When Sam Boghosian left the Fresno County Hospital at twelve following an eleven-month struggle with polio, his doctor gave him a grim prognosis: "You will always walk with a limp and you will never run." Even though his right calf is an inch and a half smaller than his left, Boghosian was able to play basketball in junior high, football and baseball in high school, and four years of football at UCLA. Polio impacted much of the Boghosian family. Sam's sister died in 1942 on the same day that Sam and his older brother were hospitalized with the dreaded disease. All of the stress of ten-hour work days on the ranch, plus a night job as a lithographer for a newspaper, his daughter's death, and his oldest son who was a prisoner missing in action was too much for Sam's father. "Dad woke up one morning, did his exercises, and dropped dead of a massive heart attack. He was only forty-seven," Boghosian said. "My mother had no choice, but to sell the ranch and move to Fresno. When we moved to Fresno and I got to Hamilton Junior High, it was the first time I touched a baseball, football, or basketball. The years working in the fields had a lot to do with my recovery from polio. I was able to run, but quickness rather than straight-ahead speed was my biggest strength. It [quickness] helped in all sports."
That agility, a solid 200-pound body, good grades, and All-City honors at Fresno High School convinced legendary UCLA football coach Red Sanders to recruit Boghosian. In his sophomore season, Boghosian started at right guard for the Bruins who only lost one game in 1952 to USC 14-12. The following season, the only loss was 21-20 to Stanford. In 1954, the 9-0 Bruins were voted for the first time in the school's history as national champions by United Press International. The Associated Press named Ohio State, so it was a shared title. The Bruins led the nation in offense and defense. They allowed only forty points, twenty coming in a game with Washington. UCLA opened the season with a 13-7 win over defending national champion Maryland. They recorded five shutouts including USC 34-0 and Stanford 72-0.
Tailback Primo Villanueva, fullback Bob Davenport, guard Jim Salsbury, and tackle Jack Ellena were First Team All-Americans. Boghosian was among seven who received All-American mention. Villanueva fumbled three punts against Washington, allowing the Huskies to recover deep in Bruin territory in the only close game. Boghosian chuckled when he recalled that 160 Sam Boghosian after the third fumble, Sanders told the frustrated Villanueva: "One more fumble and you go on waivers."Boghosian has warm memories of that team. "I weighed 209 pounds and was the third biggest player on the team. Salsbury was 213 and Ellena, 220. Our center, Peterson, was 209. Sanders had a unique system. After two weeks of hard two-a-days prior to the start of the season, he would have a CPA weigh us. That's the weight that went into the program. I was 196, but by the first game, I was 209. That way, Red could moan about how small we were. Anything to try and catch opponents off guard. We used to serpentine out of the huddle, so sometimes I was the weak side guard and sometimes the strong side."Sanders hired Boghosian as an assistant following his senior season.
When Sanders died suddenly in 1958, Sam stayed on with the Bruins until 1964 when Dee Andros of Oregon State lured him to Corvallis as an assistant. I had a wife and two children, so I was happy to get out of the Los Angeles environment" Boghosian said. "The nine years I spent in Corvallis were the greatest years for our kids. My son went to the University of Washington and my daughter to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo." Boghosian was offered a lifetime job at Oregon State as head coach, had finished second twice in the quest for the University of Oklahoma head coaching job, and second once at Fresno State before Sid Gillman called him to the Houston Oilers in 1973. Boghosian said he always respected Gillman for his passing game knowledge with the Rams and Chargers, so he entered the NFL. After one season, Gillman quit after a squabble with team owner Bud Adams and Bum Phillips took over.
The Seattle Seahawks called to interview Boghosian for the head job, but good friend Jack Patera was chosen. Patera wanted Boghosian to be his offensive coordinator, but a call came from Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to interview to replace John Madden. "Davis was right up front and told me he might stay within the staff, but he interviewed me and said regardless of who is picked, he would like me to be the offensive line coach. The next day, I received a phone call from Davis saying he stayed in staff and asked if I knew Tom Flores? "Know him! We grew up together," Boghosian answered. "I get a call from Tom and he wants me to be his offensive line coach. He hasn't been able to get rid of me since. I lived in Moraga and he lived in Lafayette. When the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, we both had homes a block apart in Manhattan Beach. We both retired in 1987. He built a house at Indian Wells [Palm Springs] in 1997 and, two years later. I moved into one two blocks away. We have coffee together almost every morning and play golf. Great guy and a great coach." The same could be said about Boghosian: great guy great coach.
This pioneer educator and coach was a native of South Dakota, but came west and graduated from Stanford University. Geer was connected to the Coalinga school system from 1911 until 1921. In 1971, the athletic grounds at Coalinga High School were dedicated as the Charles L. Geer Athletic Field, an honor overdue since he died in 1944.
