Editors Note: This is three 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 - The play is still talked about today, and for good reason. Its significance is probably unmatched in the history of Gladstone Braves football.
It occurred on a frigid Saturday afternoon in November of 1985. The setting was Marble Field in Gladstone and there was a higher level of excitement than usual in the air.
It was the Braves' first MHSAA playoff game and the opponent was Saginaw Douglas MacArthur. Saginaw infamously was not happy about trekking up to the U.P. to face the undefeated Braves. The weather, they reportedly said, was a concern.
"It was a cold, windy November day," recalled coach John Mileski. "It wasn't snowing, but there was a brisk wind out of the north.
"It was a pretty exciting day in that we had never hosted a playoff game."
It was a hard, physical game on the frozen tundra and with minutes to go before the final buzzer, Saginaw was in control with a 24-18 lead, Each team had scored three touchdowns in the game to that point, with Gladstone missing the PAT on all three of their attempts.
The Braves took possession deep in their own territory and soon ended up facing fourth down from their own 3-yard line.
"We were down, and it was obvious many of the fans were leaving and on their way out," said Mileski. "I'm sure people thought the game was in hand."
A timeout was called and the Braves decided to go with a play that had worked earlier that season against Negaunee. A halfback option pass.
Brian Pelon was the quarterback, but running back Troy Carlson had played plenty of quarterback before coming up to varsity.
Carlson had already scored that day on a 60-yard run, on the first play from scrimmage and passing was no foreign concept to him either.
"We had run the play earlier in the season and I scored a touchdown on it, against Negaunee," said receiver Doug Leisenring. "Now we were on the 3-yard line."
"It was a play we had run three times, once as a senior, once as a junior and once on jayvees, and all three times it went for a touchdown," said linebacker Tom DeKeyser. "I was on the sideline, my best friend (Carlson) standing next to me. He slapped me the shoulder and said 'watch this...touchdown.'"
"It was my second time running the play that year," said Carlson. He went on to describe what happened next.
"I took three steps to the right and it looked like I was running a sweep, then I stopped and went to throw. This guy who was 6-foot-3, 260 pounds was coming right at me and I ducked down and he went right over the top of me. Then, as I'm getting hit in the belly by a linebacker and I'm going backwards, I threw it as far as I could.
"It was a horrible throw, a wounded duck, and I could see two players from Saginaw looking like they got a pick."
The pass was intended for Leisenring.
"I ran downfield and the pass was a little underthrown," Leisenring said. "I jumped up with two Saginaw defensive backs to fight for it."
At that moment, Braves receiver Ken Vanderlinden came seemingly out of nowhere and caught the ball.
"It was the only moment of my life that was slow motion," said Carlson. "Kenny Vanderlinden caught the ball,time sped back up and I fell on the ground and said thank you Lord. This was an act of God. I'm a man of faith and I truly believe it was a miracle."
From Leisenring's vantage point, it was something to behold.
"Kenny just came in with one of the greatest adlibs I've ever seen, and he had a full head of steam," he said.
"Vanderlinden ran a crossing pattern and just snatched the ball up. He broke his route and picked the ball up before it hit the ground and outran everyone," said DeKeyser.
Vanderlinden recalled being caught off-guard by the whole thing.
"Catching the ball without it being expected to come my way was obviously a surprise," he said. "But knowing the outcome of the reception, it was exciting, exhilarating and overwhelming. The full impact didn't set in until after the game."
After catching the ball, Vanderlinden turned and ran untouched down the sideline all the way to the end zone, completing an improbable 97-yard touchdown reception.
"It was absolute pandemonium," said Carlson.
"I remember running downfield and celebrating," said Leisenring. "Then, I realized I had to kick the PAT. I was on the sideline trying to find my kicking shoe and it happened so quick and my nerves were so bad."
Leisenring nailed the kick, giving Gladstone a 25-24 lead and the Braves hung on to win.
Gladstone went on to win their next playoff game as well, a hard fought 26-12 victory over Chesaning, before falling in the state semifinals to Wyoming Park. But it was the play against Saginaw that became the focal point of the 1985 season.
"It was out of desperation that we threw the halfback option pass," said Mileski. "Carlson was our tailback and he should have been sacked, but he ducked the tackle and got the pass off. Then the kid that caught it, broke his route. He was pretty fast though.
"It was an exciting game and I would have hated to go into overtime. Saginaw was a good football team. The finish, with the long desperation play with a chance of succeeding that was statistically almost impossible...to come up with that play...it's still being talked about."
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.