John Bauer Jr. didn’t need any reminders about the significance of last Tuesday.
Bauer, a major part of football legacy and royalty in Randolph, will never forget the day and the events of Dec. 1, 1990, so he didn’t have to be told that last Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of that fateful and memorable day.
But he got a reminder.
“As a matter of fact, it’s interesting, because a neighbor was talking to my sister and mentioned to her that his father was at the game and left with two minutes to go,” said Bauer, who was Randolph’s interim head coach that day and would later become the permanent coach. “I had to laugh, because I know now that another generation is still talking about the game.”
Or better yet, “The Game,” in capital letters, is how the 1990 NJSIAA North 2 Group IV final between Randolph and Montclair is referred to.
It’s “The Game” because it is definitely the most memorable contest — in any sport, mind you — in Morris County history and quite possibly the most dramatic and stunning outcome in New Jersey high school football folklore.
“It’s funny, because I forgot how many people left,” said Bauer, the son of the most legendary figure in Randolph football history, head coach John Bauer Sr., who tragically died just 17 days prior to the showdown between Montclair, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, and Randolph, the No. 2-ranked team who had a 48-game winning streak entering that contest, shooting to tie Westfield’s state-record streak of 49 straight.
“It seems to be that there were a lot of people who left,” Bauer Jr. said. “And they had good reason to leave. It looked hopeless.”
The circumstances were not good for the Rams. Trailing 21-13 entering the fourth quarter, the Rams scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Justin Malinchak with 4:13 left to cut the lead to 21-19. But when a two-point conversion pass was knocked down in the end zone, all hopes of the Randolph victory seemed to fade.
Then, Randolph received a break it was hoping for, getting the ball back with a little more than three minutes on the clock. The Rams were marching toward a game-winning touchdown, but with 1:11 remaining, they fumbled and lost the ball at the Montclair 23-yard line.
“I knew we got the ball back with 2:40 left,” Bauer said. “And when we fumbled going in, I remember saying to myself, ‘This is it? This is how it’s all going to end?’ With all we had been through, I didn’t see it ending that way.”
Although the Rams had won the prior four North 2, Group IV titles consecutively and rolled to 48 straight wins in impressive fashion, they were clearly the underdog facing Montclair, which was also undefeated prior to Dec. 1, 1990, and had about nine college football scholarship players on its roster and seven kids who were later selected for All-State honors.
“We were the underdogs, for sure,” said Tim Green, a running back/defensive back for the Rams that day. “I don’t think the team felt that way, but in the eyes of everyone else, we were. All we heard about that season were the Mounties of Montclair.”
The Mounties, ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today prior to “The Game,” had a host of players that were taller than six feet and weighed more than 250. The Rams’ roster was made up predominately of kids that were 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. Up and down that Randolph roster, the heights and weights were practically identical.
“And in all honesty, they didn’t really weigh 175,” Bauer. said. “They were much lighter.”
To a man, the Rams were probably giving up 100 pounds and a half foot. But the Rams were still confident.
“We all knew we were still going to win,” said Pete Sedereas, a two-way lineman. “We were not going to lose. In fact, we never lost. We didn’t know what it was like to lose since third grade. We all started playing football together and all through high school, we never lost a game. So in this game, there wasn’t much that could stop us. We were well coached and had the desire to win. It was business as usual. We had one more game to win.”
But now, with just a handful of seconds left, the Rams were headed to defeat.
“The game was lost,” said Glenn Crooks, who did the play-by-play of the television broadcast of the contest for Sammons Cable. In fact, the game was so momentous in importance that two different cable companies provided live coverage. “I felt bad, because I cared about that program very dearly.”
Montclair then tried to run out the clock, but Randolph, clinging to all hope upon hope, kept calling time out to stop the clock after every play.
After the third kneel down from Montclair quarterback Lamont Ponton, the clock at Woodman Field in Montclair read 0:00 and hundreds of the estimated 12,000 fans in attendance stormed the field in celebration.
The clock might have expired, but the game was not over. Officials ruled that there should be 7 seconds left. and Montclair had the ball for fourth down. Police cleared the field and order was restored to finish the game. Montclair was penalized for delay of game, pushing the Mounties back five more yards to their own 9-yard line.
Ponton was forced to punt from his own end zone. He couldn’t take the safety, which would have tied the game at 21-21 and sent it to overtime.
Montclair’s legendary coach of their own, Jack Davies, thought of having Ponton just run around for 7 seconds, then fall down and the Mounties would have won the game. In fact, Ponton’s teammates in the huddle told him not to punt the ball, but he didn’t want to be blamed for the loss for not punting.
Ponton tried to punt the ball into the wind, but it traveled only 11 yards to the Montclair 20-yard line. An alert Billy Williams, receiving the punt for the Rams, knew he had to call for a fair catch right away.
