Editors Note: This is part two 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 - Faith, truth and love. These three words defined the 1985 Gladstone Braves varsity football team according to team captain Troy Carlson.
And what a special team it was. They were 11-1, state semi-finalists featuring all-state and all-U.P. players that played bigger than their small (in-comparison) frames, and a respected and hard-nosed head coach in John Mileski. But lots of teams can boast similar accomplishments. What set the Braves of '85 apart was something more intangible - brotherhood.
"We loved each other like brothers and the success of the team was because we cared about each other like brothers and played for each other," said Carlson during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. "There were tremendous athletes and people earning honors but there was no 'I.' (Brian) Pelon was an all-state quarterback, I was an all-state running back. There were all-U.P. players on both sides of the ball, but the reality was (opposing teams) couldn't key in on any one person and we played together as a defense. That really was the essence of our team. But the most prolific thing about the team was the absolute will to win, frank determination and attitude."
As far as chemistry goes, the players on the '85 Braves said it was unmatched.
"I think we had the right mix of guys," said receiever/tight end Doug Leisenring. "Winning probably helped, but I had brothers who were also on successful teams and they didn't have the camaraderie that we had.
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.
"Because we got along so well, we did so well. It was all about winning for us, not getting our names in the paper. We wanted that moment in the locker room, cheering."
Linebacker Tom DeKeyeser certainly didn't over-inflate what the Braves were.
"We were a real tight binding of overachieving, semi-good athletes, he said. "Coach Mileski used to joke, we were small but slow. But we were a real hard working group that got along well and we were very coachable."
"We had a strong core group of kids that all grew up together in the same neighborhood and remained friends long after high school," said quarterback Brian Pelon. "There's not a time when we get together where we don't discuss Gladstone football."
"It was a wonderful collaboration of young men performing at their best, not only in football, but other aspects of the senior class as well," said receiver Ken Vanderlinden.
Mileski said overall, there wasn't an aspect of talent that made the '85 Braves great, but rather it was the intangibles inside of each and every players that enabled them to rise to the challenge.
"It was a team where we didn't have a lot of measurable things like great size or great speed, but I think there was a strong will to win on that team," he said after football practice Thursday evening. "We had two or three exceptional athletes on that team, but other than that, they were the type of kids that just played hard. They were close friends who believed in each other and hung tough and found a way to win nine regular season games."
For the Braves' coaching staff, there was nothing but reverence from the players on that team.
"It was coach Mileski's first year coaching varsity, but he had coached us as sophomores on jayvee, so he knew us and others knew us. (Assistant coach) Joe Baldini was our basketball coach and knew many of us," said Carlson.
DeKeyser recalled Mileski's penchant for physical football.
"John Mileski, (Escanaba's) Dan Flynn and Jerry Cvengros were all the same way. It was like you were playing intrasquad scrimmage and just trying to hit the other guy harder and beat the other guy just a little bit."
Pelon credited Mileski for helping to unite the players and the community.
"We were very blessed to have skilled and caring coaches at Gladstone," he said. "It helped us as a football team and a community to come together. People talk about memories of the games. We always remember those coaches that led us each week."
Many of the players said the team in 1985 was a once in a generation occurrence, something that isn't often present in today's teams, though Leisenring said he sees similarities now and then.
"I think you see the same qualities we had at times, but we caught lightning in a bottle. It was a bunch of guys that were excited to win and we didn't care about headlines," he said. "There were as many outside things to do then, we focused on sports more."
Leisenring is currently the principal at Escanaba High School and said he witnessed flashes of similarities between the '85 Braves and the 2011 Eskymos.
"Last year we had Austin Young, a great leader. Watching that team reminded me of us. You had Austin and a other skill players and a bunch of guys that wanted to play hard. Friends would always call and ask about the great quarterback we had and how he compared to Pelon. They were very similar. Two successful teams that just wanted to play football.
"There's times when a kid will complain to me, asking if I knew how hard it is to play three hours of football. I tell them, "yes I do, and I would do it again in a minute.'"
When asked if he ever felt conflicted, being a former Braves standout and a current administrator at Escanaba, Leisenring didn't hesitate.
"I"m pretty solid Escanaba because I know all the kids," he said. "I appreciate my Gladstone upbringing, but I've been at Esky 22 years and you grow to love the kids you work with. My heart belongs with these kids and I see how hard they work - not that Gladstone doesn't."
Mileski said it was hard to compare his '85 Braves with other teams he had coached but explained that when he looks back, he focuses on character rather than records.
"Every team is different and I've had some outstanding teams and some that were less than outstanding," he said. "WHen it comes down to it, when I look back and look at the quality of a team, it has very little to do with records, it has to do with the type of people they were and the effort they put forth on the field and how they worked together as a unit. The most fun teams I've coached are the ones that were the most unselfish and I've been fortunate enough to experience five-to-ten of those teams in my career.
"It was a real pleasure coaching that group of kids. It was fun watching many of them in their lives and how they've become good parents and good people. They had it to begin with, but most of the kids I've been in contact with, the quality of people that they were then, remains."
Carlson said the culture that existed in 1985 has changed today, creating more distractions while at the same time putting organization on kids too early.
"Our culture today is so individualized and isolated. Kids don't go out and play together," he said. "They have football at third and fourth grade, where we never played organized until ninth grade, but we played every recess together. You don't see that enough anymore.
"We lived in an enchanted time, truly, because we didn't have all this technology to pull us away from each other. We had to make our own fun. That was what this team was about. When I think of 1985, three words come to mind. Faith, truth and love. It sounds like a sermon but we had faith in one another based on our experiences growing up, our will to win was incredible and we developed faith because of who we played with. Some people feel entitled but all of us were truthful about where we stood. We were honest with one another and bred trust. We loved the game and if we weren't playing, we were watching."