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From the archives: Dean of the triple crown

It’s difficult to imagine that a downfield block in football could be the signature moment for a highly accomplished athlete, but that might have been the case for Lowell Dean.

The Medford High standout leveled three players in domino-like fashion during a punt return, springing teammate Ken Durkee to a 77-yard touchdown gallop and lifting the Black Tornado to a 7-6 victory over Jefferson High of Portland in the 1959 state championship game.

Dean, one of the linchpins of the Tornado’s unprecedented run to state titles in football, basketball and baseball during the same school year – the triple crown of high school sports – died of congestive heart failure on Nov. 13 in Medford at the age of 78.

Dick Ragsdale, the quarterback of the team and another athlete who starred on all three teams, died on Sept. 10 in New Jersey. He was 77.

It wasn’t that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Dean, an impressive blend of size, strength and agility, didn’t enjoy other notable moments as an athlete. He matched up and muscled up to 7-foot Mel Counts of Marshfield High in the state championship basketball game, helping Medford to a 63-56 win. He crushed a 350-foot home run over the left-field wall against Parkrose in the fourth inning of the state championship baseball game, tying the score at 1-1 and kick-starting the Tornado to a 3-1 victory.

And later, while lining up at tackle for Oregon in October of 1964, he snagged a 14-yard pass from quarterback Bob Berry near the goal line and dragged two Washington Husky defenders into the end zone for the lone touchdown of the game, cementing a 7-0 Ducks victory. Coach Len Casanova hadn’t forgotten that Dean was a first-team all-state end at Medford and he wasn’t afraid to dial up the tackle-eligible play.

“Forget that Lowell was playing tackle,” said Jerry Anderson, another of the triple-crown standouts and a near-lifelong friend of Dean, by phone from his home in Medford. “He had the best hands I ever saw. You don’t often see a big guy with hands that soft, but I don’t ever remember Lowell dropping a football, basketball or baseball.”

But it was the jaw-dropping block that Dean threw in the state championship football game at Multnomah Stadium in Portland, played before a record crowd of 21,512, that he’s best remembered for. The play began when Ragsdale fielded the punt at his own 23-yard line and then promptly handed off to Durkee on a reverse. Durkee dashed to the right sideline and was about to be stopped for a short gain, but Dean flattened one Jefferson player, who in turn wiped out two other Democrats. The pile of humanity left an unimpeded path to the end zone for the speedy Durkee.

Skip Bennett’s extra-point run over right tackle (there were no two-point conversions in those days) proved to be the winning point.

“My job was to peel down the field and block the first guy,” Dean noted in a 2000 Mail Tribune story commemorating the 40th anniversary of the triple crown. “On their previous punt, I let the guy go because I had a bad angle and would have clipped him. But the next time (on the touchdown), I blasted the guy. It was a great feeling.”

Of the three championships, the football title was the crown jewel. Football has always been king in Medford and it was no different in 1959. The population of the city was only 24,000 – less than one-third of today’s count – but crowds of more than 6,000 routinely packed into Medford Stadium, which later would be renamed after its legendary coach, Fred Spiegelberg.

And the 275-mile trip to Portland – a year before Interstate-5 was completed – was no barrier. Six bus loads of Medford High students made the trip to the state title game, including the 109-member band that put on a dazzling halftime show.

Then there was the opponent, the imposing Democrats. Jefferson had claimed state titles in 1957 and ’58, led by two of the most decorated athletes in state history – eventual Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Terry Baker and eventual NFL Hall of Fame halfback/defensive back Mel Renfro.

Baker had moved on to Oregon State in the fall of 1959, but the Democrats, who entered the championship contest with a 34-game winning streak, still had Renfro and a slew of other athletic gridders.

Medford, which boasted no less than six Division 1 recruits in one or more sports – including Lowell’s brother, fraternal twin Cal – was perhaps even more loaded. Anderson and Dean, nicknamed the “Gold Dust Twins” by Spiegelberg, were the top two ends in the state, and Anderson was first-team all-state in all three sports.

Ragsdale was a dangerous runner and pinpoint passer, and the Tornado had such a slew of capable running backs that the team’s leading rusher, Dan Sieg, totaled less than 900 yards. Cal Dean, meanwhile, was the leading tackler from his defensive back position.

