By David Fong
TROY — There was a time, back before he was one of the greatest baseball players ever to grace planet Earth, that Ken Griffey Jr. was still just someone’s son.
Steve Nolan remembers that time.
“I remember we were going through their roster and we saw his name and said, ‘That’s Ken Griffey Sr.’s son — that’s pretty neat,’” Nolan, the former Troy High School football coach, said. “Back then, he was just a sophomore and was known more as being Ken Griffey Sr.’s son. Obviously that would change quite a bit over the years.”
In the fall of 1985, Ken Griffey Jr. — who on Wednesday was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of votes in HOF history — was a sophomore football player for Moeller High School, Troy’s opponent in the Division I state semifinals.
It would be several years before Griffey Jr. would adopt the sobriquet “The Kid,” taking the world of Major League Baseball by storm as the fun-loving, sweet-swinging top draft pick who made his big-league debut at the age of 18 and would quickly establish himself as one of the greatest centerfielders ever to play the game.
Back then, he was better known as the son of Ken Griffey Sr., a key member of the Cincinnati Reds’ world championship teams of 1975 and 1976.
Still, though, even as a sophomore wide receiver and kick returner for the Crusaders three decades ago, Nolan said he could see greatness written all over Griffey Jr.
“You could tell when we got there and saw him warming up that he was a special athlete,” Nolan said of his first impressions of Griffey Jr. “You could tell he had all kinds of skills and athletic moves. I’m sure he could have been a Division I college football player, had he chosen to go that route. I think things worked out pretty well for him with baseball, though.”
Griffey Jr. would have a minimal impact on that game, which Moeller won 21-10 before going on to defeat Canton McKinley 35-11 in the Division I state title game a week later. He didn’t have any receptions in the game — although Nolan distinctly remembers one punt return the future baseball hall of famer had.
“He did play receiver for them — I remember him playing in the slot,” Nolan said. “He did have a punt return for about 25 yards. We were able to contain him — just barely. Like I said, you could tell he was a great athlete and could have been a great football player. The fact he was playing at Moeller as a sophomore says a lot about him.”
Indeed, in 1985, Moeller was considered high school football royalty — not only within the state of Ohio, but across the country. When the two teams met that year, the Crusaders already had won six state titles and had been declared mythical national high school champions four teams. Earlier that year, Moeller had lost a regular-season contest to a team from Alabama — the Crusaders’ first regular-season loss in six years.
The coach that had led them to the top of the mountain, Gerry Faust, had since left to become the coach at the University of Notre Dame, but his replacement, Steve Klonne, was upholding the tradition of winning state titles and churning out Division I college football players.
“They were impressive,” Nolan said. “Their quarterback went to Minnesota, their running backs went to Akron, they had a tight end who went to North Carolina and their safety, Vada Murray, went to Michigan. They had a great group of athletes. They were Moeller. Everyone knew what they were.”
Still, though, in their second year under Nolan — who would end up staying 28 years and win more than 200 games at Troy — the Trojans were having a dream season of their own, finishing the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1971 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in school history (the Ohio High School Athletic Association did not institute a playoff format until 1972).
The Trojans, too, were loaded with future Division I college talent, including running back Mike Delwiche (who would go on to play at Boston College), tight end/outside linebacker Kevin Mescher (Stanford), quarterback Aaron Johnson (Navy) and lineman Mike Lohrer (North Carolina).
The Trojans’ success on the field created quite a stir in a small, football-crazed town long on tradition, but short on recent success. Just three years prior to the state semifinal run of 1985, the Trojans had finished 0-10. As the wins mounted throughout the 1985 season, so too did the fever around town.
Replicas of Delwiche’s No. 33 jersey became de rigueur for elementary school students in Troy, and Troy Memorial Stadium became the place to see people and be seen by people every Friday night that fall. By the time Troy and Moeller met in Welcome Stadium in late November, Troy’s side of the stadium was sold out.
“It was a pretty special time,” Nolan said. “The community really got behind the kids. It was fun to watch. I know it meant a lot to those kids. And that was a pretty special team we had that year. It’s probably the best team we had while I was there.”
Troy would get on the board first on a Todd Cruse field goal, but Moeller would take the lead in the first quarter on a 16-yard touchdown run by Tony Jackson, who would finish the game with 180 rushing yards. Troy would take a 10-7 lead on an 18-yard run by Delwiche, but just before halftime, the Crusaders would answer with a 1-yard by Jackson to take a 14-10 lead into the half.
The score would remain that way for much of the second half, which turned into a defensive battle. With just 1:43 to play in the game, Moeller iced the contest with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Scott Schaffner to Ray Hilvert.
“They were able to wear us down a little bit,” Nolan said. “We had to start using guys like Johnson and Delwiche on defense, which we really hadn’t done all season. They just had a lot more depth than us. We gave them everything they could ask for — they just had a few more athletes than we did.”
Including a future hall of famer, who was still just someone’s kid that night.
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong