NOTE: The following recollections were assembled from Facebook/Messenger conversations and/or email exchanges. Special thanks to Mike Sissel and Brian Lindley for corralling a few teammates to reminisce. Gratitude to everyone for being so giving of their memories.
The 1989 West Albany Bulldogs seemed determined to surpass expectations from the beginning, sometimes even in the middle of a game.
"We can't physically go out and dominate people," first-year head coach John Olsen told the Democrat-Herald in early September. "But we'll try to have a lot of fresh bodies out there."
What they lacked in size they made up for with intelligence and speed, assets they often — and rather suddenly — unleashed upon stunned opponents.
Their opening game against McKay was a mini-harbinger of later campaigns: rallying from early deficits with perfect offense/defense synchronicity or late-period frenzies of inspired precision. Maybe they’d expose a weakness. Find an opening, explode right through, again and again and again.
Sometimes, well, it was just fate.
In any case, their adaptive skills were remarkable. And on that night in September, McKay’s early 20-0 lead crumbled under relentless assault, thanks mostly to a stellar performance by tailback — and future First Team All-League member and Offensive Player of the Year — Doug Strickland, who scored four touchdowns and bedeviled the Royal Scots.
In the second half, West Albany sealed its own defensive walls, forcing McKay's quarterback into wild-armed bouts of panic. The ’Dogs left the field with a 38-20 win, as if the advantage had always been theirs.
Week two, however, was a nightmare — one that resulted in immediate action. And it changed everything.
JOHN OLSEN (head coach): We beat McKay in the opener after being down in the first half. McKay scored on their first two offensive plays: wishbone-fire-pass. They had a big tight end and he started with two catches and two TDs and like 120 yards. I yelled at [defensive back] Coach [Floyd] Halvorsen. Still regret it.
Then we got beat by South Albany [23-12] and never punted. We ran like 25 plays in the red zone and couldn’t score.
MIKE SISSEL (quarterback): We could’ve gone in the tank after the South loss. I remember coming into the coaches’ office and absolutely losing it. I put that loss firmly on my shoulders. [Olsen] reiterated that in order to win moving forward, I needed to be resilient and still lead. He never stopped believing in me, despite my two red-zone picks.
TOM GLENN (nose guard): A few of us decided to organize a players-only meeting after the first practice following that loss. I couldn’t tell you what was said because I don’t really remember.
BRIAN LINDLEY (free safety, strong safety, punter, punt returner): Tom, I do remember what you said. You challenged everyone to come to practice and play as hard as if it were Game Day. Don’t just play your best on Game Day; play your best every time you strap on your helmet, every time you walk onto the field.
GLENN: I just know that it was at that meeting where the tables turned, and everyone on our team got on board and played to win. We had all worked far too hard during daily doubles and zero-period conditioning class with Coach [Tom] Hawkins, not to mention each and every rainy, cold, bloody, muddy practice.
It was like a light switched on after that meeting. We convinced ourselves that even though we were a relatively small team, we knew we were hard and tough. That’s how we trained, and that’s how we played: hard.
OLSEN: You came back strong the next week.
That Friday night, the Bulldogs dropped McNary, 14-6, then flattened Crescent Valley, 34-21. In fact, West Albany would lose only one other game that season: a 21-0 heartbreaker to Valley League powerhouse Lebanon, with whom they’d eventually share the league title.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s meet a few more people.
FABIO TESTA (center): My story comes from the trenches, where games are won and lost. I spearheaded the offensive line as center, where every play started.
The key to winning in the trenches has always been that the lowest guy wins. I was never the biggest offensive lineman, but I remember something clicked my junior year and I figured out leverage. Being low and quick will always win the battle. Coach O always referred to mountain goats: He who is first and lowest wins the joust.
To my left was an All-State guard by the name of Mike McCauley. Mike could squat 400 pounds and had amazing football technique to back up his strength. At right guard, I had Justin McProud, a fiery redhead I’d trust with my life. Justin never quit, and many a time we would double-team a defensive lineman and drive him 20 yards into an opponent’s backfield.
Carey Kelley was our left tackle, and I had to exchange blows with him day after day. Carey was the hardest-hitting player I’d ever been around. I’ve played against 6-foot-7, 350-pound guys who couldn’t hit as hard as 6-foot-1, 195-pound Carey. The right tackle seemed to be a bit of a revolving door, but each player knew that when called upon, they had to perform.
Nonetheless, we were a galvanized unit that understood our only path to success was to work together. Each week, after our games, we were graded on our performance, and 90-plus percent was the only acceptable score.
