Frankenmuth's Aerial Ace

The fall of 1974 was an event-filled season for fans of high school football in Michigan. It was the year of the "paper playoffs" - the test of a system to rank teams for participation in a two-game series of MHSAA sponsored playoff games. The system wo uld eventually evolve into the current system, celebrating it's 22nd year of existence.

In Hudson, the Tigers laid their 53-game unbeaten and untied streak on the line. Hudson would end the year undefeated, then lay claim to the national record of 72-consecutive wins in the fall of 1975, with a victory in a semifinal game of the MHSAA play offs.

The 1974 season also featured aerial fireworks unseen in Michigan before or since. At Southwestern High School in Flint, Rick Leach pierced the Saginaw Valley autumn skies with footballs. The 6-1, 170-pound senior and his talented receivers led the Clas s A Colts to a 9-0 mark and the top spot in Region 1 of the paper playoffs. Leach ended the year with 109 completions for 1,668 yards and 23 touchdowns, including six in one contest - all new single-season records for the Flint area. An outstanding bas ketball and baseball player as well, Leach, of course, would continue his athletic career at the University of Michigan.

Yet, up the road in Frankenmuth that same season, another quarterback and his corps of receivers surpassed Leach's feats. Those marks established single game and single season state records that are still untouched today at the prep level.

In the fall of 1974, the talk around Frankenmuth was about the coming football season. The Eagles had turned out some exceptional gridiron squads in the sixties, finishing undefeated in 1965 under coach Harold Kaczynski, and in 1966, 1968 and 1969 under his replacement, Roger "Bud" Tompkins. With 24 returning lettermen, including nine offensive starters from 1973's 5-4 squad, things looked very promising.

The focus was on the backfield, and rightfully so. Senior Steve Wilkinson, a 6-2, 215-pound fullback had scored 17 touchdowns as a junior. Seniors Barry Baranowski and Bill Parlberg filled the halfback spots. Baranowski was a speedster with 10.0 speed in the 100-yard dash, while Parlberg, a 5-10, 155-pound four-sport athlete, had good hands out of the backfield. At quarterback, Frankenmuth sported a ju nior, Dave von Behren.

The backfield operated behind a solid wall, including Jeff Reinbold, John Metzger, Tim Oliver, and tight end Mike Walker. The Eagles were the favorite to win the Thumb B Conference.

"We had always played power football," stated Tompkins about his days in Michigan's Little Bavaria. But a kid he saw play on the 1972 freshman team changed his mind about the pass. "When I saw David, I knew he was going to be our next quarterback."

"I always dreamed about playing quarterback for the varsity," said von Behren. "Bud kind of knew me from punt, pass and kick - I had made it to the state championships. I played both ways on the freshman squad and he came to all the games."

The young hurler joined the varsity in the fall of 1973, and Tompkins inserted him into the lineup.

"Our quarterback, Bobby Rummel, sliced his thumb open on a lineman's chin strap and he had to have stitches," remembered von Behren. "He couldn't play for a few games, so they gave me a chance."

As a sophomore, von Behren threw for over 1,000 yards, including 647 to Walker. After watching him operate, Tompkins and his staff decided that the 1974 Eagle squad would live and die in the air.

"I give Bud a lot of credit," said von Behren about the switch to the pass. "He was used to a lot of beef on the line and he had a lot of success with running the ball. Back in the sixties he had won some mythical state titles. The pass was something he had no desire to use - he could win without it."

"But he looked at things and realized that we were not getting the job done anymore. He didn't know much about passing, but he went to coaching clinics and learned about it. He wasn't afraid of trying something new. He was a wonderful kind of mentor."

The 1974 season opener against non-league opponent Michigan Lutheran Seminary proved that the coach had made the right decision. The Eagle quarterback completed 21 of 35 attempts for a team record 322 yards and four touchdowns, as Frankenmuth downed the Cardinals, 39-22.

"They have a good thrower and a fine passing attack," commented MLS coach Loren Dietrich following the game, "As well as good size."

Week two proved that von Behren was no fluke, as he passed for 295 yards in a 49-0 rout of Elkton-Pigeon Bay Port. Again the 5-11 junior sensation passed for four TD's, including three to Parlberg of 58, 74 and 8 yards. Parlberg had an outstanding game , also scoring on a 55-yard punt return for the game's first points.

"We had some plays that no one could stop," said Parlberg. "We'd get the ball and run for daylight."

"We'd always throw short - delays, drags, crosses, slants - nothing over the middle," laughed Tompkins. "Around the Thumb, David was just a wizard. And Billy was an outstanding athlete. I'd pick up any short pass play that worked - from college or the pros. At clinics, I'd always ask the coaches for their best short pass. I didn't invent anything, I just put them in one scheme."

