Legendary Game Series
Nov. 4, 1977: Reitz vs. Martinsville, Class 3A Sectional Championship
by Mike Whicker
Highlighted with a border, and displayed prominently in the sports pages of the Saturday, Nov. 5, 1977 Evansville Courier, was a clue to the type of game witnessed the previous night in Reitz Bowl by an overflow crowd:
Martinsville quarterback Mike O’Neal, who was blasted out of commission with 7:12 remaining Friday night and carried from the game on a stretcher after the game was delayed 10 minutes, escaped the experience without serious harm.
Deaconess hospital authorities said he was “treated and released He walked out of here with his father…”
The 1977 game between Reitz and Martinsville was notably savage in the hitting regard. But violent contact is no stranger to Reitz Bowl—the motherland of the Reitz fable. She expects fierceness in her sons. It takes more than punishing tackles to log a game into Reitz legend.
It was a big game, the opening round of the state playoffs. It pitted two undefeated teams. The Panthers and Artesians both stood at a 10-0. Indeed a big game. But that alone is also not enough to sufficiently impress Reitz Bowl, for the number of big games played on her hallowed turf is legion. What was it then that placed this contest among the all time great games in the storied history of Reitz football?
A box of Ritz Crackers?
Perhaps never before, or since, has more pregame head-butting taken place in the media between opposing coaches. It started early in the week when Bill Siderewicz, the colorful Artesian coach, was quoted in the Martinsville newspapers as saying his team was to face the “Ritz Crackers” and his boys were looking forward to playing in the “Cracker Bowl.”
It’s a good bet Siderewicz had not fully pondered who he was taking on in the color department.
Bob Padgett was in his 9th year as head football coach at Reitz. The icon of Reitz football, Coach Herman Byers, had retired in 1969 and Padgett, without hesitation, had taken a job no sane coach in any sport would want—being first in line to replace a legend.
But Padgett quickly proved his worth as lord of the Hill, and under him the Reitz football mystique kept growing. His record going into this game was an impressive 77 wins against only 12 losses. His 1971 team was undefeated state champion. Even more importantly, Padgett inspired his players to achievements beyond the gridiron. A partial list of Padgett’s former players reads like a Who’s Who of accomplished citizenry: doctors, lawyers, teachers, captains of industry, successful businessmen and community leaders. Former players are quick to award Padgett credit for being a positive influence and helping to implant a self-confidence that has served them well. “Coach Padgett made us believe in ourselves,” is a common theme among his former players.
Undeniably, Padgett’s former players revere their coach, and his success in producing outstanding citizens is understandably a point of pride with Padgett himself. However, during his time on the Hill, Padgett more than occasionally found himself embroiled in controversy. Sometimes Padgett used unorthodoxed methods to inspire his team and the coach was never one to shy away from confrontation. On occasion the Reitz coach would intentionally provoke a verbal, and very public, battle in the newspapers with opposing coaches. Padgett enjoyed getting the enemies dander up, and his verbal battles in the newspapers with Central High coach Dennis Sexton are legendary.
“I loved doing that,” Padgett said years later. “Nowadays everyone is scared to say anything in the papers, all the quotes are a bunch of baloney. Too many coaches are afraid to put themselves on the line. They ask their players to do it, but they won’t do it themselves. Football is a game of challenges. I was honest with the media. I told them what was on my mind for two reasons: it would excite and challenge our players, and it would excite our fans. Reitz fans and players are from the same mold—both like a fight. Win or lose, a good fight is what matters. Heck, we would tell them right in the papers everything we were going to do, then challenge the other team to do something about it. It makes for a great crowd!”
So, knowing Padgett’s fondness for a good fight, when the Martinsville coach’s now famous “Ritz Crackers in the Cracker Bowl” quote was picked up by the Evansville papers early that week, locals looked forward to the Padgett’s reaction.
This was manna from heaven for Padgett. The other guy had even started it for a change. Padgett quickly interpreted Siderewicz’s quote as a vile insult to all Reitz fans and then- ancestors. “I wish Bill wouldn’t have said that,” Padgett was quoted. “He’s insulted and challenged our fans completely. I don’t believe he knows what he has done. Our fans are the best in the state. They are loyal. I hate to see them referred to in such a derogatory manner. We’ll need an emotional response from them and I think they will have their say Friday night.” Then, with a straight face, Padgett added, “I can’t believe a coach would say something like that in the paper.” With newspapers still in hand, Reitz administrators ordered extra security for Friday night.
The verbal dual between Padgett and Siderewicz continued. The following day the Martinsville coach was quoted as saying his team was ready for anything Reitz could offer, and, when informed that Reitz was favored by 6½ points, Siderewicz flatly stated he felt his team should be favored. After all, didn’t he have the state’s top quarterback in Mike O’Neal, enough offensive weapons to conquer a small country, and speed to burn on both sides of the ball? The coach added a reference to Reitz being in the south, suggesting a gap existed between the quality of northern football as compared to southern. Padgett then suggested Siderewicz knew little or nothing about football and was making a big mistake. “They will be playing in front of twice as many fans as they ever have,” the paper quoted Padgett. “We’ll win the game!”
