As a Florence native, a lifelong sports junkie and a sports writer and columnist in Medford for 32 years, Don Hunt was aware that Siuslaw High School boasted a very rich tradition in football.
In 2015, he launched an effort to capture it in a book.
“The project took nearly three years to complete as I waded through hundreds of reports and stories from the archives of the Siuslaw News, the Eugene Register-Guard and virtually every Siuslaw High yearbook,” said Hunt, who also interviewed many former Viking coaches and players, enabling him to write compelling feature stories on several of them and also enrich the recaps of every season from 1955 through through 2019.
He learned that Siuslaw’s football tradition includes 22 league titles, 32 trips to the state playoffs, two state titles and a pair of state runner-up finishes.
“I also learned that the warriors who have worn Viking uniforms have gone on to very noteworthy careers in fields such as medicine, science, business and coaching.” Hunt said.
The first edition of his book, “The History of Siuslaw High School Football: A Tradition of Excellence,” appeared in May of 2018.
“My greatest regret was not including a feature chapter on longtime statisticians Lanny Nivens and Bob Hylton,” said Hunt. “I was also troubled by the downward spiral of the program in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but thrilled with its resurgence under new head coach Sam Johnson.”
Thus, a second edition, which includes chapters on Nivens and Hylton, Johnson and the 2018 and 2019 seasons, along with updates on the program’s school records, seemed necessary and appropriate.
What follows is an excerpt from Hunt’s second edition, and the chapter devoted to Nivens and Hylton...
Lanny Nivens has a treasure trove of fond and funny memories when he harks back to his nearly three decades serving as Siuslaw’s football statistician.
But one stands out above the others. At an away game during the 1980s, head coach Len Lutero took issue with an official’s call and promptly drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Convinced that the Vikings were getting the short end of the deal, Lutero shouted louder and received another yellow flag.
Lutero turned to Nivens, who was standing a few yards away along the sideline, and yelled: “Lanny, where the hell is he going?”
“It looks like he’s headed all the way to the end zone if you don’t shut up,” Nivens said, suppressing a chuckle.
Nivens kept stats for the Vikings from 1967 through 1995, which was the entire length of Lutero’s head coaching reign. When Nivens stepped aside, Bob Hylton stepped in and kept stats for Tim Dodson during his 20 seasons as the Vikings’ mentor.
Statisticians are unsung and often unacknowledged members of a football program, yet they serve a valuable purpose: keeping weekly records of games and seasons. Without them, there would be no accounts of game, season and career school records.
And Nivens and Hylton took their stat-keeping a step further — publishing a comprehensive school-record book that details the top 25 to 30 players in virtually every statistical category, dating to the 1950s.
Nivens, who also kept basketball stats for Siuslaw for many years, started out working in the press box but moved down to the field after a couple years.
“You get really involved when you’re on the sidelines,” Nivens said. “You get the flavor of the action and can hear everything that’s going on — from the coaches, players and officials. Good and bad. There’s nothing else like it.”
Lutero often asked Nivens questions, such as how far the Vikings needed to gain a first down or what yard line the ball was on.
“He couldn’t venture beyond the 30-yard lines — that was a rule — but I could,” Nivens said. “I had a better vantage point and was happy to help the cause.”
Because Lutero and Nivens were best of friends, Nivens could get away with poking fun at the coach that others wouldn’t dare attempt. Lutero was known for his locker room outbursts at halftime when the Vikings were playing poorly.
After one such heated speech in a game against Coquille, Nivens said to Lutero as they left the locker room: “Geez, coach, you really sounded mad in there,” suggesting that Lutero had feigned anger.
“Damn it, I was mad!” Lutero barked at Nivens and line coach Steve Galbreath, who was standing nearby.
Nivens often attended practices, endearing himself to the players. There were light moments there, too.
Nivens recalled a session in 1991 when the Vikings were working on the option play. Quarterback Andy Rodet incorrectly read the defense and handed the ball to the running back instead of keeping it around the perimeter.
