It’s been almost 30 years to the day, but the Hickman football team’s return to the state championship game is bringing back memories for the members of the 1974 state championship team led by coach Tom Travis.
After leaving Columbia 12 years ago to coach in Texas, Travis is coming back to Missouri to watch Hickman attempt to capture its second title in the school’s history. He will travel to the game on Friday with some of his players from the historic ‘74 squad, and they will watch the game together from the stands, reminiscing and cheering on this generation of Kewpies.
The most recent time Travis attended a state championship game in Missouri, he went as a coach and led his team in a 54-6 rout of Sumner. Hickman was the first central Missouri team to win a championship in Class 4A, which had been dominated by Kansas City and St. Louis programs until then.
The team had hoped to make the playoffs the year before when they boasted a 10-0 record, but a complicated point system kept them out of the running. The 1974 team was eager to prove that Hickman belonged in the state championship.
“They were dejected about not playing in the playoffs the year before,” said Columbia’s Jerry Whitesides, an assistant coach for the Kewpies then. “We knew we had a good team going into the 1974 season.”
Hickman’s “good” team consisted of three future NFL players and several others who went on to play college football. Leo Lewis, who was Hickman’s quarterback, played four years at MU as a wide receiver and then played for 11 years with Minnesota with a brief stint in Cleveland. Gerry Ellis, a running back, also played for the Tigers and then went on to play for six years with Green Bay. After playing at UNLV, Ron Crews, a defensive end, spent one season with Cleveland.
“They had talent,” Travis said of the team. “You look at the kids on that team, and it’s not too hard to figure out why they did so well.”
Coming off a 23-9 win against Raytown South in the semifinals, Hickman entered the championship game as two-touchdown underdogs.
With 6 inches of snow covering Faurot Field the morning of the championship game, it was uncertain whether the game would be played. After officials and even fans spent the early hours clearing off the field at Memorial Stadium, the Kewpies’ championship run received early encouragement when Sumner fumbled the opening kickoff.
Hickman took advantage of the miscue and went on to dominate.
“We had the Midas touch that day,” Travis said. “I think we never punted. I don’t think (Sumner) held much respect for us until after the ball game.”
Lewis remembered there was an added incentive going up against a high school from one of the major cities in the state.
“The entire year we really felt that as a city, as a school, we weren’t given much respect by the schools that were in Kansas City and St. Louis,” Lewis said. “We were always considered a country team and weren’t really considered to have talent, despite the fact that we had won 19 or 20 games (during that two year span).”
Travis, who coaches football and basketball at Molina High in Dallas, said Hickman athletic director Doug Mirts has updated him occasionally on the Kewpies’ progress this season and hopes their championship game will be as fulfilling as his team’s was.
“Just go out and enjoy the experience,” Travis said. “It’s like none other.”