They were known then-and forever-as the Mercy Bowl team. Alternating "red" and "blue" teams led by quarterbacks Beau Carter and Jon Anabo, they went undefeated and helped raise $125,000 for victims and survivors of the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo football team plane crash the previous year.
After a 9-0 regular season and their fourth straight California Collegiate Athletic Association title, the Bulldogs of Coach Cecil Coleman were matched against highly favored Bowling Green in the Mercy Bowl at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 23, 1961.
Bowling Green might have entered the Thanksgiving morning charity game with the better press clippings and the bigger players, but Fresno State and its fans held bragging rights at game’s end, a 36-6 knockout victory highlighted by 368 passing yards.
"We’re No. 1!" and "Rose Bowl!" shouted Bulldog boosters in the crowd of 33,145 who believed their beloved team could handle the big-name powers of the day. The Bulldogs finished as the nation’s No.3 small college team, the equivalent of Division 1-AA today.
Wrote a Los Angeles sportswriter the next day: "It can be said conservatively that Fresno did show the best college passing attack seen in Los Angeles this year."
Said Coleman of his team: "We just wanted to let them know that somebody out here could hit hard. We were tired of hearing that West Coast schools didn’t want to hit."
Carter and his favorite target, Jan Barrett, were named the game’s Most Outstanding Players. Carter completed 14 of 28 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two touchdowns. Barrett caught six passes for 161 yards, including touchdown receptions of 45 and 23 yards.
Team members: Bruce Seifert, Glenn Riggert, Tommy Sommers, George Ward, Bill Kendrick, Don Brockett, Beau Carter, Ron Itskoff, Jerry Allen, Jim Sanderson, Grove Marris, Bill Knocke, Dan Stockton, George Omata, Jerry Nimmo, Mike Slagle, Gary Taylor, Fred Tuttle, Herman Hamp, Gerald Hauser, and Bill Musick, trainer Birger Johnson, assistant backfield coach Bob Van Galder, manager Stan Alloway, Doug Brown, Pete Mehas, Sonny Bishop, Dick Murray, Jon Anabo, Bill Laughlin, Montie Day, backfield coach Kenny Gleason, head coach Cecil Coleman, JV coach Jack Adler, Jan Faris, Jan Barrett, Nick Masich, Jay Buckert, Larry Fogelstrom, Jack Bohan, J.R. Williams, Jack Knight, and line coach Bob Burgess.
In the spring of 1989, Fresno State football recruiting coordinator, Pat Hill, had some very good news for his boss, FSU head coach Jim Sweeney. Aaron Craver was going to be a Bulldog. Coach Sweeney was most happy and felt that Craver would be key to the next two football campaigns for the Dogs. He was right. Over the next two seasons. Aaron Craver was a key to the Bulldogs' success as they compiled a 19-3-1 record including time in the Top 25 national rankings and winning a California Bowl along the way.
Aaron, a tough, hardworking running back from El Camino Junior College in Southern California, was a triple threat for Bulldog opponents. He was a ball carrier who could run with speed and move with great finesse, but he had the power to run tacklers over as well. He was also a sure-handed receiver and kick returner who could get the Bulldogs into excellent field position. Aaron was Fresno State’s first ever back-to-back 1,000-yard per season rusher, finishing his career with 2,316 yards rushing and another 421 yards receiving. He also scored twenty-eight touchdowns for the Dogs and still holds the school record for most touchdowns in a season with seventeen in 1990 and is tied for third (with Dale Messer) on the all-time Bulldog scoring list with 108 points (all touchdowns). Aaron was named to the All-Big West Conference First Team in both 1989 and 1990 and was elected to The Sporting News' AlI-American team (Honorable Mention) in 1989. The 1990 season was a unique one for Aaron; he played in three postseason all-star games. He was in the East-West Shrine game in Palo Alto, the Hula Bowl in Hawaii,and the Japan Bowl in Tokyo.
