Hardesty: One of the greatest years in the history of Portage County football

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I don’t know where the time went, but this fall represents the 40th anniversary of the great 1981 Rootstown football team.

The Rovers of coach Doug Mori, led by howitzer-armed 6-foot-6 senior quarterback Brian McClure, steamrolled to a perfect 10-0 regular season and made the state playoffs for the first time in school history. They sent notice early that they were a force to be reckoned with when they routed Mogadore 55-14 in the season opener — the same Mogadore that had lost exactly two regular season games in three years.

The high-octane Rovers kept their foot on the gas all the way to the Division IV state semifinals, where only a muddy track in Tiffin could slow the Rovers in a 30-22 loss to Tontogany Otsego.


McClure later starred at Bowling Green, where he rewrote the record book from 1982-85. Some of his records still stand, including his career marks for completions (900) and yards (10,280). His 63 career touchdown passes stood as a school record until 2005.

McClure was named the MAC Freshman of the Year in 1982, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year from 1983-85, the MAC Most Valuable Player in 1984 and ’85, and won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate passer in 1985.
After leading the Falcons to an unbeaten regular season as a senior in ’85, which included a trip to the California Raisin Bowl, McClure was drafted in the 12th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. McClure eventually started one game for the Bills, going 20-of-38 for 181 yards in a 6-3 overtime win over the New York Giants at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, in the strike year of 1987.

McClure was inducted into the Bowling Green Hall of Fame in 1991.

For my money, the 1981 Rootstown Rovers were as good as any team I saw play in the Portage County League. Had they not run into sloppy field conditions in the state semifinals, which slowed their lethal passing attack, they might well have won the state championship.

Coach Norm Lingle’s Wildcats, for their part, rebounded from that 55-14 defeat at Rootstown to start the season — but it took a while.

Mogadore faced a massive rebuilding job in 1981 after graduation claimed most of the players who had won the 1979 Class A state championship and reached the Division V state semifinals in 1980.

The Wildcats struggled to find their footing, starting the season 1-3 until inserting sophomore quarterback (and future Kent State starter) Steve Poth at quarterback — and they didn’t lose again the rest of the regular season, finishing 7-3 to make the state playoffs for the third straight year.

Mogadore opened the playoffs with a 10-7 win over Ashtabula St. John at Solon High School before running into the same thing Rootstown ran into on the same weekend — weather, falling to Newark Catholic 7-0 in the snow at Fawcett Stadium in Canton in the semifinals. That game, which came to be known as the “Snow Bowl” to Green Wave and Wildcat fans because of the driving snow that blanketed the field and turned Fawcett into a winter wonderland, was the first in what has become perhaps the greatest small-school football rivalry in Ohio.

In the ’80s alone, Mogadore and Newark Catholic met five times in the Division V playoffs between 1981 and ’88, with the Green Wave winning the first four — including a 16-13 decision in the 1987 state final at Ohio Stadium — before the Wildcats finally broke through with a victory in the 1988 semifinals at the Akron Rubber Bowl.

And it all started with that memorable ’81 season 40 years ago.

There was football royalty in the stadium at that Mogadore-Ashtabula St. John playoff game in 1981 — only you wouldn’t have known it at the time.

St. John’s team captain was a senior wide receiver and defensive back you may have heard of: Urban Meyer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t single out a third football team from that ’81 season: coach John Nemec’s Kent Roosevelt Rough Riders.

The Rough Riders weren’t a playoff team that year — but in the days of just two teams per region qualifying for the postseason (and only five divisions), they came a whisker away from making it. And if they had, many observers from that time felt the Rough Riders would have won it all.

A loaded Roosevelt team, led by powerful running back and future NFL player Dana Wright, finished the season 9-1 and won the Metro League title. The Rough Riders were unbeaten heading into the last game of the season when they lost a heartbreaking 3-0 decision to Canton Timken, a defeat that cost them a spot in the playoffs — and quite possibly a state championship.

Wright later was a standout at Findlay College (now the University of Findlay) before being taken in the ninth round of the 1987 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. Wright ended up playing for the Cincinnati Bengals that season, making his mark as a kick returner with a 20.5-yard average on 13 runbacks.

It’s hard to believe 1981 was that long ago. But 40 years hence, it remains one of Portage County’s most memorable autumns. It had everything: star power, classic games, iconic coaches.

And very nearly a state championship. Or three.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.

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