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An Unforgettable Game

Fifty years ago, Anaheim faced Downey before a Coliseum crowd that remains the state high school record, and people are still talking about it

By Ross Newhan, Special to The Times December 8, 2006

An eerie fog swept into the Coliseum 50 years ago, obscuring vision but failing to dim a record rush for tickets or, ultimately, the lasting memories. It is hard to imagine, perhaps, but for half a century now people have continued to talk about a high school football game that should be "the dangest donnybrook in Southland prep annals" wrote John de la Vega in in a preview in The Times.

For just as long, people have continued to insist they were there when Anaheim and Downey, both 12-0, met for the CIF-Southern Section major division title and their two stunning and record-setting running backs squared off for the first time in something more than a scrimmage. It was Mickey Flynn of Anaheim against Randy Meadows of Downey Southland legends in those final years before the Dodgers left Brooklyn, the Lakers left Minneapolis and Gene Autry became owner of an American League expansion team in a hyped and longed-for subplot to a game that would represent the last bit of gridiron glory for two players whose name recognition has long survived their high school statistics and the disappointment that neither would go on to showcase their breakaway talents in college.

It was all of that, of course, and more a battle for civic pride as municipal boundaries began to disappear amid Southern California's suddenly booming population growth, and there were dramatic and sweeping changes in the ethnic and cultural composition. And amid the fog of Dec. 14, 1956, there was also the ongoing unease of Cold War as Dwight Eisenhower began his second term as President, gas crept to 31 cents a gallon and the innocence that prompted an Anaheim barber to close his shop and post a "Going to the Game Why Don't You?" sign was fading or had already faded in Southland cities. "It was simply a time and place that will never be duplicated," former Anaheim fullback Jim Pollard said from his Tucson home.

"A last hurrah in so many ways," said Cal State Fullerton professor Art Hansen, who is preparing a book on the societal and Cold War changes in Southern California, using that 1956 game as the prism for his exploration, not sure yet he can totally explain how it has remained vivid for so many people for so many years.

"The one certainty is that at a time when high school football was still one of the few games in town, there was almost a mythical, iconic dimension to Mickey Flynn and Randy Meadows," Hansen said. "Just consider their names. It was almost as if they were characters out of Disneyland."

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It was 1991, 35 years later, when Bill Essex, a center and special teams player on the 1956 Anaheim team, traveled to Reno to see his son, Rome, a linebacker at Weber State, play against the University of Nevada.

Essex will never forget that afternoon for a couple of reasons. Nevada, for one, set an NCAA record by rallying from a 42-14 deficit for a 55-49 victory. For another: A vendor, noticing Essex was wearing a commemorative '56 jacket when he entered the stadium, called him over to ask if he knew Mickey Flynn and to tell him, "I was at that game. It was the best I've ever seen."

Many of the '56 players can relate similar incidents having "been there" becoming a historic milestone for those who were, and maybe some who weren't.

The announced crowd was 41,383, still a state record for a playoff game, but the total may have been more than 50,000, perhaps more than 60,000. There weren't enough tickets or ticket booths the game was delayed 15 minutes because of the unexpectedly large crowd and the late Southern Section commissioner, Kenny Fagans, recalled more than once that he and aides were eventually throwing money into boxes and letting people in without a ticket.

Only those in the lower rows could see clearly through the fog, but Flynn's vision hasn't faded over the years.

Now 68, gray haired but full of life, he sat in an Orange County coffee shop recently and reminisced. "My dad used to take me to games in the Coliseum," he said. "We'd sit above the tunnel so that we could see the whole field, see how holes opened up and how runners would use their blockers. I never thought I'd walk through that tunnel wearing a uniform, and when I did on that night against Downey well, the hair on my arms still stands up just thinking about it and talking about it."

The lessons learned sitting above the tunnel stayed with Flynn.

The first time he touched the ball in a varsity game as a sophomore he ran 95 yards for a touchdown. He would score 55 touchdowns and accumulate 3,681 yards in three seasons as the 5-foot-7 "Ghost of La Palma," a reference to the Anaheim stadium where the Colonists played, drawing 10,000 a game the town "pretty much shutting down" on game day, in his words, except for Disneyland, which had opened amid the orange groves in 1955.

On Monday, Flynn sat at the head table during a luncheon to honor the Southern Section teams that qualified for this year's championship games. Among them, fittingly, was Anaheim, which will play La Palma Kennedy for the Southern Division title at 7 tonight at Orange Coast College.

As a junior in 1955, Flynn was the Southern Section Major Division player of the year, an honor he shared in '56 with Meadows, a similar tight-T scatback who averaged 15 yards a carry that season.

