Everett’s ‘special team’ turning 60

In a county with a rich football history, one of the richest stories of all was written 60 years ago.

It actually began a few years earlier when a group of kids from the neighborhoods of Everett, from the city’s schoolyards and playgrounds, arrived at Everett High School and joined the football team. Their coach was a diminutive man with a towering presence, and he taught them, pushed them, occasionally scolded them, and in the fall of 1952 he prepared them for what would be, for many, their senior season.

It turned out to be a season for the ages.

In an eight-game schedule, those Everett kids and their tough, tireless coach demolished all eight foes. A few weeks later, in a Thanksgiving Day game against the best team in Seattle — these were the days before playoffs, so the showdown was billed as the unofficial state championship game — they again won convincingly.

Nine games, nine victories, and nothing even close to a nail-biter. Everett outscored its opponents 274-58 that season, and it could have been worse. The coach, legendary Jim Ennis, would never humiliate an opponent by running up the score, so once the game was in hand — and it usually was by halftime — he started sending in the subs.

“The second team played almost more than (the starters) did,” said Dan Michel, the team’s quarterback. With a big halftime lead, “the coaches would usually let us start the second half, so we’d go out and score a touchdown and then that was it (for the night).”

“We could’ve run up scores of 70-0 or 80-0 if we wanted to,” said Orlin Griggs, an end. “But Jim Ennis just wasn’t that type of guy.”

Everett played in the Cross-State League, which included the largest non-Seattle schools (by enrollment) in the Puget Sound area, plus Wenatchee. And it was, Griggs recalled, “a real tough league. There were no pushovers in that league at all. We were going up against good teams and players the whole season, but we ran roughshod over most of them.”

Football, as played by Everett back then, was a little different than it is today. For starters, the Seagulls used a modified single-wing offense with a quarterback, fullback and two halfbacks in the backfield. Michel, the quarterback, would call the signals under center and would sometimes take a direct snap, but other times the ball would be hiked between his legs to one of the running backs.

Another oddity. Michel was used mostly as a blocking back while Chuck McAnnich, the fullback, was the team’s leading passer. “Chuck could throw a football 70 yards,” Griggs recalled.

The team’s primary offensive weapon was Wes Nelson, a halfback “who was faster than greased lightning,” Michel said. Nicknamed “The Flying Swede” by then-Herald sports editor Lloyd Rostrom, Nelson led the team in touchdowns.

Opponents often knew what was coming, but still couldn’t stop it. Nelson remembers a game against Bellingham when the Seagulls called the same play for an entire offensive series. It was an off-tackle play — sometimes left, sometimes right — and the four backfield players took turns carrying the ball. “We just marched all the way down the field that way,” Nelson said.

Defensively, Everett was just as good and maybe better. The first-team defense did not give up a touchdown all season until the final game.

As mentioned, there were no football state playoffs back then. The way it worked, the winner of the Seattle league would invite one of the best teams from elsewhere in the state for an annual Thanksgiving Day game at Seattle Memorial Stadium. Everett got the invitation in 1952 and showed up on a cold, clear day to face the Seattle champion, Franklin.

Playing on their home turf — dirt, actually, which the Seattle stadium used in those days — the Franklin players were not exactly gracious hosts. “They had a habit of making fun of us, like we were just a bunch of farmers,” Griggs said. “But that motivated us. We just played football … and we sure were happy when we won the thing.”

Michel scored two touchdowns after getting the ball to McAnnich and then taking a return pass, both times being left wide open by the unsuspecting Franklin defense. Nelson added another touchdown with a long punt return, and the Seagulls had a 26-13 victory to cap their perfect season.

It was the football pinnacle for most of the team’s players, and probably for Ennis himself. In later years, and after wrapping up his long and remarkably successful coaching career, he would talk about it being his best team.

Like most hard-nosed coaches, regardless of the era, Ennis was usually respected but not always loved. He could be tough — boy, could he be tough — and he had no patience for goof-offs, malcontents and prima donnas. Griggs remembers one boy showing up on the first day of practice with longish hair and Ennis calling him out in front of the entire team, telling him to get a haircut or not to bother coming back.

And if Ennis needed to add decibels to get his messages across, he could do that, too. “When we came in at halftime, and if we were sloughing off or not doing what we were supposed to be doing, we’d hear about it,” Griggs said. “And I think everybody in the stands could probably hear it, too.

“He was,” Griggs added, “your enemy on the football field and your best friend off the football field. If he picked on you at practice, it wasn’t because he didn’t like you. It was because he wanted you to do your best.”

The years have passed and the surviving players are all men in their late 70s now. Ennis died several years ago, and some team members have passed on, too. But even as their numbers dwindle, the memories of that extraordinary season remain strong.

“To be truthful, I don’t think any of us (expected to do so well),” Nelson said. “But that was a special team.”

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