Medford’s bone-jarring defense bottled up the Democrats most of the way in a game that saw the stop units dominate. But Jefferson got on the board with 4:52 remaining in the fourth quarter when Renfro hooked up with Herb Washburn on a 66-yard touchdown pass. A host of Tornado defenders stuffed Harvey Jackson at the line of scrimmage on the extra-point attempt, preventing Jefferson from tying the game.

The Democrats got the ball one final time, taking possession on their 34-yard line with three minutes to play. But Renfro’s first pass was knocked down, and one play later Anderson made an interception. Medford then ran out the clock.

Thanksgiving Day marked the 60th anniversary of the game.

“Winning the football title was a big mountain to get over,” Ragsdale said in 2000. “That was Spiegelberg’s first one.”

Dean with the Ducks

Lowell Dean had a stellar career with the Ducks in football, breaking into the starting lineup as a sophomore midway through the 1962 season and earning first-team all-league honors as a senior in 1964. Oregon posted a 21-8-2 record over those three seasons and defeated Southern Methodist, 21-14, in the 1963 Sun Bowl. The Ducks didn’t appear in another bowl game until 1989.

The 1964 game against Washington in Seattle was contentious. The Huskies made it a point to rough up Berry, the Ducks’ All-American quarterback, hitting him numerous times after he had gotten rid of the ball.

Casanova, the Ducks’ normally mild-mannered coach, stormed onto the field in the fourth quarter after Husky defensive tackle Jim Norton knocked Berry down long after he had handed off to fullback Dick Winn. The sports writer covering the game for the Eugene Register-Guard reported that Norton went so far as to repeatedly elbow Berry while he was still on the ground.

But Washington paid a price in the form of three unsportsmanlike penalties, including one on the Ducks’ touchdown drive. Berry guided the Ducks from their own 27-yard line to the Washington 14 in the first quarter when Casanova sent in the tackle-eligible play.

Berry took the snap from center, stood straight up and fired the ball downfield to Dean, who was sandwiched between two defenders a couple of yards from the goal line. Dean collected the pass with those soft hands and carried the Huskies to pay dirt.

“That’s the first time I’ve gotten close to the ball (in his Oregon career),” a grinning Dean told the Register-Guard. “It was a perfect pass. I just had to grab it.”

In the locker room after the game, Casanova searched for the game ball. He wanted to give it to Berry and Dean, the team captains. Finally, one of the managers found it and handed it to Berry, who replied, “Give the ball to Lowell. He came through.”

On the hardwood

Lowell Dean wasn’t as gifted in basketball as he was in football or baseball, the latter two of which he was first-team all-state with the Tornado. But he was good enough to earn all-conference recognition on the hardwood, serving as a reliable rebounder, tough defender and inside scorer. He was also an excellent passer for a big man.

“Lowell couldn’t jump an inch, but he was very physical,” said Anderson, Medford’s leading scorer. “He was primarily a rebounder and a defender, but you had to guard him or he’d score on you. He was one of those big guys you love having on your team. You win with guys like Lowell.”

Medford dropped three of its first four games, including a season-opening 66-58 loss to Marshfield, when Counts exploded for 33 points and 15 rebounds. But the Tornado, which took a few games to work into basketball shape, then went on a 21-game winning streak to close the season, including the seven-point victory over Marshfield.

It wasn’t easy. Despite Dean and 6-5 Bob Quinney, who would go on to play college hoops at Brigham Young, taking turns muscling Counts around in the paint, the towering Pirates pivot had 24 points and 11 rebounds halfway through the third quarter when Marshfield took its only lead of the game at 39-38.

However, Counts played nearly the entire game in foul trouble and he was whistled for his fifth personal moments later on a controversial call that sent him to the bench. Anderson drove the lane, initiated contact and floated in a hook shot. Counts appeared to be stationary with his hands straight up but still drew the foul.

Boos cascaded down from the balconies of sold-out McArthur Court in Eugene – along with coins and other debris – for a full three minutes as Marshfield fans angrily protested. But the Tornado led nearly the entire game.

“Counts was clearly the best player in the state – it wasn’t even close,” said Anderson. “We sent Lowell, Quinney and everyone else at him and he still scored almost at will. But we had the better team and we proved it.”

On the diamond

Medford dedicated its 1960 baseball season to Durkee, a talented infielder who got into a car wreck on Foothill Road in early April and was paralyzed from the chest down.

