ALL-COAST DB BILL GASKINS
SPOKANE -- It was their first team meeting in 40 years, since the season of comebacks, when they traded anonymity for a reputation. The Cardiac Kids. They were named for the heart-threatening way they mounted comebacks, and for the toughness that defined their era. They are the Washington State football team of 1965, brothers again earlier this month if only for a short weekend.
A cluster of old Cougs were gathered at a hotel lounge in downtown Spokane, trading
stories a few minutes before the main show. Teammates and coaches drifted into view. Heads turned, smiles flickered, memories flowed. The past held sway.
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College football was rarely a tougher game than it was in Pullman in 1964 and ‘65, when Washington State's Cougars were pushed to the limits of strength and will.
There was Ted Gerela, WSU’s first-ever soccer-style kicker who would star in the CFL. And Bill Gaskins, the All-Coast defensive back who became a Pac-10 referee and lifelong Pullman resident. Tom Roth, the quarterback from California who presided over so many fantastic finishes, was also one of the 35 old teammates who made it.
Even Dick Baird was there. The old team captain who became a long-time Husky assistant coach is now a Seattle radio pundit with an affinity for bashing his alma mater.
Larry Griffith, a linebacker out of Wenatchee and now a pastor in Texas, was immediately engulfed by big Bob Trygstad, a former nose tackle who sounds like John Madden.
"Larry could knock out a buffalo!" Trygstad boomed, shaking Griffith by the shoulders.
As impressive as kayoing a buffalo might be, nobody’s perfect, not even in
the first glow of a long-awaited party. Griffith’s apparent shortcoming ---
clear even through the prism of four decades --- was his range.
"If that buffalo ran right at him, Larry would hurt him," Trygstad said. “But if the buffalo went a little bit thisaway, Larry’d miss.”
Stories and refreshments started pouring out. Relaxation set in. From fringe players to All-American, from retired rich to working poor, men held in highest esteem now are the men who were held in highest esteem then.
Everybody, it seemed, was waiting for Larry Eilmes.
Eilmes look backs were delivered with warmth bordering on reverence, with an eye on the door, waiting for the old fullback to make his appearance.
When he did he was surrounded.
"To this day I’ve never seen a better blocking fullback," said All-America defensive tackle Wayne Foster. "He put people on their backs. He was an amazing man."
Trygstad seconded the emotion. “Two guys you didn’t want to go up against
in practice,” he said. “One was Jimmy Paton. The other was Larry Eilmes.
They’d rattle your teeth.”
Running back Bob Simpson was the beneficiary of the Eilmes crunch, running behind him.
"He had the best six-inch punch of anybody I’ve ever seen," Simpson said. “That’s a football term, when you unload on somebody. He had a natural instinct for that.”
Eilmes, from Spokane’s Rogers High, also could pack the pigskin. He was a first-team All-Coast selection in 1965 and left WSU with the school record for career rushing yards.
Simpson flashed back on Eilmes, the stud amid over-achievers.
"We were having a team meeting before the game, at Iowa or Minnesota, I don’t remember," he said. "Our quarterback, Tom Roth, was trying to get us pumped up before we catch the bus to go to the stadium. I remember the room we were in. Larry reached over and grabbed a light that was attached to a night stand. Ripped it off and threw it on the floor. Didn’t say a word. The whole room just erupted. He knew what to do to get people going."
Eilmes in later life didn’t seem to enjoy reveling in tales of the past, but his teammates were eager to affirm their affection. Because of what he was, they’ll always be what they are. And they are one of the most entertaining teams in WSU’s football century, and with a .700 winning percentage, one of the more successful.
The Cardiac Kids won on the road in nailbiting fashion at Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana --- a single-season Big Ten trifecta that no other Pac-8 or Pac-10 school can claim.
The 8-7 win at Indiana was nothing less than remarkable: The Cougars scored all of their points after the game clock read 0:00. A Hoosier offsides penalty on the would-be last play of the game gave the Cougars life. Roth subsequently passed 5-yards to Doug Flansburg for the TD and then connected with Ammon McWashington for the winning two-point conversion.
The Cougars swept the Oregon schools, came from behind with a last gasp to beat Villanova. They manhandled Arizona. Even the losses were fun to watch or listen to, a four-point setback with Idaho and a controversial single-point loss at Arizona State. Only the Huskies had their way with them, beating the Cougs 27-9.
Notable Cardiac Notes:
* The name Cardiac Kids was bestowed on the 1965 Cougars by Spokane Chronicle sports editor Bob Johnson after they beat heavily favored Minnesota 14-13 in Week 2.
* In 1995 when the Spokesman-Review commissioned a panel of long-time Cougar watchers to pick the all-time greatest WSU players to commemorate the 100th anniversary of football on the Palouse, Bill Gaskins was a near-unanimous choice at defensive back. As a senior in '65 he was first-team all-conference and All-Coast and second-team All-America.
* The Cardiac Kids narrowly missed a Rose Bowl berth, but two of their members would eventually get there, just not as players. Third-string quarterback Mike Price, who later transferred to UPS, coached the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years following the 1997 season. And one of the star receivers on that team was Shawn McWashington, son of Cardiac Kid running back Ammon McWashington.
* Cardiac QB Tom Roth wasn’t the only standout signal caller in his family. Younger brother Joe starred at Cal and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior in 1976. Tragically, he died of melanoma cancer three months after that season ended. He was forecast to be a first round NFL draft pick.
Cardiac Kids teamed up again on Oct. 7 and 8.