Coalinga had a student body of 150 in 1917 when Geer's track and field team team won the California Interscholastic Federation state meet. Geer was the Executive Secretary of the Central Section CIF from 1916-1939. He served as the referee of most of the state's prestigious track and field meets including the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The 1940 and 1945 Fresno West Coast Relays were dedicated to him. Geer had a favorite saying that characterized his teaching and administrative ability: "Win a boy's respect and he'll give you his love."
Golf and fishing are his favorite pastimes now, but any long-time San Francisco 49ers follower remembers James "Jimmy" Johnson as one of the great defensive cornerbacks in the history of the NFL. Johnson played sixteen seasons with the Niners and was ushered into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1994. He was a six-time Pro Bowl pick, twice winning the Len Eshmont Award for Courage and etched #37 into Niner lore. At 6'2 1/2" and 185 pounds with a sprinter's speed, Johnson could blanket a receiver in one-on-one coverage as well as anyone who played the game and also packed a wallop on run defense. He began to shed the mantle of "Rafer Johnson's little brother" during his senior year at Kingsburg High School when he captained the football team, tied his brother's school record in the high hurdles, and broke his sibling's school long jump record.
Johnson spent a year at Santa Monica Junior College because UCLA wanted him to play just one sport, but he wished to compete in track and football. After earning the football MVP award and winning the state JC high hurdles for the Corsairs, the Bruin coaches allowed him to skip spring football and play both sports. He was an All-American halfback at UCLA and a two-time NCAA high hurdles champion. He failed to make the 1960 U.S. Olympic team by one inch, finishing fourth in a photo finish during the 110-meter high hurdles trials finals. That was the year Rafer won his decathlon gold medal in Rome and James had hoped to be on the same team. Johnson was one of three players drafted in the first round by San Francisco in 1960. The others were Billy Kilmer and Bernie Casey. He had planned to retire in 1975, but stayed an extra year when former Kingsburg teammate Monte Clark was named head coach at San Francisco. Johnson said his first five seasons with the Niners were frustrating because they had him playing multiple positions. "I was drafted as a wide receiver, but I played five or six positions in my early years. I was a running back, cornerback, safety, receiver," Johnson said. "I played them all. I finally asked coach Jack Christansen if I could just play one position. He let me take my choice." Johnson played in a team record 210 games and intercepted a record forty-seven passes. His interception numbers might have been higher, but teams were reluctant to throw on his side.
Would Johnson have been able to be as effective today as he was in his prime? "Man-to-man coverage hasn't changed," Johnson answered affirmatively. "What has changed is the overall size and speed of the offensive linemen. One of the keys to my success is I never paid attention to the receivers head or shoulder fakes. I concentrated on his midsection. I knew whatever way that went, he would go, too. That way I could react to his final move. I never looked at a receiver as tough, just someone I had to short circuit." Johnson said Jimmy Orr had his own bag of tricks and talked constantly, complimenting you on your success, complaining about injuries, or how slippery the turf was.
Tommy McDonald was all business, but very good. Johnson related the most difficult play to cover was when a receiver had a wide open field and you couldn't pin him to the sidelines. "If he had a step on you, then all you could do was hope for help or that the defensive lineman would cause a bad throw. The toughest quarterback was Fran Tarkenton because he could run or throw." Johnson never forgot his roots. He was captain of the County football team in the annual 20/30 Club's All-Star game, participated in the West Coast Relays, and loved to drive to Fresno with his family. Johnson said his Kingsburg football coaches, Les Ratzlaff and Charlie Moore, and track coach Merle Dotson were wonderful men. "They started me off right. They treated us as individuals, not just sports stars. They really cared. When I was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Ratzlaff was there for the ceremony. I cherished my time at Kingsburg." Johnson's father, Lewis, was a fisherman and taught his sons how to catch fish in the Kings River, at Lake Millerton, and at Bass Lake. James said fishing in those early years helped him and some of his buddies keep their heads screwed on right.
Johnson still enjoys fishing, but plays golf at least once a week, rain or shine. His wife, Gisela was a former airline hostess and his daughter graduated from Chico State. Johnson also participates in NFL Alumni golf tournaments and is often called on as a motivational speaker for local charities or schools and golf events. Since retiring from the Niners, Johnson has been a player agent, Stanford assistant coach and assistant athletic director, a corporate businessman, and has dabbled in radio and television. Not bad for a man who was too small to play varsity in his first two years at Kingsburg.