The Tornado was a tough out. With Dean batting a whopping .534, Anderson hitting .412 and serving as the No.1 pitcher, and right fielder Mike Parsons hitting .400, Medford marched to a 23-1-1 record.

“We had so much power in our lineup, it was absurd,” Ragsdale told the Mail Tribune in 2000. “We had Bob Quinney hitting eighth or ninth. He would have been batting cleanup on most teams.”

Parkrose was a worthy opponent in the state championship game, taking a 1-0 lead into the fourth inning as Broncos pitcher John Mahoney held the typically explosive Tornado bats in check. Anxiety was beginning to build in the Medford dugout.

But then up stepped Dean, the sweet-swinging first-baseman who crushed a 2-0 curveball over the left-field fence.

“I got all of it,” Dean said. “As soon as I hit it, I knew it was gone.”

Added Quinney, who played in the outfield that day: “Lowell’s home run was the greatest thrill I ever had as an athlete.”

Now Medford could breathe a sigh of relief. In the sixth, shortstop Cal Dean lashed a long triple to center and catcher Ken Jensen followed with a double against the left-field wall that put Medford ahead to stay. Lowell Dean – who else? – added an insurance run with an RBI single.

Anderson shut down the Broncos the rest of the way, although he had to work out a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the sixth.

A family affair

Lowell and Cal Dean had three older brothers and two older sisters. The twins spent their younger days in Nampa, Idaho, on a ranch that their parents owned. They didn’t move to Medford until the summer of 1957 following their freshman year at Nampa High.

Their father, John Dean, was a religious man and didn’t care much for the football coach’s foul mouth. Ron Weatherford, a family friend and elementary school principal in Medford, convinced the older Dean that the Rogue Valley had a lot to offer – small town, nice weather, nearby rivers, good schools. And, by the way, a pretty fair football coach in Spiegelberg.

John and Myrna Dean were also teachers and they quickly landed jobs at Sams Valley Elementary and Jackson Elementary, respectively.

The twins soon learned that Spiegelberg could also be a bit harsh with the language.

“I remember Dad asking us what ‘Spieg’ was like after our first practice and we said, ‘Hey, he was great!’” Cal Dean said with a chuckle from his home in Lake Oswego on Friday. “I’m not sure all that much had changed (with the language), but Spiegelberg really was a good coach and we loved playing for him. He was a great motivator. He got your attention.”

The older Dean brothers – Carlyle, Jay and Mick – made their own marks in athletics. Carlyle, the oldest, and still alive at 91, was a standout fullback in high school in Lancaster, Calif., in the late 1940s and later played basketball at Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa.

“He was 6-5, 230 and the fastest guy on his football team,” Cal Dean says.

Jay Dean was probably the best athlete in the family. He was a first-team All-American on Oregon State’s baseball team in 1954 and ’55, batting .465 as a junior and .456 as a senior.

The 6-5, 240-pounder was also a starter on the Beavers’ 1954-55 basketball squad that finished 22-8 and won the Pacific Coast Conference with a 15-1 record. Jay Dean averaged 5.5 points and was second on the team in rebounding at 8.5, trailing only 7-3 Swede Holbrook. That Beaver team pushed eventual national champion San Francisco, led by the legendary Bill Russell, to the brink before the Dons squeaked out a 57-56 NCAA regional finals win.

Jay Dean was inducted into the OSU Hall of Fame in 1991.

Mick Dean, the cerebral one of the bunch, started at quarterback for Nampa High when he was 14 and later teamed with Jay to lead the Bulldogs to a state basketball title.

As for the twins, they were so close through the years that Cal said they never really had an argument.

“We had an amazing relationship,” he said. “Lowell had a way of connecting with people that pulled you towards him. He had such a humble spirit. For being such a great athlete, he had very little ego. He’s always been my hero.”

Lowell Dean went on to star for Oregon after helping Medford High win state championships in football, basketball and baseball in 1959-60. (Photo from the University of Oregon)
Notable players on the 1960 Oregon freshman team include Lowell Dean, No. 87, third row, second from the left. He is flanked by brother Cal (18) and Rich Schwab (86), the grandfather of former Duck star Justin Herbert. Future NFL stars Bob Berry (10) and Mel Renfro (20) are also pictured, as is head coach John Robinson, back row, seventh from right. (Photo from the University of Oregon)