The stage was set for the battle of the unbeatens. Indiana’s number one ranked Reitz Panthers versus the number sixth ranked Martinsville Artesians.
The crowd arrived early—ready to do their part. The coach had told them to. Barges wandering the Ohio River below could hear the rumbling before the kickoff. Longtime Reitz fan Charles Hess was one of the 12,600 that were there that night. “It was extremely loud,” says Hess. “I never heard a crowd that loud in the Bowl. It was constant throughout the entire game—a roar that never let up. I never heard the loudspeaker, in fact I think the announcer gave up after a while! I think the crowd was definitely a factor that night.”
Martinsville won the toss and elected to receive. A bad move from the start. Padgett chose to put the Artesians with their backs to the south endzone—the closed end of Reitz Bowl. Bob Stephenson‘s booming kickoff trapped the Artesians deep in hostile territory, surrounded on three sides by the thunderous sound of the contentious crowd, and on the fourth side by eleven angry young men wearing silver helmets (after the game, Siderewicz referred to the Reitz defense as, “the meanest and ugliest teenagers he had ever seen”).
The enraged Reitz defense stuffed the high octane Artesian offense, forcing them to punt. Martinsville punter Bob Payne stood awaiting the snap, alone except for the din of the crowd. Payne, who had never fumbled a snap, preceded to do just that and was immediately buried underneath a horde of swarming Panthers.
The Reitz offense was just as inhospitable to their guests as was their defense. The Panthers quickly pounded the 37 yards to paydirt in 4 plays. Orlander Guest streamed 16 yards around left end. Mick Schnell and Ron Brown added 7 yard runs apiece before Brown pounded in over right tackle for the score. After the still jittery Artesians jumped offside on the extra point attempt, Padgett decided to go for 2, and once again Brown pounded in over right tackle to make the score 8-0. Reitz could have extended their lead in the first half, but their own aggressiveness cost them, as two scoring opportunities were halted because of unnecessary roughness penalties on the Panther offense. The scoreboard continued to read 8-0 at halftime.
The Panthers lost no momentum during the break, driving for a score on their first possession of the 3rd quarter, a drive highlighted by what many observers consider one of the all time great catches they had ever seen—at any level. Quarterback Mike Morrow hit receiver Brook Butler for a 33 yard gain to the Martinsville 11 yard line. An alert photographer captured the moment for posterity, and the photo was in the next day’s newspaper with the caption “The Butler did it.” No one could describe Butler’s catch more clearly than Courier reporter Don Bernhardt: “a dazzling, sensational fingertip catch while stretched out in full flight.” Once again Ron Brown powered in behind right tackle Steve Bennett and Stephenson converted, making it 15-0.
Martinsville, however, was not 10-0 and ranked number six in the state for no reason. Eventually their highly-touted offense, lead by O’Neal, would get somewhat untracked. In the third quarter, Martinsville moved the ball between the 25 yard lines, but, each time they seriously flirted with the Reitz endzone, the Boys from the Hill would set their jaws and deny any score. After the electrifying catch by Butler, the writing was on the wall according to Padgett. “That catch was pivotal—just super,” he was quoted the next day.
The savage contact never let up. Martinsville’s ace wide receiver Steve Burpo caught four passes for 96 yards but paid for each one by being summarily drilled by Reitz headhunters as soon as the ball touched his hands. Bone-jarring hits were dealt by both sides. Reitz’s tough and durable fullback, Mick Schnell, had to leave the game early after being knocked out of action by a group of Artesian defenders. The Panthers repaid the favor when Martinsville quarterback O’Neal, rolling out to his left, decided to keep the ball and was hammered efficiently enough to stop the game for 15 minutes. O’Neal was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken in an ambulance to the hospital.
In the 4th period both teams tallied a score. Tailback Guest would put six more on the board for Reitz, scooting around right end for the final six yards after a time consuming drive, sparked by the hard running of Doug Phillips, who had replaced Schnell. The visitors avoided the shutout late in the game when Artesian running back Tom Warthen dove in from the two yard line.
Martinsville’s season was over. Reitz would defeat Ben Davis the following week, setting up a date in Indianapolis against Portage for the state championship. But the game from 1977 that lingers in Reitz legend is the now famous (or infamous) Cracker Bowl. “I think every store in Evansville sold out of Ritz Crackers that week,” remembers Tom Turpin, Reitz’ student manager at the time. “By the end of the game, crackers were being tossed throughout the crowd; they were flying everywhere.” Turpin’s picture was in the newspaper holding up a box on the sideline before the opening kickoff.
Bob Padgett retired after the ’77 season. Perhaps too young. He left with the highest winning percentage among Reitz coaches. Today, a visitor to Padgett’s business will notice hanging on the wall in his office a large, framed picture showing a caricature of Padgett holding a box of Ritz Crackers and talking to cartoon characters Dennis the Menace and Charlie Brown.
The caption reads: “Ritz Crackers 22 – Martinsville Parmesan Cheesies 6.”
His boys had fought the good fight.