On a chilly November day 50 years ago, a group of undersized boys from Flathead High School stepped onto their home field and made history. Lined up against a formidable Butte squad, the only team to have beaten the Braves that year, these Kalispell boys knew what was at stake: Lose, and the season was over. Win, and move on for a shot at the state championship.
Four quarters later, the scoreboard read: Flathead 28, Butte 0. It was utter domination and, for Mike Huggins, it is an unforgettable day in the annals of Flathead football, not to mention his own life. A week later the Braves, coached by the renowned Jim Sweeney, crushed Helena 39-13 to win the state championship, the first of two straight.
Recently, Huggins traveled from his home in Los Angeles back to Kalispell to accept his selection into Flathead High School’s “Legends” wall of fame. While in town, he bumped into Gordie Schlabs, a teammate and co-captain from that 1958 team. It was the first time the two had talked since high school, but the conversation didn’t miss a beat. And, of course, a central topic was that special November in 1958.
“That was quite a team,” Huggins said in a recent interview. “In the beginning of the year, we didn’t know we would do as well as we did – I just had great teammates, really great.”
Yet the story of that historic team is only one anecdote in the long narrative that forms Huggins’ legend. The three-sport star was also the state record-holder in the high jump, as well as an all-state standout in basketball, which earned him a full scholarship to play for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA. At the time, Wooden had yet to win any of his 10 NCAA championships. But that was soon to change and Huggins would be there when it happened.
The Making of a Three-Sport Star
Huggins moved with his family to Kalispell from Walla Walla, Wash., when he was 4 years old. Huggins said his father, the oldest of 13 children and a hard-working mailman for 25 years, had “a tough life” and took great pleasure from watching his son play sports. So the young Huggins took up every sport he could.
His father’s best friend was Louie Bain, a famous figure in Flathead athletics. The two men would often stay up late, Huggins said, trying “to solve all the world’s problems” and talking intensely about their shared passion: Flathead Valley sports.
“I still remember (my father) getting up at 4 a.m. and walking in the blizzard to work,” Huggins said. “He thought sports were a great outlet for people.”
Track was Huggins’ favorite sport as a kid and his father saw that. So the elder Huggins set up a mattress in the front yard as a makeshift high jump pad and watched his son, beginning in seventh grade, slowly perfect the straddle technique – this was years before the modern standard Fosbury Flop had been introduced.
In high school, Huggins set a state record in the high jump, soaring 6 feet 6 ½ inches. The record held for 10 years. In college he cleared 6 feet 9 inches. What had begun on a front yard mattress and honed on the sawdust piles commonly used in high school track events at the time eventually landed Huggins in UCLA record books.
“Track was my greatest love,” Huggins said. “I just couldn’t wait for track season to begin.”
Basketball and UCLA
Huggins wasn’t big. He stood a little taller than 5 feet 10 inches with a slender build. But he was athletic and efficient on the basketball court, displaying an instinctual knack for scoring. As a sophomore, Huggins made the varsity team and then started every game for the rest of his high school career, earning first-team all-state his senior year, when he finished third in the state in scoring.
During his junior year, Huggins was spotted by Ted Goon, a college scout and friend of Wooden. By the end of the year, Huggins had a full scholarship to play basketball at UCLA.
At UCLA, Huggins did track and basketball. On the hardwood, he spent much of his time backing up two of the greatest guards to ever play college basketball: Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard. Hazzard, now in the college hall of fame, was named national player of the year and Goodrich went on to have a hall of fame career in the NBA. But Huggins fought for his minutes and patiently waited for his chance. His tenacity earned the respect of the old-fashioned Wooden.
“He’s a warm and loving guy, but he was a very tough coach,” Huggins said of Wooden. “He’s still a sharp guy. His wit is amazing.”
As it came to be, Huggins, a senior, ended up with the ball in his hands as the final whistle blew during UCLA’s 98-83 victory over Duke in 1964. It was Wooden’s first national championship. The Bruins finished 30-0 that year.
“I didn’t get to play very much,” Huggins said. “I just kept working. I like to think I had something to do with us winning the championship because I made (Hazzard and Goodrich) better.”
Football and the New Generation
As a junior on the 1958 team, Huggins played defensive back, running back, wide receiver, back-up quarterback and kick returner. He intercepted a state-record eight passes on defense and managed to shine on a team already loaded with older stars. Seven seniors from that team went on to play college ball, including Schlabs.
“He was an outstanding player,” Schlabs said recently of Huggins. “Just a great athlete.”
In 1959, Huggins was given full-time quarterback duties after his good friend Ken Christison lost the tips of two his throwing fingers while operating a conveyor belt at a Kalispell cherry warehouse, where both of the boys worked at the time. Christison eventually overcame the injury and went on to play at Montana State University. Huggins was selected all-state for his quarterback play.
The Braves’ offense at the time was a deceptive Wing-T formation masterminded by coach Sweeney, who went on to win more than 200 games at the collegiate level. Based on reverses, multiple handoffs and misdirection, the offense seldom called for Huggins to throw the ball. So when he was in Kalispell recently, he was blown away as he watched quarterbacks Brock Osweiler of Flathead and Shay Smithwick-Hann of Glacier heave tight spirals down half the length of the field. Recalling the size of players during his time, Huggins called the 6-foot-8 Osweiler “a giant.”
The game has changed immensely in 50 years, and a nostalgic Huggins likes what he sees.
“I was so impressed with both quarterbacks,” he said. “I said, ‘My God, the way they throw the ball – it’s amazing.’”
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