LHS football featured in 1960 issue of Life magazine

Articles, photos put national spotlight on local team

In the late 1950s, Lawrence High School had established a reputation as a football powerhouse, and by 1960 had rolled up a 45-game winning streak, the longest in school history.

This feat by a small Midwestern school in the heart of the country captured the imagination of many people, including the editors of Life magazine.

In the fall of 1960, Life decided to send a photographer to Lawrence to visually chronicle the excitement of high school football. And the national magazine — the premier photographic news periodical of its day — devoted six pages of photos and text to tell the story of the local gridiron greats in its Nov. 7, 1960, issue.

The Life article, titled High school fevers at football time, a team devoted to victory, started off describing the pregame atmosphere, also giving a nostalgic glimpse of how the athletes of the day were revered by their peers.

And it also provides some reflection at how far high school girls have come in four decades, since Title IX brought girls off the sidelines as mere observers and into their own world of athletics:

“On the tingling eve of the big high school football game, drama was being played out in thousands of U.S. cities and towns. Girl students swirled like autumn leaves as they lived and breathed their hopes and fears in high-pitched whispers. The biggest men in school, the football stars, brooded over their assignments and the hundreds of friends who were counting on them. Mass pep rallies in front of school or on practice fields built up the excitement. Coeds mooned over their heroes in class and the popular girls set their caps for coveted dates with the team’s star players.”

The article even mentioned that LHS football seemed more stressful than the same sport at the next-highest level.

“The tension of the adult world – even college football – seems tame beside the bubbling pressures of high school football,” Life Magazine wrote.

“In Lawrence, Kan. a city of 33,000, the pressure is even greater for the Lawrence High Lions have the longest current winning streak in schoolboy football – 45 games. As Lawrence, on the weekend reported in these pictures, prepared for its big game against Shawnee-Mission North, the 1,100 students urged the team on with the usual fighting, go-get-’em slogans. But the players themselves faced things a little differently from most. Rooted in the strict religious environment of Kansas, they attended a prayer meeting and Bible discussion at a barn outside of town, where one of them wisecracked, ‘He who playeth hardest beateth Shawnee-Mission North.’

“Even facing that kind of pressure, the Lions knew they could rely on themselves – and their coaches and fans – to get through each Friday night.

“The tense and tangled moments of their hour of fame – or misfortune – are mirrored in the locker room faces of high school players like these shown here,” Life Magazine wrote.

“At game time the team becomes silent, almost glum. Fired-up students fill the stands outside and their practice cheers come through the field house walls. ‘All right gang, let’s have a great big LOCOMOTIVE!’

“At a last meeting the night before, the Lawrence players prayed for strength. Now it was time to meditate on how to put it to use. Coach Al Woolard has a special kind of worry. “I can’t scare them any more,” he says. “How do you preach fear to boys who have never lost a game?” But, like a thousand other coaches, Woolard can count on the youngsters’ pride. A quiet self-discipline drives them to block better, tackle harder and run faster than bigger teams. “You can wear a ducktail haircut or play football,” he tells the squad, “but not both.” Through the season he keeps reminding the team that, “one of these weekends may be a real sad one. But as long as you do your best, your school will be happy.'”

Bill Mayer, Journal-World contributing editor, was 35 years old and managing editor at the J-W at the time and was covering the team as a sports columnist when the Life story ran.

“It was a pretty big deal,” Mayer said. “What people don’t understand is that, in the old days, in that time when we were so good and so dominant . . . you just didn’t schedule things on Friday nights. When Lawrence High was playing, many families just made it a point, they’re going to be at the stadium on Friday nights. And they had tremendous followings when they went on the road.”

Mayer said, over a long period of time, LHS had more football loyalty and passion than Kansas University has had for many years.

“A Friday night Lawrence High game was a happening,” Mayer said. “People just flat out went out to see it. They followed them closely. Even if they couldn’t get out, they followed them.”

To illustrate how much of a following they had, Mayer noted that a Topeka-based AM radio station, WREN, would broadcast the Lawrence games, with Max Falkenstein — who also did radio broadcasts of KU games — providing the play-by-play.

“People were so nuts about Lawrence High football, that WREN in Topeka was carrying Lawrence High games and wasn’t carrying any Topeka games,” Mayer said. “It was an incredible thing.”

Mayer said when Life came in to cover the season, it was a source of pride for many Lawrence residents that outsiders were taking notice.

“An outside influence like that made a big impact,” he said. “But over the long haul, it didn’t make a heck of a lot of difference, because they just kept winning.”

But everything comes to an end.

The next year, with 47 straight wins under their belts, the Lions went to Manhattan to open their 1961 season, Mayer said. Manhattan won that game, 7-0.

“We fumbled away what would have been the winning or tying touchdown,” Mayer said. “From then on, we went undefeated the rest of the year.”

However, Manhattan did too — and received the state championship, which was decided by an Associated Press sports writers’ poll. There were no playoffs at that time.

Mayer said the Life article showed the team eating at a farm, as sort of a retreat, and also showed a little of the culture of Lawrence at the time.

“But I never thought it really reflected the excitement,” Mayer said. “People loved it, just because it was Life magazine. . . . I thought it was great for Lawrence High.”