Gifted athletes celebrate 50th

Sunday feature: NH 50-year reunion with some of the school's greatest athletes.Newport Harbor High's Class of 1955 boasted an almost unparalleled amount of athletic talent in several prep sports.NEWPORT BEACH -- Rarely does such an impressive collection of athletic talent come from one high school's graduating class. But Newport Harbor High's Class of 1955 is talked about as one of the most talent-laden in Orange County -- if not all of California.

Several of these athletic stars -- and some of their coaches -- gathered Saturday night at the Newport Beach Yacht Club for their 50th class reunion.

All of the athletes were ecstatic to see former Newport Harbor varsity football and baseball coach Al Irwin, who had a major impact on many of their lives.

"The best memory of my high school athletic career was probably having played for this quality man, Coach Al Irwin," former all-league Newport Harbor football player Glenn Thomas said. "He was a big influence on me. He's why I went into coaching and teaching."

Thomas, who played linebacker and offensive guard for the Sailors, went on to play football at Occidental College and was an assistant football coach and Physical Education teacher at Fullerton College for 25 years.

Irwin was amazed to see so many of his former players.

"I think I coached all of these guys in either football or baseball," Irwin said.

Bruce Knipp was Newport Harbor's quarterback in 1955. He was also an exceptional low hurdler who broke the school record for the track and field team.

"It's great the see everyone again," said Knipp, who went on to become an FBI agent. "It brings back some very fond memories."

Tod White broke into long-distance running at a time when a 4-minute mile was unheard of.

But soon after, when White was discovering how good he can be, a fellow from Britain named Roger Bannister ran a 3-minute, 59.4 second-mile at Oxford to become the first athlete ever to run a sub-4-minute mile. Bannister became Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.

Before Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes, White was one of the few people who felt it could be done.

"I think he was just a sophomore when he said, 'What's all this stuff about how the body can't handle running a 4-minute mile?' " said Richard Reddick, White's friend and fellow 1955 Newport Harbor graduate. "He knew it could be done. Then he went out and ran a 4.2 or something."

White set a national high school record by running a 4:20 mile at the Los Angeles Coliseum to capture the state title. He counts it as his best athletic memory from high school.

The record lasted six years.

White went on to run for Occidental College, where he was part of a two-mile relay team that broke the world record at the L.A. Coliseum.

White's best time ever in the mile came at Occidental, where he ran it in 4:08.

"I personally didn't have any illusions of running a 4-minute mile," White said. "I always thought it could be done, but I never dreamed I could do it. It turned out 4.08 was as close as I could get."

Other former Sailor stars on hand Saturday night included football star Bob Milum, a stellar runner and punter who went on to play for Oregon State; Jim Newkirk, who pitched Orange Coast College to a state title in 1957; and Paul Neumann, the star forward on the Newport varsity basketball team who went on to play at Stanford. Neumann, who was perhaps the one Sailor to have the most athletic success after high school, played professionally for several teams, including the Syracuse Nationals and the Philadelphia Warriors. Neumann was once traded, along with two other players, for Wilt Chamberlain.

Neumann played for a talent-laden basketball team at Newport Harbor that included Dennis Fitzpatrick, who went on to play for Orange Coast and the University of California, and Bill Wetzel, a basketball and baseball star for the Sailors who went to UC Santa Barbara on a baseball scholarship.

Wetzel, who started the basketball program at Estancia High from scratch in 1965, was thrilled to see his former Newport Harbor catcher, Richard Mirkobich, at the reunion.

"I didn't plan on seeing him," Wetzel said. "This is great. I wouldn't have missed this for the world."20051016iofqnbknMARK DUSTIN / DAILY PILOT(LA)Former star athletes in attendance at Newport Harbor High's Class of 1955 reunion at the Newport Beach Yacht Club were, front row, left to right: Bruce Knipp, Tod White, Robert Milum and Glenn Thomas. In the back row, left to right, was Jim Newkirk, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Paul Neumann and William Wetzel.20051016iofqmuknMARK DUSTIN / DAILY PILOT(LA)Elaina Rager, whose husband was a graduate in the Class of 1955, looks at some memorabilia on display at the reunion.20051016iofqn6knMARK DUSTIN / DAILY PILOT(LA)Old photos and memorabilia were on display Saturday night.20051016iofqnkknMARK DUSTIN / DAILY PILOT(LA)A page from The Harbor Beacon from June 8, 1955, was on display at the Newport Harbor Class of 1955 reunion Saturday.

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