In the proud history of Annapolis High football, 1977 was a season to forget.
Legendary head coach Al Laramore was forced to take a leave of absence due to personal reasons and things spiraled out of control from there.
A talent-laden team that featured such standouts as Orlando Makell, Kenny Belt, Earl Steele and Gary Wheeler finished 4-6. It was the first losing season since 1964 at Annapolis and would remain one of just four over a span of four decades.
"We were absolutely loaded that year. We had a bunch of really good players who couldn't get on the field," said Kevin Thompson, a star fullback who had to play linebacker in 1977. "There was no darn way that team should have finished with a losing record."
Out of tremendous disappointment came spectacular success. Thompson and the rest of the juniors on the 1977 squad were angry about what happened that season and made a pledge to turn things around the following year.
Randy Pittman, who had been on varsity since he was a sophomore and was one of the few juniors that played in 1977, laid down the law.
"Randy pulled us together and said: We will not go through what we did last year," Thompson recalled. "We had a senior group that held itself accountable. We were determined to have a successful senior season and every man was totally committed to that goal."
What happened in 1978 remains memorable to this day. Big Al Laramore returned as head coach and led Annapolis to a 12-0 record that produced the only football state title in school history.
Pittman, Thompson and a host of other senior standouts were the catalysts as Annapolis defeated Walt Whitman, 28-14, to capture the Class AA state championship. When the final whistle blew, a handful of those 15 seniors hoisted Laramore onto their shoulders and carried him off the field – no small feat considering the man weighed almost 400 pounds.
"Big Al was almost in tears when he addressed the team in the locker room afterward. It was like a relief to finally get a championship after all those years," said Darryl Brown, starting quarterback in 1978. "We all felt good for Coach Laramore because he deserved it, especially after what he'd been through the year before."
There is no doubt that state championship was the crowning achievement for Laramore, who succeeded Neville Leonard as Annapolis High head coach in 1965. Speaking to The Capital following the game, Laramore minced no words.
"This is the greatest football team I've ever coached – maybe not by personnel, but by their dedication and positive attitude," Laramore said. "Our seniors came to practice on August 15 thinking positive and it rubbed off on the others."
Annapolis was simply dominant over the course of the season, outscoring opponents 375-82 (average score of 31-7). The Panthers put up 40 points or more four times and registered four shutouts. Glen Burnie was the only school that managed to score a single point in the second half against a suffocating defense led by nose guard Daryl Parker and linebacker Tommy Parker.
"We had a poor season in '77 and it didn't sit well with the returning players. The seniors stepped up leadership-wise and set the tone from the outset that things were going to be different in '78," said center Lenny Riek, one of three captains along with Pittman and Tommy Parker.
"I was confident we would be good, but I would never have imagined we would have the success we did," Riek added. "It wasn't about talent or skill; it was more about teamwork and togetherness. We were like a family and we trusted each other and that camaraderie is what made the difference."
To a man, members of the 1978 state championship team insist the events of the previous season set in motion what happened the following fall.
Things began to go south the previous spring when Annapolis High principal Richard Ensor informed Laramore he would no longer be allowed to coach varsity basketball.
Laramore loved basketball and had led the Panthers to a state championship in that sport in 1974. Being removed from the bench sent the big man into a depression. Nonetheless, Laramore was on the football field for the first day of practice on Aug. 15, 1977, although it would not last long. In the middle of preseason, Laramore announced he would be taking a sabbatical. He wound up checking into Crownsville State Hospital for treatment of mental health issues that had sent him there during the 1972 football season as well.
Longtime assistant coach Bill Phebus recalled that Ensor, reportedly concerned about Laramore's erratic behavior, had ordered the head coach to take the season off.
"Not being able to coach football was crushing for Al," Phebus said.
Annapolis High football only had three assistant coaches at the time and they were completely unprepared for this development. Defensive coordinator Bruce Villwock took over as interim coach and only had assistant Larry Brodgen to help him out. Phebus, who was in his first year as a physical education teacher at Annapolis, coached the junior varsity by himself.
"We were about two weeks away from the season opener when we got the word Al would not be coaching," Phebus said. "We weren't sure what was going on as far as how long Al would be out or whether he was coming back at all. There were so many question marks and we weren't really sure how to deal with the whole situation."
It all went downhill quickly with many of the players acting the way students often do whenever there is a substitute teacher. Some have suggested the seniors were so angry with the administration for removing their beloved head coach they simply rebelled.