In the 1991 NFL draft, Aaron was chosen by the Miami Dolphins in the third round and he played there for three years (1991-1994). He moved to the Denver Broncos from 1995 to 1996, spent 1997 with the San Diego Chargers, and played from 1998 to 1999 with the New Orleans Saints. As he did for Coach Sweeney at Fresno State, Aaron filled whatever spot the team needed in the NFL He was a running back and a receiver, but also was a powerful blocking back, opening running lanes for Terell Davis in Denver when Davis ran for over 2,600 yards in 1995 and 1996. While playing for the Broncos, Aaron also gathered in forty-three receptions from John Elway, one of which was a nineteen-yard pass play that pushed Elway over 40,000 yards passing in the NFL. Craver scored two touchdowns in that game. He also scored two touchdowns in a 1998 game while playing for the Saints and one of those touchdowns was the result of an electrifying 100-yard kick return that Aaron ran back against the Minnesota Vikings. After his playing days were over, Aaron remained in the field he loves, becoming the head coach at Centennial High School in Compton, California.
Carter Hartwig caught many passes. It didn't really matter whether he was playing offense or defense; his quarterback teammates, Randy Cerelli and Larry Ramos threw many passes that were reeled in by Hartwig. He also hauled in many interceptions from his cornerback and safety positions for the Central High School Grizzlies. In 1974, Carter was named The Fresno Bee's All-Metro Defensive Back of the Year and also starred in the annual Fresno City/County All-Star game. His high school stats were prolific. Hartwig caught ninety-two Grizzlies passes and broke the Central record with 1,876 reception yards, catching eleven passes in one game as well as forty-eight in 1973.
Carter Hartwig's days at Central brought in offers from colleges and he chose well. USC was looking for a defensive secondary man to complement Ronnie Lott as the Trojans were seeking another National Championship. In 1978, they found the right combination with Hartwig, Lott, and other stars, one of whom was also from the Fresno area, lineman Pat Howell.
USC went 12-1 in 1978, winning the Rose Bowl and becoming National Champions. Defense was a major factor for the Trojans as they allowed less than twelve points a game. The team had a record of thirty-one wins and just six defeats under head coach, John Robinson. In his senior year, the highly touted Hartwig had a great showing in the post-season Hula Bowl and the Senior Bowl. He was drafted by the Houston Oilers where he spent six years in the defensive backfield as well as running back kickoffs. His tenure there was during the Earl Campbell years, and once again with Pat Howell, another Oiler teammate.
Carter enjoyed playing in the NFL, especially with the charismatic Bum Phillips. Talking about the 6' and 200-pound rookie cornerback, Phillips said, "He is tough, he's intelligent, and he's real fast. I couldn't even think of anything to say about Hartwig that wouldn't be complimentary. I'd have to make something up." Carter settled in Fort Bend County, Texas, near Houston, and owned an auto glass business.
From the time he was six, "All I ever really wanted to do was to be a cowboy" Wilbur Plaugher said when he could see the cattle drives from his family home in Sanger and watch the cowboys move the herds across the open range to the mountains. It didn't take long before Wilbur was in the saddle. In 1930, the eight-year-old Plaugher had his own donkey which he rode all day, every day. Though times were tough during the Depression, his father was a ranch worker and the family struggled, but got by. Wilbur found riches in living the country life. By the time he was fourteen, he had managed to get his first horse and that summer he was hired out to do a "man's work" on a cattle drive up into the high Sierras, working the herd just for board. It was only for a week, but young Wilbur did such a good job, he was hired for the following summer at $1 a day, working again in the mountains that he grew to love so much. "Man, that was just wonderful," recalled 86-year-old Plaugher. "Sleeping up there on the ground, learning the cowboy way, up there in all that beauty that the Good Lord provided, and making a $1 a day, shoot, I had it made." At 6'4" and 210 pounds, this rugged young cowboy, attended Roosevelt High School in Fresno and was a dream come true for the football coach, who figured he had a true “rough rider" who was already handling steers on the range and obviously could manage any fullback coming through the line of scrimmage.
