Bill Yurong played four years of football at California State University, Sacramento and two with a semi-professional club — but no game, he says, has matched the buzz at the Grape Bowl on Nov. 15, 1963.
About 10,000 fans were expected at that season-ending clash between longtime rivals Lodi and Stagg, a contest that would crown the Central California Conference champion.
The estimates were off.
In reality, about 17,000 attendees saw the Flames shut down — and shut out — Stagg’s high-powered offense, prevailing 14-0 to cap an unbeaten 9-0-1 season. Yurong, Lodi’s former standout defensive back, still marvels at the turnout and the atmosphere.
“We’re talking about a high school football team here,” he said. “You’d think we were in Texas or something. It was absolutely incredible.”
So, too, was the Flames’ accomplishment. That legendary 1963 team, which will be honored before tonight’s Lodi-Stagg contest, still owns the city’s last undefeated season.
Playing for storied coach John Giannoni, the team was a throwback in every sense. They wore leather helmets and high-top shoes, while employing a run-heavy, single-wing offense that no one in the area ran.
And while eight members of the ’63 Flames went on to enjoy college careers, they were always greater than the sum of their parts.
“There was nothing special about us,” said former tackle Bob Bittner, who went on to play for Stanford. “We were just in good shape, worked hard and had a ton of confidence.”
At the core of the Flames’ success was Giannoni, an intense World War II vet who took on larger-than-life status among his players.
Growing up just a few blocks away from Lodi High, Bittner got an early lasting impression while observing varsity practices as a young kid.
“I was amazed by the man himself,” he said, “and the dedication (Giannoni) got from the young high school students he was trying to turn into a team.”
Yurong, to this day, says he owes his entire career trajectory to the longtime Lodi coach. Raised out in Terminous, he never thought about playing high school football due to the hassle of finding transportation. But after Giannoni recruited him during junior year, he played his only season in ’63 as a senior and went on to star as a receiver for Sacramento State.
“It was a life-changing experience for me, all because Giannoni was looking for talent,” Yurong said. “It was an honor to know him and play for him. He was just a leader of boys and men, and no one wanted to disappoint him.”
The results spoke for themselves.
In 14 seasons with the Flames, from 1951 to 1964, Giannoni compiled a 74.6 winning percentage (94-28-12) with six league titles and three undefeated campaigns. Through diligent practices, filled with plenty of running in the summer heat, he would preach physical conditioning, mental toughness and discipline above all else.
Fittingly, Lodi’s clubs took on his own image.
The Stagg finale was one of five shutouts pitched by the Flames during the 1963 season. They allowed just 45 points all year, including 13 over their final six games. They showed impressive resilience late, as well. Lodi rallied to beat rival Edison on a last-minute pass from Dan Anderson to Rich Jimenez, and used a final-second goal line stand to hold off Mira Loma.
Off the field and in the locker room, there was no room for egos. As wins piled up during that 1963 season — the team started off 8-0 before the lone blemish, a 6-6 tie at Turlock — success never got to players’ heads.
Giannoni would not let it.
“It wasn’t about us. It was about coming together as a team,” said Dan Flores, a standout linebacker from Texas who would play at the University of the Pacific.
“It sounds corny, but we all went through the same experience: How do we survive John Giannoni? How do we get playing time? That was the name of the game, and anything was was pretty secondary.”
Indeed, the Flames were able to construct a cohesive, winning club out of a group diverse in background and skill levels. Former running back Jim Hodge was the school district’s first African-American student after moving from Lodi to Stockton as a 6-year-old. Now residing in Georgia, he cannot recall any tensions among a team that also had a number of Hispanic and Asian players.
“No, no, no. We were close,” said Hodge, who remembers Giannoni bringing him homework in the hospital while he recovered from a broken leg. That injury, suffered against Downey, made him miss the rest of the season.
“We stuck together,” Hodge said. “We were a family. We had great guys, and we could get along. Everyone did their job. We just wanted to win, period.”
And that they did.
Lodi served notice early in the Stagg game, with Harry Nicolaou putting up a hard tackle on Delta Kings running back Harry Hettmansperger to set the tone. The Flames rolled up 325 yards to the Delta Kings’ 160, and completed their season in convincing fashion.
“We felt like we accomplished something,” Hodge said.
Said Yurong: “It was everybody, fighting for the same thing. I just remember it as a great experience. It was the best it could be.”
Contact reporter Ed Yevelev at firstname.lastname@example.org.