Fly Eagles Fly: How Jim Flanigan and the 1989 Southern Door Eagles Became Champions

How many times have you read about the “Cinderella story”: the story of the underdog; the doubted team that somehow triumphs; the team that shocks people and changes perceptions? 

In the fall of 1989, the Southern Door Eagles football team was just that: a Cinderella, a changer of expectations, a team that earned glory at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison by defeating what many said was an unbeatable Westby team 17-7. 

“The 1989 season was a special season with a group of special players and coaches,” head coach Jesse Harness said. “Such a combination and such an opportunity doesn’t come around very often. It takes a lot of folks with a lot of heart who are willing to work hard enough to have a chance to beat the odds. And it takes a little luck at times as well.”  

Chapter 1: Satisfaction – Eventually

In the summer of 1989, George H.W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. Dead Poets Society made its debut in theaters. Countless teenagers were playing Mötley Crüe’s album Dr. Feelgood on their cassette decks. The mullet was in style. And an unremarkable Southern Door football team began its summer workouts. 

The team from the Brussels school had never qualified for the football playoffs, and there wasn’t any sense that 1989 would be the year they broke through.

“State never crossed our minds,” quarterback Paul Renard said. “At that time, even winning the conference was a long shot. We were hoping to have a winning record.”

Door County Advocate sports editor Dave Ehrhardt agreed and picked three other teams to place ahead of the Eagles in his Packerland Conference preseason predictions. 

“I remember distinctly after the championship game that the guys brought up my preseason prediction,” Ehrhardt said. “It was something like, ‘Remember you picked us fourth in the conference?’ with a snicker. I know Renard and [Jim] Flanigan both made reference to it with big grins.”

With seniors returning to key positions, Harness had a talented team coming back from a 5-4 record in 1988, and he hoped his staff could find some young players to assume substantial roles. The Eagles had an All-State-caliber running back/linebacker/kicker in Jim Flanigan, but Renard would be taking his first snap in varsity action in the opener against Chilton, and the offensive line had just one returning starter.

“I think it is definitely an opportunity for revisionist history,” said Flanigan, who would go on to become a defensive lineman at Notre Dame and enjoy a 10-year career in the National Football League for the Bears, Packers, 49ers, and Eagles. In 2000, Flanigan earned the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his work with the James Flanigan Foundation, which promotes child literacy.

“I didn’t really have to think about state,” Flanigan said. “As football players, state is embedded in our psyche and is obviously the goal. We just did a good job of focusing on what we had to do next as the season progressed.”

These players were the sons of manual laborers. Renard, whose father was a cheesemaker, woke up early in the morning to fulfill his responsibilities at his family’s business before he could go to weight training. His teammates who lived on farms did the same. 

“People called us Cow Pie High,” Renard quipped. “My mom couldn’t understand why I still went to football after working so hard at home, but our whole team worked that hard.”

Chapter 2: Winning Despite a Loss

The 1989 season started with two lackluster nonconference wins over Chilton and Gillett, and a conference-opening 29-8 win over a bad Sturgeon Bay team created a prove-it matchup with Luxemburg-Casco (L-C). The previous two seasons, losses to the Spartans ended any postseason hopes the Eagles had. 

The Eagles’ offense moved like a glacier, producing a literally offensive total of 7 yards and one first down. Southern Door’s only score came after a bad snap on a punt gave the Eagles the ball on the Spartans’ 1-yard line. Flanigan scored on the next play.

Luxemburg-Casco didn’t fare much better, generating seven first downs and 134 total yards. The Spartans’ touchdown came when Southern Door punter Kraig Aune’s knee touched the turf on a low snap in punt formation to give L-C a first down on the 13-yard line. Three plays later, Mike LeRoy scored. It wasn’t much, but it was enough when Tim Jorgensen kicked a game-winning field goal with 19 seconds remaining for a 10-7 win. 

A mid-season change in offensive strategy changed the fortunes of head coach Jesse Harness and his Eagles. Submitted.

Harness said the game proved that the Southern Door Eagles had a tremendous defense, but that they needed an offense to match. They had a good place to start in Flanigan – an imposing, six-foot-three, 235-pound running back with a combination of speed and power the likes of whom the area hadn’t seen before and hasn’t since. 

