They grew up in the 1960s playing football against each other on the Iron Range in the townships of Kinross, Parkville, South Grove and West Virginia. They would form a singular bond on the high school team in Mountain Iron, one that would be tough to beat in an area where hockey was king.
These young Red Raiders would go on to crush Dassel-Cokato 54-6 in the Class B final in 1972 to claim one of the first five football state championships ever awarded in Minnesota.
Fifty years later, this community returns to the championship game this week for the first time since that glorious season, now as the Mountain Iron-Buhl Rangers, a Nine-Man program. The Rangers (12-0) take on Spring Grove (13-0) on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"With explosive running from Scott Edstrom and junior Jeff Anderson, Mountain Iron methodically scored, gave Dassel-Cokato three futile downs, and then scored again." That is an excerpt from the championship game story written by John Gilbert for the Minneapolis Tribune, published on Nov. 17, 1972.
"That team was a collection of athletes who had competed against each other all our years growing up," Jeff Anderson said. "There were a lot of kids back in those days and we played all sports against each other. Looking through my scrapbooks brings back so many memories."
Anderson lost his first game as a freshman and last game as a senior. In between, 36 consecutive victories. They finished 11-0 in 1972.
"By the time we got to high school, the football program under coach Bob Swanson was always near the top," said Anderson, a 67-year-old, self-employed carpenter living in Silverdale, Minn. "We all knew that if we all returned from the 1971 team that we would go to state and win. We were truly a team."
. . .
"... A stocky, tough line carved big holes for Mountain Iron's offensive plays, mixed and handled perfectly by quarterback Steve Sutich."
"I'm pretty lucky and honored to have played with a great group of guys and able to say I was on a team that won a state championship," said Sutich, 67, a retired millwright/shift manager from U.S. Steel MinnTac who now lives in Cotton, Minn. "We were just a bunch of kids who all got along and supported each other. Like the old saying, there's no 'I' in team, that was us. What I wouldn't give to relive that fall again."
Those Red Raiders were one of only four teams to qualify for the state tournament at the time. It was based on a point system.
"There was also talk of being good enough to maybe get a shot at the newly introduced and first year of the Minnesota state football playoffs," said Edstrom, 67, a retired IT director at Best Buy who now resides in Eagan. "No one really understood how to qualify or how to get there, but an opportunity to play for something more than just a league title was new and exciting. There were more questions than answers."
. . .
"... Late in the first quarter, Dassel-Cokato marched to the Mountain Iron 30, but Bryan Wiitala recovered a Charger fumble to end that threat. Mountain Iron marched 69 yards from there with Steve LaPatka — a 5-5 senior who spent much of the night blitzing on defense — carrying in from the four to open the second period."
The Mountain Iron faithful, a large contingent of fans amongst the 4,000 spectators, started chanting "We're No. 1" in the second quarter. The Red Raiders led 20-0 at the end of the first quarter and 40-0 at halftime.
"We were clicking on all cylinders," Edstrom said. He scored on runs of 16 and 35 yards and returned a punt 85 yards for another touchdown. "You could tell if Coach was mad in the second half if he was not drinking coffee or eating popcorn. It did not occur too much during the fall of 1972."
A night game in the Class B final at St. Cloud Apollo High School was also an oddity for the Red Raiders. Their home games started at 3 p.m. so they would be completed before sunset because there were no lights at the field.
"U.S. Steel workers would come straight to the game from work covered in dirt and dust and no one cared," Edstrom said. "There were no parking lots for people to park. You just parked on the city blocks as close as possible to Dolan Field.
"Some grandmas and grandpas would sit in their cars at one end of the field and honk their horns and flash their car lights when we scored."
It was more than just a game for the locals. It was a way to bring the community together.
"Football was more than what was going on next week or who was playing," Edstrom said. "It was part of the fabric of the town and the team.
"Everyone in town knew just about everyone else. In the center of town were the school, a supermarket, two cafes, two bars, a barbershop, a post office, a library, a bank, a car dealership, city hall and a couple of gas stations. On Friday afternoons they would all shut down for a couple of hours so everyone could walk over and watch the game."
Anderson sees plenty of similarities between this year's unbeaten squad and what took place 50 years ago.
"I see a lot of comparable qualities, great quarterback in Asher Zubich and running back Damian Tapio," Anderson said. "Their defense is playing as a team and we had an excellent defense."
That 1972 group accomplished what this year's team is one step away from replicating: bringing a state championship trophy back to the Range.
"To lift that trophy up over your head is something special that most players don't get to experience," Sutich said. "It's something you will never forget and will always bring a smile."