By JACK CLARK
MT. VERNON —
The 1961 Mt. Vernon Rams football team was the second of back-to-back South Seven conference champions for coach Noble Thomas.
It was the only time in the 87-year history of the football program that has happened.
The 1961 team is being inducted into the Mt. Vernon Township High School Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013.
“That team was predominately an outstanding defensive team,” said Roger Yates, a member of that team and himself an individual hall of famer (2010). “It was a well-coached team, with Noble Thomas (offense) and Frank Chornak (defense). Coach Chornak was a defensive genius. He was just outstanding as a defensive coach.”
“I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed them more than any of the others, because I enjoyed all of them,” Chornak said. “Of course that’s what the game is all about, is winning. You always want to be the best that year. We made a lot of memories that stayed with us all of our lives.”
Yates offered an example of just what he was talking about.
“I remember during that season that in the Centralia game, the Orphans did not get a first down until in the second half,” Yates said. “They ran a single-wing and coach Chornak had it figured out, everybody keyed on a single player and we just shut it down.”
In 1961, the Rams were multi-faceted. You only had to watch Dee Rutherford run through a defense to know what they could do.
“We were a good running team. Dee Rutherford was our fullback. He was an all-state fullback,” Yates said. “The Chicago Daily News also selected him as all-state.”
The 1961 team also had several all-conference players, including Rutherford, Nipper Milward (also all-state honorable mention), David Woods and Yates.
“We had some all-conference players on that team,” Chornak said. “I hesitate to say that they were the best or the greatest, because I had some outstanding teams there and some outstanding individuals.”
The 1961 season began on an ominous note, with Sparta deciding that the Rams may be more than they wanted to try to handle.
“Our first game of that season was canceled because Sparta refused to play us,” Yates said. “They didn’t think that it would be much of a game, so they canceled on us. So that’s how we ended-up playing one game short that year. We ended up at 6-1-1 and we could have been 7-1-1. It would have been an undefeated season, but Salem got us in the last game of the year.”
With smaller school enrollments back then, football teams usually had players who seemed to never leave the field. At times, that could be a good thing, unless you had to try to get around Dee Rutherford.
“Back in those days, everybody played both offense and defense,” Yates said. “There were several guys on the offensive line that also played defense. Sam Mateer, Milward, Bill Shaw, all played both ways. Dee Rutherford was a big player on defense. He was also an outstanding middle linebacker. He was a man playing against boys. He was tough. If he had a shot at you, he was going to hit you and hit you hard. I remember during our junior year, he put a hit on a player on the second or third play in the Salem game. He hit him so hard that he broke the guys collarbone. And it was a clean hit.”
Yates said that playing the Benton Rangers was probably the hardest win the Vernois got in 1961.
“Benton was our toughest game that season,” Yates said. “We came from behind to beat them down in Benton. We were behind at halftime and came back to win that game. The Benton center hiked the ball, on fourth down, over the kicker’s head and into the end zone. We tackled him in the end zone for a safety. That was a big, big play in that game.”