On Thursday, the Fort Frances High School (FFHS) Muskies will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Muskie football.
The ceremony will include members of the original muskie team that took to the field in the fall of 1948 as ceremonial captains for the coin toss before kickoff.
Larry Fontana, Doug Medhurst and Al Robertson were all members of the inaugural Muskie football team. In fact, it was Robertson who won a contest to name FFHS’s teams the Muskies.
That first team didn’t have a lot of teams to play against, according to Dale Ross. Ross was the Muskies’ star quarterback in the early 50s and later became head coach and Athletic Director at FFHS.
“The ‘48 team only played inter-school games against Kenora,” Ross said. “They also participated in a border league, with teams from Williams and Baudette.”
The NorWOSSA league was formed in 1950-51 when Fort Frances, Kenora, and Dryden joined together. Red Lake followed afterwards.
In the early years the program also received a donation of equipment from UCLA assistant trainer and former Fort Frances resident Butch Pearson, according to Ross. The donation even included white football pants.
In 1952, the Muskies won the NorWOSSA Football championship and became the first team to compete in an NWOSSAA championship against the Port Arthur Redmen. Ross recalled that after the first half went scoreless, Port Arthur scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. At that time touchdowns were worth five points and conversions were worth one more.
Another early 50s team played against the International Falls Broncos, that team had some players who went on to do some big things in football as Ross recalled. But the Muskies did more than hold their own. In front of 2,000 fans the Muskies won 18-6 over a Broncos team sprinkled with future NFL and CFL players.
Bronko Nagurski Jr. who went to Notre Dame and went on to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and win two Grey Cups, Jim Crotty also went to Notre Dame and played in the NFL for the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. Frank Youso was also on the team. Youso went on to play at the University of Minnesota and went on to play for the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders in the NFL.
“That team went on to win the Minnesota State Championship that year,” Ross said. “Which is no mean feat.”
In the 60s Rick Wiedenhoeft came out of the Muskies program and played at the University of Waterloo where he was a starter and kick returner. Wiedenhoeft would return to Fort Frances and become a teacher, coach and athletic director. After that he became a referee only stopping that at the beginning of last season.
The 70s saw a golden age for Muskie football according to alumnus Scott Fawcett.
The modern era of Muskie football stands on the shoulders of those seniors (in 1973),” Fawcett said. “There were seven key members of the Muskie hockey team that were on that team.”
That led to a period of six championships over eight seasons.
One of the key members of those teams was Jeff Treftlin who went on to be an All-Canadian at McMaster University and became a CFL All-Star winning the Grey Cup with Saskatchewan in 1989. Current head coach, Lou Gauthier played with Treftlin in 1978, Fawcett was an assistant coach at that time.
Athletics saw a massive funding cut in the 1980s which gave rise to booster clubs at FFHS including the Muskies Touchdown Club which runs to this day.
“If it wasn’t for the booster clubs football may have died in the 80s,” Fawcett said. “Without the Touchdown Club there is no football.”
In 1989 the Fort Frances Muskies won their first NWOSSAA championship. Having been denied in the finals the year before the team wasn’t going to go down easy in ‘89 according to their plaque in the Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame.
“In a cold November snow storm they became the pride of Fort Frances…” The plaque says.
As the years went on, it became apparent that the NorWOSSA league for football wasn’t a very competitive environment. There were only three teams with FFHS, Dryden and Kenora competing so the schedule was repetitive and uneven.
The teams joined the Winnipeg High School Football League in the 2001 and saw some early success but it took almost 20 years to win a major championship. In 2019 the Muskies finally won their division.
Offensive coordinator of the 2019 team Vic Davis says the team was good in 2018 as well but was narrowly beaten.
“I think our 2018 was a championship-calibre team too, but we had a little bit of misfortune that year,” Davis said. “We ended up losing by one point, so I knew we had a good team going into 2019. We had a pretty senior-heavy team, a good defense, and we had a very capable quarterback in Brady Meeks.”
The Muskies went 4-2 that season and had to win three playoff games in a row to take the championship against the Churchill Bulldogs 65-49 in the Canad Inns Bowl.
“It was a fun run,” Davis said. “We had a little bit of adversity, we lost one game and had to comeback and win a rematch to make it to the finals.”
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, when out-of-province travel wasn’t allowed the Ontario teams put together a NorWOSSA season between the Muskies, Beaver Brae Broncos and Dryden Eagles. That team beat the home side Dryden on the back of a Gabe Hyatt rushing TD and another from Darius Brenna.
Tomorrow, Muskies from three quarters of a century of football history will gather as the 2023 team looks to continue their winning ways. After a blowout over Dryden in their home opener, they’ve won two on the road. They come home to face the St. John’s Tigers who sit third in the league with a 2-1 record. Including tomorrow the Muskies play three of their final four regular season games at home and will look to push for the playoffs.