By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
One of the most unthinkable halftime speeches in Mogadore football history set the stage for the most unthinkable comeback in Ohio high school football history.
Any halftime speech that is delivered inside the Wildcats’ locker room, trailing 35-9, is already unusual because of the rarity of the deficit. Then add in the fact that assistant coach and defensive coordinator George Tompkins happened to have one of the most ironic — and now iconic — motivational tactics folded up in his pocket.
More on that later.
What lifts the lore is the remarkable outcome: A 61-58 triple-overtime victory for Mogadore, coached by Scott Pollock, to win the OHSAA Division VI state championship over powerhouse St. Henry, which was on a 34-game winning streak and seeking its third consecutive state final.
Nearly 30 years later, the magic is still alive.
Talking about the game, the comeback and the circumstances still brings tears to people’s eyes, goosebumps to their skin and smiles to their faces.
And not because the group involved want to stay stuck in the glory of their high school days, but simply because fairytales are meant to be told over and over again.
This time it is told through a conversation down memory lane I was honored to share with four key players from the Wildcats’ state-championship team:
• Record-setting Chuck Moore, who rushed for 2,283 yards and 51 touchdowns in 1996, who played in the state final with a torn ACL and torn meniscus and went on to win four Division III national championships with Mount Union as the National Player of the Year;
• Aaron Pendergast, who kicked the game-winning 31-yard field goal in the third overtime;
• Dennis Robbins, the quarterback whose effortless big-arm throws and calm leadership highlighted the comeback;
• Shaun Tompkins, who was pound-for-pound (and he would need all 130 of his pounds in the argument) was the toughest player on the field in the state final and delivered a game-changing 51-yard pick-six that tied the game, 37-37, at the time with 9:35 to play in regulation.
But before the spotlight can shine on everything that was great about 1996, the heartbreak of 1995 has to be recounted.
The 1995 Wildcats are the school’s best team to never win a state title.
In fact, Moore, Pendergast, Robbins and Tompkins all agreed, unequivocally, that the 1995 Mogadore football team was superior to the 1996 team.
In 1995, the Cats roared through the regular season with an undefeated 10-0 record to capture the Portage County League championship.
Wins came in successive weeks over Fostoria St. Wendelin (45-0), Monroeville (35-7), Smithville (28-21), Black River (42-12), Windham (47-0), Woodridge (35-14), Rootstown (46-7), Waterloo (33-6), Field (42-14) and Southeast (13-7).
The Wildcats seemed destined for something special, but it was an outside factor that eventually sunk the season.
Or froze them out to be more accurate.
In Mogadore’s regional-final showdown with Independence on the turf at Bedford High School, an icy blizzard took centerstage.
So much snow fell that a truck was used to plow the field at different points of the game.
Neither Mogadore or Independence could find footing in their turf shoes throughout the first half, but the Blue Devils switched to cleats in the second half.
Mogadore did not have bring any cleats with them and in its defense, it probably was not even a thought as the weather included temperatures in the high 50’s and clear skies when they left on the bus for the game.
Consequently, the Cats fought for footing throughout the second half as much as they fought against the Blue Devils, who snagged a narrow 28-26 win.
That loss in 1995 served as instant motivation for the returning group of seniors.
Describing the group as dedicated to ensure a different outcome in 1996 would be selling the group short.
Their commitment practically became maniacal.
“Everything we did in that summer leading into the 1996 season was voluntary, but everyone was there,” Pendergast said. “We did every extra thing you could think of. We wanted to push ourselves over the top.”
Moore, who is remembered as one of the fiercest competitors in Portage County history, followed Pendergast’s thoughts.
“We grew up knowing we had a talented group so to think that we wouldn’t have an opportunity to win a state championship would have been really disappointing,” Moore said.
The 1996 season was less about Mogadore proving to everybody else how good it was and more about the players intrinsic commitment to deliver the opportunity to play for the state championship they felt they deserved.
And so the redemption tour kicked off.
The Cats authored another perfect 10-0 undefeated season.
In most games, the standouts sat out the entirety of second halves because of quickly established sizable leads.
The schedule of victories ran from Fostoria St. Wendell (41-14), Aurora (49-6), Smithville (41-7), Black River (49-33), Windham (45-6), Woodridge (67-10), Rootstown (28-6), Waterloo (49-8), Field (39-16) and Southeast (35-21).
