After Duluth Central High School closed its doors for the final time this past June, the school’s football players have had to attempt to find a new school to play for. This is not the first time a situation like this has occurred in Duluth, Minn. Over 40 years ago, Morgan Park High School made the transition to Denfeld High School and merged its undefeated football team with their previous opponents.
On any typical Friday autumn night in Morgan Park during the late-1960s and early-1970s, rows of headlights could be seen streaming into town. People eagerly stood on their porches ready to applaud the familiar school bus carrying their football team back home. The Morgan Park Wildcats had just won another game under the lights of Public School Stadium some 40 blocks down the road, and the whole community was abuzz.
The Morgan Park Wildcat football team went undefeated during the 1969 and 1970 seasons and was the top-rated team in the state both years according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Wildcats dominated despite playing against schools with four and five times as many students as their own graduating class of 125 people.
“We had tremendous community support,” said Jack Rendulich the starting quarterback for the Wildcats during their top-rated seasons.
The only blemish in the two seasons was a 0-0 tie in 1969 to Duluth East High School.
“You can bet that tie was on our mind all summer long,” said Rendulich.
Over the summer the team would have four or five captain’s practices a week to prepare for the new season. When the boys showed up in the fall the coaches had never seen a team in as good of shape as they were.
When the Duluth East game popped up on the schedule the following year, Morgan Park was ready for them.
“We smoked them,” Rendulich said.
East never made a first down in the entire game, and wasn’t even able to cross midfield at any point.
“Everyone on defense was awesome,” said Gary Derosier, Morgan Park class of ‘73 and former football player.
“Morgan Park was a great school to play against,” said Steve Anderson, former Duluth Denfeld half-back and defensive end. “They were an outstanding team, and great guys.”
Anderson got to know many of the Morgan Park athletes by playing against them in many different sports throughout the school year.
Morgan Park was so small that many athletes would play a sport in every season of the year, sometimes more. Many players on the football team would be on the field the whole game, playing both offense and defense.
Rendulich said that since he was an athlete he had to play something in the winter too, just so they could fill a team in all the sports the school offered.
“As a tenth grader they had to explain the rules of hockey to me,” said Rendulich, who had never played organized hockey before. Morgan Park went undefeated once again in 1970, extending their win streak to 19.
The Minnesota State High School League wasn’t established until the mid-1970s, so there wasn’t a state tournament like there is today.
Instead, the winner of their Zenith Conference would play the winner of the Iron Range Conference in a “Prep Super Bowl,” which would determine the best team in Northern Minnesota.
The Super Bowl of the 1970 season was played on Halloween at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Griggs Field against Grand Rapids. This game was Morgan Park’s second straight Super Bowl appearance.
“They canceled Halloween for the game,” said Rendulich. “All the families in Morgan Park had Halloween a night early so they could go to the game.”
That Super Bowl was the most exciting game Rendulich would ever play in.
Morgan Park was down 21-6 at halftime before rallying with three touchdowns in the second half to pull out the victory, 28-21, for their second straight title.
In the years following, the program had continued success, but nothing like the top seasons of 1969 and 1970.
Following the closings of Morgan Park’s steel and cement plants in the late ’70s, the population of the community dwindled.
In 1982, the high school was closed, and the 25-man football team was told that if they wanted to play, they would have to play for Denfeld.
“I felt really bad to see Morgan Park High School close,” said Rendulich. “There was a lot of pride in that high school out there.”