In the early-1940s, the nation was embroiled in World War II; Henderson was established in 1941, and Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.
Las Vegas was starting its growth as evidenced by the creation of the El Rancho in what was known as “the suburbs” of the valley; and without realizing it, a group of young teenagers were about to put Southern Nevada on the map with a Las Vegas High School football team that would become known as “The Dream Team of 1944.”
Memorable public relations in Las Vegas are usually planned out well in advance with everything from showgirls to slot machines and the rest. However, without realizing their impact, about 36 young men coached by Harvey Stanford orchestrated a PR campaign so strong that it was recognized by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
During an era when the nation was dominated by war, the Wildcats had their own battleground, one that was a high school football field on Seventh Street in downtown Las Vegas.
Comprised of young men filled with pride and gutsy determination, the Wildcats would go 8-0 during the year; score successive shutouts in eight games beating teams like Kingman (32-0); powerhouse San Bernardino, Calif. (14-0) in a huge road win considering that the losers would go on to win the California 4-A title; Basic of Henderson (37-0); Lincoln County northwest of Las Vegas (45-0); Needles, Calif., twice (19-0 and 25-0); Boulder City (21-0) and Sparks (19-0) in the state championship game.
Just the slow 250-mile-or-so road trip to San Bernardino was a challenge, but not something that intimidated these Wildcats who found 5,000 rabid fans waiting for them. In fact, it was one more in a long list of challenges that the teens seemed to thrive on.
While Southern Nevada high schools (with the exception of Bishop Gorman) hard-pressed to attract 1,500 in most cases, the Wildcats and their band of talented athletes were the hit of Las Vegas seeing jam-packed crowds every game Butcher Field.
However, while the win-loss record was huge especially considering that no opponent recorded two-consecutive first downs, it was the future success off the field that especially illustrated the pride of the hearty Las Vegas High School athletes.
Several would go on to enter the legal profession.
Among those going into the legal field were running back John Mendoza would go to become a Clark County district judge; freshman halfback Myron Leavitt would become a Clark County District Judge, Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Councilman before finally running for U.S. Supreme Court Justice; and running back Herman Fisher.
End Tom Bell, linebacker Bill “Wildcat” Morris, brothers Al and Gene Matteucci would all become attorneys and so would end Charlie Miles.
Quarterback Rheen Call, a talented trumpet player, went on to become a prominent Las Vegas dentist. He was a senior on the ’44 team playing in his first year after participating in six-man football.
Meanwhile, end/running back Al Rivero became a sheet metal worker before retiring from that profession to become a bailiff for his old friend Clark County District Court Judge John Mendoza while quarterback Frank Smoke entered the U.S. Marine Corp.
Bob Schofield became a psychiatrist in Pasadena, Calif., and lineman Frank Wolverton was a sportswriter. Fullback Don Benson became an engineer in Utah.
Center Dee Ray Eyre became a school teacher and football coach; lineman Phil Mirabelli went into business and so did Darrell Luce; while Don Fair went into real estate.
Running back Martin Hardy, now 88, has vivid memories of the team. He is a native Las Vegan who went into the U.S. Navy after graduation and now lives in San Jose, Calif.
“I think the success of our team was primarily because of John Mendoza,” recalled Hardy, who along with Call played only on the senior year team. He was our leader and our captain. He was the spiritual leader of the team and everyone tried to be as positive and assertive as John was.”
Hardy also saluted Benson, who went on to be a star athlete at BYU where he played football.
Hardy said the San Bernardino game especially stands out in his mind. He said one player was worried about the size of the opposing team.
“Coach Stanford just said that if they were bigger than us, we just had to hit them harder,” Hardy remembered. “We knew we had a tough game and we had to play our hearts out. We were a good team, there was no doubt about it.”
Hardy said the number of success stories off the team is also very impressive.
John Foley, now 88, played on the freshman and junior varsity football Las Vegas High Dream Teams before attending his junior and senior years at Christian Brothers Catholic School in Sacramento, Calif.
“We had damned good athletes in those days,” said Foley whose family migrated south to Las Vegas from Goldfield, Nev. “They were very tough.”
Foley still remembers how he and the rest of the team practiced on the grass in front of Las Vegas High. Without the nuances that now include the internet and cell phones, Foley still followed the team after moving on to Christian Brothers.
“I knew they would be good,” recalled Foley. ‘Wildcat’ was an outstanding star and so was John Mendoza and there were many others on the team. I knew they were good but I didn’t know how far they’d go. Everyone on the team was very serious about football.”
Call said he also had no idea the team would be as good as it was when heading into this senior year.
“We took a class from Harvey Stanford,” the 88 year-old Call said adding that he didn’t throw a pass all year long during his banner senior year. “He was a very religious individual. He stood behind everything he told us. He made us all sign a pledge that we had to uphold and he let us know that if we were to break the pledge, we were off the team.
“Mendoza did everything. He was the man,” continued Call adding that everyone on the team had to play both offense and defense. I played linebacker on defense.”
The accomplishments of the Dream Team of ’44 are so respected that the group was also inducted into the prestigious Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. Many of the team’s members had passed away. Mendoza, who went on to Notre Dame where he injured his knee, attended the event before passing away in November of 2011.
Findlay Toyota General Manager Rich Abajian, a former college football player and college coach, had huge praise for the Dream Team of ’44.
“The Las Vegas High School football team was one of the most dominant sports teams in Las Vegas history including the Running Rebels National Championship team and Gorman High School’s national championship team,” said Abajian, whose dealership houses the SNSHF.
Remaining members of the team along with other classmates will gather Sept. 26 at the Orleans. Further information can be found by calling Patty Haack at 702-876-6660 or by emailing her at LVOWL@aol.com. +