Updated Nov. 21, 2011
Grossmont and Helix Charter High tonight will see their sibling rivalry renewed again. Prep football pundits will have no problem making the county’s No. 1-ranked Highlanders the favorites against their Foothiller cousins.
But 60 years ago the roles were somewhat reversed.
Helix, which had just opened its first school year less than two months earlier, was the new kid on the block. Grossmont was the veteran older brother—the East County’s biggest and most heralded football power.
So that was the backdrop Friday night, Nov. 2, 1951, when a crowd of more than 5,000 piled into San Diego State College’s Aztec Bowl for La Mesa’s first “inter-city” high school football game.
The crowd represented nearly half the population of the city of La Mesa. (Tonight’s game at Grossmont High School will max out at just over 2,000 seats.)
The initial Friday Night Lights pageantry included not only the game but both schools’ marching bands, including the recently formed Helix “Green and Silver” band. Halftime festivities also featured a gymnastics demonstration with more than 1,000 girls from the two schools.
In addition to bragging rights, the school administrations realized the value of the new intradistrict rivalry and announced that the winning team would be awarded an “Old Civil War Era Musket” as the annual prize for victory.
According to the Grossmont High School museum, the original musket came from the family of Jack Campbell, Helix’s first senior class president and first Helix team halfback. Campbell’s father, Sidney, had inherited the 19th century antique firearm and offered it up as the prize for the victors of “the annual battle.”
The district administration would then present the “trophy” to the winners at a postgame dance open to both schools’ students.
With such festivities and import, the Nov. 1 La Mesa Scout billed the contest as the “Big Little Game of the area.” The Scout’s reference was to the then nearly 60-year-old football rivalry between Stanford and California, known as the Big Game (still the West Coast’s oldest and most regaled pigskin rivalry—begun in 1892).
A True Sibling Rivalry
What made the initial Grossmont-Helix game so unique was the closeness of the two teams.
As detailed in a previous History Gems article, Helix High had been split out from the overcrowded Grossmont campus—only the second school of today’s 12-school district.
Therefore most of the players had been schoolmates the previous few years at Grossmont. In addition, due to delays in the construction of the new Helix campus, the schools also had to share the Grossmont campus that first 1951-52 school year.
With the campus set for double-sessions (Grossmont in the mornings and Helix in the afternoons), new Helix varsity coach Ken Maynard had to hold his team’s practices in the mornings from 9:30 a.m. to noon. The players then had to hustle off to classes from 1 to 5:40 p.m.
Gene Earl, high school sports reporter for The San Diego Union, laid out these logistical, as well as some personnel challenges, for coach Maynard in a Sept. 13, 1951, preseason article titled “Helix Grid Boss Faces Tough Job.”
“One hundred fifty pounds and no experience,” wrote Earl as his descriptor of the talent that Maynard was charged with molding into a new team.
The district had originally hoped to split the 3,200 Grossmont District’s students into campuses of 1,800 and 1,400. However, Helix opened the year with roughly 1,200 students. And only two of these students—senior end Howard Fackrell and junior quarterback Ernie Merk—were returning lettermen from the 1950 Grossmont varsity team (Merk would play the key tailback position in Helix' single-wing offense).
Grossmont High would also be challenged. The 1950 team had taken third place in their initial season in the new City Prep League but had graduated many seniors.
The third-place finish had been a great improvement over the previous two years, when the Foothillers had struggled with the larger competition of the Southern California Coast League that included prep powerhouse San Diego High, and northern competition such as Compton and Pasadena.
The struggles had been in contrast to their domination of the county’s Metropolitan League under longtime coach Ladimir “Jack” Mashin. Mashin had arrived in 1923 and had built a football power in the 1920s and 1930s at the smaller “rural” high school.
After winning the 1947 Metropolitan League title with future San Diego State star Art Preston leading the way, Mashin resigned as football coach to focus on his athletic director and track coaching duties.
Then, in a bit of a surprise, the smaller schools of the Metro League voted to oust Grossmont for the 1948 season due to its rapidly increasing student population.
Thus new Grossmont football head coach Lee Bogle, the former Hoover and Calexico High head coach, and his assistant Ken Maynard, his former replacement at Calexico, faced the larger regional competition of the Coastal League. (Maynard had been a star single-wing quarterback at Brigham Young University in his playing days). The squad struggled mightily in 1948 but had fought back to a .500 record for 1949.
With the growing local competition and the costs and logistics of traveling regionally, San Diego High had helped organize the City League along with Hoover, Point Loma, La Jolla, Kearny and Grossmont in 1950. Bogle and Maynard led the squad to a respectable third-place league finish.
Yet with the creation of Helix for the 1951 season, the Highlanders and Foothillers were now the two smallest schools in the City League.
In addition, Grossmont would also be learning a new system. With Maynard leaving to take on the task of building the program at Helix, Lee Bogle also left for a job at Kearny High.
