The 1974 Woodbridge High School football team left its week-long summer camp at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania unsure of its potential.
There was no doubt they were good. The Vikings returned the majority of their players from a 6-4 team led by first-year head coach Red Stickney. But were they good enough to build on that success and reach the postseason for the first time in school history? They would soon find out.
On the way home from Pennsylvania, the team had its first chance to answer that question when it stopped at Fairfax High School for a scrimmage. Featuring a large roster populated by even larger players, Fairfax tested Woodbridge’s resolve.
But Woodbridge held its own. The Vikings scored on their first play when Bob Manderfield connected with his older brother, Joe, for a touchdown pass. From there, the Vikings ran the ball well and thwarted Fairfax’s offense.
The performance encouraged the Woodbridge players on their bus ride home and left them with this thought: Yes, it was still early, but maybe, just maybe, this was a starting point to a promising season like no other.
“We were on to something,” Joe Manderfield remembered thinking to himself.
They most definitely were. That season, Woodbridge football became the first Prince William County team to generate attention beyond the county’s borders.
At the time, Prince William was considered a rural outpost in Northern Virginia. The county had produced competitive football teams and sent a smattering of players to Division I, but nothing like this.
Joe Paterno. Bear Bryant. Bo Schembechler. Barry Switzer. They were among the big-name college coaches who flocked to a new school that opened the previous spring after outgrowing its previous building with one purpose: To check out a collection of talent, headlined by future NFL running back Russell Davis, that was unparalleled then for one football team and difficult to top even today.
Four prep all-Americans. Eight players who went on to play at Power Five schools, including Michigan, Kansas, Alabama and North Carolina. And a head coach who became a Virginia Tech assistant.
Former Woodbridge High School football player Russell Davis played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1980 to 1983.
They all came together to lead Woodbridge to a 12-1 record and a spot in the Group AAA state final that fall. The Vikings didn’t win the state title, but they etched themselves in the history books as the program that took Prince William football to a new level.
On Friday, Woodbridge will honor the 1974 football team, along with the 1974 boys cross country team, the school’s first state champion. Woodbridge is adding both teams to its alumni and history wall. A celebration begins at 4 p.m. in the Woodbridge parking lot with a tailgate party, followed by a ceremony at halftime of the Unity Reed game.
Manderfield, who lives in McLean and is a partner in Dean Designs, LLC, a custom home builder business, can’t wait to reconnect with former teammates who are coming in. Davis is traveling from Michigan and another of those all-Americans, Kenny Sheets, is coming up from Rock Hill, SC. They will relive the highlights and deflect talk about the one lowlight that ended with a last-minute loss in the state final.
What they accomplished that season and the lessons they learned still resonate nearly 50 years later. State championship or not, this was a special group.
“I’m so happy we got [to the state final],” Manderfield said. “No one likes settling for second place, but what we were able to achieve in raising the level of play. I take some pride in knowing we put Prince William County on the map.”
Manderfield remembers the first time he met the player who would transform the program and lift it to new heights.
It was the summer before Manderfield’s junior year when Woodbridge was practicing on the baseball field at the old high school (now Woodbridge Middle).
Manderfield saw a car pull up and out stepped a good-sized teenager named Russell Davis with his father. Manderfield walked down to ask the two if they needed help.
The father asked if this was the varsity football team. Manderfield said it was and then inquired if Davis wanted to play football. Manderfield also asked Davis if he played defensive tackle, based on his size.
Davis told Manderfield he was a running back. End of story. Manderfield motioned for the coaches to come over and talk to this new arrival who had moved into the area after attending Hayfield High School in Fairfax County.
In a 2007 Potomac News article, Davis said he had the chance to play for “Remember the Titans’ head coach Herman Boone at T.C. Williams. Boone’s wife and Davis’ father worked together at the post office and the two families spent time together. But Davis’ father wanted to move his family farther away from Washington D.C.
“The rest is history,” Manderfield said.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Davis didn’t play football until his junior season, but once he was on the field he made an immediate impact. With his size and speed, Davis became one of the nation’s top recruits.
In 1973, he ran for a then-school record 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games. As a senior, he rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. Along the way, he set state playoff records for most rushing yards in a game (384) and best rushing average in a game (22.4 yards per carry) when Woodbridge defeated Lee-Davis in the semifinals 35-12 Nov. 30, 1974. Both records still stand. Davis also won the Group AAA outdoor high jump title (6-foot-9).
“I did a lot of downfield blocking for Russell,” Manderfield recalls.
A who’s who of college coaches courted Davis without reserve. Bear Bryant helped push Davis’ car out of a ditch during a winter day recruiting visit to Prince William County.
U.S. presidents wanted to meet Davis as well.
Then-President Gerald Ford, who played football at Michigan, reached out to Davis while the two attended a Michigan alumni get-together in Washington D.C., where Ford was the main speaker.
A Secret Service agent came over to Davis and his father and said Ford wanted to talk to him.
“We walked through some doors and he was standing right there,” Davis recounted in a 1994 Potomac News article. “And I’ll never forget what he said to me. He knew the university was recruiting me and he knew what was going on in Woodbridge because he had read the sports page and not the front page because of all the criticisms of him.”
From there, Ford told Davis why he should consider Michigan.