Naturally, the ability of three young assistants to manage an entire program that had always been run by the iron fist of Laramore was challenging.
"I just remember that everything was in disarray. Big Al was always in total control and without him around there were a lot of issues," said Brown, who started at quarterback for the last two games of 1977.
Annapolis lost a lot of close games in 1977, an indication there was something missing in terms of character and competitive spirit.
"Without Big Al to lead us, we were kind of lost. Things kind of got sideways," Thompson said. "I don't think the team as a whole had its priorities in order. We were worried about the party after the game before we even played the game."
Thompson first met Pittman and future Annapolis High football standout Gary Dukes in second grade when Hillsmere Elementary became integrated. Pittman had played youth football for a Thunderbirds team that was led by Brown and coached by his father.
"There were a bunch of us in that senior class who had bonds that went way back," Thompson said. "We were a very close-knit group and we had a lot of pride. We were determined that things would be different our senior year."
Riek said the rising seniors talked many times during the long offseason about how they were going to change the culture in 1978. "Throughout the summer we talked about bouncing back and we couldn't wait for August camp to come so we could get to work," he said.
While the seniors were planning on winning no matter who was head coach, they were certainly thrilled when it was announced that Laramore had been reinstated as head coach.
"What I remember most about Al coming back was his connection with the team and how he could push the right buttons all the time," Pittman said. "Al was very tough and demanding, which was fine as far as the players were concerned. We wanted and needed that attitude."
Laramore, having heard how things went the season before, had one message to the troops when August training camp commenced. Villwock recalled the head coach saying he expected "dedication, positive thinking, teamwork, togetherness and no shenanigans."
An indication of how strong the 1978 squad would be came during a scrimmage at Easton. It quickly turned into a blowout and Laramore called off the dogs.
"We had a preseason game down on the Eastern Shore and the starters came out after one quarter. We were hurting them real good and Big Al said 'That's enough' and put in the second string," Riek said. "I remember we kind of looked at each other on the sideline and thought: We might have something here."
Annapolis gave Laramore a huge welcome-home present by routing Kenwood, 45-0, in the season opener in front of the home faithful. Big Al had an ear-to-ear grin as he met with the media afterward.
"It's a thrill for me to be back on the sidelines. It means an awful lot to me to become involved again with these boys, many of whom I coached two years ago when they were sophomores," Laramore said.
Week 2 brought the first of just three close calls during the regular season. Defensive back Crandall Chambers made a last-second interception at the goal-line to preserve a 19-12 victory over Westminster.
Parker, the hard-hitting linebacker, sensed early on that great things were in the offing. "We have togetherness. That togetherness combined with the talent we have can help us win it all," he said.
A major hurdle was cleared in the fourth game when Annapolis went on the road and beat longtime nemesis Bel Air, which had won 17 of the previous 23 meetings between the schools. Complicating matters was the fact Parker, the defensive leader, left a classroom without permission to use the bathroom and was suspended from school.
Laramore had a rule that any player that was suspended did not play in that week's game so Parker was left at home.
"Most coaches would have looked the other way rather than bench their best player for the biggest game of the year, but not Al," Phebus would say later. "Parker broke a school rule so he sat out the game. No discussion."
Pittman and Dukes teamed up to replace Parker at linebacker and the Annapolis defense dominated during a 12-7 win. Defensive lineman Mike Yu recovered a fumble to seal the deal.
"Bel Air was by far the toughest game of the season," Thompson said. "Bel Air was always very talented so once we got past them we knew we could do big things."
From there it was a steady stream of easy wins over Anne Arundel County competition with Meade head coach Jerry Mears complaining that Annapolis ran up the score on the way to a 48-13 rout.
"We never talked about going undefeated, even when we got to 7-0 and 8-0," Thompson said.
Laramore certainly wasn't going to let his club become complacent. Annapolis beat Old Mill 40-0 and had the game well in hand by halftime. All the players filed into Severn Hall for the intermission and were already joyous.
"We were laughing and joking and Al did not like that one bit. He always came into the locker room and drew on this chalkboard with wheels, but this time he grabbed that chalkboard and threw it across the room. That got our attention real quick," Pittman said.
In hindsight, Laramore probably realized this was a special team and was going to make sure he pushed the players to reach their full potential. Legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick played for Laramore at Annapolis and has spoken many times about how much he was influenced by the man.
"Big Al came back and took charge of the program again. He brought discipline and structure," Thompson said. "I think Belichick stole that line about 'Just Do Your Job' from Big Al."