The Eagles struggled again in their Homecoming game against perennial conference powerhouse Kewaunee, falling behind 15-6 at the half. A loss would doom the Eagles’ playoff dreams.

“At halftime of the Kewaunee game, the coaches went into their office for a quick discussion. They came out and told us that they were going to make some changes,” offensive tackle Scott Shefchik said. “The changes kept the safeties and linebackers honest. It opened up room for Jim to do what he did best.”

Tom LeCaptain and Darren Larkin lined up in the backfield in front of Flanigan. LeCaptain, who would earn All-Packerland Conference honors and play nose tackle at Mount Senario College, was charged with blocking the defensive end, and Larkin served as Flanigan’s escort through the hole by taking on the linebackers. This allowed Flanigan more space to pick up yardage.

The Eagles racked up 27 unanswered points during the second half, and Flanigan rushed for 232 yards and three scores on 37 carries. Larkin, who spent most of the night blocking for Flanigan, scored on a 40-yard scamper. 

“[Assistant coach] Brent Claflin described Jim Flanigan as having played like a ‘raging bull’ during the second half,” Harness said. “Everyone seemed to have elevated their level of play.”  

The Eagles cruised through the rest of the regular season, including shutout wins over Oconto Falls and Algoma, to close out the regular season 8-1 and finished second to Luxemburg-Casco in the conference.

Chapter 3: The Playoffs

The Eagles opened the playoffs with a 35-6 romp over Manawa. Flanigan crossed 4,000 yards for his career with a 142-yard, four-touchdown effort, and Larkin added a 6-yard scoring run. Southern Door’s defense allowed seven first downs and 117 yards and gave up its first points in three games on a meaningless Manawa score late in the fourth quarter.

On the other side of the bracket, three-time state champion Westby continued its dominant season with a 48-6 win over Westfield.

Up next for the Eagles was the Howards Grove Tigers, a 37-14 winner over Freedom in the opening round. Renard scored on a 1-yard dive, and Flanigan added the extra point to give Southern Door a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The Eagles’ defense continued its domination and allowed the Tigers no considerable scoring drives through three quarters. The Tigers, like Luxemburg-Casco, loaded the box with defenders – along with another questionable tactic – in an attempt to slow down Flanigan.

“That team was dirty,” LeCaptain said. “They would be pinching Jim in his inner thigh under the pile trying to get him mad so that he would do something back and get kicked out. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Chances are the Southern Door faithful couldn’t believe their eyes early in the fourth quarter. Still down 7-0, the Tigers were facing a third down and 23 from their own 7 when quarterback Bob Gilbert threw a 93-yard scoring toss to Scott Kraemer, who fought off two Southern Door defenders for the catch and outran a third defender for the improbable score.

“I don’t say this to be cocky,” Renard said, “but we never thought we were out of any game. After Howards Grove scored on the fluke play, we had to put our heads down and figure out a way to win.”

The Eagles did just that in overtime after Flanigan lost 4 yards on the first two plays. After a timeout, Renard took the snap and pitched it to Flanigan, who attracted the Tigers’ defense to the right. Meanwhile, Renard sneaked around the left end and was all alone on the opposite sideline, where he grabbed Flanigan’s halfback option pass and scored while taking a shot to the ribs at the goal line.

“We had to do something different with Jim being the decoy,” Renard said. “I called that play. I told Coach that the halfback option would be wide open. I remember as the ball was in the air saying to myself, ‘If I don’t catch the ball, Jim is going to kill me.’”

Elsewhere in the bracket, Westby cruised past Lancaster 45-7.

Waiting for the Eagles in the semifinal was Poynette, a 34-14 winner over Turner in its quarterfinal matchup. The self-proclaimed Bad Boys were 11-0 and appearing in their seventh consecutive postseason. 

“Southern Door is a very conservative team and lets the other team screw up,” Poynette coach Larry Thurston was quoted as saying in the Door County Advocate. “They just keep pounding you.”

On a snowy field in Fond du Lac, the Bad Boys were bad, and Thurston was absolutely correct in his appraisal of the Eagles. The Poynette team – then known as the Indians, but now known as the Pumas – turned the ball over in each of its first four possessions, and the Eagles’ defense did pound them in a 17-0 win. The Indians produced only 123 yards of offense and turned the ball over six times. They ran only nine plays in the first 18 minutes of the game and had only 13 first-half yards.

