Box Elder and Bear River high school football teams face off in the 100th Golden Spike Game on Friday, Sept. 4. This story is the second in a series looking back at historical people and events connected with the two teams.
GARLAND — More than 81 years after first fielding a football team, arguably the crowning moment in the history of Bear River High’s football program was the time when the Bears literally put the crown on their heads in 2003.
It was the 2003 state championship, a 37-7 win against Grantsville at Rice-Eccles Stadium — Bear River’s first football state championship.
As much of an emotional high as it was finishing the year on top, the title kickstarted a dominant period by the Bears. They repeated as champs in 2004, while outscoring opponents 392-86 in 2003 and 489-148 in 2004.
For the playoffs, the players would bleach their hair blonde so opposing teams would see a group of towheaded football players wearing bright red uniforms on the other sideline, then usually would watch Bear River run right by.
“We blew people out,” said Dallas Miller, a BRHS alumnus who played on both title-winning teams. “We were as advertised if people came and watched us.”
But when the Bears won in 2003, it was the long-awaited breakthrough for a program in a relatively small farming area that had existed in the shadow of its county rival for decades and had struck out in every one of its previous state championship appearances.
THE BIG PICTUREBear River High School opened in 1916 and started playing football in 1922, according to prep football historian George Felt. The Bears were consistently terrible for decades.
They once lost 33 straight games from the end of 1938 to the season opener of 1944, though this was right in the middle of World War II. BR didn’t even score a point in 1939.
Good years were extremely few and far between for a team nicknamed the “Rivermen” by old school yearbooks.
The 1937 team marched to the Class A championship game against Davis at Ute Stadium, having gone 7-0-1 with a 163-0 scoring margin.
Bear River’s only points allowed that season came in a subsequent 12-0 loss to the Darts.
The Bears didn’t touch the postseason again until 1959 and weren’t postseason regulars until the 1980s under coach Dan Cox, who coached the team from 1981-87 and amassed a 58-21 record.
This is when the heartbreak started again. Bear River lost back-to-back championship games by a touchdown in 1985-86, to Springville and Timpview.
In 1990, Larry Wall’s Bountiful High squad beat the Bears 41-28 and Bear River lost handily to Jordan in the ‘94 final, making it 0-5 in championship games.
So when BRHS lifted the state championship trophy in 2003, it was incredibly well-received by the team and community and particularly well-received by a man named Melvin Manning.
“(Manning) sent me a letter and said, ‘I was the quarterback on the very first state championship game and I’m so grateful that we finally got that monkey off our back and that we finally won it, you did an outstanding job with these kids,’” said Chris Wise, BR head coach since 2002.
Later that school year, Wise had Manning, who was well in 80s by that point, come talk to the student body and there, it was obvious how much Manning enjoyed the championship.
“For me personally, that was kind of — I don’t know how to put it. I get choked up thinking about it, you know?” Wise said.
THE 2003 GROUPWith Wise at the helm, the 2002 season was a typical new-coach-and-new-things experience. A lot of juniors and sophomores got significant playing time in 2002 and thus the 2003 team had loads of experience under its belt.
“I think there were a lot of guys, especially underclassmen, that pushed themselves to be prepared enough and be ready to play that they forced their way into playing,” said Tyrell Marble, a senior on the 2003 team who now coaches at BRHS.
The 2003 team was ultra-competitive in practice to the point of a lot of post-play jostling, pushing and shoving. But it worked out.
“We could have the roughest practice and they’d walk off the field like nothing ever happened,” Wise said.
Players from that team say the ‘03 group was so good because they combined extreme hard work and extremely good talent.
Some suggested the best teams they faced all year were their BR counterparts on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during practice.
“Aside from having some studs, some absolutely good players, I think there was a lot of hard work,” Marble said.
Miller said the Bears were usually prepared for whatever teams threw at them and thus, the defense didn’t panic and could play freely.
The result was seven shutouts, including five straight from Oct. 3 to Nov. 7. The defensive motto was “three-and-out.”
After the Bears beat Morgan 27-21 on Sept. 26, 2003, thanks to a late 100-yard interception return for touchdown by Josh Westergard, they allowed 15 points total in the final seven games.
Offensively, they were a run-heavy, play-action passing team led by quarterback Jason Zundel, who’d eventually play baseball at Utah Valley, and running back Tony Martinez.
The Bears were balanced “and then when plays broke down, Jason could make whatever happen with his feet,” Miller said.
Zundel ran for three touchdowns in the 2003 state title game as BR shut out the Grantsville Cowboys 23-0 after halftime.
It was the end of the season, but it was the start of what was about to be a dominant two-year period that would also impact the title-winning team in 2006.
THE REPEATMost of the core group returned in 2004, leading to what appeared to be a seamless transition by the season’s start.
“They were almost identical teams,” Wise said.
As with any winning streak, Bear River’s 23-game romp from 2003-04 nearly ended twice in 2004.
The Bears trailed 13-0 at home to Sky View in the second game of the ‘04 season, scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to tie, then won in overtime on a missed SV extra point.
A week later, in a rarity, the Bears won the Golden Spike Game against Box Elder. They’d been blown out 37-7 for their only loss of the 2003 season.
BRHS beat the Bees 20-15, beat Morgan 23-15 a couple weeks later, and won the final seven games of the season by an average of 36.4 points.
In 2003, the Bears thumped Snow Canyon and Cedar City in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. BR saw the same two teams at the same juncture in 2004 and torched both of them again.
“We had the ability to ratchet it up to a level that no one could touch. The playoffs become more intense, we knew how to kick it in another gear. I don’t think we liked being close, either,” Miller said.
Zundel scored four rushing TDs against Pine View in a comprehensive 47-14 title game victory in 2004.
It was incredibly hard to imagine Bear River could’ve won a single title, let alone back-to-back championships, but indeed, the crown stayed in Bear River’s possession.