No time to win
West Albany hit an interesting stretch after CV: back-to-back skirmishes with South and North Salem. These October contests would prove to be among the Bulldogs’ most taxing, ones that players would recall in intensely meticulous detail nearly 30 years later.
Some would remember for other reasons too.
TESTA: I had been asked to raise the American flag during the national anthem for the South Salem game. I was truly honored and proud, especially since my grandfather, who had served our country, was there. He had a bum leg and the athletic program was very accommodating, allowing him to drive his Jeep right up to the sidelines so he could watch our games. As I ran up the sideline, toward the locker room for the pregame meeting, I gave him a wave. He gave me a nod of approval on a night that was already special.
West Albany led 7-0 for most of the game. But the Saxons were determined, pushing ahead to 12-7 with less than two minutes left. Then West reclaimed possession with 40 seconds on the clock and new plays in its pocket, developed in response to South Albany’s humbling red-zone picks.
The ’Dogs hunkered down at their own 36. Quarterback Mike Sissel was promptly clobbered three yards in reverse. Undaunted, on the next play he found Brandon Kuebrich and advanced 13 yards.
Back at the line, West dropped into a run-and-shoot with Strickland, still recovering from a foot injury, the intended receiver. Although he may have been hurt, his evasive talents were sharp as ever. He took a short pass and somehow marched deep into enemy territory, finally falling at the Saxon 14.
Five seconds remained. If the Bulldogs were going to match comeback for comeback, they’d have to do it in one play and, literally, no time.
JEFF SIMON (tight end): Coach O called a time-out. I remember him making up the play in the huddle. I'm not sure we had ever run that play before.
TESTA: I remember Coach O coming out to the huddle, nonchalantly chewing sunflower seeds. It was surreal. The offense was running on adrenaline, because we had just run a play with Strickland sneaking out of the backfield and putting us in a position for what would be the final play of the game.
South Salem ran a four-down front, so as a center I didn’t have anyone over the top of me. My job was to monitor the guards on either side and help if protection was breaking down. My second priority was to watch for linebackers blitzing up the middle. We were not a pass-first team, so our final play was not something we’d ran consistently.
LINDLEY: I’m on the sideline with Brian Eli, McProud and about six other Bulldogs I cannot remember. We all take a knee and grab hands, and Brian leads us in a prayer — a very sincere prayer — asking God to give our offense the strength and wisdom to score just six to end this game, our season on the line.
TESTA: The refs blew the whistle and it was go-time. I hiked the ball, and immediately one of the inside linebackers hit me at full speed. Inside linebackers are trained and built to inflict punishment. I liken them to the “Marines” of the football field.
In that situation I did as I was taught. I got low, took the blow and tried to stay with him. Well, that didn’t work. His momentum was too great. But I did slow him down, and the chase was on.
LINDLEY: Sissel rolls out. All I see is that one defensive lineman break through and Sissel’s scrambling for his life on a designed roll-out to the right.
SISSEL: The South Salem game was by far the highlight of my athletic career. I recently returned to Albany to visit family and speak to a few teams as part of my leadership business, and my dad had placed the original Democrat-Herald article on the bed I was sleeping in.
It never gets old, looking at that picture of me narrowly escaping Joel Hellerman. The irony of the picture is that I was never known for my speed, which I guess is a testament to the power of adrenaline.
LINDLEY: He throws. Jeff Simon catches it, about a half-yard shy, and dives into the end zone.
SIMON: Good thing we were on the left hash, because Mike [Sissel] needed the room to run free from the defender toward the right corner of the end zone. I remember looking back after my route, and Mike was running for his life. Then he threw the ball my way.
It happened so quickly. I do remember a few defenders between me and the goal line. I just drove my feet and dove forward.
It's definitely one of my proudest moments in life, for sure. Twenty-eight years ago!
And that was it: 13-12, beaming from a scoreboard on a dark autumn night, followed by pandemonium as cheers from the stands spilled onto the grass.
TESTA: For a moment, I lay there confused, because the ref had spotted the ball on the half-yard and promptly raised his hands, signaling a touchdown. By spotting the ball, that would mean no touchdown had occurred. I always wondered why he spotted the ball and then called it a touchdown.
This all happened in a span of three seconds, and then mass chaos ensued as the whole student body erupted onto the field. I was caught in the melee, crying like a baby, and the ref continued to raise his hands.
My grandfather was a man of few words, but his approval meant everything to me. As I pulled myself together, I looked over to him. He was standing there, beaming, and he gave me a nod.
