Thursday, March 09, 2017 - Updated: 10:24 AMThe year was 1964, LBJ was president and the Warren Commission had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing John F. Kennedy, a stamp cost a nickel, the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, Congress had just approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution putting the war machine in motion in southeast Asia and a group of young men from a small village in southern Illinois were riding a southbound, Illinois Central train back home to Cobden. The IC had only made one other stop ever in Cobden — a couple of days earlier to pick this same bunch of boys up for a northbound journey to Champaign that immortalized them in Illinois small town basketball history.
The ride back home was somber, even though they were in possession of the IHSA second place trophy, until they rounded a bend coming into Cobden and saw a crowd estimated to be around 5000 lining both sides of the tracks.
Cobden’s population was about 900 at that time so the size of the welcoming committee shocked the boys on the train.
The “Appleknockers” became the “Amazing Appleknockers” in the school year of 1963-64. Their David versus Goliath story is so heartwarming that it’s easy to overlook some of the other things that Cobden overcame in that momentous year.
Back in a day when few teams, especially tiny rural schools like Cobden, had five starters that all stood over six feet tall, Cobden had a handful of boys that went 6’4”-6’6” and they could play. Ken Flick, Chuck Neal and brother Jim Neal, Ken Smith and his cousin Jim Smith were all tall and talented. They had played together throughout grade school and were already a force.
The missing piece of the Appleknockers’ story came in 1962 in the form of a young, good looking man from Quincy, Massachusetts.
Dick Ruggles migrated westward to walk-on at SIU where he was a teammate to a near legendary scorer named Chico Vaughn. Ruggles had graduated and was coaching at conference rival school Hurst-Bush when opportunity called.
Moving to Cobden wasn’t a piece of cake for either him or his new team. Ken Smith said, “Coach Ruggles had this New England accent and we all had our hillbilly accents and sometimes we couldn’t understand each other.”
But Ruggles created a movement offense to take advantage of his team’s size and athletic ability and emphasized discipline and conditioning. ’62-’63 was a portent of things to come for Cobden.
With Ruggles on the sidelines, the team went 29-2 losing to McCleansboro in the sectionals. The first of a couple of big hurdles arose then for Cobden.
Star player Ken Flick had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of school at the Christmas break when the team was 11-0 to marry her. Cobden had a rule that married men couldn’t play for the high school so Flick looked to be gone for his senior year but the school board changed their rules and Flick elected to return to school. He earned All-State honors in that last year as an Appleknocker.
That obstacle was only a shadow of what was to come though. Cobden was not only big across the front line, but they had a fine 6’2” point guard in Tom Crowell.
Before school started in the big year, Crowell and Chuck Neal and Ken Smith were going swimming, supposedly at Lamer’s Pond but the boys chose instead, against Neal’s dad’s wishes, to go to Little Grassy Lake.
Little Grassy has some areas with severe drop-offs and that fact played out devastatingly for the boys. Neal and Smith were good swimmers, Crowell was not. Neal and Smith were racing across a cove on Little Grassy and told Crowell to stay put and not follow them.
The incident haunts Neal to this day. “We were halfway across and looked back and saw Tom struggling.” Neal went ahead to try and get help and Smith swam back to help Crowell. Smith said, “It was the most horrible thing in my life, worse than Vietnam. He kept fighting me and struggling and going under. Then he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I think about what Tom could have been.”
Neal carries that same remorse for going against his father’s wishes. “What has always stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it might not have happened.”
But the world goes on and the boys dedicated the ’63-64 year to Tom Crowell. On Oct. 1, the first day of practice, Ruggles told the boys that “with a little luck, we could be playing in the last game of the year.” Jim Neal said no one said a word. “It gave us chills to think that he thought we could be playing on television at U of I.”
Cobden went 11-0 to open then lost to McCleansboro by two points before running off 11 more wins before dropping their final regular season game by two points in overtime to Albion, a team they had whipped by 30 points earlier.
At the end of the regular season the “Cinderella” team was unranked by the A.P. At Anna in the regional finals, the clock almost struck midnight on Cobden as Tamms, whom they beaten by 20 and 15 in the regular season, trailed by one late in the game and held the ball for the last shot.
They got a clean 15 footer by Ted Cleghorn but he missed it. Harrisburg was next and it didn’t get much easier as the Appleknockers beat Harrisburg and their All-Stater Guy Turner by four.
In the West Frankfort supersectional, the boys outlasted Pinckneyville and their All-Stater Ben Louis in triple overtime by the score of 68-66.
Merle Jones, the sometimes dour and always opinionated sports writer for The Southern Illinoisan had already pronounced Cobden D.O.A. before they made it through to the final eight. “Too small a school to compete, too easy a schedule!”
Well, the media darlings were there and they came to play.
In their quarterfinal game, Cobden beat Galesburg 60-57. Decatur was up next with their superstar duo of Charlie Currie and Jack Sunderlik.
After Centralia and Collinsville bowed out, Decatur was the odds-on favorite to take the title. The Decatur players and fans chanted something to the effect of “making applesauce” in the semifinal game. That surely didn’t happen as Cobden prevailed 44-38.
By now the Appleknockers were the overwhelming fan favorites as evidenced by the pregame shenanigans prior to the championship match against Pekin.
Roger Burnett, the Appleknocker mascot, wearing a big, floppy red hat and bib overalls with a red and white handkerchief hanging out of his back pocket sauntered to the center circle and placed five apples on the floor. That drew a thunderous five-minute ovation that didn’t go unnoticed by Pekin coach Dawson Hawkins. Hawkins kept his team in the tunnel until Cobden was introduced and the two teams hit the Assembly Hall floor in unison.
The clock stuck midnight on Cinderella in the final. Cobden had been taxed severely to get to the final while Pekin had won by margins of 15, 41 and 33 points providing ample bench time for Hawkins’ starters.
The few hours rest between the morning session and the nighttime championship didn’t help much for the Appleknockers.
The team, the Cobden faithful, the 16,000 or so jammed into Assembly Hall and a huge T.V. audience kept waiting for something to happen but it never did. Ken Smith lamented afterward, “That it was like playing with a flat ball. We just never could get going.”
Pekin won 50-45 but an entire state had found some new fresh-faced heroes.
My wife and I were just in Cobden a week or so ago to watch Century play and the new school as well as the main street still bear the markings of 1964. I
t was pretty cool being there at this time of year.