Before the start of the 1966 football season, Steinert High School head coach Pete Brescia asked two seniors to talk to his team.
Gary Hohman and Bruce Garland were coming off a summer in which they had helped the Hamilton Post 31 baseball team win its first state championship.
“They spoke up and told the team at the beginning of the season what it takes to be a winner,” Brescia said. “I’ll never forget it.”
No one who was a part of that 1966 team will forget the season that followed. A senior-heavy Steinert put together a 9-0 season to finish as the only unbeaten and untied Group IV team in New Jersey that year. They remain the only unbeaten team in Steinert football history.
“That season, once we got on a roll, we wanted to be undefeated,” said Hohman, who started at quarterback and defensive back. “That was a big thing because there were no state playoffs back then. I wish they would have had five or six or 10 teams since us that went undefeated.”
The 1966 Steinert team will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that special season on Nov. 4 at the high school gym. The team will also be recognized before Steinert’s Nov. 5 home game against West Windsor-Plainsboro North. Any player who would like to attend should contact Steinert athletic director Steve Gazdek at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (609) 631-4150. The team is also planning an informal gathering at Rossi’s the evening of the Nov. 5 game.
“I’m very excited,” said Garland, a halfback/fullback who also starred on special teams. “I haven’t seen a lot of the guys in many years. I haven’t seen some of the guys for a long time.”
The players have scattered—Hohman stayed in Minnesota after graduating from the University of Minnesota, where he enjoyed stellar baseball and football careers—and some have passed away, but the 1966 season has kept them forever intertwined. They were a part of Steinert’s first Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2006.
“It was a magical year,” Hohman said of 1966. “Everything came together. All the stars aligned. All those clichés you want to say. We had a lot of guys that wanted to win, too. You have to give the players a lot of credit, it wasn’t just luck. And the coaches, they did a great job with us.”
The undefeated season represented a monumental jump in success. Steinert hadn’t had a winning season since it started playing football in 1958, but the Spartans played a schedule that took them to Group IV schools all around the state.
“The big jump came for a number of reasons,” Garland said. “The main thing was there were 18 seniors on the team, a pretty high number. Most of us had played since Reynolds Junior High. Reynolds was the first time all but one of us had played any organized football. We were together since then. The coaches were terrific. We had a lot to draw from leadership wise. All 18 seniors made a major contribution at one point or another. The underclassmen played a critical role too, but to have 18 seniors on the team who all got along and who all worked together and who had played mostly four years together was critical.”
The season began with the team traveling to Stokes State Forest, where they started bonding during a weeklong preseason camp.
“I remember going around picking up stones on the field for about 20 minutes before we started,” said John Kamrad, a sophomore lineman on the team. “The seniors put on a skit or a little show with the coaches and players, and a couple guys had good voices and sang. It was pretty interesting for a sophomore being up there.”
It put the team together for the first time, and it started the season off on the right foot.
“That was a good experience,” said Rick Ritter, the senior back-up quarterback. “It was the first time the school allowed preseason. There was just something special about going up there and bunking together and doing our thing in North Jersey in the middle of nowhere.”
They returned to Steinert with a determination to see just how good they could be. They had won four games the year before, but had a new resolve for 1966.
“At some point, we just decided that—and this sounds odd to people—we would take winning really seriously,” Garland said. “There’s a big difference between hoping you could win and expecting you could win. We somehow made that jump from hoping to win to expecting to win.”
Steinert had a tough season opener, but it would end up being one of their only competitive games of the year. Most of their wins were convincing thanks to a dominant defense and punishing offense.
“Our first game was a close game,” Hohman said. “We played Sayreville, and it was 13-7. After that, they weren’t close. We gave up three touchdowns the entire year. One of those was when we were ahead like, 39-0, and our second team gave up a touchdown. It was ridiculous how good our defense was.”
The team had talent on both sides of the ball, and there were a number of players like Hohman who played both ways. After graduating from Steinert at 17, Hohman would go on to play a year at Bordentown Military Academy before becoming an All-Big Ten defensive back for Minnesota. He still holds the Gophers’ program record for the longest interception return, 99 yards. He also captained a baseball team that also included Dave Winfield, and was an All-Big Ten shortstop who went on to make it as high as AA in the Detroit Tigers organization.
“We had a superstar and then we had stars,” Garland said. “Any one of the players could have been a star at any one time, and they did.”
Brescia remembers how hungry his players were even to practice defense. They made sure they didn’t miss a chance.
“The defense was terrific,” he said. “It was loaded with seniors who had been playing three or four years. They used to love to play defense. Every Wednesday, we did goal-line defense (in practice). Kids would miss school and make sure they came in half the day so they didn’t miss goal-line defense. That’s how excited they were.”
Hohman said the team had a lot of players who were two or three inches too short to play Division I football, but who were faster than what Steinert’s competition was used to. Kamrad added that Steinert also had a slew of guys who weighed more than 200 pounds, which was big at the time. Combined, Steinert had an intimidating look that helped to garner results.
Hohman led the Steinert offense that, thanks to that defense, didn’t have to score a lot to win. They wore down opponents.
“That year, we put the option in,” Hohman said. “We ran the option offense. It just fit our talent level. As I recollect, in nine games, we passed it 54 times. We ran the ball all the time. We had a great offensive line. We could move the ball on teams. We had a blowout game where we beat Trenton, 52-0. Most of our games we scored around 20-27 points. It was a grind-out team.”
The season finale is a game that they remember with a special fondness. Steinert took on rival Hamilton, which was also in the midst of a terrific season with just one loss.
“They still talk about that crowd,” Garland said. “The crowd for the Thanksgiving Day game, there have been estimates that it was over 10,000 people.”
It was also memorable for the adversity that Steinert overcame. Hohman was lost for the game in the first half with a separated shoulder, and Steinert had to turn to Ritter at quarterback.
“When Gary went down, I ran in real fast and ran a couple plays here and there,” Ritter said. “The first thing I did when came out, I told him, ‘We’ll get them for you.’”
Garland gave the team a big boost when he returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, and the defense and Ritter helped guide the Steinert team to an 18-0 win over Hamilton.
“Rick Ritter came in, and Ricky was a great thrower,” Garland said. “He did such a good job in the Hamilton game. A lot of people don’t realize, but he probably played against the best defense in the state every day in practice. It was no surprise to us how he did.”
“He directed the team like he’d been there all year,” Brescia said.
The win clinched the historic season for the Spartans.
“We never did any huge celebrations until the clock wound down at the Hamilton game,” Garland said. “That was a big celebration.”
It was only Brescia’s fourth year at the helm of Steinert. He would go on to coach the Spartans until 1976, but never again had the pieces to duplicate the run of 1966.
“They had a great deal of senior leadership,” Brescia said. “The jump was because they said, ‘This is our senior year.’ They were committed and every kid was accountable to each other.”
Team members were Frank Annalorro, Tom Bartlett, Wayne Bartolone, Russ Beilieu, John Bernhardt, Dave Burchell, Phil Brushi, John Conte, Bob Decker, Tom Decker, Vince DiLiberto, John Edwards, Bruce Garland, Tom Harowski, Bob Hart, Fred Hartshorn, Ken Harris, Gary Hohman, John Hyatt, Russ Kivler, Clarence Morris, Ross Edwards, John Kamrad, Tim Long, Rich Maffai, Vince Matuza, Bob Monyer, Jim Pattitucci, Dave Powell, Mike Rakoski, Ralph Ridolfino, Rick Ritter, Tom Sereni, Pat Stein, Sam Steinert, Jay Van Horn, John Vig, Leon Warner, Darrel Waytes, Jay Weigel and Bob Watson.