Only one win separated Annapolis from just the third unbeaten regular season in school history (the others came in 1909 and 1962). Annapolis always closed out the campaign against archrival Severna Park, which was led by head coach Andy Borland.
Laramore and Borland were close friends off the field, but fierce competitors on it. Borland had the Falcons sky high for the game, challenging them to spoil the Panthers' bid for an unblemished record.
It was a physical, hard-hitting affair and Annapolis trailed at halftime for the first time all season, 7-6. Phebus, a 1967 graduate of Severna Park High and former assistant under Borland, was not at all surprised.
"It's a big rivalry game so you knew Severna Park was going to play tough," he said. "Andy knew how to defend the Wing-T."
That year's game was played in hostile territory at Severna Park and Pittman recalled the coaches got into the players at halftime, challenging them to show which team was tougher.
Riek and his offensive line mates took over in the second half, blocking with absolute precision and paving the way for touchdown drives of 82 and 80 yards that lasted 14 and 12 plays, respectively.
"I remember at halftime the coaches reminded us what was at stake," Riek said. "We came out in the second half of that game and just took over. After coming that close to an undefeated season, we were not going to be denied."
Guards John Dobyns and Gary Dukes along with tackles Mike Colbert and Jeff Jacobsen comprised the starting five. Larico Simms shared time at left guard while ends Dan Loman and Bruce Wemple completed the blocking contingent.
"We had one of the smallest offensive lines you'll ever see, but every one of those guys was tough as nails," Thompson said.
Renowned Baltimore television broadcaster Vince Bagli attended the game and later declared it was the finest offensive line performance he had ever witnessed on the high school level. Laramore wholeheartedly agreed, stating "that was the best offensive football on the line of scrimmage that we've had this season."
Phebus coached the offensive line and will never forget that particular group.
"It wasn't the biggest bunch, but they knew who to block and had good technique. They came off the ball hard and were really tough," he said. "Our three interior linemen were quick as cats; they were on you before you knew it. As a unit, they took a lot of pride in doing their jobs and being very tenacious."
Thompson, the fullback, rushed for 202 yards against Severna Park and says to this day he "earned every one of them because those boys could really hit."
BRINGING IT HOME
Following the big victory over Severna Park that clinched the Region III championship, the players could be heard chanting in the visiting locker room "Two more, two more."
That referred to the fact there was now a postseason and an opportunity to claim a state championship. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSAA) implemented the playoff format in 1974 and Annapolis was in the largest classification (AA).
Most of the players were completely unaware for most of the season that a state championship was possible. "We were all clueless. We knew nothing about playoffs," Riek said.
Annapolis was matched against Crossland of Prince George's County for the semifinal, which ironically would be played at Severna Park High. Laramore himself was hyped up for the playoffs and told The Capital the Panthers were stepping into uncharted waters.
"We've fought 10 battles to get to the war. There are no more battles left to win. There is only the war," Laramore said with great seriousness. "This game is a war and to lose this game is to lose the war."
There was much talk beforehand about the fact Prince George's County high school football tended to be much stronger than Anne Arundel County. Annapolis turned that narrative upside down, destroying Crossland 34-10 with Pittman and Thompson spearheading a rushing attack that amassed more than 300 yards.
"I think that game should quiet those critics who say Anne Arundel football doesn't stack up with the rest of the state," Laramore stated to the press.
Annapolis would return to Severna Park High for a third straight game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, taking on Walt Whitman of Montgomery County for the Class AA state title. Things started poorly with Whitman recovering a fumble deep in Annapolis territory to set up an early touchdown that made it 7-0.
Thompson erased that deficit in a hurry, bursting up the middle on a quick trap and racing 80 yards to the end zone. Laramore then pulled a surprise by calling for a two-point conversion play, the first such attempt of the entire season.
It was a trick play with Dukes snapping the ball directly to Brown, who was also the team's kicker. Somehow, Brown did not get the word on what was going on.
"I was shocked when the ball came right to me," Brown said. "I realized quickly it was our two-point play so I just took off running."
Brown, who had the option to run or pass off the designed rollout play, dove across the goal line to give the Panthers an 8-7 lead they would never relinquish. Pittman recalled that Whitman had a dominant defensive end named Ben Quinn, who was an Alabama recruit. He remembers being amazed that Gary Dukes was able to block "that beast."
Wing back John Rodkey, who began the season as a backup, had a huge game with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was the only player to go both ways that season. Thompson also scored off a pass from Brown as Annapolis defeated Whitman 28-14.