Vassar, also unbeaten in its first two contests, delivered an unexpected blow to Frankenmuth's title hopes. The Vulcans defense paired with a driving rain for a 14-7 win. Vassar held von Behren to a respectable 130 yards through the air, and the Eagle ground game to 108 yards. The Vulcans took an early lead when Don Gohs stripped the ball from von Behren on a draw play, and ran 30 yards for a TD. Before the half, Frankenmuth grabbed the lead on a 5-yard Baranowski run and the conversion, but it didn't hold up. The Vulcan's Jim Baranski scored in the third quarter, sealing the victory.

Frankenmuth rebounded the following week with a 51-22 blasting of Marlette. Von Behren notched nine completions for 206 yards, ran for one and passed for two TD’s before retiring to the sideline with a 35-0 lead at halftime.

On October 11, Frankenmuth struggled with conference foe Sandusky. Three touchdown passes and three extra point kicks, all by von Behren, saved the day as the Eagles escaped with a 21-18 win. The same night in Flint, Leach threw for 315 yards and six t ouchdown passes against Bay City Western.

One week later, it was von Behren's turn for headlines. In a 44-7 rout of visiting Cass City, the Eagle quarterback set new team records with 31 of 49 passes for a whopping 417 yards and six TD's. Walker snagged 12 of the aerials for 164 yards, includi ng two touchdowns. Parlberg grabbed 10 tosses for 138 yards including scores of 13, 15 and 15 yards. Baranowski's 25-yard touchdown reception was the longest of the evening.

The quarterback boosted his total to 23 touchdown passes on the year with four more against Bad Axe in a 43-14 win. Three of the four were to Parlberg, upping his season numbers to 14 TD receptions.

The next week the Eagles moved their record to 7-1 and finished second to Vassar in the conference with a 35-6 win over Caro. Frankenmuth gained 524 total yards, including an incredible 425 through the air for von Behren. The junior struck for two touc hdowns - one to Parlberg and another to Baranowski - completing 21 of 35 passes.

Even though he had posted some unbelievable numbers, von Behren gave little thought to the performances.

"Back then I was tied up with so many things beside football," he remarked when asked about the statistics. "Academics, band - everything was focused on those activities. Just get to the next week."

Tompkins' squad wrapped up the year with a 34-12 win over Midland Bullock Creek. Von Behren notched his 26th and 27th scoring strikes of the season in the contest, connecting on a pair of touchdown passes to Walker.

His total of 2,589 passing yards and 27 touchdowns in nine regular-season games established new state marks. Parlberg's 15 scoring receptions also set a state regular-season record. The total was tied by Fennville's Jeremy Heavilin in 1994.

"We had a fun time," recalled Parlberg, who stayed in town following high school to work for Zehnder’s Restaurant. He now serves as vice president of operations at the world-famous tourist attraction. "We had the ingredients to do well. Dave was a gre at quarterback, we had some good running backs and the line did a nice job blocking. It was a team effort. We had a good balance."

"It was great fun," said von Behren. We probably had the best backfield in the school's history. They all had great hands, speed, quickness and agility. And I had the greatest line - I had so much time. And Bud was a special guy. He taught me a lot . I remember he had a poster in his office. It showed a fisherman in the water, and it said, "Don't say anything unless it improves on silence."

Despite heavy losses to graduation, von Behren posted outstanding numbers in his senior year, including 1,932 yards and 24 touchdowns. First team all-state honors followed, and the college recruiters came calling.

"Well, I knew I didn't want to go to Michigan, since Leach had three more years," said the quarterback. So I headed to Northern (Michigan University). They had a reputation for throwing the ball. Their quarterback, Steve Mariucci, had led them to a na tional championship in 1975. I thought, ‘That's good - I like to throw.’"

He played two years at Northern, spending most of it on special teams, running the practice offense, and riding the pine. In 1976, he saw some action as quarterback in a single game.

"I learned quickly that I wasn't playing in the Thumb B anymore. It was tough mentally. I had high hopes - dreams. It was disappointing. But these guys were all-state players, too. I learned a lot of humility and that was good. I got to move on to life after football."

He concentrated on academics, graduating cum laude with a degree in biochemistry. Following college, he moved into the automotive plastics industry. After a 14-year stint at Dow Chemical, he recently moved to GE Plastics. As a hobby, he paints - anothe r thing that he learned from his former coach.

"Bud took an interest in the family, and we got to know him pretty good," said von Behren. "One time our families went up north to a cabin on a river. When it was lousy weather, he'd get a rock from the river bed, dry it off, and paint something on it. So I tried one, and it was kind of fun. I have always painted since. I do about 10-15 pieces a year, and run a little gallery out of the house now. He kind of got me started.

"Those days (playing football) were probably the most fun years of my life, until now. Now, I have a beautiful wife, three beautiful kids. Your priorities change.

"But you can never got some of those games out of your head."

--Ron Pesch

Ron Pesch is the historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Story ideas and potential statistical records submissions are always welcome. Write to Pesch at 1447 Henry Street, Muskegon, MI 49441.