The Panthers have only made the playoffs twice in their entire history. The last time being in 1978, they had never even come close to capturing a Kansas 4-A State Title...until now!
By by Reed Sainsbury
Published: Spring 2000
Another school year was coming to an end. It was 1995 and eighth grader, John Hake, had just gotten his school pictures back. He was carrying on the tradition of passing them out to friends. As he sat and pondered what to write on the back of the picture that he was giving to his football teammate, Josh Williams, an idea entered his mind. “How great it would be if we could win the State Championship our senior year,” thought John. But only a fool would say that at Concordia High School. The Concordia Panthers have only made the playoffs twice in their entire history, the last time being in 1978, and of course had never even come close to capturing a State Title. That idea quickly rushed from young Hake's mind, into his heart, where a burning desire and dream to win was born. Everyone has goals, but how many of us actually reach them? Despite the losing tradition at Concordia, young John Hake decided to write on the back of his picture, “1999 State Football Champs,” and then gave it to his buddy Josh.
When Coach Ron Culwell arrived in Concordia in 1995, he inherited a football program that needed a lot of help. With only six seniors, the Panthers went 1-8. However, Culwell saw their potential and steered the team mentally in a new direction by warming up each day saying, “State Champs.” Culwell had been using the BFS program for about fifteen years, out of the eighteen years that he had coached. He had a strong testimony of its effectiveness and knew, in order to win, the team must use this program and it's training regime. Coach Culwell started a program called “Summer Pride” where the entire football team trained together for six weeks. Each summer about 120 kids are involved and so it is necessary that they be broken down into three groups so that the weight room can accommodate all. They start with the dot drill and then they stretch. Heavy explosion lifts occur at the power clean and squat stations. This is where young kids are transformed into fierce warrior athletes.
Hard work in the weight room helps win State Championships. The Panthers work extremely hard on the weights and to prove it, every junior and senior on the team can power clean 200 pounds or more. Even more impressive is the fact that every offensive lineman on the Panthers lineup can squat at least 400 pounds and power clean 250 pounds or better. Coach Culwell claims, “The power clean is the number one most important lift that an athlete can do to become a better football player.”
Success at Concordia was not bred into the hearts of the football team. In 1995, the team only won a single game the entire year, while losing eight. They finished the 1996 season 4-5. During half time of an early season game, when Concordia was getting slaughtered, someone in the locker room was heard saying, “Take a good look at the score board, this is how it's going to be for the rest of the season.” Coach Culwell knew that one phrase like that was all that it would take to keep a team losing. If you expect to lose, most likely, you will. But deep down inside of every person is a subtle energy seeking for a chance to grab success. Coach Culwell knew that if his team would view themselves as winners, then that is what they would be. What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. Just as Thomas Edison refused to give up after failing nearly 2,000 times in inventing the light bulb, so did Coach Culwell do with Concordia. He boosted their self-esteem and ingrained in their minds that they were champions. He encouraged them to see their potential and in doing so, the team came together like a close-knit family.
To give Concordia that something extra to help them reach their (at one time impossible) dream of becoming State Champs, they invited BFS clinician, Rick Bojak to come to their school and put on a clinic. “It brought the team together and gave us that motivation that we needed,” stated Culwell. The following season the Panthers went out to battle with everything they had. Like most success stories, it wasn't easy and without complications. They won their first four games and then lost two in a row. They lost to their archrival Belleville in double overtime 10-7, and then to Goodland 14-7. Coach Culwell explains, “It was good in a way because it brought the kids closer together. It showed them that they couldn't win if they weren't playing together as a team. It showed them that everyone had to be doing their job, without pointing fingers and bickering one with another." Through this, the Panthers rallied together. Senior Linebacker John Hake, brought his team together emotionally and mentally. “He is the heart and soul of our team,” exhorted Coach Culwell. “He always stood up as a leader and gave a heart-touching motivational pep talk before each game. That little extra inspiration helped each player reach deep down inside for strength when times got tough.”
Concordia had learned from their losses and were ready to battle together as a team and win. The Panthers stunned the defending State Champion, Topeka Hayden, with a 27-14 victory in the 4-A bi-district game. Tailback, Josh Williams, despite playing with a broken bone in his right hand, carried the ball 34 times for 254 yards. Culwell praised, “That was a great effort. He is a true warrior.” Next came a big game against unbeaten 10-0 Kingman. The Panthers demolished them easily with a 16-0 shutout victory. This advanced them into the semi-finals of the State Playoffs for the first time in history. Things were getting heated up and the Panthers were on a roll. They barely beat Wellington 16-14 for a shot to play for state crown.
The State Championship game against 12-0 undefeated Holton, was Concordia's final test to see if they had what it took to wear the number one crown in the state. They faced number one ranked Holton who had outscored its three opponents in the playoffs earlier this season with a combined score of 128-20. Senior linebacker/fullback, John Hake reports, “I think that is one of our greatest weapons. We don't ever get intimidated.” The Panthers played with fury. Dreams and goals were on the verge of becoming a reality.
The 6-2, 190 pounder Josh Williams, was the workhorse for Concordia. He had 31 carries for 282 yards. Glimpses of John Hakes eighth grade photo flashed through William's mind with the words “1999 State Champs” written on the back. Williams wanted more than anything for that dream to come true, and a broken hand wasn't going to stand in his way. The Panthers played like the champions that Coach Culwell taught them that they were and at last the sweet victory came. They no longer had to believe because now they knew that they were champions with the 42-21 win over Holton which gave them the honor to call themselves “1999 State Champions.”
At the end of the 1999 season, after the Panthers savored their sweet State Championship title, senior quarterback, Kellen Bombardier, tried to express his deepest feelings for Coach Culwell. A lump formed in his throat as emotions of gratitude consumed him. He couldn't get the words out so he expressed his feelings in a letter that thanked Coach Culwell for leading them to success. Bombardier praised, “Thanks for making us believe that we could be State Champions by making us say it everyday. It was a dream come true to play with all of my best friends and win the State Championship.”