25 Days of Champions -- 1976 Marathon



Earlier in the week we visited the 1977 May Tigers and their victory over the Marathon Mustangs in that year’s championship game. I think now would be a good time to step back one year and discuss one of the most incredible seasons in involving a six-man championship team…the 1976 Marathon Mustangs.

The story of the 1976 Marathon Mustangs is a unique one. Coming off a state runner-up showing in 1975 and with the bulk of that squad returning, expectations were high going into the year. There was a major difference though, 1976 was the first year of a UIL realignment cycle and Marathon was so far removed from all other six-man teams, the UIL placed them in their own district by themselves.

That’s right, Marathon was district champs before a single snap was made in the season. One reason for this was the fact that the UIL changed the cut off number to be six-man eligible from 99 to 75. This forced all the schools that were formerly in Marathon’s district to move to class B and play 11-man. Their isolation proved a major problem as well. Head coach Vance Jones, in his second year at the helm, had a large roster full of big, fast, and talented kids, so he had little choice but to schedule games against area 11-man teams, play 11-man games, and play them all on the road.

The Mustangs didn’t despair, but rose to the challenge. They played seven 11-man games and won all seven.

A few weeks still remained in the regular season before the playoffs started and coach Jones had a friend coaching at Loop. Fearing his team needed at least one six-man game before the playoffs, he scheduled a game at Loop. Marathon won the game easily, 50-8, so the mustangs entered the playoffs 8-0, having won every game on the road and only playing one six-man football game.

They drew the Blackwell Hornets for their Bi-District/Quarterfinal opponent. Blackwell had a great team and boasted a 9-0-1 record. The Hornets gave the Mustangs some trouble, as Marathon held only a 48-24 lead at halftime. But in the end, the size and speed of the Mustangs was just too much for the Hornets and Marathon ended the game early in the fourth quarter, 76-26. The 26 points would be the most they allowed all season – either 11-man or six-man.

Their 2nd round/Semifinal game was against the Harrold Hornets. PLayed at Blackwell, which is quite a long drive for Marathon. On their way to the game, their equipment, which was stored on the top of the bus, fell off without anyone knowing. They had to make a pit stop in San Angelo to buy some equipment and luckily a fellow Marathoner was able to stop and pick some stuff up off the road and deliver it safely to the team waiting at Blackwell. The Mustangs had little trouble with Harrold and once again started their journey home early thanks to the mercy rule winning, 62-14. Ben Ramirez, the Mustangs spreadback, led the charge with 237 yards and five touchdowns rushing on just 19 carries.

Marathon would now face off with the May Tigers in the fifth Texas UIL six-man state championship game.

State Championship Game – Saturday Dec. 4th 7:00pm in Brownwood
The game site was Brownwood, as the six-man coaches’ association had a two-year contract with the Brownwood Chamber of Commerce to host their state games. This meant the game was a virtually home game for May which is only 20 miles north of Brownwood; by contrast Marathon had to travel over 300 miles.

May was sitting at 12-0, having defeated a tough Strawn team, 34-26, in the final week of the regular season to make the playoffs. They then defeated a solid Mullin team, 60-46, in the first round, and mercy-ruled Oglesby, 66-19, in the semifinals to advance to their first-ever state championship game. They were a tough team with a great running game behind returning all-state running back Phil Mitchell, who had scored over 59 touchdowns and rushed for more than 3,000 yards going into the state game.

Scoring came quick, as Marathon scored first just 19 seconds into the game to take an 8-0 lead. The two teams traded scored and with only four minutes having ran off the clock, May held a slim 16-14 lead thanks to a one-yard touchdown run and a 78-yard kickoff return touchdown, both courtesy of Phil Mitchell.

Marathon didn’t wait long to answer and on their next play from scrimmage, Ben Ramirez scored on a 56-yard run, for the fourth and final lead change in the game. The Mustangs defense took over the game at this point and by halftime the score was 50-16.

In the second half, Coach Jones mixed in some younger players and May held strong defensively, allowing only six points in the third quarter. But the Tigers could not get anything going offensively and trailed 56-16 entering the final stanza. Marathon once again ended the game a little early via the mercy rule, as Salmon connected with Ramirez on a 25-yard game-ending score with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter.