"Positive leadership is what we've had since the first day of practice," Laramore announced to the reporters afterward. "Our seniors showed up with a positive outlook about what they were doing and have maintained that positive attitude day in and day out."
Annapolis employed the Wing-T offense that both Laramore and Mears brought from their home state of Delaware. It was made famous at the University of Delaware during the tenure of long-time head coach Tubby Raymond.
Staple running plays for the Panthers were the power, quick trap, sweep and counter. Thompson the fullback and Pittman the halfback were dangerous runners who both surpassed 1,000 yards rushing that season. Carl Bowie started the season as the wing back, but got injured and was replaced by Rodkey down the stretch.
"Randy was raw-boned strong and pretty fast, an all-around back that could catch passes out of the backfield," Phebus said. "Kevin had an incredibly quick start and real good forward lean. If you didn't get a piece of him at the beginning you were in trouble. Once he got past the line of scrimmage he was gone."
Orchestrating the offense was Brown, who was the key figure on a bootleg play in which he could run or pass. Brown used outstanding footwork and tremendous sleight of hand to fool defenders, who often could not figure out which back to tackle.
"Darryl Brown was an absolute magician who made it so damn hard for the defense to find the ball," said Phebus, recalling that volunteer camera man Bill Curran often followed the wrong back. "Al would say to Darryl: When Mr. Curran can't find the ball you're doing a good job with the fakes."
Annapolis only had two players who weighed over 200 pounds on the 1978 roster and they were defensive tackles Darryl Parker and Bill Decker. Parker checked in at 245 pounds, but was quite nimble at that size.
"Darryl was the run stuffer. He just chucked offensive lineman out of the way and swallowed up the ball-carrier," Pittman said. "Most opponents had to double-team Darryl."
Linebacker Phillip Pearmon did damage blitzing off the edge while Crandall Chambers, James Quarles, Carl Bowie and Rodkey formed a superb secondary.
"It was comical to watch that defense dominate. Not many teams could move the ball at all," Thompson said. "We saw way better defense in practice than we ever did in games."
Tommy Parker was the unquestioned star of the defense, a punishing tackler with the speed and athleticism to pursue sideline-to-sideline. Parker was so ferocious that ball-carriers cringed at the sight of him.
"I don't know if I'm vicious or violent or what, but when I hit somebody I want them to stop dead in their tracks," Parker told The Capital that year. "I don't want them to get one inch further from where I hit them."
Sportswriter Ted Simendinger, who covered almost all the Annapolis games that season for The Capital, used all sorts of colorful one-liners to describe Parker — the 1978 Jim Rhodes Memorial Trophy winner as Anne Arundel County Player of the Year.
The Demon of the Annapolis defense. Hardest hitter this side of inflation. A fellow so tough a clock won't tick until he passes by. Hits with the force of a truck on every down.
Parker was one of five Panthers named first team All-Metro by The (Baltimore) Sun, a real feat for a public school from Anne Arundel County. Riek and Dukes were selected on offense while Darryl Parker and Crandall Chambers joined Tommy Parker on defense.
A whopping nine Annapolis players were named All-County by The Capital, which only had a first team in those days. Brown, Pittman, Loman, Riek and Dukes were tabbed for the offense while both Parker boys were joined on defense by Chambers and Quarles.
Pittman went on to play football and lacrosse at Towson State while Thompson played basketball at Wisconsin-Stout. Three other players were recruited to the collegiate ranks for football with Tommy Parker playing at Virginia State, Brown at Morgan State and Chambers at Morehouse College.
Members of the 1978 Annapolis state championship team celebrated their 40th anniversary this weekend. Almost two dozen former players turned out for a recognition ceremony held at halftime of Friday night's Annapolis-South River game on Al Laramore Field at Richard Ensor Stadium.
Parker was a notable absence as he died of pancreatic cancer just over 10 years ago. Parker's widow took his place beside Riek and Pittman when the captains led the team onto the field.
Many of the surviving members of the close-knit team remain in contact. Thompson and his wife recently spent their anniversary at Riek's house in Myrtle Beach.
"That championship is something we will always have as a common bond," Thompson said. "All the guys from that team are like brothers to me. Whenever we get together we end by saying 'I love you.' That's how much we mean to each other."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Background information and quotes for this article were taken from archived editions of The Capital along with the book by Jane Good titled "A Century of Education and Football at Annapolis High).