1974.62.1(5) NMC-NMU 1960 Football team, 'Frosty' Ferzacca & the team fighting the weather

Northern Michigan College 1960 Football game, with "Frosty" Ferzacca and the team fighting the weather.
(Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Seventy-Six Feet North of St. Petersburg

The Story of Northern Michigan College’s 1960 Football Season

By John Cebalo ‘69


Sixty years ago, when President Eisenhower occupied the White House, and the Upper Peninsula was threaded with twisting, tree covered, two-lane highways, Northern Michigan College’s football team celebrated a record breaking season.

That fall, as the small campus was expanding westward, and West Hall, the University Center, and Hedgcock Fieldhouse opened, the football team was capturing the imagination of the entire community.

The story really began In 1957, when, following extensive high school coaching  and a two-year stint as head coach at Marquette University, F.L. “Frosty” Ferzacca had been hired as both Northern’s head football coach and athletic director. He was recruited from the Packers’ front office by NMC’s President, Dr. Edgar Harden. Harden’s arrival on campus in 1956 had marked the beginning of the turnaround of Northern’s athletic fortunes. Harden, a former minor league ball player, and Michigan State’s faculty rep to the Big Ten, saw athletics as a way to showcase the small teacher’s college. Indeed, he was intimately involved in the program’s success; going so far as to personally interview potential recruits.

The ’56 Wildcats had gone undefeated, and expectations were high. Ferzacca’s staff consisted of assistant coaches Rollie Dotsch, a former Escanaba High School head coach, Newberry’s Burt Gustafson, and trainer Gildo Canale from Crystal Falls. When former players reminisce, they speak highly of the small staff; and Coach Ferzacca is characterized as being “knowledgeable and meticulous” and “a gentleman’s coach who did a Hellava job.” However Frosty’s first two seasons were sluggish, with 3–3 and 5–5 records. But things began to click in ’59, as the squad went 6–2.

By the second week in September 1960, when the team held its first scrimmage, the squad had been reduced to 50 players. It had a distinctly local flavor, with well over half the players from Michigan, including 25 from the U.P., and three from Marquette County: Negaunee’s Marvin Harry and Lee Johnson and Ishpeming’s Dominic Sarvello. Bob Kalbfleisch, a guard from St. Ignace, still remembers how proud he felt looking out from the sidelines one game and realizing that everyone on the offensive line was from the U.P. Two of the Yoopers would go on to distinguish themselves in professional football: Newberry’s Len St. Jean with the Boston Patriots and Bill Rademacher of Menominee with the New York Jets.  But not everyone was local color; Ferzacca had a friend in the former Boston Braves organization, and an exotic element was subsequently added by a handful of players from as far away as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – and this lead to some unexpected challenges. Northern’s quarterback was Frank Novak, from Massachusetts. Wakefield’s Dick Koski remembers crouching in huddles focusing intently on the play Novak was calling in his thick New England accent: “You had to listen carefully.” One has to wonder what Novak thought when he was first exposed to heavy Yooper accents? The very definition of language barrier! Over a dozen players from this squad would later go into coaching, including Dick Koski at Negaunee, Mike Mileski at Ishpeming, Al Sandona at the college level, and Bill Rademacher at Northern.

 Ferzacca’s offense is characterized as being ahead of its time, running basically from the full house T, but with pro sets, pulling guards, and counter action in the backfield. The 5’ 10” Novak was small, but slow. Nevertheless, he excelled as a field general whose passes were few but because of their limited number, all the more effective. The defense set up in a 5–2 “Rover” formation. Several of the players, like Koski and Sandona, played both offense and defense. Ferzacca was a firm believer in conditioning: The team that won was the one in the best shape. Practices were much harder than some of the games. The team hit twice a week; and there were NO water breaks.

After the annual scrimmage with the inmates at the Marquette Branch Prison (“Brownstone Tech”), which is best remembered by the prisoners eagerly offering to chase footballs which had sailed out of the field of play, the team hit the road  for a Saturday night game against Hillsdale College. Hillsdale was not only a state power, having won their conference, the MIAA, five years in a row, but a national small college power as well. Northern had never beaten them, and Ferzacca was 0–2 against the school.