SIMON: After scoring that touchdown, what I remember most was Coach O running and jumping around the field in celebration. Then my dad, Gary, came onto the field. Wow! To see how proud he was of me, while he, my older brother, Steve, and I celebrated with the team ... what a great feeling!
LINDLEY: I was glad I kept my helmet on, because it started raining helmets as players began throwing them into the air. Then, everything was in slow motion, disbelief, as I trotted toward the end zone. My knees gave out and I buried my face mask into the soft, muddy turf.
No sooner did I bury my face mask into one of my best high-school memories that Coach Halvorsen, who played with my brother [David] in two national championships at Linfield, picked my head up. All I could do was hug him around the knees and cry. He recognized the awkwardness much faster than I did as he pushed me away to rejoin the chaos.
I regained the strength in my legs just in time to see Coach O pick Sissel up, completely off the ground, and slam him back down into the same turf from which I had just recovered. That was probably the hardest hit Sissel had taken all night.
SISSEL: I vividly recall Coach Olsen tackling me after the pass to Jeff Simon and the chaos that ensued.
LINDLEY: As the boys made their way back to the locker room, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
SISSEL: I think we stayed in the locker room for two hours after the game. Mrs. [Maureen] Liles, our principal, even came in to hug everyone.
A whole new level of ‘bad’
South Salem was trouble, but North Salem was worse. In the first instance, at least, everyone went home on time. The following Thursday found players, coaches and especially traveling boosters gnawing their nails past 11 p.m. Luckily, it wasn’t a school night, and the outcome was worth the well-earned anxiety.
As adversaries, the Vikings were as fearsome as their namesakes.
TESTA: The week before the game, our offensive line got together to watch film. It was clear we had a very major problem named Terry Scott. Terry would be lining up directly over me as a nose guard, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing over 300 pounds. He was a Division I prospect who already had offers from universities. I knew if he came at me directly, I’d stand barely a chance, one on one, and he’d drive me into our backfield, essentially shutting down our whole offense.
I remember rolling up to North Salem High. It was like something out of a movie, a combination of Alcatraz and “Black Hawk Down.” Barbed-wire-strung fences and run-down facilities, with an eerie fog hanging over the stadium. It was unseasonably warm for a night in the fall, which made the experience that much more daunting.
This was the closest to a “big city” experience many on the team had come. A lot of them came off the bus wide-eyed and unsure of what was out there.
During warm-ups, I looked over at the North Salem guys and thought they were a whole new level of “bad.” I had competed against their star running back, Marc Santos, in a power-lifting competition a week prior. Santos had crushed the field and with freakish strength for his size. He held court, helmet off, during warm-ups.
Man, it was going to be a long night.
Prophetic words, for North Salem seized immediate control. Santos issued a brutal opening statement with an 87-yard touchdown run on his team’s first possession. Thirty-three seconds later, Mike Sissel threw an interception and the Vikings scored again: 14-0 in an eyeblink. Sissel would surrender three passes that night, but in retrospect, such numbers do not matter. (It should also be stated, for the record, that North Salem threw five.)
SISSEL: It was only fitting that the North Salem game went three overtimes. If I had to choose a theme for that year, it would be “resilience.” When I read the [Democrat-Herald] article and saw that I had three interceptions early in the game, I question how I was able to come back mentally from those multiple setbacks. Then I refer back to the theme I mentioned earlier — resilience. Coach Olsen and my teammates believed in me unconditionally; therefore, I never felt the need to sabotage. I knew they had my back and that together, we would eventually win the game. Simply put, we believed in each other.
North Salem held the lead while the Bulldogs methodically scrapped back into contention — a peak they ascended with 1:10 to go in regulation, thanks to a Doug Strickland end-zone dive and subsequent two-point conversion, which locked the score at 21-21.
That turnabout may not have been possible had the Bulldogs not discovered a peculiar quirk on the line and begun exploiting it in the second half.
TESTA: The coaches’ game plan was to stay out of the middle and run to the outside, beyond Terry’s [Scott] grasp. The couple of times we did run to the interior of the line, I noticed Terry wasn’t coming at me. He kept standing straight up after the snap.
At halftime we went to our respective position groups. Olsen headed ours. I told him that Terry was standing straight up. I knew if we started double-teaming him, we could change the course of the game. It was such a simple adjustment, play by play, that we began to move the needle.
The first play, McCauley and I double-teamed Terry into the linebackers, causing a huge pile-up of defensive players. Strickland got deep into the secondary. Then McProud and I doubled [Scott].
I remember this play on film. You could see Terry, arms flailing in the air as he glided backward, almost on skates, 15 yards into the backfield. It was amazing. Time after time we moved Terry at will all over the field. All he would have had to do was stay low and push me back, and it would have been over.