Victor Lombardi was born in Berkeley, but moved to Tulare at an early age. Though small in stature, he became one of the finest high school pitchers in the Valley. The late Hall of Fame coach Pete Beiden recognized the potential of this 5'7", 150-pounder at Tulare High School and fine-tuned his left-handed pitching motion which eventually led Lombardi to a six-year career in the major leagues. Lombardi pitched Tulare to the Valley Championship, beating big Ed Flynn and the Fresno High Warriors in the championship game. As the supremely confident Lombardi told me, "I beat them all. "Lombardi was drafted shortly after graduating and spent three years in the armed forces. He returned to Fresno in 1944 and pitched for the strong Roma Wines semi-pro team. Lombardi signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and, after a year with Bakersfield of the California League, he made it to the big club in 1945. In three seasons with the Dodgers, he won thirty-five and lost thirty-two games. Lombardi was the starter twice in the 1947 World Series against the New York Yankees. He lost the first game, lasting just four innings. Lombardi pitched two innings in his final start, but the Dodgers won that memorable game when Al Gionfrido made a miraculous catch of Joe DiMaggio's drive at the 407-foot sign in center field with two Yankees on base. Lombardi was a major factor in the Dodgers winning the National League title in 1947 with a 12-11 record and a 2.99 ERA. He was 3-1 in relief roles with three saves. His 1946 ERA was 2.89. Lombardi said even though he lost the first game, it was a great honor to be selected as a starting pitcher in the World Series. He finished his major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In three seasons, he was 15-19. When he returned to Fresno after the 1950 season, Lombardi quit baseball and turned to another game with spikes, golf. He had taken up the sport in the off-season while playing baseball. There were not that many left-handed golfers in those days, but Lombardi won two national left-handed golf championships. He was later hired as head professional for the Palm Lake Golf Course in Fresno and became a competent golf teacher. Lombardi died December 3, 1997.
John G. Voenes was a remarkable person. Voenes, the son of Goodfellows Grill owner George Voenes, was the first Fresno State Alumni Executive Director in 1947, a job that he held for three years. The close-cropped hair, big smile, engaging personality, and strong work ethic served the school well. Voenes was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Fresno State and was one of 130,000 SAE members to have received the coveted SAE Alumni Award. His crowning achievement was brainstorming with former Fresno Bee sports editor Ed Orman and founding the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.
One hallmark of any Voenes project was it would be first class. In 1955, he went to work for Harry Cofiee's men's clothing store and immediately instituted the Harry Coffee Blanket Award for Excellence in high school sports. He later added the Harry Coffee Watch Award for the outstanding Bulldog Athlete of the Year. Voenes also penned a weekly column, "Coffee Break," about Fresnans and their achievements. Voenes traveled throughout the state to spread the word about the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. He recruited the aid of Bill Schroeder, founder of the Helms Athletic Hall of Fame in Southern California, and former Fresno High graduate and Pasadena sports editor, Rube Samuelson. The original Board of Directors was composed of Fresno businessmen Bill Spaulding and Mike Giffen, Lew Matlin, Thomas J. "Soup" Carothers, Al Dermer, Freddie Markarian, and Harry Moradian.
Samuelson put Voenes in touch with the Twin Wintons in Los Angeles who created and sculptured the distinct Apollo Trophy given to each Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. The Twin Wintons made a carving, the committee liked it, and a cast was made with the same finish as that on the prestigious Sullivan Award given to the U.S. Amateur Athlete of the Year. The same cast has been used for more than fifty years. The Inaugural dinner on November 4, 1959 drew eight-four people to honor six sports legends: Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam, Billy Vukovich, Frank Chance, Walter Marty, Ralph "Young Corbett" Giordano and Les Richter. Admiral Tom Hamilton was the speaker with Samuelson as the master of ceremonies. Even though memberships were open, it was an all-men's affair as it remained for a number of years.
Voenes was born and raised in Fresno. He first lived with his family in an upstairs flat within seven blocks of his father's eatery. He graduated from Fresno State in 1938 during the Depression and was forced to leave his hometown to find work. His first job was as a publicity, advance man, and director for the Carl Ravazza Dance Band which toured the country and played in the most prestigious hotels. Voenes told columnist Kathy Clarey of The Fresno Bee in a 1973 interview: "I was lucky. My writing background helped me and there were some public relations involved, too. It was nice living in hotels and having all the services. I enjoyed every moment of it." When World War II started, traveling was difficult, so Voenes returned home and did publicity work for the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. After three years, he went to Los Angeles for six months as a booking agent for entertainers. He quickly tired of the big city and returned to Fresno.
Voenes found his niche when several of the school's big hitters donated funds. Jim Mayer led the push and collected the money. "John did a great job," Mayer said, "He was just what we needed to get more alumni participation." In just three years, Voenes built a strong membership and produced a magazine that kept alums well-informed on all aspects of the college. In the early 1950s, Voene's father died and he inherited the Goodfellows Grill with his mother. He managed the eatery for five years and was then advised by his doctor to find another profession. That's when he joined Harry Coffee's in the public relations department. During a trip to Los Angeles to honor an athlete, he met Vera who became his wife in 1962.