It was to be the Dales only regular season loss that year, and they were never really in it. The defense shone. It started early when Len St. Jean blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone. Then Paul D’Arras of Kingsford ran for a score and U-M transfer Wayne Sickler (Calumet) had a TD catch to make the final 29–6. While the upset was encouraging, what happened afterwards was even more so – and it shocked the players.

Sunday evening, as the Wildcats’ homeward-bound bus was traveling through Harvey on US 41, it was unexpectedly met by a caravan of fifty honking vehicles who escorted them to a raucous reception in Lee Hall. They were greeted by students, administrators and faculty members alike. Marquette’s Roger La Bonte, the Student Council president, was responsible: “When Northern built up a 19–0 lead at the half, we decided to give the team the biggest welcome they had ever received.” Coach Ferzacca told the crowd: “The two proudest moments in my 27 years of coaching were the victory Saturday night and this reception tonight.”

The next week the giant came to town. Northern was 0–20 against Central Michigan.

Four thousand fans crowded into Memorial Field that warm, wet afternoon for High School Band Day. It turned out the highlight of the first half for them was watching the 600 musicians parade around the field, as Central took a 3–0 lead into the locker room.  Many of the Wildcats had come down with the flu the previous week— and they played like it. However, Lee Johnson scored on a 17-yard run in the third quarter, and then D’Arras and Sickler scored too, for a come- from-behind  20- 3 win. It was the first touchdown of Johnson’s career. At 24, a senior, he had long been considered a better defensive than offensive back. After a three-year hitch in the Army, he had made the team in ’58, and by mid-season ’59 was a defensive regular. His running, and his punting, had assured his place on the squad in the spring of 1960. He was named co-Wildcat of the Week for his play.  And Northern moved up to #3 in the NAIA national rankings. The Wildcats were flying high.

But then, the next Thursday night, at Youngstown, Cinderella’s coach crashed and burned.

 It was Northern’s third game in twelve days, but to some it would be remembered only as “The Three Minute Nightmare.” Uncharacteristically, it was marred by Wildcat defensive collapses and mental mistakes.

With three minutes left in the first half and Northern already down 20–6, the Penguins intercepted two passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and with 28 seconds left the score was 36–6. The ensuing kickoff was fumbled in the end zone and recovered by Youngstown. Score at the half: 40–6. NMC only collected six first downs in the game, and the rout ended with Youngstown University winning 49–26. Was it an upset? Bob Kalbfleisch puts it this way: “We got our asses handed to us. They were big, fast and good. I was on the kickoff team, the ‘suicide squad,’ and I’d never been hit so hard in my life.” It was quite a licking.

After the season, Frosty commented, “The time they started to comeback can be pinpointed. It was shortly after 4 a.m., the morning after the nightmare in Ohio when the Wildcats stepped off the plane at the County Airport to hear, unbelievingly at first, applause from students who had waited up to four hours for their ball club to get in.”

It was down to Ypsilanti next for a Friday night game against Eastern Michigan. For the third week in a row, the offense hiccupped, coughed and sputtered during the scoreless first half. The defense, led by co-captain Al Sandona of Iron Mountain in the line, and the compact Dick Koski in the backfield, performed brilliantly, holding the Hurons to 23 yards on the ground. Finally, the offense got into gear. In the third quarter, Wakefield’s Gene Valesano scored on a pitch out. Then Mike Mileski of Escanaba caught a touchdown pass, and D’Arras  punched it over from the five. NMC 21–0.

Coach Ferzacca was especially concerned going into the next contest, a Friday night Parents Day home game against St. Norbert. It had been some time since the team had been focused for a whole game.

They were focused—but the game got “chippy.” Several of Northern’s players were from Wisconsin, and before the game they and the Green Knights had exchanged sportsmanlike pleasantries. The defense held the Knights to an average of 2 yards per rush, and Koski, the 5’ 10,” 190-pound sophomore, was named Co-Player of the Week for his ferocious play. Koski played a roving “monster” position; and he laughingly remembers defensive end and co-captain George Blommel swearing at him for stunting too much and having to cover for him. On offense, D’Arras galloped 62 yards for a score on the second play from scrimmage, and the ‘Cats were off. D’Arras would score again and so would Johnson. Insatiable, Northern rang up 26 points in the last ten minutes. Both D’Arras and Valesano gained over a hundred yards; final: NMC 46–6.

