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If you rewind the hands of time far enough, you’ll take Joe Bonargo back to 1965, when he was just 18 years old. He’s in Denison, Iowa — a small town that requires miles upon miles of cornfield-lined highways to get to; that has just five stoplights that run along the main street; that has a Hy-Vee and a bank and a library to make up its center. He’s prepping for his first collegiate football practice at the fairgrounds that are just off the main road.

Bonargo and his teammates weren’t wearing shoulder pads or helmets — just t-shirts and shorts. They didn’t have sleds to push or blocking dummies to evade or shields for the coaches to hit them with. All they had was the limited amount of grass and shoes and the sounds of whistles piercing the fall air.

The team couldn’t hit each other. They didn’t have organized weight-training workouts. So they ran sprints. Lots of sprints. Bonargo’s coach, Don Larsen, knew his team wasn’t going to be the biggest.

But they sure as hell weren’t going to be outworked.

“He made darn sure we were in shape,” Bonargo said, now 66. “The practices were absolutely brutal. You’re talking Iowa weather near the end of the summer.”

Midwestern College opened its doors to higher learning in Denison that year, welcoming just over 600 students. But the football program was an outlier all on its own — so much that the inaugural team will meet for a reunion this weekend, possibly for the last time, when Iowa takes on Western Michigan at Kinnick Stadium.

Many first-year institutions don’t field football teams. Further, football programs in their first year aren’t normally successful. Long before Iowa reached the 1957 Rose Bowl, and before it won the 2010 Orange Bowl, it was a mere startup program that lost its lone game in 1889: a 24-0 whipping from Grinnell.

This led to many questions about the Midwestern Packers. How good will this first-year team be? What kind of recruits would a small-town Iowa college attract? Considered a “small college” back then, how many games would it play? And how many of those could it win?

Bonargo wasn’t worried about any of that. In his eyes, this was going to be an adventure. He turned down other scholarships to play for a small school in Iowa. He put his faith in a coaching staff that he didn’t officially meet until he first set foot on campus.

“Dad said, ‘Make sure you write your mom often,’ ” Bonargo said, originally a native of Willow Grove, Pa. “But it was a unique and incredibly enjoyable experience.”

A coach’s journey

A year earlier, while the final touches were being put on the idea for Midwestern College, Don Larsen worked as a second-year assistant at Central College under legendary coach Ron Schipper.

Larsen admired Schipper and for good reason: Schipper coached at Central from 1961-1996 and compiled a 287-67-3 record. Each one of his 36 teams finished above .500. At the time of his retirement, Schipper’s career winning-percentage — a modest .808 — ranked fourth in the Division III record books. (He died in 2006.)

Schipper also thought highly of Larsen. When Roger Nielsen — Midwestern’s athletic director and eventual assistant football coach — called Schipper for a recommendation on whom he should hire to be the Packers’ head football coach, the Central coach gave him Larsen’s name.

“[Schipper] was nice enough to recommend me,” Larsen said, now 80. “And I ended up getting the job.”

So Larsen and his wife picked up and moved from Pella, Iowa to Denison. It was early in the summer of 1965, meaning the recruiting process for the upcoming fall was essentially over. Larsen compensated by scanning the applications of incoming Midwestern students, looking for any football players among them.

The slow beginnings of the football team mirrored that of the school itself. The local paper ran a small plea from the school that asked Denison residents to stay away from the construction so they could finish building. And it wasn’t until October of 1965 that the school’s trustees passed a $3 million building program that would accommodate the next year’s enrollment.

The football program also had its limitations. In addition to the lack of legitimate equipment early on, there was a lack of facilities. There was no place to put a weight room. The team was going to play its games at the local high school field. The “locker-room” was a display building at the fairgrounds. It didn’t have showers.

“So at the completion of practice, we would take the kids back to the hotel and motel area or private homes or whatever [so they could clean up],” Larsen said. “And to do that a couple of times a day — it could’ve been really discouraging.”

But it wasn’t. Each of the 46 men who originally came out to play stayed. And Bonargo and Larsen both credit that to the team’s captains.

