Audie Starkey is a man on a mission. The Texas man is committed to seeing the 1967 Gardner High School football team inducted into the Gardner Edgerton High School Hall of Fame.
It’s a tall order. While the 1967 squad boasts a high enough win percentage and a league championship, the hall of fame rules require a state or playoff berth.
“You have to winning percentage,” Starkey said. “We had that. We did everything, but we couldn’t get a state berth, because we didn’t have a state berth.”
State-level championships and playoffs didn’t start in Kansas until 1969, Starkey said.
Starkey was a military brat, who moved to Gardner in 1967.
“I threw a fit when I found out we were moving to Gardner,” he said. “I didn’t know it then, but 1967 and 1968 were two of the best years of my life.”
His experience in Gardner and especially with the 1967 football team was so profound, he penned a novel about it in 2010. The book, ‘Gardner, Kansas 1967,” is about a youth in the mid-1960s in the south who moved to Kansas.
It was culture shock for Starkey. Although he’d attended eight different schools in 12 years, including schools in Japan, Starkey had lived in Shreveport, La., longer than anywhere else.
It was the deep south, and segregation was the norm in 1967.
“We had a men’s restroom, a women’s restroom, and a colored’s restroom. Restaurants had a back door for the coloreds and a petition separating them from the white patrons,” Starkey said. His accent still retains the Cajun strains of the deep Delta. “We had separate schools.”
Starkey grew up believing “coloreds” were different, and he didn’t want anything to do with them. However, the move to Gardner put Starkey on a collision course with the Watson family, the first black students in the Gardner school system.
Starkey’s love of football meant frequent contact with Leo Watson, who was inducted into the GEHS Hall of Fame in 2001.
“I hated him,” Starkey said. “I just didn’t like him, and we had a lot of trouble with one another.”
As the football season progressed, Audie and Leo started to respect one another’s abilities on the football field.
“I didn’t have time to hate, I had to play football,” Audie soon realized.
Watson and Starkey eventually became close friends and once even went on a double date together. The 1967-68 Gardner High School football team went on the win the Jayhawk Championship, “which was our Super Bowl,” Starkey explained.
Starkey and Watson’s 1967 Blazer team was a top-ranked team throughout the season.
“When we won it, that was the first time Gardner had won an out-right league championship in years,” Starkey said.
In a 78-year period, Gardner won two league championships. The 1967 team was one of them. Media from the time suggest community fervor surrounded each game that year.
“Ghosts and goblins are traditionally associated with Halloween, but to many area football followers, Halloween has derived a new connotation in recent years. Halloween has become Gardner versus Baldwin – and a conference championship,” An Olathe Daily News story from October 1967 reads.
Starkey said the team stayed focused, despite the ongoing Vietnam War.
“Everyone was going home everyday and think we’re going to get drafted,” he said. “That’s the way it was and that’s what we dealt with. We knew after high school that’s what we’d be doing.”
The year the team won the championship, the community mourned the loss of Mike Fonseca, one of two Gardner graduates who were killed in the war.
“For us to stay focused, it was a real thing,” Starkey said.
Stay focused they did.
After the win, then Gardner High School Coach Dennis Delay told the Olathe Daily News he was “tickled to death” by the win that gave the Trailblazer team the league title.
“These are a fine bunch of young men,” Delay told the paper. “And they certainly deserve the title just won. At halftime we laid it on the line to the boys – a tie would do us no good. They realized what they had to do, and they went out and did it.”
Starkey recently sent a letter to members of the hall of fame seeking the team’s induction.
“It has been 48 years since we carried Coach Delay and Coach (Ralph) Snavely off the field on a cold and raining Halloween night,” Starkey wrote. “…They playoffs in Kansas started in 1969. All we could play for was the Jayhawk League Championship. We did all we could do in football in 1969.”
Nine members of the squad played both offense and defense. In nine games, the team recorded six shut-outs and boasted a record of 7-1-1. The team’s loss was to Paola High School, then a much larger school than Gardner. The 1967 Trailblazer team tied Spring Hill High School 0-0.
Gardner High School began its football program in 1936. The 1967 team boasted the highest winning percent, 92, in the program’s 35-year history.
“We wished there would have been a playoff in 1967,” Starkey wrote in his letter to the hall of fame committee. “Because we were a damn good team and felt like we could have gone far.”
He’s not asking for special treatment in his request that the 1967 team be inducted into the hall of fame. The team members are now in their mid-60s.
“We’re all really proud of what we accomplished then and how it happened,” Starkey said. “When you win, it makes you a family.”