However, it turns out there were some cattle up in the Sierras that needed chasing and the now full-fledged cowboy was in the hills rounding them up and couldn't get back in time for the season. And that was the end of football; it was an easy choice for Wilbur.He was soon in demand at ranches around the Valley, getting offers to work for $50 a month, which he did for a couple of summers while in his teens. It was at that time that he began attending rodeos with the other cowboys. At one Clovis rodeo, Wilbur decided to enter, and on his very first try, he took second place in the Brahma bull event. In his second rodeo, he took third place in the bronco-riding event. At that point, something started to become very clear to Wilbur. He came to see that there was a good living to be made on the rodeo circuit and he decided to give it a try.
This was a wise decision because he would soon be traveling all over the country, winning buckles and bucks in bareback and saddle bronc riding, bull riding, and steer wrestling. His positive and friendly manner, not to mention his wonderful sense of humor, made him a popular figure on the circuit with the fans and the cowboys. Wilbur also made big news by riding War Paint, the most famous bucking horse of all time. In 1942, he set a couple of world records for the fastest times in steer wrestling, while winning California bareback and bull riding championships. Plaugher went to Madison Square Garden in 1946 and won the month-long All-Around Cowboy Championship. The purse allowed him to return to Sanger and buy a 550-acre ranch.
During Plaugher's rodeo career, his good friend, Slim Pickens, another Fresno area cowboy and rodeo performer, who Pickens, another Fresno area cowboy and rodeo performer, who later became a movie star in Hollywood, was moonlighting as a rodeo clown. Wilbur was fascinated not only by the art of saving the cowboys from devastating injuries, but also in entertaining rodeo fans. This job quickly became another niche for him. In those early days, the fans howled when he would compete in the rodeo events while wearing clown gear. Wilbur eventually became the most famous clown in all of rodeo. As the years went on, his intricate clown routines were a favorite everywhere he went and included trained dogs, ducks, and even monkeys riding dogs in barrel-racing patterns. The show was a fan favorite all over the world and Wilbur Plaugher is in many a Cowboy Hall of Fame. Over the years, Wilbur appeared in movies and on countless television shows and is a very much in-demand speaker and motivator. In perhaps his most cherished accomplishment of his career, Wilbur co-founded the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys in 1971, which today has more than 100 chapters in the United States. "Everywhere you look on this earth you see signs of God," says Wilbur. "It's so wonderful what He put here for us to enjoy for our visit." In A Cowboy's Life, a documentary on his colorful career and philosophy, Wilbur is seen doing what he loves best, being grateful to God for the beauty of the natural world as an eighty-six year old everyday cowboy on his ranches in Central California. He stayed strong, healthy, happy, and grateful to be in the saddle every day, especially enjoying the cattle drives. All he ever really wanted to do was to be a cowboy.
When Lori Romeiro-Gardner was at Lemoore High school, she set the standard for what It took to be a successful student athlete. In softball, she was the ace of the Tiger pitching staff and led her teams to many championships. Not only could she hit and field, but she established many pitching records at her school as well. Lori was loved and respected by her coaches and teammates and earned many honors in leagues and tournaments. The right-handed pitcher was also recognized for her scholastic and leadership skills.
Lori's well-rounded abilities led to a scholarship opportunity at California State University, Fresno. Without missing a beat, she kept right on breaking individual records while helping her Bulldog teammates post many victories. In 1984, as a sophomore, Lori pitched successive no-hitters and threw twenty-one consecutive hitless innings-both these feats set new records at Fresno State-as she guided the team to the College World Series where the Bulldogs finished 5th in the NCAA Division I "Big Dance." Lori continued to shine at Fresno State in 1985, receiving the Bulldog MVP award, but in 1986, a knee injury caused her to miss the entire season. This was tough for her, her teammates and Coach Margie Wright to handle, but she found other ways to contribute to the squad that year. In 1987, she was back!
