Fifty years ago, when players from the Lawrence Cardinals football team entered summer workouts, they did not know what to expect from the upcoming 1973 season.
What the team did know is that they had players with determination, who would be close to each other, physical, and on a mission to continue winning from the year prior.
Paul O’Neil, who was entering his senior year and played offensive tackle and right tackle on defense, was confident.
“I felt that we were going to win every game that season. I did not think anyone could beat us really,” he recalled.
“Every time we went to a game home or away, we pretty much thought we were going to win.”
The team, which was led by Head Coach Ed Shirk, would give Lawrence an undefeated season in 1973 as the squad went 8-0-1. There were no playoffs back then, so the team did not have the opportunity to play for a state title.
“We had a great offense, Ed Shirk was the head coach, and our defense only gave up six points in a whole season. We were good on both sides of the ball,” O’Neil added.
“You really don’t realize it when you are that young playing in high school and 50 years later you look back and say Holy Christ, we were damn good.”
The season in 1973 gave the program back-to-back undefeated seasons. It followed the perfect season of (9-0) a year prior from the 1972 Cardinals team who became the Delaware Valley League champions and Central Jersey Group II co-champions that season.
“From the 1972 team, we lost senior quarterback Harold ‘Skeeter’ Brown, senior back Glenn Bethea, who was one of the brothers of NFL (National Football League) Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea of the Houston Oilers, and back Farley Lavender, and a fair number of the lineman,” said Mike Jacob. He was a co-captain on the team as a senior who played right guard on offense and linebacker on defense.
“I don’t think anyone really expected to do as well as we did, and I think it was a surprise. We started gaining momentum as we kept winning and our coaches were very good.”
The only blemish in that 1973 season came at the hands of a 6-6, tie with Burlington Township, the sixth game of the season, which ended the chance for the Cardinals to have back-to-back perfect seasons.
“It was just disappointing. I could not believe that we let them score,” O’Neil said. “We could have lost that game if my buddy John Rivero, a 6-3 tackle, did not block that extra point, which would have made the game a loss for us.”
It has been 50 years since that season and several players reflected on the dominant defense that boasted eight shutouts in nine games that year.
“We had a stout defensive line and ran a 5-2 defense,” Jacob said, noting players would joke around a bit in the huddle during games with good leads.
“We called it the 52 kickass. That was a lot of fun. You’d be in a game and in the last part of the game you knew you were winning, and they could not win, so you could be a little more relaxed.”
The Cardinals had 14 seniors, 13 juniors, and eight sophomores on the roster and most of the players on the team’s roster were two-way players.
Joining Shirk on the coaching staff were Line coach Paul McNelly, Back coach Robert Tormollan, End coach Len Weister, and coaches Robert Bartoletti and Michael Saetta, who coached the freshmen.
The Cardinals mostly ran a Belly-option offense, where the quarterback gets the ball, he fakes it to the fullback, if no one is there the quarterback gives it to the fullback.
If someone is there the quarterback pulls it out and runs it to the end. Then does the same thing with the defensive end if the defensive end comes up at him, he pitches to the tailback, but if the end goes to the tailback the quarterback runs.
The summer prior to the start of the season, the Cardinals had to figure out who would be the next quarterback of the team after the 1972 season. The team was coming off of having senior quarterback “Skeeter” Brown, who had graduated at the end of the school year.
The team wound up catching a stroke of luck at the position when quarterback Scott Brunner, who would go on to play six seasons professionally in the NFL for the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and St. Louis Cardinals, transferred from Henderson High in West Chester, Pa. to Lawrence High School.
“His passes were so hard, and he had tight spirals, which back in our day was not so common and so it was hard for people to catch them. He put us in a better situation and solidified a gap for us,” Jacob noted.
“He was really good in high school and at the University of Delaware, where he helped lead them to a Division II national championship.”
Brunner took over the Cardinals quarterback room and helped add a passing game to this 1973 Lawrence team that mostly had run the belly-option offense.
“When he came aboard, we had something special going. He had a golden arm, and he was a tall guy and knew the position very well,” said Jim Stanley, then a senior on the team who played wingback on offense and defensive back on Cardinals defense. “But the defense was solid to begin with. The team was fantastic.”
Stanley shared scrapbooks created by then high school girlfriend Holly Nixon chronicling the undefeated year and also the tie that ruined a perfect season.
That tie, which was the sixth game of the season, featured a matchup with the Burlington Township Falcons.
In the game the Cardinals were the first on the scoreboard with a pass from Brunner to Tom Maple, Lawrence Ledger writer Lari Ksanznak recounted in his post-game story. A two-point conversion attempt was fumbled by the Cardinals.
Burlington Township scored in the third quarter after a pitch from Brunner to Karl Thomas was off target and Burlington recovered. Their quarterback Kurt Brock would eventually carry the ball into the endzone on that drive following the team’s recovery.
Ksanznak describes the key play from the late Cardinal tackle John Rivero as a “super play” from him when he broke through the middle of the line to block the extra point, which ended up keeping the Cardinals undefeated season alive.
“To play with Johnny he was just a tremendous, big person with a heart of gold. There was no mean bone in his body until he got on the field,” Stanley noted.
“A tie, we just kind of looked at each other and said, well this is the sixth game of the season, we just have to pick our heads up next week and get it done. We just had to take it like men.”
Instead of having a let down following the Burlington tie to finish out the season, the Cardinals defense did not allow another score for the season’s final three games.
“It was like riding a bike. We were so heated and dominant,” he said. “When we stepped on the field, we knew we had a chance not to let them score at all. It was a foregone conclusion.”
Stanley credited the players commitment and Coach Shirk and the coaching staff for preparing them each game of the season.
“Coach Shirk was a monumental figure. He was a very strong looking person and had the gift of communicating to the team. He was a student of the game, and the coach staff knew what they were doing,” he said.
The 1973 Cardinals team beat Nothern Burlington 14-0; South Hunterdon, 14-0; Allentown, 44-0; South Brunswick, 12-0; Bordentown, 23-0; tied Burlington Township, 6-6; and went on to beat, Hightstown, 21-0; Saint Anthony, 42-0; and Ewing, 28-0 for the final record that year of 8-0-1.
O’Neil said he wants people to take away from the team.
“Work hard, listen to your coaches and don’t screw around. Take practice as serious as a game,” he said.
For Jacob, it is the essence of sports.
“It teaches you if you get knocked down, you just have to get back up and keep trying,” he said. “Individually maybe we were not the best, but collectively we were a force.”
Stanley added that he hopes people grab hold from this team that “anyone who is ordinary can do extraordinary things in every single day, in every walk of life,” a saying he uses from the late Jim Valvano, who was an American college basketball coach and broadcaster.