Corralling the captains

Ron O’Herron initially made plans to play football at the University of South Dakota. He left his hometown of Carroll, Iowa for Vermillion, S.D., as a quarterback set on making a name for himself rather than getting an education.

“I probably didn’t have any common sense going for me whatsoever,” O’Herron said, now 67. “I just wanted to play football.”

So when Larsen contacted O’Herron — after his first year in Vermillion, O’Herron decided to transfer to Iowa State to be closer to home — he appealed to the quarterback’s inner competitor.

Larsen was just named the head coach at a brand new football program, which meant O’Herron wouldn’t have to sit out a year if he transferred to Denison as opposed to Ames. O’Herron jumped on board.

“I don’t know how they let him go,” Larsen said. “He was a very, very good football player.”

Meanwhile, around 200 miles southeast of Denison, Robert Schwoeble was set to begin his second football season at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. One of Schwoeble’s coaches, Roger Nielsen, told him he’d be leaving Fairfield to become the athletics director of a new school in the western part of the state.

He’d also help coach football and head the men’s basketball program. Before heading to Denison, Nielsen asked Schwoeble if he’d like to come with him to Midwestern College. The only promise was that Schwoeble would have an identical scholarship at Midwestern. Schwoeble agreed to it, and became the first out-of-state student on campus at Midwestern (he’s originally from Turtle Creek, Pa.).

O’Herron and Schwoeble met up with Marty Dwine on campus before the rest of the team arrived, and long before the rest of Midwestern’s students arrived. The trio were the only three players on the 46-man roster to have previously played college football — Dwine was formerly of Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, S.D. Larsen, fittingly, listed the three as captains.

“They were very well disciplined,” Bonargo said about his captains. “You just didn’t get tired. If you did, Rob Schwoeble would remind you that you’re not tired.

“They kept the freshmen in line and made us believe that we had the opportunity to do something special. And we did.”

The dorms still weren’t complete by the time students began trickling into Denison. The females took precedence over the males and filled the dorms first, leaving some males — football players included — to find housing elsewhere.

In turn, Midwestern officials asked the local residents if they could help accommodate some students who didn’t have a place to live, and Denison opened its arms. The small town had been waiting for a college to break ground within the city limits, and having a football team along with it was another perk.

Many of the players stayed with the townspeople, helping build a stronger connection between Denison and the team. Owners of local businesses wanted to know this team — like, really know them. They left their jobs during the day to watch the Packers practice. They were on a first-name basis with the players as they strolled through town.

“This is a little town of 6,000 people or so, and these people are leaving their jewelry stores, their barber shops to come watch you practice,” Bonargo said. “And then, when you’re walking through town, they’re talking to you, telling you they’re behind you. It was a phenomenal experience.”

Schwoeble, who stayed with Denison’s chief of police, eventually bought a vehicle from his landlord, and he used it to drive some of the boys out to the fairgrounds for practice.

‘We’ve never heard hitting that hard’

The Packer’s early preseason practices weren’t anything like normal football practices. The lack of facilities tagged with the lack of equipment made the first few practices for Larsen’s crew seem more like track practices.

But they worked with what they had. Larsen said he failed the team in the weight-lifting department, but he made sure the young men were ready to play football. They spent long practices at the fairgrounds mastering his conservative wing-T offensive scheme.

The influence of Schipper on Larsen was visible. His players called Larsen “brutally fair.” Those who worked hard would earn their spots. And just like the Central College legend had, Larsen organized his practices by colored jerseys. The first-team guys wore blue-colored practice jerseys; the second-team wore red; everyone else had to earn a color.

“Coach Schipper was an amazing organizer,” Larsen said. “It was a great opportunity working under him for the two years that I did. To build the foundation, I took a lot of his ideas to Midwestern with me.”

Practices weren’t always perfect, though. Inclement weather made the team relocate sometimes so they could continue preparing for the season. A local reverend let the team use his church gymnasium to run wind sprints on one occasion. The team practiced in the basement of a bowling alley/skating rink another day.