Lori set more marks during the 1987 campaign, pitched sixty straight shutout innings and earned All-American honors. She posted a 25-6 win-loss record on the season. Her time at Fresno State was great for both the athlete and the university. Lori's overall record at the school was 69-25, as she completed eighty-one of her ninety-five starts and allowed just fifty-six earned runs in her entire career. She struck out 5.3 hitters for every seven innings pitched, and had a career earned run average of 0.55 while throwing forty-three shutouts. Lori was an all-around a player who led the Bulldogs with her competitive spirit. Coach Margie Wright credits Lori for being a big part of the Bulldog's success. "She was just a great team player who really understood the game and competition," said the Bulldog skipper. "It truly was an honor and pleasure to coach Her."It was also at Fresno State where Lori first met her future husband, Mark Gardner, a star pitcher for the Bulldog baseball team, who went on to fame as a major-league pitcher and then as a pitching coach with the San Francisco Giants. Mark is also an inductee in the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, Class of 2003. At the end of her Fresno State career, Lori had put herself permanently in the school's record book, making the Top Ten List in every pitching category. She became a member of the United States Softball Team which toured Cuba in 1994.
Tragically, Lori was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1997 and underwent a transplant a year later, requiring a second procedure sixteen months later. Deeply committed to raising the awareness for the need of organ and tissue donations following her two transplants, Lori and Mark became actively involved with the California Transplant Donor Network and Stanford Medical Center. As a result of their ongoing organ transplant and tissue donor program support, Lori and Mark created the Step to the Plate Foundation to assist families of transplant recipients with the full support of the San Francisco Giants organization. Each year, an Organ-Awareness Day is sponsored by the Giants, featuring the distribution of specially-designed organ donor cards, some of which are signed by the players for those fans who decide to become donors. The mother of two sons, Nicholas and Daniel, Lori Romero-Gardner was thirty-nine when she died in 2003. Through the efforts and generosity of the Gardners' foundation, Lemoore High School was able to dedicate the Lori Romeiro-Gardner Softball Field in her honorin 2004.
A stout defender, rugged rebounder and deft passer, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound center/forward was a key ingredient in Fresno State’s success during the Boyd Grant era and relied on those tools during five seasons in the National Basketball Association.
The Hanford-born Verhoeven was Grant’s top high school recruit in 1977 and he later became the highest Fresno State draft pick in 22 years when he was selected in the fourth round by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1981.
Many colleges recruited Verhoeven after he averaged 18.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists a game for Hanford High his senior season. While with the Bullpups, he was an all-league choice.
But Vehoeven chose to stay close to home and helped Fresno State post a 79-29 record during Grant’s first four seasons. The highlight: a 25-4 record, conference title, and NCAA Tournament appearance in 1981.
Verhoeven led the Bulldogs in shooting percentage in 1979 (.561) and 1980 (.571) and was a strong complement to front-liners Rod Higgins and Art Williams.
Because of Grant’s slow-down tempo, Verhoeven didn’t rack up big stats. But his hustle and understanding of the game caught the eye of pro scouts and Portland took him with the 85th overall pick.
Verhoeven shot 50.5% from the field and 68.9% at the free-throw line in the NBA and averaged 3.5 points and 2.3 rebounds a game with the Trail Blazers, Kings, Warriors, and Pacers.
His best season was his rookie campaign when he averaged 4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 71 games. That season scored a career-high 28 points in Portland’s victory over Seattle on Christmas day.
"My defense is my meal ticket in this league," Verhoeven said after his first season with Portland. Others thought so, too. Dwight Jaynes, a Portland sportswriter, observed in 1984: "He won the hearts of Blazer fans by making the team for the past three seasons in spite of long odds….He was a hard-nosed player who was appreciated for his effort as well as the results it got."