Amid the fog of Dec. 14, amid the hype that had built as Anaheim and Downey advanced through the playoffs and Flynn and Meadows had added to their aura, neither disappointed.

Flynn gained 134 yards in 17 carries, scoring on a 62-yard run in the first quarter and a one-yard run in the third. Meadows gained 112 yards in 10 carries, responding to Flynn with a 69-yard touchdown run in the opening quarter.

The game ended in a 13-13 tie, Anaheim and Downey co-champions, and Flynn said in recollection, "I hated it. There should have been some way to play it off."

"Maybe the tie was appropriate," said former Downey center Lash Stevenson, now a San Mateo barber who maintains a web site, LashsPlace.com, which features stories and pictures of the game. "It was certainly better than losing."

For the coaches, Anaheim's Clare VanHoorebeke and Downey's Dick Hill, 1956 was merely a steppingstone. The late VanHoorebeke, credited with bringing films, scouting and weight training to the high school level, won 16 Sunset League titles and 190 games at Anaheim. At the time he retired more than 40 years later, the late Hill was Orange County's winningest high school coach.

For the two young stars, Flynn and Meadows, 1956 was part albatross and part a measure of fame they came to grips with over the years."Every time I opened the sports page leading up to that game it was Randy and I," Flynn said, looking back. "I was a high school kid with pimples. There was a lot of pressure with everyone saying how great you are. I told Randy when the game was over that the pressure was off, we could go back to being kids again. Of course, that didn't happen, but that was the price of small-town football."

The expectations, he meant, didn't fade with the fog.

Not with Anaheim naming a street in your honor, as it did for Flynn, or with kids wearing Halloween jerseys with Flynn's and Meadows' numbers on their backs, or with fans asking, "What's next?" Neither Meadows nor Flynn was academically oriented. "My biggest regret is that I didn't study more," Flynn said, and that, along with their comparatively small size, proved a handicap to their college advancement after 85,931 fans came to the Coliseum the following summer to see them in the same backfield for the South All-Star team in the Shrine North-South game. Both were thwarted as the North won easily.

Flynn then played a season at Long Beach City College, moved on briefly to Arizona State under Frank Kush, but was gone before anyone really knew he was there.

Meadows went to USC briefly, never appeared in a varsity game and suffered a career-ending injury while playing for a service team in the Army. He was married four times in what friends called a failed and frustrating search for stability, had two daughters, ultimately became security manager at a Moreno Valley hospital and died in 2000 at 62 after a long battle with cancer.

"Randy's life is so often portrayed negatively, but that just wasn't the case," said his sister, Diana Peasley, who lives in Riverside. "He regretted not doing more with school, but we had moved from Georgia with our mother as youngsters and he just had no male influence to guide him or give him direction at that important time in his life.

"But he later loved working with kids, coaching them when he got the chance. He liked his job at the hospital and people liked him, and he was grateful for the impression that his football career had made.

"I mean, who wouldn't be? It's amazing how many people still talk about him and remember that 1956 game. My husband is an attorney and has often said he would have given anything to be in Randy's football shoes."

The bulk of Flynn's life since putting his cleats away has been spent in heavy equipment rental and construction. He disappeared for several years from the Orange County football scene, but his 1981 election to the O.C. Sports Hall of Fame "sort of turned the lights on again," he said.

Flynn attends most of his alma mater's football games, has been an unpaid assistant at Fullerton College for 11 years, recently crowned Anaheim's homecoming queen and attends reunions of both the Anaheim and Downey teams from '56.

Several of those players went on to play in college. Only one, former Anaheim and UCLA tackle Marshall Shirk, played professionally, spending several seasons in Canada, but there are rewards of all kinds.

Flynn and his second wife, Beth, for example, have a combined family totaling seven children and 20 grandchildren.

"I'm sure I disappointed a lot of people by not doing more with my football career, and maybe some of them think of me as a dumb SOB," Flynn said. "But I can look back now with satisfaction.

"I had a friend tell me once, 'Hey, you were the best high school player in America. You were what a lot of kids dream about.'

"I mean, I never lived off being 'Mickey Flynn' but I've enjoyed seeing my name in the paper occasionally, and it's great that people still recognize me."

The Ghost of La Palma paused, filtering the memories. He was asked if there is ever a reverie in which Meadows is not included. He sighed and shook his head.

"When I heard that Randy was in bad shape from the cancer," Flynn said, "I called him and we talked for quite a while. I reminded him that he had helped bring attention to football in Southern California and that he'd had kids all over the area looking up to him, putting his name and number on the back of their shirts.

"I said to him, 'Randy, people still remember. How great is that? How lucky have we been?' " For Mickey Flynn, at least, the answers have emerged from any fog of doubt.