Playoff victories over Dalton (26-12), a blowout over Cadiz and Norwalk St. Paul (26-13) pushed the Wildcats into the Division VI state-championship game, where they were set to face St. Henry, which had defeated Dola Hardin Northern 48-40 in its state semifinal.
For Mogadore, its 26-13 over Norwalk St. Paul came with a costly price.
Moore exited the game in the second quarter with an undiagnosed knee injury.
“I first remember a play when I was on defense, and I was back-pedaling and when I changed directions to come forward, I felt that something was not right.”
In the second quarter, a Moore-centric drive for the Wildcats resulted in a rushing TD for Moore, but at one point Robbins noticed his friend and standout teammate limping back to the huddle and said he remembers asking him, “Hey, are you OK?”
“I had played football with Chuck my whole life, and I never saw him limp,” Robbins said. “Ever. I knew something wasn’t right.”
Unfortunately, everyone else learned the same thing Robbins sensed.
On a fourth-and-1 play later in the quarter, on a fake punt that turned into a pass to Moore, he was tackled for a big loss on the play that also tackled him out of the game.
“I didn’t know exactly what was wrong at the time, but I knew something was wrong and it was clear that I was not going back into the game,” Moore said.
The Wildcats’ defense held St. Paul scoreless in the second half and Pendergast added a 70-yard kickoff return on the first play of the second half, while Aaron Parker helped fill in for the injured Moore and scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter for the 26-13 triumph.
Mogadore was headed to the state-championship game.
In the week leading up to the state final, the Wildcats, unusually, did not watch any film on St. Henry.
The team routinely would watch film on Tuesdays and on the Tuesday before the state championship, Pendergast said he remembers being shocked that they skipped the film session and chose to simply “focus on what we are going to do.”
“It wasn’t so much that I was questioning our coaches as to why we were not watching film, I just was so used to that being what we did. But they said we weren’t going to watch it, so I just kind of remember going with the flow and not thinking too much about it after the initial surprise.”
While his teammates were on the field working on perfecting a gameplan, Moore spent every day at Akron Children’s Hospital working to strengthen and stretch his knee to see if he could get healthy enough to play in the state final.
Moore did not step foot on the practice field all week.
“I am not sure I even really remember Chuck being at school that week,” Pendergast said.
Moore never got an X-ray or MRI on his knee following the St. Paul game.
Instead, he received treatment in “any and every way to try to get it to respond.”
It was not until after the state-championship game that Moore’s knee injury was diagnosed and it was uncovered that he had a torn ACL and also a torn meniscus — injuries he inconceivably played through against St. Henry, rushing for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
In the state championship, Mogadore scored the game’s first points on a short field goal from Pendergast and a 3-0 lead.
“That was my first field goal of the season,” Pendergast said. “We just never had to kick them throughout the year because we were scoring touchdowns.”
St. Henry, though, answered with a flurry of 35 unanswered points and led 28-3 after the first quarter and 35-3 with less than a minute to go in the first half.
The Redskins were dominating in the same way they were used to. They were bigger, faster and stronger and it was on display.
Mogadore did score on a touchdown pass from Robbins to James Keeling before halftime (the 2-point conversion failed). It wa a score that Tompkins believes should not be overlooked for its importance.
“I really think getting that touchdown was huge,” Tompkins said. “If nothing else, it gave us something positive to end the first half with after getting buried for most of the first half.”
It was one of the few things that went well for the Cats.
One of the others, though visibly not 100 percent, Moore was on the field, playing and contributing.
Whether by design or not, St. Henry sent the opening kickoff directly at Moore to start the game.
“It was the best thing they could have done for me, because I found out right away if I could play or not and if my knee could handle it or not,” said Moore, who returned the kick 48 yards and to the Redskins’ 40. “After the kickoff, I felt as normal as I could feel at the time. I was not myself, I could tell that. I was not 100 percent at all, but under the circumstances, I was never not going to play in that game.”
A quiet Mogadore locker room was a place, for Moore, at least, was full of thought.
“I remember going into the locker room at halftime and just everything feeling so surreal,” Moore said. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. We were a really good team, and we were getting drilled. I just thought that this can’t be. It can’t be happening and it can’t continue to happen. We can’t be embarrassed like this. I thought that if we could get a touchdown or two in the second half, maybe we could piece something together.”
Robbins, for one, had not completely given up hope.
“Well, there was a lot of time left,” Robbins said. “I know we were getting hammered, but I knew we could score, but I wasn’t sure if we could stop them from scoring. We had nothing to lose.”