“We just overpowered them, and things got rolling,” LeCaptain said. “Defensively, we couldn’t do much wrong.”

Meanwhile, Westby continued to cruise, rolling over Durand 35-14.

Chapter 4: The Unbeatable Norsemen

Meet the Norse version of Goliath: a team that had scored at will for most of the season and a program that had won state titles in 1978, 1985 and 1986. The Westby Norsemen generally had their opponents so demoralized by halftime that the second half served as a junior-varsity proving ground. They had scored on their first possession in all 12 games heading into the final.

Harness said he knew Westby’s potent offense could strike at any time with running backs Jason Urbanek, Kyle Knutson and Matt T. Anderson – a trio that had rushed for 3,346 yards and scored 54 touchdowns. Quarterback Matt C. Anderson added a keep-the-opposition-honest 674 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. The Norsemen scored 128 points in their three playoff games and had outscored their opponents 212-0 in the first quarter, averaging 44 points per outing.

Linebacker Brad Servais, who went on to become a Division II All-American at North Dakota State University, led a defense that allowed fewer than 10 points and registered 44 turnovers. The Norsemen’s defense was equally ungenerous in the playoffs by allowing 27 points.

“We had an excellent defense, but Westby had some dangerously fast players,” Harness said. “One little slip-up could have been troublesome.”

On the opening drive, Westby followed its typical script: Matt C. Anderson gained 9 yards on the first play, and Urbanek added 12 on the second play to give the Norsemen a quick first down. What happened during the next three plays sent a vivid message to the Norsemen. Though Southern Door hadn’t seen a formidable offense such as Westby’s, the Norsemen likely hadn’t encountered anything like the Eagles’ defensive unit.

Urbanek gained a yard on first down and four more on second down to set up a third down and 5 from the 47-yard line. On third down, the Eagles stuffed Knutson for no gain, and for the first time all season, Westby punted on its opening drive.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be a long day,’” LeCaptain said when asked about the first two plays of the game. “[After forcing the punt], I knew we could play with them.”

Southern Door wasted little time doing what it did best on the subsequent drive. The Eagles drove 60 yards on 10 running plays to set up Flanigan’s 38-yard field goal, which gave the underdogs the lead with four minutes and 20 seconds left in the first quarter. In a little less than eight minutes, the Eagles had done what no team had done to Westby all season.

The Norsemen took advantage of a turnover to begin their third drive at midfield, and three plays later, Matt T. Anderson scored on a 39-yard run to give Westby its only lead – 7-3 – early in the second quarter.  

Jim Flanigan’s younger brother Brian recovered a fumble late in the quarter, and 10 plays and 53 yards later, the Eagles loosely revived the deception of the Howards Grove game to take a 10-7 lead with 16 seconds left in the first half. This time, when Flanigan looked to pass to Renard, the Norsemen read the play as though they’d been in the huddle when it was called, so he looked off Renard and hit Jason Norton in the back of the end zone from 6 yards out.

“Somehow I got that pass through the defense to Norton,” Flanigan said. “To me that was the difference in the game because it gave us confidence to have the lead at halftime.”

As the Eagles celebrated their lead-grabbing touchdown with their confidence fully on display, Westby’s defenders retreated to their sideline – noticeably weary, and with their chins affixed to their chests. These were poses they would strike for the majority of the second half, with their starters playing on the field rather than serving as spectators.

“I think Westby was pretty convinced they were a superior team to Southern Door,” Ehrhardt said. “As the game unfolded, you could see the doubt starting to creep in and Southern Door’s confidence growing and growing. It was amazing to watch.”

After Kraig Aune’s punt pinned Westby on its 2-yard line early in the second half, the Norsemen’s offense finally appeared, driving to the Southern Door 39-yard line. Facing a fourth and 3 from the Southern Door 39, Westby coach Art Brunje elected – curiously – to punt, despite rushing for 64 yards on the drive.

Starting at its own 16-yard line with 4:33 left in the third quarter, the Eagles initiated their version of pigskin keep-away. Flanigan, Larkin and LeCaptain started the drive by combining for 8 rushing yards on the first three plays. Faced with a fourth down and 2 from their own 24, Harness decided to try to convert on fourth down rather than punt the ball back to a team that had shown some offensive moxy during the previous drive. Flanigan absorbed a hit in the backfield, regained his balance and stretched his six-foot-three frame just beyond the first-down marker.

