By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Coaches’ whistles and loud rap music escaped Carnie Smith Stadium and competed with the words Harlan Hess was saying on Thursday afternoon.
He stood outside Pittsburg State’s practice, 50 years after his senior season ended in disappointing fashion.
And he had a message for this year’s Gorilla seniors heading into their season finale.
“This is it. It’s the finality,” said Hess, who is very visible around the Pitt State program. “You always want to leave on as high of a note as you can get. We haven’t hit the high notes we planned to hit.”
Hess has something in common with the year’s senior class. He and his teammates won a national championship as juniors in 1961 before a disappointing senior campaign, one that finished with a 6-3 record after a 35-0 loss at Nebraska-Omaha.
The same goes for John Levra, a junior guard on the 1957 national title squad. He earned second-team All-Central Intercollegiate Conference honors in 1958, but the team finished 4-5-1, capped by a 40-3 home loss to Northeastern State.
“It’s really, really hard to repeat as national champions,” Levra said. “I know this year’s team had some great hopes and anticipation. And they started out very well, winning by wide margins. But it just didn’t work out that way.
“I still think this is a very good team. Hopefully they can end on a positive note.”
Ending on a positive note, of course, would mean the Gorillas getting past a fired-up Missouri Southern squad in Saturday’s Sonic Miner’s Bowl.
If the Gorillas happen to win against the Lions, they would wrap up the season 7-3 and could work their way into a postseason bowl, perhaps the Mineral Water Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Mo., or the Kanza Bowl in Topeka, Kan.
But the only thing guaranteed is Saturday.
“I’m just going to live it up. Live it up this last week of practice,” senior center Aaron Kolich said. “On Saturday after 2 p.m. I probably won’t be able to put these pads on again, so just take everything I can from it.”
Hess, stating the obvious, said Kolich and his classmates will take much more from it if they can end their careers with a win.
Although he said the 1961 national title is “all I talk about now,” he also said the memories of the disappointing end to his senior season still come back to him.
“I’m not saying that you totally walk away feeling like a loser,” Hess said, thinking back to that last game, one which he missed with a broken leg. “Anything short of a championship, to be honest with you, you feel like you lose. I don’t like the ‘loser’ term, but we didn’t do it.”
Hess missed the final three games of the season. That, he said, coupled with his career ending with a defeat, led to a rough spot.
“Those three weeks was the darkest time of my life,” he said. “I’m not saying I was depressed or anything, but athletically-speaking I was. It was the worst month of my life.”
Pitt State senior defensive end Gus Toca said during Thursday’s press conference that his classmates understand the importance of Saturday and that the team’s underclassmen have made it a point to do what they can to send them out winners.
“Everybody seems to be practicing hard for us and we really appreciate that,” he said. “We don’t a work team guy to just go out there and lay down for us. We want him to work hard for us and make us better and I think everybody gets that.”