The Foothillers were now under the charge of new coach Bud Nygren and assistants Mel Frank and Jack Keogh. (Nygren having been a college star at San Jose State and professional player in the All American Football Conference in 1946-47 for Los Angeles and Brooklyn).
An Up-and-Down Season
Maynard’s Highlanders opened their initial season with a spot in the City League’s Football Carnival held at Balboa Stadium on Sept. 21. Facing Kearny High for a quarter, the undersized squad was dealt a 7-0 setback as the squad could not get its single-wing offense off the ground.
Helix’s first official game was against St. Augustine’s Saints on Sept. 29 at the Hoover High field. A crowd estimated at 5,000 attended this match up of small-sized, single-wing teams.
Maynard’s scrappy Highlanders started off their school’s official football history with a 19-point first-quarter outburst including two touchdowns by Don Berry—returning a fumble and a blocked punt for scores.
Those touchdowns and a 15-yard end run from halfback Jody Crane started off Helix’s gridiron history with a bang. Helix held on for the 19-13 victory for its first ever win in their first ever game.
Unfortunately, the squad would have to wait a while for their next victory. Big losses to local powers Hoover and San Diego High followed before a tough 14-0 loss to Sweetwater and another thumping at the hands of eventual League champs La Jolla High.
Helix would enter the Nov. 2 match against Grossmont with a 1-4 record.
Grossmont also had struggled to find its winning ways. Coach Nygren had installed a straight-T offense that took advantage of strong-armed senior quarterback John Kenna and ends Bernie Martin, Joe Long and Bud Carr and speedy halfbacks Ken Brown and Bert Kohnhorst.
Yet the season opener against Chula Vista ended in a frustrating 0-0 tie. While the Foothillers outgained the smaller Spartans, they had fumbled several times in the red zone. Nygren’s Foothillers responded with a close win over longtime rival Sweetwater 12-7 then fell to a tough Point Loma team 12-6.
Grossmont rebounded with a 19-12 win over Kearny, then fell to Hoover 31-7 in spite of an 80-yard Kenna to Ken Brown touchdown pass to open the game. Grossmont then took its lumps against powerhouse San Diego High 25-0 to go into the first “Musket” game at 2-3-1.
The Inaugural Musket Game
With neither team scorching the City League, and the inside knowledge of each other’s squad, it made sense that the first Grossmont-Helix contest would be a close, hard-fought contest.
Helix would strike first on Ernie Merk’s 22-yard scamper in the first period. The Foothillers would respond with a long drive that ended in fullback Bud Carter’s four-yard plunge to end the first quarter tied 6-6.
After pounding each other in a scoreless second quarter, the teams gave way to the Helix and Grossmont bands and the gymnastics performance at halftime.
It appeared that the first team to get, or make, a break would pull out the win.
Late in the third quarter, the Foothillers blocked a Helix punt, setting them up in Highlander territory.
Riding the momentum, Grossmont’s speedy halfback Ken Brown took the ball over from two yards out and with the extra point grabbed the lead 13-6.
Then the bigger Foothillers put the pressure on the smaller Highlanders, clamping down on the Helix offense. Still, Helix’s defense held. But when the clock ran out, it was the “elder brother” who held the initial prize.
The Musket and Beyond
That night at the postgame dance, district Superintendent Lewis Smith handed “Old Betsy” to Helix captain Howard Fackrell. Fackrell then presented the Campbell Musket to the victor’s captain—Grossmont’s Virgil Bell.
As the headline read in the Nov. 8, 1951 La Mesa Scout, the transfer of the old musket represented the symbolism that the new rivalry would be “More than a Football Game” and “promised to become a traditional battle” for years to come.
Yet the rest of the 1951 season followed the same trajectory for both teams.
Grossmont lost to eventual City League champion La Jolla 33-0 then stomped St. Augustine 32-12 to end the year at 4-4-1.
Helix fell 39-6 to Point Loma before dropping a tough 19-13 game to Kearny—a game in which they fell behind 19-0 before two fourth-quarter touchdowns closed the gap—but as for most of the year, and not for lack of effort, they still came up a bit short.
Grossmont placed Melvin Scott, Ken Brown, Ray Le Compte, John Kenna, Bert Hohnhorst and John Archard on the All-City Team. At the Helix football team awards dinner, Ernie Merk was named Most Outstanding Player, Richard Fuller Best All-Around and Carlos Fackrell Most Improved Player.
It would take the Highlanders two more tries before wrestling the “Campbell Musket” back with a 32-7 victory in 1953.
Still, up to 1978, Grossmont held a 16-12 advantage in the annual contests.
Since that time, and following the lead of Helix’s legendary coach Jim Arnaiz’s record-setting 27-year run of 277 wins, 77 losses and 11 ties, the younger school has dominated the football rivalry—losing only once (1991) with two ties going into this year’s contest.
Lacing ‘Em Up Again
Tonight the county's top-ranked 5-1 Helix Highlanders travel back to their initial home, the Grossmont High field, for the annual matchup for the old Campbell Musket with the 4-1-1 Foothillers.
Game time is 7 p.m.