We scratched and clawed our way back into the game. Overtime was imminent and our confidence was high. I had no doubt at that point we would win. It came down to defense in the end, and the boys held firm.
The Vikings dominated earlier in the evening, but the Kansas Plan overtimes belonged to the Bulldogs. Santos scored in the first. Strickland answered with his own run, forcing the second OT. On that possession, fullback Steve Belhumeur propelled West ahead, for the very first time, on a five-yard carry. North Salem went back to Santos, but by now the ’Dogs were done with him. In fact, they were done with the whole North Salem offense. They pressed Santos back three yards and two plays later, did the same thing to quarterback Jeremy Beard and his transparent naked bootleg attempt. That climactic hit came stamped and signed by Mike McCauley.
McCAULEY: The South and North Salem games were “exciting conclusions,” for sure. Maybe the only time I talked to the press was after North Salem. I made the final sack and said something like, “I just stayed home (to cover my assignment) and made the tackle.” Honestly, if the quarterback had anyone to throw to, he could have, so they did it right, too.
Belhumeur’s touchdown was the final word: 33-27, a grueling crawl to victory assured by an airtight defense. The Bulldogs may have been 30-plus miles north from home, but the resulting jubilation was as fervent as it had been at Memorial Stadium the previous week.
LINDLEY: In both of those games, our entire student section emptied from the stands and stood on the track near the goal line. It did not go unnoticed and we truly appreciated the support. After each one of those wins, the celebration was chaotic and immediate due to their proximity. I had never seen that before and I haven’t seen it since.
The kids may have had another incentive to win. Shortly before game time, Coach Olsen had promised that, should they defeat North Salem, he’d willingly submit to a haircut similar to the one sported by John Hunter, one of his assistants. Later photos would reveal that he kept his word.
OLSEN: I rocked that flat-top.
West Albany ended the Valley League season at 7-2, tying Lebanon for the title. Both teams went to the state playoffs, with the Bulldogs hosting their first postseason game in 21 years. They made the milestone count in a 28-14 drubbing of Sheldon, highlighted by a 253-yard rushing performance from Doug Strickland. Lebanon fell 23-0 that same evening to David Douglas, leaving West the sole league representative entering the second round.
This time, however, they traveled to Portland to face Benson Polytechnic, the returning state champions. Unfortunately, there were no late-game heroics, no miracles, no overtimes. The Techmen won decisively, 28-7. (They’d fall in the quarterfinals; Ashland and Roseburg would bludgeon each other for the title, with Ashland scraping past on a hard-fought 24-22 win.)
GLENN: It would take an exceptional team to break us in the end. That team was Benson Tech.
And then it was over. We cried like babies and it was awesome!
OLSEN (in 1989): This was without question the greatest football experience of my life. … I have never had as much pride as I have for these young men. They had the courage to believe in themselves, and that is the ultimate key to success.
So many Friday nights later
SISSEL: When I reflect back on the 1989 football season, it’s not our record or league championship that brings me the most joy; it’s the life lessons I learned and the relationships I formed. I recently reconnected with Coach Olsen and we’ve since reminisced about our special year together.
The word “team” is often used loosely in sports, but I can say with absolute certainty that this group of guys was the best “team” I ever played on. There were no egos, stat-chasers or drama kings. Everyone genuinely cared about everyone. Coach Olsen deserves a lot of the credit for creating this culture. We just fed off his energy.
It’s quite common for athletic teams to ride the proverbial emotional roller coaster during a season. We were no different. Ironically, almost 30 years after this magical season, I’m equipping young athletes with mental toughness as part of my leadership business, KaleidoEye. It’s incredibly rewarding to empower young athletes with a skill set that transcends sports. I didn’t realize it at the time, but mental toughness is what allowed me to bounce back after three interceptions.
I’m incredibly grateful for the entire experience of high school football. It taught me so much more than how to throw a football. It taught me how to be a leader. I’m committed to pay it forward so that young athletes can have those special experiences as well.
SIMON: I'm so glad I was part of that team and that I got to play high school football with my big brother. What a season! I wonder how far we would have gone if our best player, Doug, hadn't gotten hurt.
I still live in North Albany, where I have lived most of my adult life. I own a construction company, Jeff Simon Homes. I have been married for seven years to my amazing wife, Elizabeth.
We have two dogs, one of which happens to be the mascot: a bulldog.
LINDLEY: That wet, muddy, post-game grass/mud smell. It never goes away. Every time I smell it, it takes me right back to those Friday night lights.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES: