You could call them football’s version of Band of Brothers, constructed much the way a sturdy home is built brick by brick.
It wasn’t just one man doing the heavy lifting, either. Head coaches, longtime assistants and teenage players – some who went on to fame, most who were overachievers who sacrificed their bodies for the mission each fall – all played a role.
Meet The John Burroughs School Bombers football program, one of the most intriguing stories ever to walk across the sports page. Thus, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Bombers football among the Class of 2016.
The Bombers began football in 1923 and have had only five head coaches dating back to 1953 – Tom McConnell (1953-1969), Jim Lemen (1970 to 2004), Todd Small (2005-2010), Gus Frerotte (2011-2012) and John Merritt (2013-current).
Overall, the Bombers have played for 15 state championships, winning nine: 1975, 1980, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 2001, 2015. They also placed second in 1976, 1988, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Since the school green-lighted entry into the state playoff system in 1975, the Bombers are 61-11-2 in the postseason.
It’s only fitting that the book about the school’s athletics history is titled “Teammates for Life” and co-authored by Coach Lemen and former player Jud Calkins. There, you’ll find black-and-white photos of the early days, with teenage boys wearing leather helmets; or spot old letters and summaries of old newspaper stories.
“More than these great records,” a group of fathers wrote to McConnell on stationary dated 1961, when the team was 14-0, “we wish to thank you for instilling in our sons the importance of good team spirit, clean living, modesty, self-respect, and good sportsmanship at all times.” McConnell was 104-33-5 in 17 seasons before his untimely death led to Lemen’s hiring.
The Bombers’ first state title was in 1975, and dramatic as they beat Seneca, 28-26, rallying during a second half that saw five lead changes. Ted Levis’ touchdown pass to Dave Eiseman was the game-winner.
The 1980 team tied Lexington, 6-6. Linemen Andy Boles, Rodney Krause, Mike Wolf and Greg Fisher were seldom beat off the snap, the Post-Dispatch wrote. Rob Lucier and Mark McNary were the linebackers.
The 1985 champions outscored playoff opponents 99-8. With quarterback Brad Lemen handing off, Bryan Keys tied a Show-Me Bowl touchdown record (3) and broke the record for carries (36) behind a line of Bruce McNeill, Bob Bohlmann, Ben Medoff, Russell Brightman and Willie Rava.
The 1989 champions featured quarterback Jimmy Edwards, rushers Bill Lochmoeller and Bob Cranston as well as Bryan Turken, Chris Schoenecker and Tyler Dunaway.
The 1991 team finished 11-2. Rob Rogers and Greg Smith rushed for 863 yards and 1,082 yards, respectively, and quarterback Chip Walther led the option attack with blockers Andy Wolf and Medley Gatewood. Nate Storch had a record 18 quarterback sacks, and Brennen Mulligan had a team-best 123 tackles.
The 1992 champions finished 12-1, as Greg Smith rushed for 2,010 yards. Those Bombers featured Aaron Zwicker, Colin Mulligan, Bobby Dunn, Swope Clarke, Bryan Jones, David White, Matt Simmons, Nate Storch, Carter McDonnell, Kurt Jacob, Tim Liebe and the Fischer brothers, Matt and Michael.
The 1995 champions overcame an 0-3 start to the season and tied for the state title. Leadership came from Kirby Mack, Jason Kaplan, Greg Toumayan, Marc Hoffman, Zach Fay, Joey Shifflitt and Barry Albrecht.
The 2001 team scored a 36-32 win against Warsaw in the state title game, overcoming an early 12-0 deficit and fourth-quarter, two-touchdown deficit. In the semifinals, the Bombers rallied from a 19-0 halftime deficit to beat Monroe City 33-19. A.J. and Scott Van Slyke were on a team that included Tien Chusak, A.J. Eads, Curran Clark, Brian Jump, Bob Miltenberger, Jordan Fields, Nathan Keller and Charlie Felker.
All along the way, Lemen’s Bombers ran multiple offensive attacks and several defensive schemes, allowing the team to adjust to each season’s talent.
“It fits a small-school like Burroughs,” Lemen said. “I wouldn’t do the same thing year after year. The talent would always change.”
Small, who had been on staff since 1986, was promoted to head coach ahead of the 2005 season. Frerotte, an NFL quarterback for 15 seasons, followed for two seasons before Merritt’s arrival. Longtime assistant Tom O’Keefe also played a positive, influential role along with Dick Heath.
The 2015 team captured the program’s ninth state title, beating Odessa 30-6. The Bombers featured quarterback Tyler Foote, Tom Bolstad, Hunter Wilkins, Jake Bain, Ronald Smith, Chris Vachow, Graham Cummings, Chris Booker, Joe Tischler, John Moley and Suleman Burrows.
So much made the program special. “I think it’s the fact you’re at a winning institution that truly supports the concept of a student-athlete,” Small said. “You were going to be a whole man – scholar, athlete, community.”