“As he went to field the ball, he fell down,” Bauer said. “As he was going to catch it, his knee was down and the clock stopped.”
The clock read 0:01. Bauer sent his quarterback Mike Groh, the son of former Jets and University of Virginia head coach Al Groh, out to attempt a 37-yard field goal to win the game.
There was only one problem. Groh never kicked a field goal in a game before.
“No doubt, we were going with Groh,” Bauer said. “The strangest thing, we had not done well with field goals all year, but every single day, we practiced kicking field goals from different distances and such. It never materialized in a game, but it wasn’t like we just pulled it out of a bag. The kid was capable.”
Bauer didn’t know if Groh’s kick would be good.
“Initially, it didn’t look like it was going to be good,” Bauer said. “It was sort of veering to the right. But then something blew it. It really didn’t look like it was going, but it did.”
Sedereas never saw the kick.
“All I remember is hearing it and the ball went up,” said Sedereas, who now owns the Town Square Diner in Wharton. “Then, everybody was going nuts.”
Green, now a police officer in Olathe, Kansas, for the past 16 years, saw the whole play transpire.
“When it went through, there was pure excitement, pure joy,” Green said. “Just to be a part of it was incredible. It was history. But the ending was mind blowing.”
Crooks, who was the sports director at WMTR-AM radio for ages, broadcasted local high school and college games before moving on to become a highly successful women’s soccer coach at Rutgers, and has now returned to broadcasting mainly as the radio color voice of NYCFC, made a call of the field goal that became viral before such a word was prevalent. His call was shown nationwide, made famous on WNBC-TV by Len Berman and Marv Albert.
“The event was emotional,” Crooks said. “It was the most emotional I ever got in a broadcast. It was definitely a miracle finish, the underdog against the power Montclair. After John Bauer Sr. passed away, the whole town rallied around the team.
“People told me that they gave VHS tapes of the game as Christmas gifts that year. Months later, I was at a store and a woman came over to me and asked, ‘Are you Glenn Crooks?’ She recognized my voice from the call. She didn’t know anyone on the team. She just recognized the call. I think Len Berman and Marv were amused with the hysterical nature of the call.”
It was a quarter century ago this week. Sedereas and Green still regularly talk to each other and still can’t fathom that so much time has passed, yet the legend of “The Game” remains a solid and vivid memory.
“You think of everything that happened,” said Sedereas, who played college football at Wilkes College after Randolph. “Coach Bauer died before the last regular season game of the year. As a a 17-year-old kid, that was tough to take. It was kind of shocking. We learned he was ill and in the hospital and he died two days later. We buried Coach Bauer on Thursday and Friday night we played Livingston. But we didn’t miss a beat. Coach Bauer,Jr. just continued on.
Added Sedereas, “I can’t believe it’s 25 years. It went by very quickly. I’m still local, so people bring it up to me all the time. I’m actually kind of amazed how many people haven’t forgotten and the impact that game, that win had on everyone.”
Green did not realize it was the 25th anniversary last Tuesday.
“Not until I heard it was December 1,” Green said. “Then I remember the day. I made sure I took a few minutes to reflect a little, got on a knee and said a prayer for Coach Bauer.”
As for the coach, Bauer left Randolph and went on to become an assistant coach at Ridge but retired from teaching and coaching last year. At age 66, Bauer can reflect on an era gone by at Randolph. The streak eventually ended at 59 wins, but remains as the longest win streak in Morris County history and second only to Paulsboro’s run of 63 straight from 1992 through 1998 in New Jersey history.
“When you look at the numbers, they simply don’t calculate,” Bauer said. “We went through all of 1986 through the state championship game in 1991 when we lost to Union without losing. I have to stop and think and say, `We did that?’ Holy mackerel. I’m very grateful for those days. I don’t know how many people get a chance to work with their dad for 20 years, then see him pass. It was a tough day for me. It’s 25 years later, but things haven’t changed. I really don’t like talking about it much. Going through the whole process was a different way of grieving.”
As for that incredible day 25 years ago, Bauer is certain that the Rams received help from a higher power.
“I always believed in my heart that the Lord gave him a chance to watch it,” Bauer said of his father. “Even if you were an atheist before, too many things happened not to believe. It was one thing after another. But definitely, the little guy with the cigar was there and maybe a puff of smoke just happened to take place when the ball was in the air and pushed the ball through the uprights. Who knows?”
Bauer knows one thing about that Randolph team.
“I know that our 49 little kids were on the field that day could have played with anybody,” Bauer said. “It was unbelievable how quick, how fast, how low they blocked. They were incredible.”
There have been reunions for the players, like the 20th five years ago, but nothing was planned this time around. Bauer said that he runs into some of his former players from time to time at shopping malls and supermarkets and they reminisce briefly. But nothing can ever compare to “The Game,” or “The Miracle in Montclair.”
It stands alone.