Lutero yelled out, “Rodet, what should you have done on that play?”
“Coach, I should have ran it.”
Lutero, who taught English during his early years at Siuslaw and was a stickler for proper grammar, shot back, “No, Andy, you should have run it.”
A puzzled Rodet looked at Lutero and said, “I know coach. I should have ran it.”
“The poor kid had no idea what was going on,” Nivens said. “He was getting corrected on two fronts — football and grammar. I just about fell over.”
Nivens graduated from Lebanon High School in 1959 — he was four years behind former Siuslaw biology teacher and principal Dick Whitmore — and attended Oregon College of Education, where he graduated in the spring of 1963.
Nivens landed a job in the fall at Siuslaw Junior High, teaching English, reading and social studies. Three years later, he was promoted to school counselor, a position he retained until retiring in 1995.
He was highly popular with students, as evidenced by hundreds of positive comments on Facebook in 2019 when a photo of him appeared, along with more than 400 “likes.”
Said one former student: “He was my saving grace in middle school. I’m sure I would have been given the boot if not for him.” Said another: “He not only looked out for the kids, he always let parents know that he was there for them, too. He’s a person you don’t forget because of his caring personality.”
Nivens enjoyed being around the students as much as they liked being around him.
“They were such characters,” he said. “You get to know them and you realize they all have a good side. Then you run into one of them all these years later … it’s so much fun.”
Hylton, meanwhile, enjoyed playing football through his sophomore year at Siuslaw. But when the Vikings launched a cross country program in the fall of 1965, he opted to switch sports. Hylton was tiny as a gridder — 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds — but he was fearless and fast, once managing 10 tackles in a single JV game.
“I went back and forth with it,” he said, meaning whether to play football or cross country.
Hylton surely made the right choice. As a junior in 1965, he teamed with state champion and future Olympian Steve Savage in helping Siuslaw to a state runner-up finish in its maiden season. The following year, he led the Vikings to a state title, finishing second individually.
Hylton has another feather in his cap: at a meet in Gold Beach in September of 1966, he defeated legendary Steve Prefontaine, who would set a national high school record in the two-mile run in 1969 and go on to set 11 American collegiate records. Prefontaine also competed at the 1972 Olympics, finishing fourth in the 5,000 meters.
“I have vivid memories of when we were lining up for that race,” Hylton said. “The Marshfield guys were pointing to Prefontaine and saying, ‘Do you know who this is?’ And our guys were pointing at me and saying, ‘Do you know who this is?’”
Prefontaine and Hylton both preferred to run from the front and were not afraid to set a brisk pace. Prefontaine, then a sophomore, shot into the lead but Hylton, a senior, stayed in his hip pocket. They quickly built a big lead over the other runners.
“Every other breath, he was cussing at me,” Hylton said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Wow, you have a lot of foul words for a sophomore.’ I wanted to respond, but I was too tired to talk.”
With about 10 yards to go, Hylton surged past the Marshfield standout and won by inches.
Two days later, Hylton fared poorly in another meet.
“He (Prefontaine) had taken the starch out of me,” Hylton said. “I was still hurting.”
The tables turned on Hylton at the state meet, when he was leading with a couple yards to go and got passed up by Pleasant Hill’s Lonnie Bradshaw. But the Vikings won the team title and, seven months later, Hylton and Larry Ulrich led the Vikings to a state track title.
Never having lost his passion for football, Hylton took over stat-keeping duties for Nivens in the fall of 1995. He rode the team bus — as Nivens had done — on his first away game but drove his car from that point forward.
“That bus was so sweaty and stinky — once was enough,” said Hylton, who had his wife, Jo De, by his side during his stat-keeping days.
Hylton was paid $15 per game but donated the money back to the program. Like Nivens, he did it for the love of the game and the team.
Hunt is a 1971 Siuslaw graduate and a former Viking quarterback. He now lives in Grants Pass, Ore. “The History of Siuslaw High School Football, a Tradition of Excellence,” is available at lulu.com.