Both Western Illinois and Northern had 4–1 records and were closely ranked in the NAIA poll. Western’s line was huge, averaging 230 a man, and included a 340 pounder. Opposite them were the likes of stocky 5’ 8”defensive guard Al Sandona. The last three quarters were played in a cold downpour that turned Memorial Field’s lush turf into a quagmire. Yet, astonishingly, both teams combined to roll up 688 total yards and 33 first downs. Fortunately, the Wildcats showed up ready to play and scored three times in the first quarter before the deluge. The increasingly unrecognizable teams splashed and slid through the mud for the rest of the game, until Northern finally slammed the door shut when Koski intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it to the 44. Johnson, Co-Player of the Week again, scored with 40 seconds left. NMC 34–20.

The last weekend in October was Homecoming, and St Cloud State was the designated sacrifice. 58–0. Ferzacca cleared the bench. Quarterbacks Frank Novak and Stan Ferris of St. Ignace went 11 for 11 passing; 13 backs carried, 10 players scored, and 459 yards of total offense were accumulated.

This was 1960, and Northern’s football team reflected the times on campus.  Some players were already married, and, as noted, there were several older players on the squad as well. Like Lee Johnson, Al Sandona had spent three years playing service ball in Europe— including some memorable games in Paris. He lived off campus at Pine Village. Sometimes these players, as well as some of the younger ones, just had to let off steam. A good place to do this was the North End Tavern. Diplomatically, the coaching staff usually turned a blind eye; on one occasion Ferzacca was overheard muttering through clenched teeth to no one in particular, “Even Mileski’s drinking!” But, occasionally, this just wasn’t possible. The boys just had too much energy. And the next day’s practice was a like a bad day at boot camp: hitting, wind sprints, and, of course, no water.  

NMC-NMU 1960 Football co-captains and coach, George Blommel, "Frosty" Ferzacca and Al "Muff" Sandona
1960 Football co-captains and coach, George Blommel, "Frosty" Ferzacca and Al "Muff" Sandona


Frigid, snowy, Houghton saw the sixty-third renewal of the rivalry game. Northern had won the last four, but Tech had rested the previous week and went into the contest with a 5–1 record. Interestingly, both Ferzacca and Tech’s Omar LaJeunesse were Iron Mountain natives, high school teammates (’24 – ’28), had coached in Iron Mountain, and assumed their current positions in 1957. Novak  was hot. In the last two contests he had gone 10–10, with 4 T Ds, and was up to a 47% completion average. However, he was hardly needed. Gary Shanley ran the opening kickoff back 85 yards for a score, and Northern never looked back. Other touchdowns were scored on long, time consuming, 80-, 63-, 62- and 55-yard drives. In the second quarter, Tech reached the two but had a pass picked off, and in the fourth quarter they drove to the five but lost the ball on a fumble. Northern recovered two fumbles and intercepted two passes as the defense, led by George Blommel, was relentless. NMC 46–0.

Going into the last game of the year against Valparaiso, Northern had the opportunity to set the program record for most wins in a season, with eight. They didn’t disappoint. In the fourth shutout in nine games, the Wildcats rolled 21–0. While Indiana that day was warm and sunny, four days of rain had made the footing treacherous. But the ‘Cats were living right. In the third quarter, the Crusaders had a first down on the Northern four. Four downs later, Northern took over inside their one. The offense went nowhere and Johnson dropped back to the end line to punt. He fumbled the snap, picked up the ball, and was run out of bounds on the 20. Valesano broke loose on the next play for 64 yards. Then, on a bootleg, Novak threw to Mileski who ran it in, completing a 99-yard drive.

Along the way, Northern had set another mark. For the first time, since the very early years, the program now had an overall winning record. Individually, Novak led the team in total offense with 744 yards, and his 12 TD passes led the state;  D’Arras averaged 4.9 yards a carry, Valesano 5.8, and Johnson 6.7;  Sickler led in catches with 15, and Mileski in receiving yards with 317. Northern finished the season ranked #11. It was a great way for the seniors to go out.

Or was it? Frosty knew something and kept the team practicing.

