This is the No. 1 game of the top 40 games involving Concordia Parish football teams.
How monumental was the Ferriday-John Curtis Class 2A semifinal contest on December 4, 1981?
John Curtis head football coach J.T. Curtis, who is entering his 51st season as Curtis’ head coach with a lifetime record of 582-64-6. and 27 state championships, remembers that game as if it were yesterday.
“That was a heckuva ballgame,” Curtis said last week. “That was what high school football should be about. That game was about two highly competitive high school football teams competing at the highest level and then when it was over showing a lot of respect for each other. Ferriday was a well-coached, talented team that was well trained and well conditioned. Both teams fought hard to the very end. After the game they came over to our lockerroom and talked with our team about the game.”
At his current pace of nearly twelve wins per season, Curtis would catch John McKissick, who tops the list with 621 wins, during the 2021 or 2022 season.
“We’re still hoping we play this year,” Curtis said. “We’re certainly prepared to follow all the guidelines.”
In 1981, following an open date, Ferriday finished the regular season unbeaten with a 50-13 win over Block, holding the Bears to 115 total yards.
The Trojans beat Jonesboro-Hodge 42-11 in a first round playoff contest, holding the Tigers to minus-19 yards rushing and 147 passing.
Star running back Nathaniel Williams scored four touchdowns in the contest for Ferriday.
Ferriday had to overcome a 12-6 halftime deficit to Springhill in its second round game, defeating the Lumberjacks 18-12 to advance.
Ferriday defeated St. Louis of Lake Charles 28-7 in the quarterfinals, holding the Saints to 126 rushing yards and 26 yards through the air.
That set up a semifinal classic contest with Class 2A power John Curtis, which was also unbeaten and the two-time defending state champion, having beaten Patterson 28-0 in the 1979 state title game and Jonesboro-Hodge 21-3 in the 1980 title game.
Ferriday actually jumped out to a 16-7 first quarter lead, but the Patriots came back to lead 28-24 at halftime.
The Patriots led 36-24 after three quarters and both teams scored six points in the final quarter as the scoreboard showed a 42-30 final in a game played before a jam-packed crowd, including LSU head football coach Jerry Stovall.
After the game, John Curtis school founder John Curtis Sr., and father of J. T. Curtis, told Baldwin, “You are the best we’ve played all year. We have played some quad-A teams and none of them matched your team.”
Curtis beat E.D. White 21-17 the following week for its third straight championship.
“J.T. and I became good friends,“ Baldwin said. “He told me after the game that it was the greatest high school game he had ever been involved with. It was a great game and very memorable. Both teams played their hearts out. Our kids gave all they had. I thought one call affected the outcome. When Bobby Ray Thompson’s touchdown was called back, it kind of knocked the wind out of us.”
Ferriday’s defense was led by junior two-time All-State lineman Walter Johnson, who played at Tech from 1983 to1986.
Johnson was a two-time All-American was named the 1986 Defensive Player of the Year in the state of Louisiana by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association and was also a three-time all-Southland Conference selection. He helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1984 NCAA I-AA National Championship game as the Tech defense held point-a-minute Mississippi Valley State and the Jerry Rice-led Delta Devils to only 19 points and forced seven turnovers in the memorable first round win in Ruston.
Johnson received the President's Award at the end of the season from Dr. F. Jay Taylor and was named MVP on defense.
Johnson finished with 327 tackles and 38 sacks at Tech, and blocked six punts, the most since Mike Barber in 1976.
Johnson was also named Defensive Player of the Year on the All-Louisiana Team in 1986.
After completing his Tech career as the all-time sacks leader with 38, Johnson was selected in the second round of the 1987 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers and spent three years in professional football, including a stint with the New Orleans Saints.
“I wasn’t disappointed about not getting to the Superdome, I was just disappointed with the loss,” Johnson said. “We had some great players in Bobby Ray Thompson, Nate, a real great quarterback (Keith Henderson), a good defense all around. The Curtis game was the only game I got triple-teamed. They had so many good players that the center and two guards were blocking me.”
Leading up to the game, J.T. Curtis and his wife Lydia were traveling west on Interstate 10 just a few days before the semifinal contest.
Curtis was scheduled to meet Ferriday High coach Jerry Baldwin at the Holiday Inn on Airline Highway.
“My wife’s aunt lived in Baton Rouge so we were also going to stop by and tell her hello before we came home,” Curtis said.
But an accident on the interstate had Curtis stuck in traffic for around three hours.