In the locker room at halftime, Pollock and his staff spent the first five minutes devising a gameplan designed to prove to everyone that Mogadore belonged on the field with St. Henry.
The outcome of the game was not the immediate focus, but using the second half to show that no Mogadore football team would ever not play hard — even when they were losing 35-9 in the state final — was the ultimate goal.
Pollock knew he needed the clock on his side and worked with Tompkins to load up the box defensively and force St. Henry into trying to throw the ball as much as possible.
“We wanted to try to hit the quarterback on every play, and we hoped that if they were throwing incomplete passes, it would keep stopping the clock,” Tompkins said.
The Cats basically played in a goal-line defense for the second half and as Pendergast called it, “backyard football” of being assigned a player to guard and just stay with them.
After the gameplan was relayed to the players and Pollock insisted they continue to play hard, Tompkins then spoke up with what has become a legendary behind-the-scenes story.
In Tompkins’ pocket was a folded up piece of paper that had a cartoon drawing on it.
At the top, in all red capital letters, it read: “NEVER GIVE UP!!”
The cartoon drawing shows a stork eating a frog.
The frog’s head can’t be seen because it is already halfway down the stork’s throat.
However, the frog’s hands have a firm grip on the stork’s throat choking it.
The frog was still fighting for its life.
Tompkins used the visual to inspire the Wildcats to keep fighting for their football lives.
The story on why he even had that in his pocket?
Well, it fits into the unbelievable day just perfectly.
In the week leading up to the Wildcats’ state championship, letters, cards and notes arrived at the school wishing the team luck.
They came from families, area colleges (even one from Ohio State), NFL teams (with Mogadore’s own Dave Adolph on the San Diego Chargers’ staff at the time) and more.
The frog and stork cartoon was actually sent as a good luck message from Taylor Insurance.
As the well-wishes came in, Pollock would post them on the small board that used to be on the wall as soon as you entered the old Mogadore Fieldhouse.
On the day of the game, as Tompkins was leaving the fieldhouse and walked past the board, he wanted to grab one of the messages off the board and take the luck with him for the game.
“Only the Lord knows why I grabbed the one with the stork and the frog, but I think it just stood out to me,” said Tompkins, who became emotional with tears as he remembered the moment. “That ‘NEVER GIVE UP’ phrase on it, that is us. That is who we are. We are a family, and we would never quit. Having that in my pocket for that moment is one of those things you can’t really explain, but what better time to have it.”
St. Henry received the ball to start the second half and drove the ball all the way down to the Mogadore 4-yard line on a long pass play that needed a touchdown-saving tackle from the hustling Keeling.
Feet away from extending a 35-9 lead into a 42-9 advantage, the Wildcats’ defense forced a fumble on the next play that Moore recovered in the end zone for the touchback that thwarted the scoring chance.
It is on that ensuing possession for the Cats that their “nothing to lose” mentality first showed up. With the ball on its own 27-yard line, Mogadore went for it on fourth-and-5. The gamble paid off as Robbins hit on a slant for a 73-yard touchdown pass. Mogadore’s 2-point conversion failed and St. Henry led 37-15.
On St. Henry’s next possession, it drove the ball again. This time all the way to the Mogadore 1.
But when the Redskins’ quarterback turned and handed the ball off to his backfield teammate, Mogadore senior Eric Lindsey had timed his dive across the goal line and the perfect time.
Lindsey hit the ball-carrier hard enough that echoed a “pop” sound throughout the stadium that also popped the ball loose that senior defensive lineman Jason Martin opportunistically scooped up to thwart the scoring chance.
Back up to their own 1, though, Robbins was deep in his own end zone when he caught a shotgun snap and as he moved laterally to his left to avoid the rush and make a throw, he kicked the back pylon over for the safety.
St. Henry now led 37-15.
The free kick to St. Henry resulted in no points and a punt.
Mogadore paired a 20-yard pass to Keeling with a 32-yard pass to Moore for a touchdown to make it 37-21. The 2-point conversion pass to Aaron Parker was good to make it 37-23 with 1:58 remaining in the third quarter.
“In the second half, Dennis was in a 10-yard-deep shotgun,” Moore said. “(St. Henry) had never seen us in those formations, and I think it confused them a little bit, but we had no choice. We needed to score and score in a hurry.”
Mogadore forced another punt and the momentum shift began to snowball for the Cats, who then made it 37-30 on a 1-yard plunge by Moore over the left guard.
