1981 Football Champions Honored, Remembered


It's been 25 years since Payson High School set the prep sports world on its ear by defeating the Round Valley Elks 21-20 in a state semifinal game.

The 1981 upset also continues to be remembered in the Rim Country as the most memorable in PHS sports history and one that united a small mountain community.


Bob Halenar, a member of the 1981 state champion Longhorn football team, shows off the team plaque and trophy. The team will be honored this month.

"That game brought great joy to the high school and the town," Vice Mayor Tim Fruth said. "Everyone was behind that team whether they liked football or not."

Fruth recalls that in the days leading up to the state clash, townspeople compared it to a type of David vs. Goliath showdown.

"We were a huge underdog to this fabled team off the mountain and not many thought we had a chance (to win)," he said.

Payson's victory not only ended Round Valley's state record 34-game winning streak, it kept the Horns in the hunt for the state title and preserved PHS's undefeated season.

"The energy expended that evening was unbelievable," Fruth said. "I remember my brother (Tom) being so exhausted he could hardly walk."

Scores from the 1981 season:PHS 39 - Show Low 14PHS 34 - Alchesay 8PHS 63 - Camp Verde 0PHS 30 - Blue Ridge 0PHS 32 - Superior 0PHS 36 - Florence 0PHS 24 - Ray 12PHS 42 - Hayden 0PHS 42 - Phx. Christian 7State tournamentPHS 61 - Antelope 0PHS 21 - Round Valley 20PHS 17 - Blue Ridge 7

The clash is also unforgettable for the sheer drama, gamesmanship and suspense that unfolded as the game wore on.

The first break the Longhorns caught might have been their designation as the home team and the wearing of purple jerseys. That forced RV into donning traveling white jerseys and not the all-black uniforms that rendered their appearance Darth Vader-like and intimidating.

During the regular season in the White Mountains, the sight of the black-clad Elks charging onto the field as if they were the masters of the dark side of the gridiron left some opposing players shaking in their cleats.

Then-RV coach Tot Workman, now the athletic director at Queen Creek High School, was a master strategist and motivator who used every trick in the football trade to ensure his team held the psychological advantage.

Payson players, however, refused to blink at the sight of the mighty Elks and jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. Only a quarter later RV came roaring back to tie up the game.

In the fourth quarter, the Horns jumped ahead 20-14 on a pass from quarterback Craig Gibson to end Tim Dudley.

Roger Templeton's conversion kick was good to up the Payson lead to 21-14.

Round Valley, which ran an inside option-type attack and had a sure-fire trick pass play Workman called "Old Faithful," regained possession of the ball after failed fourth-down run attempt by the Longhorns.

With 47 seconds remaining in the must-win game, the Elks unleashed a last-gasp drive few players on either team will ever forget.

On the drive, Workman called screen and sideline passes to milk the clock as quarterback Eddie Hamblin picked apart the Horn secondary.

The gutsy drive culminated with just four seconds remaining when Hamblin hooked up with big tight end Dusty Eager in the end zone.

For many in attendance, the Elks' late rally was just another in a long list of come-from-behind efforts RV had relied upon to snatch victory from the orifice of defeat.

In time, they would learn that thinking was flawed.

One or two?

With the Elks trailing 21-20, Workman made a decision that continues to send tongues a waggin' in small-town watering holes and barbershops.

The RV coach -- who was later named a National High School Coach of the Year -- decided to go for two points and the win rather than kick an almost sure conversion and settle for a tie and overtime.

Some argue Workman was a gutsy, heady coach for making the choice he did. Others bemoan the decision saying it cost the Elks a chance at another state title.

To this day, Workman refuses to second-guess the decision saying his team was going to play for the win regardless.

Some have reasoned that the wily coach went for two because he might not have wanted to go into an Arizona overtime knowing Payson had in its arsenal all-state and all-star running back Tom Fruth. The speedster had spent the evening dazzling RV defenders with his elusiveness and toughness.

Even Tom Fruth's teammates knew what a quality running back he was.

"I had to tackle him in practice and there was no one person who could take him down," Longhorn team member Moose Dryer said. "You just tried to get a hold of him and wait for help."

But what Workman might not have known when he decided to go for two, is that Fruth was ailing.

"Tom was cramped up and on the sidelines," then-defensive coordinator Chuck Hardt said. "He might not have played in an OT."

Whatever Workman was mulling, the two-point conversion attempt -- a sprint out play to the left -- was thwarted when Bob Halenar, playing defensive end, tripped up the runner in the backfield.

"I'm sure he had the option to run or throw -- probably to their tight end," Halenar said. "I got blocked but I slipped off and chased him down from behind."

Hardt is convinced Lady Luck also played a role in thwarting the two-point conversion.

"Just before the (two-point) conversion play our middle linebacker Greg Armstrong came out of the game saying we had 11 players on the field," he said. "My nephew, Shaun Hardt, had stayed on the field, and wasn't on that (defense), so we had two right cornerbacks and no middle linebacker.

"If their quarterback had just tapped the center on the butt and run a sneak, he would have probably scored."

Then-head coach Terry Nodlinski, now the athletic director at Yuma Catholic, said he was always confident the Longhorns could derail any RV conversion attempt.

"If it was a kick, we would have blocked it and I knew we could stop the two-points," he said.

"We had that look in our eyes that we were ready."

No matter the reason Payson stopped the Elks -- defensive prowess or good fortune -- the Horns put an end to an RV dynasty that many in the White Mountains believed would last for decades.

For almost three full seasons the Elks had humbled almost every small-town football team in Arizona and had built a reputation as a juggernaut capable of whipping the big-school teams from Phoenix and Tucson.

The Elks won 15 regional championships from 1967 to 1981 and had several players on their team who still hold school records.

The RVHS players were big, strong, talented, intimidating and well coached.

But for one evening, the little team that could pulled off the upset of the prep football world.

The following week, the Longhorns went on beat Blue Ridge 17-7, remain unbeaten and win the Class B state championship.

"After beating Round Valley that game was almost anticlimactic," Tim Fruth said.

AIA to honor '81 team

The Arizona Interscholastic Association will honor the players from that team during halftime of the Class 3A state championship game, which kicks off at 4 p.m. Nov. 24 at Tempe McClintock High School. The game was originally scheduled to be played at Sun Devil Stadium, but the site was changed late this week.

Nodlinski has said he will be in attendance and hopes as many players as possible show up for the reunion.

If you are planning to attend, please call Max Foster at (928) 474-5251, ext. 114 or e-mail at mfoster@payson.com

Your name will then be put on the guest list and forwarded to the AIA.

Also, if you know the whereabouts of any former team members, please contact them about the reunion.

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