“We didn’t have cell phones then and there were certainly no pay phones on the interstate,” Curtis said. “I’m thinking, there’s no way that coach is going to be there. I pulled up there and walked in and told the person I was supposed to meet a coach and if they know if he had been here. The person said, ‘Well, there was a man here who didn’t really say much. He waited about an hour or so. He told me the guy told him that he was going to go across the river to the Holiday Inn there and make sure he had the right place and that if a guy named Curtis came by he would come back. It wasn’t 10 minutes later, Jerry walked in. I apologized and he said he knew something had to have happened and he wasn’t going home before he heard from somebody. I said to myself right then, ‘This is a guy who is really interested in getting this film no matter the inconvenience. I knew then I was fooling with a guy who knew what it meant to win.”
When Curtis arrived back home, he checked out the Ferriday film.
“They only played 15 or 16 guys, but that 15 or 16 could play,” Curtis said. “Our coaches were very impressed not only with how they played, but their conditioning and the intensity with which they played with. We knew we were going to be in for a tough and difficult game.”
Undefeated Curtis was seeking its fifth state championship in seven years.
The Trojans, the lone unbeaten team in north Louisiana, was competing in the semifinals for the first time ever.
Melz Field was overflowing with 5,000 people. including Stovall, Tiger assistant coach Pete Jenkins and Northwestern State head coach Sam Goodwin.
“I looked at it as just another game, but I had never seen that many players on a team before,” Johnson said. “They had about 80 football players — and they were all players. And they had about 12 coaches. It was a great game. That kind of competition was so much higher than what we were used to.”
“I can remember Melz Frield was so full that fans were lined up around both end zones,” said Ferriday cornerback Cedric Morgan. “John Curtis may have had all the accolades of being a powerhouse, but that was no doubt in our mind we could win that game.We were told by John Curtis himself ‘this is the greatest game his school had ever been involved in.’ I believe we earned the respect we so truly deserved that season. That game was a dog fight and the ‘Junkyard Dogs’ made sure that fight was historic.”
Henderson had his pass intercepted on the first play of the game. But Ferriday recovered a John Curtis fumble one play later.
The Patriots had six fumbles on the night, with Ferriday recovering four of those fumbles.
“Part of that was because of them and their nose guard, Walter Johnson,” Curtis said of Ferriday’s Junkyard Dog defense. “We had a young man playing center named Steve Mintz. I remember saying to him, ‘You gotta get him, you gotta get after him,’ and just really fussing at him. But it turns out Walter went on to have a successful college career and played in the NFL, while Steve is now a successful courier.”
“I had both guards blocking me depending on which side I was on,” said Johnson, who faced double teaming from the center and guard and sometimes a tackle. “It was different than what I faced all year. They would send in a fresh offensive line and not miss a beat.”
Offensively, Ferriday was led by Williams, who broke Billy Cannon’s record for most touchdowns by a freshman in high school.
“What impressed me was the discipline of this group and the way they executed on offense,” Curtis said.
“They had a great running back in Reggie Dupard and another one in Brian Stropolo,” Williams said
Curtis scored first on an 85-yard drive.
Stropolo rushed for two yards before Dupard, who went on to play at SMU and in the NFL, broke loose on a 77-yard run to the Ferriday 6-yard line. Two plays later, Patriot quarterback Bobby Nelson scored from four yards out and Richard Parker added the kick.
Ferriday answered that score with a 71-yard scoring drive as Williams scored from nine yards out. Keith Henderson passed to Danny Fletcher on the conversion to give the Trojans an 8-7 lead.
“I actually ran for three touchdowns, and had two called back,” Williams said. “One of the penalties they said was holding on No. 42 (Williams number). That really stirred us up.”
Nelson was sacked on Curtis’ next possession, which forced a short punt to Patriot 36. Henderson then hit Fletcher on first down for the score on the final play of the first quarter. Williams ran in the conversion for a 16-7 Trojan lead.
Curtis then cut that lead to 16-14, marching 64 yards on their next possession as Nelson passed to Stropolo from four yards out.
A Patriot interception led to a 4-yard run by Dupard with 5:25 remaining in the first half. Nelson was stopped short on the conversion to leave the score at 20-16.
Ferriday fumbled the ball away on the ensuing kickoff and it was recovered by John Curtis on the 30-yard line.
Four plays later, Nelson passed to Ronnie Helm from nine yards out. Nelson ran in the conversion for a 28-16 Patriot lead.
Ferriday’s Junkyard Dogs forced a fumble late in the second quarter at the Patriot 13. Henderson completed a short pass to Williams and Williams rambled nine yards for a score. Henderson passed to Thompson on the conversion and the teams went to the dressing room with Curtis leading 28-24.
John Curtis scored the only points of the third period, capping a 75-yard drive with a 6-yard run by Stropolo, who added the conversion run for a 36-24 advantage with 3:41 left in the third stanza.
