ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — Many people over the age of 50 and certainly over 60 would tell you that the best high school football team the Rockford area has ever produced was the 1974 Est Rabs. They were Class 4A state champions that fall. They’re the focus of our ‘Glory Days’ segment.
The RABs went 13-0 that season. It was no surprise. They had gone 9-0 the year before in 1973. That year there were no playoffs. The first year was 1974 and the timing could not have been better for this talented team.
There were 12 players on East who received all-conference honors in the Big 9.Two playersmade All-State flanker Ira Matthews and defensive lineman Stuart Walker. Walker also was named a Parade All-American. East also had the conference’s leading passer Dean Schlueter.
Three players on that team were eventually selected in the NFL Draft in 1979 Walker, Matthews and tight end/defensive lineman Jerry Holloway. Afourth, defensive back and running back Russell Pope got a tryout with two NFL teams.
That East team also feature future Wisconsin Badger offensive lineman George Wojtowicz, plus talented fullback Joe Black and defensive lineman Lonnie Washington. The head coach was Bob Pellant.
In the state championship game East whipped the Normal Ironmen 34-15. Matthews scored three touchdowns in that game.
Matthews now lives near Houston, Texas. He discussed that championship team with us in a phone interview. To hear that interview click on the media player or continue reading.
[INTERVIEW WITH IRA MATTHEWS]
(SCOTT) Ira, as I mentioned 1974 was the first year of the playoffs. That had to be an exciting time to know you would get to participate in the postseason. Do you remember what your reaction was when you found out that a playoff system was being added?
((IRA MATTHEWS, EAST RUNNING BACK ’74)) “We must have been sophomores when they devised a plan for the Illinois State Championships, but even at that time we were undefeated our freshman year, sophomore year, so we figure couldn’t nobody beat us anyway. We had a good chance.”
((SCOTT))Were you guys basically a running team or what style did you play?
((MATTHEWS)) “We cold run the ball. We could pass the ball. We audibled. With me and Russell Pope and Joe Black in the backfield there was never one person you could key on.”
((SCOTT)) There was so much talent in the offensive backfield was it hard to share the ball and keep everybody happy?
((MATTHEWS)) “Well bascially one of the coaches devised a system where if the flanker was going to be right I would be the flanker. If the flanker was going to be left Russell would be the flanker because we both could run and catch so that sort of helped us get the situation where we all sort of shared the touches.”
((SCOTT)) Now you scored three touchdowns in the championship game. Do you recall any of those?
((MATTHEWS)) Laughter “The first one might have been my second carry I went maybe about 40 yards on a sweep. Then the third time I think, this was all in the first half, I took the ball and we were supposed to be sweeping again, but I reversed field, and shoot I think I went 80-something on that one. The other one I scored was a pass five yards out. Also I ran a punt back. They called that back. They claimed Stuart Walker clipped somebody. So technically I had four touchdowns in the state game.” (chuckles)
((SCOTT)) Stuart Walker sounds like he was amazing on defense. He had 150 tackles and 17 sacks that year. What was he like as a player? How would you describe him?
((MATTHEWS)) “Well Stuart was a Parade All-American. I saw Stu do what he did when we was youngsters at Booker T. Washington. His nickname was Stu Butkus. You know Dick Butkus? Now how do you get that name as a kid? (laugher) Nothing he did surprised me.”
((SCOTT)) After you guys won the championship there was a caravan to the high school where they threw a big pep rally for the team that night. I understand the gym was packed. Do you recall that?
((MATTHEWS)) “It was great! We had a great, a great following. We had a lot of people that came downstate to see the game. We had a good camaraderie with the students and athletes for the class of ’75. We still get together and hang out. At our class reunion there still might be 200 or 300 people come.”
NOTE: Matthews went on to play college football with the Wisconsin Badgers. He then playe din teh NFL and he was part of the Raiders Super Bowl Championship team during the 1980 NFL season exelling as a kick returner.