Davis visited a number of schools including Alabama, USC, Tennessee, Maryland and Georgia Tech before signing with Michigan. Davis went on to play four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Pittsburgh released him, Davis returned to Michigan to finish up his degree and never left. He resides in Jackson.
Davis’ success generated college interest for his teammates, including Manderfield. Manderfield enrolled at William & Mary as a walk-on to the football team before earning a full scholarship and becoming a standout wide receiver.
Through all the attention he received, Davis stayed humble. He always put his team first and refused to get caught up in the recruiting hoopla even when schools offered illegal inducements. The Davis family made it clear from the start that everything would be done above board.
“He’s a class act and never let it all go to his head,” Manderfield said. “And it definitely made the rest of the team want to work even harder as it constantly gave everyone a sense of purpose. That and the fact we took one game at a time were probably the two single most keys to our success.”
A GAME FOR THE AGES
Another highlight from that season was the regular-season finale against Gar-Field. The two schools were both 9-0 at the time but only the winner would advance to the playoffs.
The day of the game, Manderfield recalls seeing from his house a higher-than-usual volume of cars on Interstate 95 getting off at the Lake Ridge exit. This was long before the constant backups that now plague that part of I-95. Something else was up – and then Manderfield realized the cause. People were arriving early for the game.
Afraid he and his brother might get stuck in the traffic and not make the pregame warmups, the two headed out three hours before kickoff. The Woodbridge parking lot was already filling up. An estimated 14,000 attended the showdown, won by Woodbridge 27-16. At the time, it was the largest gathering for a Prince William football game, topping the previous mark of 5,800 set in 1966 when Woodbridge faced James Monroe in another matchup between two unbeatens. And it remains the largest crowd to this day.
It was a different era then as Woodbridge and Gar-Field were the only two high schools in the county’s east end. They were only four miles apart and had the same design.
Everyone knew each other. Manderfield’s then-girlfriend attended Gar-Field. And he played American Legion Baseball with Dexter Green, the Red Wolves’ star running back who went on to become a Heisman Trophy candidate at Iowa State.
“That game was a huge community melting pot that night,” Manderfield said. “I believe deep down that no one at that game thought there was going to be a ‘loser’ at the end of the game. Sure, there were high stakes involved, but you could feel in the air how proud the community was of both teams.”
One topic that Manderfield and his teammates rarely discuss is the state final or at least the final minute.
Hosting Bethel from Hampton, Woodbridge entered the game as the last unbeaten Group AAA team in the state and the heavy favorite to win the championship after having outscored their previous 12 opponents 348-74.
The Vikings went up 14-0 on two Davis touchdowns in the first 11 minutes before Bethel scored 17 straight points. Davis scored again to put Woodbridge back up 21-17 with 9:46 left.
Woodbridge seemed on the verge of victory when it stuffed Bethel at the goal line and took over on downs with just over two minutes remaining.
But then a shocking turn of events. With 1:30 left, Bob Manderfield mishandled the exchange from center and fumbled at the Woodbridge 4-yard line, and Bethel recovered. It was the first and only time that season Woodbridge fumbled the exchange.
The expressions on the faces of (left to right) Woodbridge's Joe Manderfield. head coach Red Stickney, Keith Smith and Winky White say it all …
Twice, Bethel tried to score and twice Woodbridge stopped them. But on the third play, Bethel quarterback Mike Dunn faked a dive into the middle, then stood up and found tight end Bruce Elliot alone in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Joe Manderfield was responsible for covering outside, but took the bait when Dunn appeared to run the ball. Realizing what was happening, Manderfield tried to get back to cover Elliot, but it was too late.
The game ended when Bob Manderfield’s desperation pass to his 5-foot-9 brother was intercepted by the 6-foot-4 Dunn in the end zone to clinch Bethel’s 24-21 win.
The Vikings rallied around Bob Manderfield after the fumble, reminding him that they were in this together and that one moment never defines the outcome.
But to this day, the two brothers don’t talk about that game or the finish. It’s too hard to relive.
“I try not to think about it,” Joe Manderfield said. “I try to focus on the positive. There’s nothing that can be done to change the outcome.”
Then history repeated itself and Manderfield found his experience came in handy at the most opportune time.
In the fall of 2016, Manderfield’s son, Tyler, and his Potomac School teammates played St. Christopher’s in the VISAA Division I state soccer final.
Making its first appearance in the championship, the Potomac School lost in double overtime on a golden goal.
Afterward, Manderfield gave his son space to process the difficult defeat.
The next day, though, Manderfield talked to Tyler about their similar experiences of dropping a state final in such dramatic fashion in the final game of their high school careers.
Manderfield related to how Tyler felt. Anger. Frustration. Hurt. He understood all those emotions.
But Manderfield reminded his son about the importance of maintaining a proper perspective. So when Tyler and his teammates reunite many years later like Manderfield and his teammates will do Friday, they will celebrate their season beyond one disappointing outcome.
That approach helped Manderfield through the years in dealing with the Bethel loss, and he hopes Tyler will feel the same. If not in the moment, then someday.
And then the memories will encourage him with this lasting bit of advice: It’s about the journey, not the destination.
“As time passed, it became evident to me that it was all about the run to get there, on a path very few athletes get to experience,” Manderfield told his son. “And that’s all I need to remember.”