The lack of resources and facilities never stopped the Packers, and these episodes helped build camaraderie.

“We didn’t have any superstars, no prima donnas,” O’Herron said. “We had no special agendas. We just bonded.”

The friendship grew in the weeks leading up to the season. For some, this was the-middle-of-nowhere-Iowa, and all they had was, essentially, each other. Either they worked hard and learned to trust each other, or they weren’t part of the process at all.

Schwoeble recalls one instance when he knew the team had finally come together. One afternoon, a few members of the team went to shoot pool. As they entered the poolroom, some of the townies in there didn’t like that Schwoeble and his buddies were taking up a few of the tables. Friction surfaced.

“There wasn’t a fight or anything, but everybody was backing everybody up,” Schwoeble said. “Luckily, it didn’t turn into anything bad.”

The season had arrived by early October, but there was still one problem: the team was without uniforms. It wasn’t until a week before the season-opener that the Packers finally had complete football outfits. They were finally able to hit each other. They were finally able to play real football.

“[Denison residents] were all saying the same thing: ‘We have never heard hitting like that,”  Bonargo said. “And they were excited about it. They were excited to have this new football team.”

But after just a week in pads, how prepared would the Packers actually be for the season-opening game against Graceland, an established school with an established football program?

“You always wonder if you’re prepared or not,” Larsen said. “But we had to go anyway. We ran out of time.” And off they went into the regular season.

‘It was a wild, fantastic thing’

The fans and students knew only a little bit about the Packers before their début matchup against Graceland College of Lamoni, Iowa. They knew they’d run the wing-T offense. They knew the defense would be similar to today’s 3-4.

What they didn’t know, though, is how good their hometown Packers would actually be.

There was reason to doubt on that opening night. The team itself wasn’t very daunting on the whole, measuring up with a collective 6-0, 194-pound average frame. But the players believed, and that’s all that mattered.

Sporting the school’s blue and red colors and a full crowd watching, Midwestern rolled to a 32-24 victory over the Yellow Jackets. The local paper wrote that the Packers “exploded into reality,” and the score “should have been 32-12,” if not for some garbage-time scores by Graceland.

“It was such an atmosphere,” Schwoeble remembers. “I was actually surprised at how many people came out for the game. We only had about 500 students, but there seemed to be four or five times that for the actual game.”

If a season-opening victory was a shocker, then perhaps the Packers were out to prove a point in their second contest. Facing Pillsbury College of Owatonna, Minn., Midwestern won in a 34-3 blowout, sparked by a Charlie Dennis punt-return touchdown for 70 yards.

“Everyone did a good job,” Larsen told the local paper after his team improved to 2-0. “I thought our defense was much improved from our last game” — and it was; the Packer defense allowed just 119 total yards to Pillsbury after yielding 216 to Graceland.

The offense progressed, too. Midwestern traveled down to Ottumwa, Iowa to play the semi-pro Ottumwa Chiefs. This matchup hit home for the Iowa natives on Midwestern’s roster — a few Chiefs players were native Iowans who had previously played at Iowa, Iowa State and Drake.

The local paper read that Midwestern “scored at will” in a 57-13 thrashing in which eight different players found the end zone. That same paper also said the score “might have been 100-13 had coach Don Larsen not substituted as freely as he did.” The Packers were 3-0, and on the drive back to Denison, they celebrated as if they had just won the crystal ball.

“Ironically, they were supposed to come to our place the next week, and they didn’t show,” Schwoeble said and laughed. The forfeit went down as a 2-0 victory. Midwestern was 4-0.

The Packers were manhandling everybody they played. The local sports columnist calculated that Midwestern had outscored their opponents 123-40, and had put up points in all but one quarter of play. It took a complete team effort to reach 4-0, and that’s exactly how the head coach preferred it.

“They just answered the call,” Larsen said. “I think it was all the adversity that made the team so close.”

Midwestern’s next contest was against nationally-ranked Worthington Junior College of Worthington, Minn. This was also the inaugural Homecoming game for the Packers — which, in hindsight, doesn’t make much sense at all.