“I remember thinking, ‘Boy, that’s a gutsy call,’” offensive lineman Scott Shefchik said. “I don’t believe any of us had a doubt that we would get the first down.”

Their flirtation with disaster over, the Eagles drove an additional 71 yards and had a first down on the 3-yard line. Larkin gained 2 yards, and after Westby stopped Renard just short of scoring on second down, Flanigan made a dive over the goal line to cap the Eagles’ ridiculously long, time-devouring drive with 6:24 left in the game. Flanigan ran the ball 16 times for 69 yards on the drive and had three third-down runs that resulted in first downs.

The Eagles were all smiles after capturing the state championship over powerhouse Westby. Submitted.

“We had a great defensive coordinator who thought that teams don’t drive that far and usually make a mistake,” Brunje said. “I figured they would make a mistake. They didn’t.”

The Norsemen had two drives in the final half of the fourth quarter that started on the 32-yard line. The first drive ended when Norton recovered Matt C. Anderson’s fumble at the 3-yard line. Flanigan finished Westby’s final drive when the last tackle of his Southern Door career separated Urbanek from the ball, and Flanigan’s brother Brian smothered the fumble with his sternum. Renard genuflected twice after the snap to secure the Eagles’ title.

“Westby thought they would steamroll us,” said Renard. “They thought they would get to Jim and stop him, and they couldn’t. We just got one of those long drives and put them away.”

Statistics don’t lie. Southern Door, which held the Norsemen to 35 yards in the second half, allowed a pedestrian 211 total yards and 10 first downs. The Eagles forced seven fumbles, recovered three and had an interception by Jesse Jadin in the first half. Southern Door ran 68 plays, the Norsemen just 36.

“We were probably outcoached,” admitted Brunje, who coached for 15 years at Westby and posted 10 conference titles and three unbeaten seasons. “We didn’t think anyone could stop our offense. We had an outstanding team – probably the best total talent I had at Westby.”

The Eagles trumped that with Jim Flanigan and teammates who proved that a team with a chip on its shoulder can do so much more than others think it can do. Flanigan finished the game with 215 yards on 42 carries, a running touchdown, a passing touchdown, a field goal, two extra points and a litany of tackles. 

When Flanigan finished the last chapter in his Southern Door football novel, witnesses described it as his magnum opus.

“I know it was very convincing to everyone there that Flanigan was special,” said Ehrhardt, who covered the game from the sideline. “Everyone in Door County already knew that, but now it was on display for the whole state. He was sort of like Paul Bunyan – bigger than life. They say the best players step up in the biggest games, and he did that.” 

Shefchik, who blocked for Flanigan for two varsity seasons, viewed Flanigan’s performance differently.

“He was just being him,” said Shefchik, who went on to play two seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “There were times he tried hard not to be the spotlight, and it was never about him. He was an athletic freak for that time, but it was his attitude and character that made him great.”

Jim Flanigan went on to star at the University of Notre Dame, where he was playing when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated – before going on to a 10-year career with the Bears, Packers, Eagles and 49ers.

It’s the summer of 2019. George H.W. Bush was eloquently eulogized by his namesake the prior December. It’s impossible to turn off the television when Dead Poets Society comes on. Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe is booked for Nov. 16 at the Crystal Grand Music Theater in Wisconsin Dells. Thankfully, the mullet fell out of style and (so far) has not returned. 

“To make my dad angry, I grew my mullet out so the curls would hang out of the back of my helmet,” Renard quipped. “After I would get a haircut, he would say, ‘You call that a haircut?’”

But for members of the 1989 Southern Door Eagles, the memories of a Cinderella season are clear. 

“Our bus was creeping up Brussels Hill on the way to [Southern Door High School] for a community celebration,” Harness said. “I looked out the back window of the bus, and a line of cars was following us all the way back to Brussels. I always have fond memories of the season when I glance at my 1989 state-championship ring on the bookshelf in our front room.”

Renard recalled the Eagles’ unselfishness and Flanigan’s immeasurable contribution.

“If you weren’t part of it, you wouldn’t know what it was like,” Renard said. “It was a bunch of guys who put their egos aside and did their roles. How we came together around Jim as a team is the story of the season.”

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