Tompkins kept things rolling, turning St. Henry’s ensuing possession into a pick-six interception, stepping in front of a curl route, that he returned down the left side 51 yards for the score to knot the game at 37-37 with 9:55 left in the fourth quarter.
“I could not believe how tired I was,” Shaun Tompkins said. “I told George (his uncle) that I needed a break. I needed to come out. That I was too tired. He told me that I had the whole rest of my life to be tired and to get out there and play football.”
St. Henry answered with a long passing play to regain the lead 44-37 (9:34 left) and Mogadore did nothing with its next possession and was forced to punt.
The Cats’ defense then forced a St. Henry punt, the Cats turned the ball over on downs just outside of the redzone (3:37 left), then St. Henry had to punt one last time with Mogadore getting the ball at its own 26-yard line with 1:24 to play.
The drive, which featured a big chunk pass play to Keeling eventually produced the game-tying touchdown pass to sophomore Derek Combs on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2 with only 16 seconds remaining to force overtime.
“I felt like once we got to overtime, we could win,” Robbins said. “They seemed deflated, and I felt like it was our game to lose now.”
In the first two overtimes, the two teams traded touchdowns, with St. Henry receiving the ball first on both extra periods.
St. Henry got the ball first in the third overtime, as well, but turned it over on downs when it failed to convert a fourth-and-8 from the 18.
“I remember coming to the sideline and the coaches saying that we were going to run it three times and kick the field goal,” Pendergast said.
With sophomore Jon Lane holding, Pendergast booted a 31-yard field goal through the uprights to complete the miraculous comeback.
“The whole thing was a blur then and is kind of a blur now, to be honest,” Pendergast said. “It is probably better that way, because if I thought about it a lot before the kick, that would have probably been a problem. I just did the same routine that I felt like I had done a thousand times in practice. I never thought about the pressure or how tired I was. I just kicked it.”
The official attendance at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium was listed as 6,645.
“Yeah, but it feels like 20,000 people have said they were there for the game,” Robbins laughs.
The retrospect is that the magnitude of the game ultimately is the perfect fit for how special the collection of players were for the 1996 Wildcats.
Not only in their football abilities, but the friendships they shared that started when they began playing together at the peewee football level.
“These were my best friends,” Shaun Tompkins said. “We grew up together. We were always doing something together. In the backyard playing football, riding our bikes, racing remote-control cars. We didn’t care what we were doing as long as we were doing it together.”
So to share such a memorable game with such a memorable finish to complete such a memorable season and career is something they still hold close to their hearts.
It did for the Mogadore community, too.
“When the bus got us back to the school that day, the entire town was waiting for us,” Pendergast said. “People lined Cleveland Avenue and the bus couldn’t even get through. It was an amazing thing to see.”
In one sense, Moore wishes he could relive the day from a fan’s perspective.
“One of my wishes would be able to watch the game as a fan. To go back and not play and also not know what was going to happen,” Moore said. “The problem is that I would have 100 percent probably would have left thinking the game was over.”
Pendergast understands why.
“The game had every emotion you could ever think and it all happened in the same football game,” Pendergast said. “It was just a special, awesome day and the memories of that day will never go away.”
Just like how the conversations of the game never go away.
Because Mogadore “NEVER GIVES UP!!”
A truly amazing account of this Wildcat victory and reflects the hard work all of the sports teams do to be successful. It is a special place.
Loved the article and reliving those moments. I would like to add that in the St. Paul semi-final game I was also needed in the backfield to fill in for Chuck at full back. I never played offense just defense during my Mogadore career but it was special for me because I played the entire second half. Even more special was our drive in the fourth quarter I think that allowed us to maintain possession almost the entire time. A great team effort that came together when our star running back was injured.
I remember a lot of people not from Mogadore getting up at halftime and leaving the game. Saying, “Let’s get out of here. This thing is a blowout.” Wow, look at what they missed!
This is great sportswriting, Tom. I was there for the game. Nothing like that ever happened before or since. This Bomber, as much as he hates to admit it, thinks Mogadore has fielded some of the finest football players in PCL history.
I was there and your article gave me goose bumbs remembering…nice job.
I loved all those guys! What a great article! And a great memory of the game that day! Blessings on all of you!
I had printed a copy of that frog picture with the final score and displayed it in my office while principal at Crestwood. My brother-in-law from Illinois attended and said the most exciting game he had ever witnessed!! Think most of us in attendance agree!