Marathon’s defense was stellar, holding Phil Mitchell to just 113 yards rushing. The Mustinags held May on four fourth down plays, forced May to punt once, intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. Marathon also outgained the Tigers, 456-195. Offensively, Ben Ramirez rushed for 129 yards, while Salmon was 9-for-12 for 187 yards with five touchdowns passing. Simon Martinez caught three of those touchdowns.

The circumstances of the season and the way Marathon dominated both 11-man and 6-man opponents has lived on in the minds of many who played against them and saw them play. One story often told is that when the captains met at midfield for the coin flip in the state game, the Marathon players, who were all very tall, athletic and some having facial hair, spoke nothing but Spanish and that intimidated some of the May players right from the start.

Another long-lasting rumor was that their players were too old to be playing. This is partly true. Marathon had for a long time had two separate grade schools, one for white kids and one for Hispanic kids, known as the Hidalgo Ward. After that system closed down, there was still within the elementary school system, an extra year of 1st grade for the kids who didn’t speak English very well, giving them an extra year of schooling. The end result of this was that some of the kids were 18 and 19 years old by the time they were seniors. I have been told that the Marathon class of 1977, which was the 1976 football season, was the last group of kids who passed through the split-grade school system. Therefore a few students were slightly older. Over time this has been embellished so much, it turned into grown men playing for Marathon, but it sure makes for great stories to tell your kids and grandkids!

-Stats came from Brownwood, San Angelo, and Abilene newspapers.
-Vance Jones only coached at Marathon for the 1975 and 1976 season, going 1-1 in state title games.
-The information about the two-school system in Marathon was information told to me by former players and coaches.
-I am missing the UIL official district alignment papers for 1976, so I am not 100% sure how many teams there were but it should be basically the same as 1977 which was 56 teams making up 8 district in six-man football.
-The 1977 Marathon team also played 11-man games but did not fare as good as the 1976 team did.

1976 was my senior year of football. It was also our first year of six-man football at Whitharral America. We previously played 8 man until the UIL abolished it that summer. We were put in a 16 team district with 8 teams in each zone. We won our zone and played Trent in Lamesa during a snow storm for the district championship. The first round of the play-offs we played Harrold at Paducah. They had twice the number of kids as we did and wore us down pretty well. I think we got beat 44-22, Clifton Gilmore (supt. at Aspermont) was the QB for them. They went on to get eliminated by the eventual state champions, Marathon.

Several of us Panthers drove to Loop to watch that game. It was either an open date for us, or the game was played on Saturday, I can't remember why we were able to go, but we had heard how good Marathon was and we wanted to watch it. We had heard that their QB could throw the length of the football field, and we were able to see it happen against the Loop Longhorns that day.

My team mate, Walter Kristinek and I, had the priviledge of playing in the All Star game that summer in Brownwood with 3 of the marathon players. Spread Back Ben Ramirez, Receiver Simon Martinez, and Center Leo Caviness, were half of our team. We were defeated by 4 points by the East. They were Coached by Grayum Hart, and their best player was Phil Mitchel. I remember Phil had a sprained ankle going into that all star game and he touched the ball only 4 times and scored on 3 touches. If he was healthy they would have taken the game over easily.
I was on the East squad at the all-star game from Iredell High. I remember when we got to camp early that week and saw the west squad how big all you guys looked. I was the by far the biggest guy on the East, 6-3 and 220, but I would have been the smallest on your squad it seemed. I pulled my hamstring and could only kick off for most of the game until at the end of the game when you guys had the ball fourth down and yall decided to punt with only about 30 seconds left to go in the game. I went to coach Hart and begged him to let me go out and play what would be my final play of high school football. He gave in and I hobbled out to the line to play defense. I managed to get a push into the backfield and got my hand up and blocked the punt that we recovered around the two yard line I think. We scored on the next play. The West squad was so big and fast that I think we were like 30 point underdogs! Coach Hart kept throwing that at us all week to keep our intensity up. I remember Phil in practice, he had a hard time going, but the other guys on that team were super fast , but all fairly small in size. I don't remember the other May player on the team, an end I believe, he was like the next biggest dude on the team but still a few inches shorter than me. It was a game for the ages, just a great memory..