North Carolina’s Lenoir Rhyne College came out of their Thanksgiving Day Game with a 10–0 record, and ranked No. 1 in the NAIA. For the second straight year they were chosen to host the NAIA’s Eastern semi-final playoff game, winner to play in the championship in the Holiday Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

That Friday night after Thanksgiving, Northern had just finished a hard scrimmage when they got THE phone call. The response can be imagined. It would be Northern’s first post-season appearance. The next day the news made front page of the Mining Journal. Educational and civic leaders were full of praise. And President Harden said that it was “…a wonderful privilege to represent the state of Michigan on a national level.” 

Coach Gustafson had been in Hickory scouting Lenoir Rhyne just in case. He came back with a report of a team that ran a very sophisticated single wing offense, guided by its All American tailback. The Wildcats worked out twice a day until the weather broke on Monday, driving them indoors onto the black dusty floor of the fieldhouse. Former players still grimace at the memory. On campus that week the watchword was “Victory at Hickory.”

In the meantime, post-season awards were piling up. Coach Ferzacca was named Michigan Coach of the Year, and Northern had more players on the State’s Small College squad than any other school. Additionally, George Blommel, Paul D’Arras, tackle Gus Krantz, Frank Novak, Al Sandona, Gene Valesano, guard Dick Sanoba, and center Jerry Goerlitz were also awarded NAIA All American status; while Blommel was also voted MVP by his teammates.

It was 8 degrees and snowing when the team left Marquette. But on Saturday, December 3, while raucous students crowded into the University Center to listen to the game, temperatures down south were the mid-50s.

The start was a rough one.

Valesano fumbled in the first quarter, and one of the Bears ran it back 29 yards for a score. In the second quarter, Northern gambled on a fourth and two from its own 41. It failed, and Lenoir Rhyne drove in for its second touchdown, making it 13–0 at halftime.

But late in the third quarter the Wildcats put together a 62-yard drive, culminating in a D’Arras touchdown, cutting the score to 13–6. And early in the fourth quarter, after a Shanley fumble recovery, Northern marched from midfield in a drive that resulted in a Novak to Sickler touchdown pass. The extra point was good and the game was tied.

Then, very late, Koski returned a fumble 30 yards for a score. And with 1 minute 40 seconds left, it was NMC 20, Lenoir Rhyne 13. The Bears recovered the short kickoff on their 39, and then their All American really went to work. He completed three straight passes, the last for a 38-yard touchdown. The extra point was good: 20–20.

In 1960, there were no provisions for tie games; major bowl games had ended in ties. But this was different: a winner needed to be determined. So after receiving the kickoff, Novak dropped back to heave a “Hail Mary.” But he was caught as the clock ran out and dropped for a 21 yard loss. What to do? A hush fell over the stadium while officials and coaches met on the field; while, a thousand miles to the north, tense listeners stared at their radios. Northern players stood on the sideline, their chinstraps still fastened, waiting to be called out to the center of the field for a coin toss. They were remembering the 1958 NFL Championship Game in Yankee Stadium between the Colts and the Giants. Tied at the end of four quarters, there had been a coin toss to see which team would receive the overtime kickoff for a sudden death playoff.

It was not to be. The winner would be the team with the most total offensive yards. If that was tied, then number of first downs would be used. Northern was 25 yards short. If first downs had been used, it would have been Northern: 17–14… Ferzacca would say, “If we had known we were only four yards behind we probably would have run the ball. I’m sure we could have made the yardage. But we were out to win the game.” Sixty years later, the ex-players still totally agree with that statement. And, yes, it still rankles. The Mining Journal commented, “Northern ended its season 76 feet north of St. Petersburg.”

After the game, the team was surprised when the Cleveland Browns All Pro Lou “The Toe” Groza visited them in the locker room. Later they would all receive a wooden, wine colored 5” x 4” plaque covered with a golden metal plate holding an outline of the nation within which was the NAIA logo in blue.

Lenoir-Rhyne would go on to win a squeaker in St. Petersburg and take the 1960 National Championship.

As for the Wildcats, when the team returned to Marquette, they received a congratulatory wire from Governor Williams, and they found the County Airport in Negaunee crowded with people and jammed with cars out to the highway. There was a large banner on the fence. It said “WE’RE PROUD OF YOU.”   

Thanks to Bob Kalbfleisch, Dick Koski, Mike Mileski, and Al Sandona for sharing their memories.