Editors Note: This is part one of a three-part series: 'The Season', 'The Team' and 'The Play' - detailing the story of the 1985 Gladstone Braves that went undefeated through the regular season and were state semifinalists. The team will be inducted into the Gladstone High School Hall of Fame on Oct. 27 at the Terrace Bay Inn
GLADSTONE - It was a magical season, rich with highlights, filled with peaks and valleys and made eternal through memory. The 1985 Gladstone Braves will be remembered as the first MHSAA playoff team (since its inception in 1975) in Gladstone High School history.
Preserved through the passage of lore and the athletes that accomplished those amazing feats, the story of their 11-1 season can be told.
There were many highlight worthy moments in the 1985 season. A long overdue victory over Escanaba, a narrow escape against West Iron County, a playoff game on the frozen tundra of Marble Field, a mudbath at Saginaw and a heartbreaking defeat in the state semifinals.
Decades ago, Gladstone and Escanaba met in the opening game of the season, as was the case in 1985. It would be a game that set the tone for the rest of the season as the Braves came away with a 25-7 victory.
The two head coaches, Dan Flynn with the Eskymos and John Mileski with the Braves each preached hard physical football and this edition of the classic rivalry game was no exception.
"The win over Escanaba was one of the highlights of the year. Gladstone doesn't win that game very often and it had been 12-13 years. Even for a very good Braves team in 1983, Esky was their only loss," Team captain and tailback Troy Carlson said Wednesday afternoon.
"For us, to beat Escanaba on their field was an opportunity to say, this team is for real. For us as a team, we dominated."
Carlson rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns in the game and quarterback Brian Pelon was 10-19 passing for 143 yards. Linebacker, Tom DeKeyser led the defense along with Chuck Helman and Carlson.
"We had confidence," said DeKeyser. "I don't know where we got it, but it probably started with the win over Escanaba. We knew we had to win that game to get things started."
According to DeKeyser, it was anything but easy.
"That game was so pivotal for our success. It was one of the hardest hitting games I've played in. I still remember the jarring hits, it was like playing a copy of yourself. Esky was tough, it was a real battle. They just had hard-nosed football players, but everything we did was an exercise in hard work and hard hitting."
For Pelon, nothing topped the atmosphere of the game and the roar of the crowd.
"The one thing that sticks out was the spirit and the excitement surrounding both schools and both communities. The game itself brings up memories of packed stadiums and excited families," he said.
"Those were football games in which a lot of pride and bragging rights were at stake, especially being that members of both teams were also friends off the field. A lot of those guys were dating sisters of friends."
The following week was 12-6 escape against West Iron County. Carlson rushed for 211 yards and a touchdown in that game.
In week three, the Braves put up 400 yards of offense and rolled 26-14 over Negaunee highlighted by a 65-yard Carlson halfback option pass to Doug Leisenring.
But coach Mileski pointed to a week nine 28-18 victory over Munising as a certain highlight.
"Munising was the biggest win. Back then, they were as good as it got in U.P. football and we went over there and beat them," Mileski, now an assistant with the Braves, said after football practice Thursday. "It's the most satisfying win I can remember because of the pressure. We're talking playoffs on the line. We could have gotten in with one loss but there were no guarantees. There was a lot riding on it and Munising was an excellent team. That was huge."
That victory set up Gladstone's first MHSAA playoff berth (since the playoff format began in 1975).
"Prior to 1985, only eight teams got in, in each class," said Carlson. "In 1985, it went up to 16 and we were first in our region, which was huge because it meant Saginaw had to come to Gladstone."
Now-defunct Saginaw Douglas MacArthur (8-1) was the opponent and they were certainly formidable.
"They had 30-40 pounds on us to the man on the offense and defensive lines," said Carlson. "They ran unique plays and had huge guys."
"They were gigantic," said Pelon. "They were about 260 pounds on the line and we were 175-180."
The seemingly overmatched Braves hung in there, but still needed what can only be described as a miracle to pull off the victory.
With minutes to go in the game the Braves had a fourth down on their own 3-yard line. What followed was one of the most memorable plays in Gladstone football history.
Carlson ran a halfback option pass, was nearly sacked on the play and it was caught by Ken Vanderlinden, who wasn't even the intended receiver on the play. Vanderlinden took off down the sideline 97 yards and scored with two minutes remaining, but it gave Gladstone the victory and a town, quite the memory.
"It was absolute pandemonium," said Carlson. "Someone told me at the time, it was the longest play from scrimmage in Michigan high school history. "
Two weeks later Gladstone played in the state semifinal game against Wyoming Park with a trip to the Pontiac Silverdome for the state championship on the line.
Gladstone was down 13-12 with 50 seconds on the clock and a whole lot of field in front of them.
That's when Pelon at the helm, helped drive the Braves nearly all the way to Wyoming's end zone.
"We were completely confident we would do it, and we did," said DeKeyser.
But with mere seconds remaining, Mileski sent out the field goal unit for a 19-yard try.
Doug Leisenring was the usual kicker, but suffered what was likely a concussion during the opening kickoff of the game.
"I hit another kid head-on and came out woozy," Leisenring recollected. "I didn't play a series or two but I was the starting tight end, and at the time, a backup defensive end. Chuck (Helman) broke his collarbone and without thinking they said 'Leise, get out there.'
"To this day, friends tease me about the goofy things I was saying. WIth the new concussion standards today, There's no way I would have gone back into the game. The coaches weren't aware I was saying that stuff, and if they were, I would have been out of there."
So, under the circumstances, Pelon was selected to kick what would have been the game-winning field goal.
The first attempt missed, but Pelon was rushed on the play, and so the Braves got another stab at it.
The second attempt however, was blocked by a Wyoming nose tackle and just like that, Gladstone's season came to an end.
"If we'd have beaten them, we'd have gone to the SIlverdome for the title game. That was our goal since grade school and to have it come down to a field goal attempt and not have it convert...It's something I think about once in a while," Pelon said.
"The guys from that team have been really good about it though. I could easily get ripped about missing that 19-yard kick, if it hadn't gotten blocked.
"Did I want it turn out differently? Absolutely. But being with that group of men and playing at that high level is something I'll always remember. Leisenring sometimes gets blamed, but he suffered a concussion that day and couldn't kick. Sometimes, to deflect humor, I'll say Leisenring missed that kick. It didn't go through, we didn't reach our goal, but we had a great time in doing so."
Leisenring could relate.
"Kicking a PAT (point after touchdown) is not a big deal when the score is tied, but in that situation, I'm sure I would have been very nervous," he said.
"I absolutely think about it. It makes it easier though that we stole that first game (against Saginaw MacArthur). We were statistically better than the team we lost to, but that's high school football. I feel better to have lost in the semifinals though rather than being MacArthur and losing on that halfback option-pass.
"Some people feel like we gave that game away, but you can't take anything away from Wyoming. They were a good team."
Mileski, who doesn't put much stock in records, but in character make-up, said what the Braves accomplished during the regular season that year, was a bigger accomplishment than the playoff run.
"More-so than playoffs, the regular season was an accomplishment and a credit to the kids on that team and the way they worked together. Back then, it was a real honor just to make it to the postseason. The only way to assure a spot, you almost had to go undefeated," he said. "Making the playoffs was a real thrill, whereas today, with the six-win formula, it's not really an honor like it was back then.
"To win nine regular season games is very difficult to do. I think that was more of an accomplishment - to play hard for nine straight games."
Tickets for the Gladstone High School Hall of Fame Banquet are $25 and can be purchased by calling Ann Altese at (906) 789-1535 or (906) 280-0649 or any Hall of Fame committee member.