John Warkentin's trip to Fresno from India, where he was born to missionary parents, was precipitated by the tragic accidental death of his father and the fact that both sets of grandparents lived in Fresno. He attended Webster Elementary School and Washington Junior High. Warkentin's Washington coach, Dean St. John, was the person who introduced him to sports. "Dean was somewhat a legend as a coach at that time and I played on his basketball teams and he started me in track through his gym classes," Warkentin said, "I was able to win the Fresno City Junior High track meet discus throw and was second in the high jump and 660 race. I had never heard of the decathlon at that time, but I was involved in multiple events. I was fifteen in the ninth grade at Washington and finished in June 1962. The following fall, I went to McLane High, where my sports career blossomed."
Warkentin ran cross country when he enrolled at McLane High School in his sophomore year because he had a cousin on the team. He also learned the discus from his brother Paul on the asphalt street in front of his house. Paul, who was a father figure to John and was a star football player at McLane and Fresno State, died in 1996. John was 6'2" and 190 pounds. He played football and basketball in his junior and senior years. John was a linebacker on defense and a tight end on offense in football, earning All-City honors during his senior year.
Basketball was his first love and he was the starting center under Al Cano and Lowell Reynolds. Warkentin's jumping ability allowed him to play center against opponents often two to four inches taller. McLane won league championships in both seasons. The team speed, which included a suffocating full court press, enabled the Highlanders to prevail. Warkentin was All-City both years.
In track under coach Jack Wilcox, he threw the discus and high-jumped, but seldom ran any races. Since his brother had starred at Fresno State in football (center) and track (discus), John enrolled at Fresno State on an academic scholarship. After his freshman season, he realized he was too short to play center, so he dropped his favorite sport to concentrate on track where he wasn't sure on what event to concentrate on. He began to read about the decathlon, since both Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson were Olympic gold medalists. "It was definitely a learning experience for someone who had never hurdled, never thrown a shot, a javelin, pole vaulted or long jumped, let alone never ran 100, 400, or 1,500 meters."
"My coaches, Dutch Warmerdam and Red Estes, devoted a lot of time in teaching me the various events. There was no decathlon in our conference at that time, so the first one I entered was in the Mt. SAC Relays. The only reason I got in with no experience was because Dutch knew the meet director, Hilmar Lodge. The decathlon official was not happy because he already had the field set. I finished fourth or fifth and had no trouble from then on and progressed rather quickly." Warkentin said learning to pole vault with a fiberglass pole was his toughest experience. More than once he landed outside the pit with a painful outcome. He also had a few scary moments with broken poles.
His first AAU meet was at UCLA, where Bruin coach Ducky Drake was the director. John placed 8th, his lowest finish -for the next twelve years. It was his strength, competitive nature, and consistency that kept him in the national and international decathlon spotlight. He finished second to Bill Toomey in the 1968 AAU meet and was selected to the USA International team where he competed in England, Germany, and Romania. John shocked the track and field world by winning the 1970 National AAU Decathlon Championship in South Lake Tahoe. He didn't come in first in a single event, but finished second or third in most to score 8,000 points for the first time. Warkentin's lone regret was that he didn't make the Olympics. He was in the Trials four times and just missed making the cut in 1979. At Lake Tahoe in preparation for the Mexico Olympics, he hit a hurdle hard and ended any chances. From then through 1979, he competed in foreign countries as part of the USA National Team.
Warkentin's highest point in his estimation came in 1977, when he finished third in the USA-Russia meet with 8,031 points, but placed ahead of the Russian world record holder. In several meets, he defeated Bill Toomey and Bruce Jenner, only to have them "take off'' and become gold medal Olympians. "What a lot of the decathlon competition boils down to is who can stay healthy," Warkentin said. "I had a real good year in 1978, but in 1979, I was injured much of the time. I had two children by then, I was thirty-two, and the writing was on the wall, so I quit. In 1982, my brother Paul and I started Fotech Color Labs in Fresno and operated the business for thirteen years." Warkentin moved to Santa Barbara with his wife and three children and was also involved in real estate.