When the Whitefish High School Bulldogs marched onto the field to face Powell County for the Class A state football championship in 1979, they were led by an offensive line that averaged over 220 pounds, a 6-foot-5 quarterback and a 6-foot-4 strong safety who would later become a Navy SEAL commander of special operations in multiple overseas conflicts. They were a tough bunch.
They were also undefeated, supremely confident and, as it turned out, unbeatable. Whitefish, playing on its home field, won 14-7. To this day, that 1979 team is the only state football champion in school history. The Bulldogs have made it to the title game four times since, including the following year, but have fallen short each time.
It seems the stars were aligned for that special 1979 group. As Ryan Zinke says, “it was a combination of great coaching, great talent, and Whitefish was motivated.” Zinke, a strong safety and guard, went on to play at the University of Oregon. He then led a distinguished military career and is a state senator today.
“Everybody in town went to the games,” Zinke recalls.
To commemorate that team, Whitefish High School officials are holding a 30-year reunion on Oct. 16. There will be a short celebration at halftime of the Whitefish-Polson football game, followed by a reception and social afterward at the Sherwood in the Mountain Mall. The school has held similar gatherings for other championship teams.
Players, coaches, managers and cheerleaders from that team will all be recognized on Oct. 16. School officials have been tracking down people for a month and as of last week had located nearly everybody, with the exception of a handful. Many still live in the area, but it’s unclear how many from out of town will be able to make the trip.
The 1979 Bulldogs were led by a talented group of seniors. But the juniors weren’t too shabby either, as they proved by leading the Bulldogs back to the title game the next year. Whitefish lost to Glasgow 22-19 in the 1980 championship.
Shawn Havens, who now works for First Interstate in Whitefish, was a junior slot back when the Bulldogs won the title. He said the heart of the team was the line, on both offense and defense. The linemen, mostly seniors, were “mean and nasty,” he said, which is an ultimate compliment in the language of linemen.
Beyond the lines, the team was loaded with talent, Havens said. Eric Smith, at 6-5 and solidly built, was a big high school quarterback for the day. Frank Wright, general manager of Wright’s Furniture, was a standout receiver and Bart DePratu, owner of the DePratu car dealership, starred on both sides of the ball.
But if there was one player opponents truly feared, Havens said, it was Zinke. At 6-4 and about 210 pounds, Zinke was an athletic and punishing safety.
“He was an animal and he was huge,” Havens said. “Just a beast.”
In addition to the title game appearances in 1979 and 1980, Whitefish lost to Glasgow 27-0 in the 1986 championship, 22-12 to Sidney in the 1987 championship and most recently 12-9 to Fergus in 2001. This year, the Bulldogs are 4-2 and 1-1 in the conference.
Wright fondly remembers the title run and said his appreciation has even grown over the years. At the time, as is often the case when you’re in the moment, he didn’t put the achievement into perspective, he said.
“I wish I would have appreciated it more back then,” Wright said. “We didn’t realize how hard it was to attain at the time.”
The head coach of the 1979 team was Bob Raeth, who Zinke said was the perfect leader for that particular group of kids.
“I can’t speak highly enough about Bob Raeth – a great guy, a great coach,” Zinke said. “He taught me a lot about playing football; he taught me a lot both on and off the field.”
A cold fall evening 30 years ago belonged to these Bulldogs. So does Oct. 16 of this year. Of all the stories and details that will surely be shared at the reunion, Havens will bring up one in particular: the memory of a whole town standing behind its high school team.
“That field we played on was packed with people,” Havens said. “This town was nuts. It was crazy.”
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