Champs of '64 : Former Teammates on Whittier High's Cinderella Team That Won CIF Crown Return for Reunion 25 Years Later


In the fall of 1964, senior quarterback Tim Walker got a vote in Whittier High School's mock presidential election. He finished behind Lyndon Johnson's 782, Barry Goldwater's 537 and Ringo Starr's 9.

The results were reprinted in the school newspaper last Friday as nostalgia swept the campus when Walker and his teammates returned for the 25th anniversary of Whittier's only CIF championship.

The '64 Cardinals upset four playoff opponents, including Loyola, 21-14, in the title game before 17,590 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Times, noting that the Los Angeles school had won 35 consecutive games, called it the "most historic overthrow in Southern California prep football annals."

In the school cafeteria Friday afternoon, the Cinderella team sat beneath red and white balloons for a pregame meal with the current Cardinals, who in a few hours would play California High.

The champions' old coach was also there.

Coach Became Mayor

"I'm very proud of these kids," said Vic Lopez, a short, bushy-browed man who in the ensuing years had become mayor. Then he laughed, realizing the "kids" have passed 40, older now than he was when he was their coach.

"They've all been successful . . . attorneys, doctors, businessmen and contractors," he went on. "It was a high-IQ team."

Lopez had been a demanding coach. "If they were late they didn't practice," he said. "We didn't allow them to talk back to officials or use any profanity on the field. People don't believe that."

After the meal, Lopez showed the football from the Loyola game to Steve Wittman, who was the fullback, and Don Prentiss, who had played defensive end. It was a rubber Voit Official with leather laces.

Wittman and Prentiss reminisced as they drove to Tim Walker's father's house for a reception. "We had a hell of an offense and defense," said Wittman. "But we had to--everybody else was bigger. We were such a lightweight team, but we had a lot of heart."

Wittman looked out the window as the car passed Rideout Way.

"That's where we used to go and park," he said.

Tall, erect and 82, Hap Walker welcomed the former players to his back-yard patio. He and some of the other fathers never missed a practice 25 years ago. They called themselves railbirds because they crowded the sidelines in the manner that horse racing fans crowd the track rail.

The quarterback himself did not look much different than when he passed for two touchdowns and ran for a third against Loyola. But his hair and clothes were now styled in a manner befitting his status as a Santa Monica corporate lawyer.

Walker brought his wife, the former Claire Duarte. He was one of three '64 Cardinals who married their high school sweethearts. Wittman married Sandy Hied, now his law partner in San Diego. Center Bob Bender, now a doctor, married Leta Rae Sugg.

Sugg and Duarte had bouffant hairdos when they were pictured as queen candidates in the program from the '64 homecoming game with Alhambra, the only game the Cardinals lost.

Walker spotted Lopez, who had been handed a Scotch and water, and they embraced.

Appreciation Grows

"You do think about it," Walker said of the championship game. "You appreciate it more as time goes by."

His dad kept looking at him.

"He's the same kid he was," Hap Walker said. "He was a great kid. The recruiters came here (Tim later played at UC Santa Barbara) the Saturday after they beat Loyola and he was out here mowing the lawn. That's the kind of kid he was. He's done real well. I'm real proud of him."

The patio had become crowded with people having a good time.

Bill Cornman, a halfback who played briefly with the Dallas Cowboys, strutted around in shorts, his muscles bulging. He teaches aerobics in Stockton.

Wingback Paul Meister and end Dave Washburn, both of whom had caught TD passes in the title game, still looked fit enough to play.

George Buehler, described in a story on the Loyola game as an "enormous, catlike linebacker," remained enormous. The CIF Player of the Year in '64, he went on to play 10 seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

Arnold Babajian, 74, who had been a railbird, looked at Buehler and remembered, "I never saw a body like that on a 17-year-old kid."

Buehler, Meister and tackle Tom Seminoff had been the captains.

Lopez recalled that at halftime, with the Cardinals leading Loyola, 14-7, he told his players: "Instead of just living history, you can make history."

Anxious to Play

"(After that) George nearly broke down the locker room door (trying to get out to the field)," the former coach said.

Dave Styer wore his yearbook photo, which he did not resemble, on his shirt. He had acquired a beard and an additional 140 pounds since his days as a 190-pound tackle.

"I've changed so much, but so many haven't changed at all," said Styer. He still lives in Whittier and listens to an oldies radio station while driving a truck for a living, the Beach Boys and Beatles keeping the memories fresh.

Gary Styer, Dave's much smaller brother who lives in Fresno, was still lean and youthful. He had played guard despite weighing only 154 pounds. "I remember getting beat up every darned game," he said.

"This guy was a bulldog," said Prentiss.

The reception broke up and Prentiss drove to his Whittier home to change into a tie and his letterman jacket for the game.

"Those years were innocent," said Prentiss, who served two years in Vietnam before returning to play football at Rio Hondo College. "Our biggest high was getting someone to score a six-pack of beer for us."

Only half the lights were working when the '64 players arrived at the California High stadium that also serves as Whittier's home field.

After a half-hour delay, the game was saved when Gary Styer, once an electrical contractor, got the other half to work.

"I transferred a few wires," he said.

At halftime, the old players were presented to the crowd by former Raider Bob Chandler, who had been a sophomore at Whittier High in '64.

The band played "Amen," which the Cardinal rooters had sung that night at the Coliseum when victory was imminent.

While waiting in line to be introduced, Wittman asked Buehler, "George, with all you've been through, what was the most meaningful?"

"The CIF," said Buehler, who had played in the Super Bowl in Pasadena in 1977. "It's not even close."

Admirers of Ring

After the ceremony, Buehler was stopped by two cheerleaders.

"That's neat," one of them said, inspecting his Super Bowl ring. "Bye."

In the second half, a Whittier defensive back missed the ball while trying for an interception.

"I think I could have had that ball, coach," Mike Howard said to Don Kelly. Howard made five interceptions in a '64 game.

"Yeah, you'd have had it," said Kelly, who had been one of Lopez' assistants and who still teaches at Whittier High.

After the game, a 21-17 Whittier victory, the '64 players did not cruise to Bob's Big Boy on Whittier Boulevard as they had long ago. Bob's is gone.

Instead, they went to a party in their honor at the Whittier Hilton, where in a large banquet room Lopez called them kids again.

Wittman looked at a display of photos of his teammates running and tackling against pitch-black backgrounds. He laughed when he saw himself, a skinny shirtless kid celebrating in the Coliseum locker room.

"I can't get over that 25 years have passed," he said. "In some ways it seems like yesterday, and in other ways a different life that wasn't my own."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World