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Hometown Heroes

The Forest Grove community rallied in support of the 1976 varsity football team, which played for the high school's first state championship
by: Photo courtesy of Forest Grove High School The 1976 Forest Grove High School football team, which became the first team in school history to play for a state championship, will also be the first team enshrined in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame next month. The Vikings went 10-2 and advanced to the AAA title game.

Nothing, it seems, galvanizes a community quite like a winning football team, and in the fall of 1976 the already tight-knit town of Forest Grove came together like never before.

Fresh off their fourth consecutive Coast Valley League championship, the hometown Vikings smoked Churchill and La Grande in the AAA state football playoffs that year and muscled their way to a title matchup against heavily favored Sunset.

On the day of the big game, police cruisers led the team bus and a caravan of cars out of town, and local businesses closed for the day as fans flocked to Portland in support of the Vikings, who were playing for the first state championship in school history.

Nearly 14,000 fans turned out for the state title game at Civic Stadium, setting an attendance record and also getting to see a phenomenal football game. Forest Grove took an early lead, but eventually succumbed to Sunset's powerful rushing attack and lost 14-7 in a physical game that bordered on dirty.

'I think there were six or seven personal fouls called against Sunset,' said Neil Strachan, a senior running back on the '76 Forest Grove team. 'I got knocked out cold and went off the field in the first half, then got cleared to come back in and I got knocked out cold again.

'I don't really remember much from the game, but we were right there at the end. We had our chances.'

That gritty spirit personified the 1976 Forest Grove football team and also helped unify the community. It's only fitting, therefore, that the Vikings be honored as the first team inducted to the Forest Grove Athletic Hall of Fame.

The team will be honored, along with five other inductees, at a Hall of Fame dinner on Sept. 17 and at halftime of Forest Grove's first home football game on Sept. 16.

'They were one of the most successful teams in Forest Grove history, and I'm just really excited that they were the first team inducted,' said Forest Grove athletic director Doug Thompson.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Forest Grove's 1976 football season is that it was nearly derailed before it even began. Senior quarterback Greg Buckiewicz, an all-state selection and the team's most recognizable star, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Watermelon Bowl, the program's annual pre-season scrimmage. That forced head coach Jeff Durham to re-think his pass-heavy offensive scheme, which had been built with Buckiewicz in mind.

'We were going to be a passing offense and the coaches changed it to a running offense when Greg got hurt,' Strachan said. 'It kind of united us as a team. We didn't really see any one individual as 'the guy.' We felt bad that Greg couldn't play, but we looked for the next guy to step up.'

The 'next guy' was senior Mark Nosack, who took over at quarterback and led a no-frills rushing attack that chewed up both yardage and opponents.

'We only ran like six plays, but we ran them well,' said Strachan, who became the first Viking in history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. 'It was really a team effort. I think I finished second in the state in scoring, and in my mind I wasn't even the second-best running back on the team. I just fit into the system.'

Armed with a stable of talented backs that included Strachan, fellow 1,000-yard rusher Wes Clemence and Jeff Salee, the Vikings steamrolled their way to a divisional title with a 7-1 record, losing only to Sweet Home during the regular season. Forest Grove got its revenge in the Coast Valley League championship game, hammering Sweet Home 41-14 and clinching a fourth consecutive state playoff appearance.

By then, the community support for the Vikings was in high gear.

'I remember the Churchill game there was like 9,000 people there - most of Forest Grove was there,' Strachan said. 'When we traveled to La Grande for the semifinals about 3,000 people from Forest Grove drove over to watch the game.'

Randy Schneider, a free safety on the '76 team, also remembers the outpouring of community support.

'It was just amazing,' he said. 'In the semifinals we probably had as many fans as La Grande did.'

The Vikings won both games - 43-22 against fifth-seeded Churchill in the quarterfinals and 23-12 against seventh-seeded La Grande in the semis - to set up a title showdown with Sunset, the regular season Metro League champions and defending AAA state champs that had defeated Forest Grove 28-7 in the 1975 state playoffs.

'Sunset had demolished us the year before in the quarterfinals, so we were motivated,' Schneider said.

It also didn't hurt, Strachan added, that the title game was dubbed by many as 'the university of Sunset versus the pig farmers from Forest Grove.'

Nevertheless, facts were facts, and the fact was that Sunset's roster featured seven future Division I college football players and Forest Grove's roster featured none.

The Vikings battled valiantly, taking an early 7-0 lead on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Nosack to Dan Briscoe on a fourth-down play, but it was short-lived.

Sunset tied the game up before halftime, then took the lead for good in the second half on a long pass from University of Washington-bound quarterback Bob Fronk to UCLA-bound wide receiver Scott Teasing, setting up a short touchdown run and giving the Apollos a 14-7 lead.

'They were loaded, but we were very, very well-prepared to play them,' Strachan said. 'We had a tremendous coaching staff. They did things that, back then, football coaches weren't doing - we watched game film, we had full scouting reports for all our opponents.

'Jeff Durham was way ahead of his time.'

'It was all about execution,' Schneider said. 'We weren't the biggest, the fastest or the strongest, but we had great coaching and we were very well prepared.'