“Brian did not have the flash of Reggie, but he was very competitive and physically tough,” Curtis said. “He was an excellent athlete.”
The Trojans had a 65-yard touchdown pass from Henderson to Thompson in the period because of an illegal motion in the backfield.
WIlliams returned the ensuing kickoff 24 yards to the Ferriday 42.
The Trojans marched into Patriot territory as the third quarter ended.
With 11:17 remaining in the game, Williams scored from two yards out.
The pass conversion failed, leaving the score at 36-30 in favor of the River Ridge team.
Williams knew that wasn’t enough.
“My secondary coach walked by me on the sideline and he said, ‘Ya’ll better score because we’ll never slow these guys down.’ I said. ‘That’s not exactly something I wanted to hear.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s going to be.’”
John Curtis ended the scoring with a 66-yard drive which ended with Stropolo going in from one yard out with 8:14 remaining in the game to make the final 42-30.
Ferriday rushed for 125 yards and passed for 162, while John Curtis had 279 yards rushing and 124 passing.
“Normally when we score 30 points, we win,” Johnson said. “This was for the championship. They had a class football team. They came out and whipped on you on the field. They didn’t talk trash. They would help you up after they knocked you down and then would knock you down again.”
“That was one of the greatest games I was ever a part of,” Williams said. “We had opportunities to win that game. We had 25 players and no one over 200 pounds. When we were growing up, all we heard about was John Curtis. It was exciting for the town and we were excited to be able to play them.. Even though we lost, everybody knew we were for real after that.”
“I was used to being matched up one on one with the best receiver on every team we played,” Morgan said. “That night they had several good receivers. They also had Reggie Dupard in the backfield. On one particular play, Dupard got loose on the sideline on a sweep play down the sideline. Curtis fans were so used to him scoring that they thought the touchdown was a foregone conclusion. I was actually able to catch him from behind after about a 60-yard gain. Playing John Curtis was the biggest game we had ever been involved in, it was the biggest game on the biggest stage. That was the game that put Ferriday football back on the map, and let everyone know our season wasn’t just a fluke.”
“After that game I was in the gym sitting on the floor and a couple of kids walked in and said, ‘Coach, can we meet No. 20 (Stropolo),’ Curtis said. “Honestly, I was a little worried. But they said, we just want to tell him he played good. I called Brian over and they looked at him and said, ‘That’s not him, that’s not 20. He was bigger than that.’ They all shook hands and had a nice conversation.”
Curtis, the winningest coach in Louisiana history (506-54-6) said Stropolo officiates football games and was a member of the parish levee board in New Orleans.
Stropolo went on to play football at Nicholls State, following his older brother Steven, who also played at Nicholls.
Brian’s brother, Chris Stropolo,played quarterback at Curtis and went on to play baseball in the Cincinnati Reds organization.
Stropolo was involved in controversy in 2012 as an NFL side judge replacement referee when the regular referees held a lockout when he was pulled from his assignment about three hours before the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers was not allowed to return as an official until the league completed a review of the circumstances that dictated the action.
The NFL locked out the regular officials in June after their contract expired. Negotiations with the NFL Referees Association broke down several times during the summer, including just before the season, and the league is using replacements for the first time since 2001.
Stropolo had displayed his unabashed passion as a longtime Saints fan on his Facebook page, which has since been disabled. He also posted Sunday's game assignment, a specific violation of league policy for its officials.
"We are reviewing Mr. Stropolo's status and pending completion of that review, he will not be serving as an on-field game official," said Greg Aiello, the league's senior vice president of communications.
The NFL was unaware of Stropolo's open allegiance as a Saints fan until ESPN contacted the league Sunday morning.
Stropolo worked the Week 1 opener between the Cowboys and Giants and posted on Sept. 5: "Thanks to everyone for all the support. The crew did a great job tonight. Next stop September 16th at Carolina vs the Saints."
Curtis said Dupard lives in Texas and works at a school for troubled kids.
“He and his wife have a ministry where they work with youth camps,” he said.
Nelson teaches school and has a successful videography business, filming wedding and activities.
Curtis said he was in Baton Rouge years ago and was on a television show talking about great high school football games of the past.
“This guy called up and said he knew about a great game,” Curtis said, “I told him I knew the very game he was talking about, our game against Ferriday High. He said, ‘Yep, that’s it.’ I thought that was one of the best high school football game I have ever seen. I became pretty good friends with Coach Baldwin. We had mutual respect for each other. In my opinion, that’s the greatness of high school sports. It’s such a pure sport and you have kids out there laying it on the line and coaches coaching as hard as they can. Nobody walked off the field a loser that night.”