STANDING THE TEST OF TIME
1978 Dodgers are still one of the school's all-time great teams
Nearly 42 full years after their season ended on a blustery November afternoon in Mason City, the 1978 Fort Dodge football team is still mentioned among the very best in school history.
And the Dodgers’ flair for the dramatic that fall was just as memorable.
To this day, the ’78 squad — coached by Dave Cox — is the only from Fort Dodge to reach the semifinal round in the state’s playoff era. The Dodgers won six games that year by a touchdown or less, including a dramatic triple-overtime victory over Barry Alvarez’s Mason City Mohawks during the regular season and a 14-13 showstopper against Sioux City Heelan to make Class 4A’s final four.
“We had a group of very hard-working and determined guys who were willing to listen and learn from their coaches,” said Jim Kersten, a two-way starting lineman that season. “They worked us hard, but appreciated our individual and joint success during those seasons — especially in 1978.”
Fort Dodge expected to field a competitive team, but coming off a 4-5 campaign the year before, Cox and his staff — assistants John Furlong, Rick Kuhlman and Bob Breffle — weren’t sure of just how good these Dodgers could be after they’d dropped four games by 10 points or less in ’77.
“The way we came together, we had and still have such a tight bond,” said Wayne Mason, a junior who rushed for 222 yards out of the backfield. “We worked hard and pushed ourselves further than we thought we could go, which really did pay off. The memories were worth every second of the pain and the journey.”
Fort Dodge’s defense quickly set the tone in wins over Sioux City East (14-8), Cedar Falls (6-3), Waterloo West (27-0), Ames (7-6) and Marshalltown (14-7) to start the campaign. At 5-0, the Dodgers reached the Top-5 in the state’s rankings before dropping a 13-0 decision to Waterloo East.
A home showdown with undefeated Big 8 Conference leader Mason City on Oct. 20 in front of nearly 5,000 fans turned into a must-win situation for Cox’s ballclub.
Fort Dodge led 7-0 at halftime, but the Mohawks built and held a 15-7 advantage until the final two minutes of regulation. Quarterback Joe Jackson found Scott McNeil on a 36-yard touchdown pass, and a Jorgensen conversion reception from Jackson knotted the score at 15 to send the contest into a wild three-overtime tussle.
The rivals exchanged field goals in the first extra session, and both defenses held for the second OT. The Dodgers then gained the upper-hand on a short Jackson TD sneak, and a Jackson-to-Jorgensen conversion put FDSH up 26-18.
Mason City quickly answered with a touchdown of their own, but the Dodger defense held on the two-point try for a 26-24 triple-overtime triumph.
“I remember the Mason City quarterback coming up to me in our locker room, shaking my hand and congratulating us on our win,” said Jackson, who lives in Fort Dodge with his wife, Teresa, and co-owns Fletcher Wood Products. “That was a very classy thing to do after an exhausting and thrilling game.
“The coaches had us lie down in the locker room before each game for 10-15 minutes, and we visualized ourselves in the game making a key block, tackle, throw, catch, run or kick. We were to (think about) the sounds, smells — every sense, so we would have the sensory memory during the game and be able to repeat the action on the field.”
Kersten — now a vice president at Iowa Central Community College who lives in Fort Dodge with his wife, Laurie — added, “Dodger Stadium was packed full of fans from both sides and we pulled it off as a team (against the Mohawks). I do remember how hard (all-state linebacker) Mike Jorgensen and many others played. Both teams were highly ranked in the state’s large-school poll.”
Possibly feeling the lingering effects of the emotional, grueling win over Mason City, the third-rated Dodgers’ Big 8 title hopes were dashed the next week at Waterloo Central, 34-3. Fort Dodge did bounce back in the regular-season finale with a 28-12 victory over Sioux City North in the 45th annual Lions Club Charity contest to clinch an at-large playoff berth at 7-2 overall.
“We let that Central Waterloo game get away,” said Mason, who also lives in Fort Dodge today with his wife, Shelly, and works at Beisser Lumber. “We just didn’t have the right mindset, and it cost us the automatic (postseason) berth. We had to play hard for the wild-card spot.
“Instead of sitting and waiting like Mason City did, we had to finish the regular season on Friday, play at Sioux City (against Heelan) on Wednesday and then go to Mason City (for the semifinals) on Saturday. Our guys in the trenches were so bruised and beat up at that point.”
The Dodgers took down Heelan by a single point in front of over 6,000 fans at Memorial Stadium in Sioux City. To this day, only one other FDSH squad — in 1994 — has won a playoff game.
That set up a rematch with Alvarez’s Mohawks in Mason City, with a berth in the championship at the UNI-Dome on the line.
The Mohawks were simply too much for Fort Dodge, churning out 319 rushing yards on 65 carries and cruising to a 33-6 victory on a 36-degree afternoon with 25 mile per hour winds on Nov. 11. Cox told Messenger Sports Editor Bob Brown, “we could have played them 100 times (that day), and they would’ve beaten us 100 times. They were just awesome.”
The Mohawks won the state championship the next weekend, and Alvarez left to join Hayden Fry’s staff at the University of Iowa for the 1979 campaign. Alvarez was named head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers in 1990, where he built a Hall of Fame tenure. Wisconsin captured three Big Ten championships under Alvarez, who eventually became the school’s athletic director — a position he still holds.
“I remember after the playoff game (in Mason City), Coach Cox, Coach Alvarez and I were walking off the field together after the trophy presentation,” said Jackson, who currently serves as Fort Dodge’s cross country and boys soccer head coach. “Emotional and dejected, I managed to congratulate Coach Alvarez on the win and stressed how fiercely his team’s defense played.
“We couldn’t move the ball against them that day. But he was more interested in lifting my spirits and expressed his admiration for our team’s fight and the great season we had.”
Cox became Iowa State’s assistant athletic director in February of 1979. His 10-year run at FDSH ended with an overall record of 44-46.
“Coaches Cox, Kuhlman, Breffle, Furlong and Mathis all made a big impact on me and all of our lives,” Kersten said. “They may not even realize it. I’ve tried to live my personal and professional life following the basic but fundamental principles they taught us: teamwork, respect and leadership is what got us to that point in our young lives.”
“I’ve had a great life with great people shaping me and molding me,” Mason said. “Every single thing that’s happened — even the mistakes and butt chewings you get from coaches and parents form and make you who you are and who you become.
“I tried to take all those things and apply them to my day-to-day life, and in all the sports I’ve coached at every level, pass a little something special to every kid. Never give up, never give in, never be a follower, believe in yourself and always do your best.”
Jorgensen and lineman Tim Brainerd were both named first team all-staters in 1978.
“We had an incredible defense and a tremendous offensive line that year,” Jackson said. “As a 155-pound quarterback with my gear on, I was so thankful for a line that never wanted to let anyone sack me. It happened only about three times all year, and it was probably because I kept the ball too long.
“We really enjoyed playing the game together and had a great group of coaches and guys who pulled for each other. That, along with some fortunate breaks, gave us some close wins. Yes, we worked hard, but most of all we had fun.”
Kersten added, “I regret absolutely nothing, except I wish we could’ve all gotten back together more often. I should have kept in closer touch with a lot of my teammates, who now live out of state. We had a lot of fun together.
“Maybe this will help motivate us to get together this fall at a Dodger game.”