Bafflement aside, Midwestern continued to romp, and blew out Worthington, 40-19. Running back Tony Dennis was dubbed the game’s hero. Coach Larsen praised his lineman as they’ve been “outstanding all year and haven’t been getting the credit they deserve.”

At 5-0, the Packers had just one opponent left on their schedule: Graceland. It was a rematch of Midwestern’s season-opening victory. And Graceland was the only roadblock left in the path toward perfection.

“It was probably the most intense game,” O’Herron said. “But we went down there and just beat the snot out of them” – here, O’Herron pauses to laugh – “It was wild. It was a fantastic thing.”

Midwestern’s 34-0 victory over Graceland brought them to 6-0. A season that was littered with doubt and uncertainty ended with the Packers, on that November day in 1965, becoming the only football program in the country — and perhaps, the world — to have never lost a game.

Leaving Denison

The story of what happened after that magical season is different for each member of the team.
Most stuck around for the 1966 season, but the same magic wasn’t there. There was some turnover among the staff and players. The coaches ramped up the schedule to include tougher teams. The team, comprised of kids from all over the country, which had finally given Denison something to cheer for one year earlier, were now struggling to finish above .500 at the end of their second season.

Players and coaches eventually left the city after their individual stints with Midwestern. O’Herron continued his education before serving the country in Vietnam. He went overseas with a few Packer teammates, was shot twice, then returned home to work through a myriad of jobs.

Schwoeble earned a teaching degree and put it to work in Florida. He eventually went back home to Pennsylvania. After a lengthy career as a teacher, Schwoeble worked through different jobs — including stints with K-Mart and Pepsi.

The third captain, Marty Dwine, was described as happy-go-lucky by several of his teammates. He had a big heart, but played hard — Bonargo said he could break up any double-team as a linebacker and shut down any pass rush as a center — and knew when it was time to work and play. Dwine died earlier this year.

Bonargo married a woman he met when he moved to Denison, and they’ve been together for 44 years. He moved back to Pennsylvania and worked as a police officer, rising to lieutenant in just three years.

Larsen coached at Mankato State in Minnesota for nine years before coaching high school football in the same small town. He eventually retired but kept in contact with plenty of players from the 1965 Midwestern football team.

In fact, the team as a whole kept in good contact. Bonargo described the team as a band of brothers. O’Herron said it was the trying times that brought the men together.

But just how close were they, even after years and years of not seeing each other?

“Lou Aronica, who’s from New York, said he’d drive down to Pennsylvania, pick me up, and drive me to Iowa,” Bonargo said (he isn’t allowed to fly to the reunion because of a recent heart surgery). “Forty years later, and that’s the kind of relationship some of us have kept.”

A ball of memories

In 2007, players from the 1965 Packers met in Washington D.C., for a reunion. It had been more than 40 years since a good majority of the team had been together. Larsen joined them, and the group sat and talked about that season, telling war stories and remembering that Bonargo had to order a special helmet because the original supply didn’t have one that fit him.

Not every member of that team made it for the reunion — six players on that roster have since passed on. But those who did were presented with laser-engraved footballs commemorating the unbeaten campaign.

O’Herron keeps his in a plastic case in his den at home where it sits on top of a chest of trophies.
Schwoeble keeps his with some of, what he calls, his “knickknacks.” He said he was grateful to Spalding for supplying the members of the team with such a special memento.

Larsen keeps his football on a shelf with two separate pictures of that team: one from 1965, and another from their reunion in 2007. In that setup is a plaque the team provided him after reaching 6-0 that season. It reads, “The 1965 Midwestern Undefeated Football Team. 6-0. Thanks, Coach Larsen.”

“My wife said she was going to bury them with me,” Larsen said and laughed. “And she probably will.”

Bonargo keeps his football in a prominent spot in his library. And, just like his teammates, he said looking at that football takes Bonargo back to the fairgrounds for that first collegiate football practice so he can relive the memories all over again.

“This was the neatest damn thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Bonargo said. “And that’s the absolute truth.”

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