers were not crowned. Rumors circulated that the “State High School Activities association” (now the OSAA) was formulating a playoff bracket. La Grande, it was reported, was “refusing to play off with anyone” for the title.

In mid-November, as Bend prepared for its regular-season finale against Salem, the high school association’s board deemed that contest as one of two semifinal games to determine state championship finalists. The other semifinal: Medford vs. The Dalles.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Lava Bears made things interesting.

Medford beat The Dalles 7-0 to earn a spot in Oregon’s first state championship game, setting up a potential rematch of the giant-killer matchup with the Bears. For its part, against Salem, Bend tied, 7-7.

The Lava Bears’ record stood at 7-1-1, one of two teams to boast such a mark. The other, Albany, trounced Eugene 27-0 that week, leading some to speculate that the state championship would be a Medford-Albany duel.

On Nov. 22, however, the state association’s bold decision came down. In the next day’s Bulletin, it appeared in bold letters: “BEND, MEDFORD TO PLAY FINAL.”

Albany was left at home, apparently the result of its loss to the Lava Bears earlier in the season. Salem was uninvited, owing to its one loss and two ties. La Grande was a nonparticipant, its claim to the state title remaining steadfast.

‘Oregon’s official prep football champions’

Just over a month had passed since Bend had taken down Medford, David shooting down Goliath with a single stone. On Nov. 30, history repeated itself.

Sherman Nicar hauled in two touchdowns, “Big Jim Byers” rushed for a score, and two point-after kicks by Bill Eby allowed Bend, on the road, to top Medford — again — 20-7.

Upon their return home, the Lava Bears were greeted by a boisterous community that, led by the high school band, paraded through town from the bus station to the school gymnasium.

“They say that teams back then couldn’t compare to the ones today, but the hell they couldn’t,” Bowerman was quoted saying in The Bulletin 40 years later. “It’s a matter of blocking and tackling and those guys could block and tackle.”

Before the 1940 season began, Joe Huston, Bend’s first-year coach, was dealt an inexperienced, average-sized squad. The Bulletin reported he threw out the Lava Bears’ old schemes and instituted a backfield-shift offense similar to Knute Rockne’s innovative attack at the University of Notre Dame. And above all else, Huston emphasized fundamentals.

Perhaps that is what molded the Lava Bears into champs. They were “woefully weak” in reserve strength, as reported at the beginning of the season. But they needed no such depth. Their fortitude, tenacity and vitality was all they needed to claim Oregon’s first official prep football state championship.

‘1940 grid kings’

Ten players graduated from that 1940 Bend squad, including its entire starting backfield. The defensive line — the “seven Grizzlies,” as they were called — was, according to The Bulletin, “considered second to none in the Pacific northwest.” Huston, the coach, would accept another job in Portland after just one year with the Bears.

At least in part because unbeaten and untied La Grande declined to participate in a playoff to determine the 1940 state champion, the term “mythical” was attached to Bend’s state title. But the Lava Bears did not allow more than seven points in a game, save for that 12-0 loss to The Dalles. La Grande won by a slim 7-6 margin over Pendleton, a team Bend routed 32-7.

The next year, Pearl Harbor would be attacked, and within a few years every member of that 1940 Bend High championship squad had enlisted in the service. Two would be taken as prisoners of war. One went missing. Another, air cadet and former team manager Clarence Cunningham, was killed in a plane crash.

Those giant-killers from 75 years ago still overlook the halls of Bend High, a dated yet well-preserved photo of Oregon’s first state football champions prominently displayed in the school’s hall of fame.

Sure, the 1940 title was considered mythical. The plate across the front of the championship trophy — a replica of the original, somehow lost over the years — says as much: “1940 MYTHICAL STATE CHAMPIONS.” But in the eyes of generations of Bend High football players and coaches, the 1940 football state championship is, and will forever be, quite real.

As reported in The Oregonian on Dec. 1, 1940: “This championship fracas (will have) the label ‘official’ and the record books will list the Lava Bears as 1940 grid kings.”

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