1962 Lion football team getting together again

The late, great Altoona Area High School football coach Earl Strohm demanded toughness, grit and a team approach from his players.

The undefeated 1962 Mountain Lions squad, which Strohm guided to a perfect 10-0 record, provided a blueprint example of what Strohm wanted from his players.

“The one thing about [playing for Strohm] is that you had to be physically and mentally tough,” said Wayne “Buddy” Geis, a sophomore on the 1962 team who started at halfback and safety and also returned punts and kickoffs. “We played in the WPIAL, and the teams that we played there, like Johnstown and McKeesport, were physical teams. It was a battle.”

Strohm also advocated the philosophy that no single player on the team was more important than the collective unit itself.

“Whether you were a linebacker or running back, it was always about the team,” said Geis, 66, who would later spend three decades as an assistant coach in both professional and major college football. “You had to know the basics of blocking and tackling, and you had to [play as if] you were part of the team. I know that I carried that philosophy throughout my life and my coaching career.”

About 20 members of that undefeated 1962 Altoona team, the Mountain Lions’ last perfect squad, will meet for a breakfast next Saturday morning at the Belmar Hotel as part of the Altoona Class of 1963’s 50-year reunion weekend.

The breakfast organizer is Danny McKnight, a senior split end on the 1962 squad who now lives in Butler.

“The way I saw it, this might be the last time that some of us get together,” said McKnight, 68, pointing out that eight members of the team have already passed away. “About half of the players on the team are planning to show up, which isn’t bad, considering that it’s late summer, and many people have other plans.”

Geis, now living in Neptune Beach, Fla., where he helps his grown son, Adam, coach a high school football team, hopes to make the trip back for the reunion.

“I’m glad they’re doing something like this,” he said. “It’s a nice opportunity to see all the guys again and laugh and talk. [Playing for the high school football team] was a great time in my life.”

Geis, spelling injured senior running back Jeff Miller, scored three touchdowns for Altoona in the 1962 season opener, a 26-0 victory over Chambersburg at Mansion Park.

“It was one of those nights,” Geis, a 2010 inductee into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame, said about the 1962 season opener. “I scored three touchdowns that night on offense and had an interception on defense.”

Altoona won every game that season by at least two touchdowns, except for a 13-9 nailbiter on the road over a talented McKeesport team on the last Saturday in September.

“That was an unbelievable game,” said Geis, who preserved Altoona’s hard-fought victory that day with a game-saving tackle as time ran out. “I got hit in the chin playing defense that day – hit a guy’s helmet going for a tackle – and my tooth came through my chin. There was a big hole there that was gushing with blood, but they taped me up and I missed just one play that day. I didn’t want to be off the field. None of us did. That was everybody’s mentality.”

It was a mentality fostered by Strohm, a stern taskmaster and 1988 Blair County Sports Hall of Fame inductee who McKnight said always got the best out of his players.

So did the rest of that Altoona coaching staff – which included Wally Fields, Harry Dinges and Ron Rickens. Jack Hopper – a 2000 Hall of Fame inductee – and Ron Corrado were junior varsity coaches who also helped out with varsity coaching duties.

Mel Frye, a retired Altoona Area School District teacher and coach who still lives in Altoona, was a two-year starter at quarterback for the Mountain Lions. Frye, who went on to play collegiately at Penn State, was a junior starter on the 1962 squad.

“Earl Strohm and the rest of the coaching staff had that team so well-prepared every week,” Frye said. “We were a team of good, solid football players who worked very well together.”

McKnight agreed that the Mountain Lions’ coaching staff was top-notch.

“All of the coaches were phenomenal,” McKnight said. “Ron Rickens was an unbelievable coach. Thanks to him, we had some of the best pulling guards in the state.”

Altoona had trouble scheduling opponents, with many teams throughout the state ducking the talented Mountain Lions.

“You had to play at least five WPIAL teams to qualify for a league championship, but Earl couldn’t get enough of them on the schedule because teams just didn’t want to play us,” McKnight said.

Offensively, the 1962 team was led by Geis, Frye, and senior end Jerry Sanker – an all-state player who would go on to play at Penn State.

Mike Reid, a 1987 first-class Blair County Sports Hall of Fame inductee who achieved collegiate and NFL stardom as a defensive lineman with Penn State and the Cincinnati Bengals and later became a nationally-renowned country songwriter who is now living in Nashville, was a sophomore on the 1962 Altoona squad.

The defense, anchored by junior linebacker Ed Trexler, now lives in Elmira, N.Y., shut out two opponents and allowed just one touchdown in seven other games.

“We all got along and we all liked each other,” Geis said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we had success as a team.”