In the summer of 2000, when everyone was preparing to leave for college, a group of Bellefonte football players gathered at Tom McKee’s house to relive the previous fall.
They watched game tapes from their run to the 1999 District 6 championship and talked about memorable plays from that season, trying to hang on to that unforgettable season while knowing it would never be the same.
It’s been a long time since the 1999 Red Raiders broke out the old VHS tapes — they still watched them together during holiday breaks in college — but they haven’t forgotten the memories they made that year.
“It’s funny now you sound so old,” said McKee, one of the team’s top wide receivers. “We made a highlight tape with two VCRs, pushing pause and play. That was how we made our highlight tape with VCR tape. It sounds like it was 100 years ago. That’s the kind of stuff we did. You get together, you talk about that stuff. You never lose that.”
It’s been long enough that current players, wideout Cade Fortney and tight end Caleb Rockey, don’t know much about the last Bellefonte football team to capture a district title. They weren’t even born yet.
“Nobody in our school even knows that we’ve done it before,” said Rockey, a junior. “Nobody ever talks about it.”
This year’s Red Raiders could become next team to win a district title — they own a 7-1 record and currently sit first in the district’s playoff rankings. The Red Raiders are in the middle of one of the best runs in program history with blowout victories over Tyrone, Clearfield and Central highlighting a six-game winning streak. Kris Glunt, a wide receiver on the 1999 team and the current boys’ basketball coach at Bellefonte, has been to every home game this season and sees the same camaraderie, positive energy and student support that fueled his Red Raiders to a championship.
There’s also a connection to the last Red Raiders district-title winning team in current head coach Shanon Manning, who started his career at Bellefonte in 1999 on Tom Gravish’s staff.
“I just know everybody was talking about how hard it was to win a district title, and I was six months into it and had one,” Manning said. “I’ve never seen one again. It ended up being very significant. It was a great experience for me.”
On the first day of camp at Rogers Stadium in 1999, first-year Red Raiders coach Tom Gravish told his players to turn and face Hershey, the site of the PIAA championship game.
It became part of every practice that season during stretching and drills. One day, Gravish told the Red Raiders, Bellefonte football was going to make that trip to play in the state title game.
The first time the players heard their new coach say it, they looked at each other, unsure what to make of the bold statement.
“We didn’t believe at that point,” Glunt said. “We just didn’t believe at that point. We’re an 0-9 football team, and he’s telling us that this program’s going to go to Hershey. That was our goal.”
The Red Raiders came together during the offseason and decided they weren’t going to endure another winless campaign. Linemen pushed cars in the parking lot during the offseason, players committed to lifting in the weight room, and they organized their own summer workouts before Gravish was hired. Gravish established high expectations — telling his players during the first team meeting that he wanted to build a championship team immediately — but his players soon learned their coaches enjoyed having some fun, too. During the first week of camp, the team prepared for conditioning on a steep hill near the school when one of the assistant coaches backed up his Bronco and opened the back to reveal donuts for the entire team.
“We called that Donut Hill,” Glunt said, laughing.
McKee recalled the Red Raiders cheered when they ran up and down the hill during the season, embracing the conditioning rather than dreading it. They also took a selfless approach into that season, as backup quarterback Nate Stone switched to running back and rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Stone was part of a balanced offense led by quarterback Bill Witmer, who threw for more than 2,000 yards.
“He was the Tom Brady of our team,” Gravish said of Witmer. “He was extremely mature.”
Everything didn’t click right away for the Red Raiders, who lost to State College 62-0 in their season opener. They started to establish an identity under Gravish the following week, with the coaches joking about taking an opponent to the “woodshed.” When Bellefonte earned its first win under Gravish that Friday night against Philipsburg-Osceola, the players bounced up and down and screamed “woodshed” in celebration.
It became the motto for the Red Raiders in 1999.
“It just kind of stuck,” Gravish said. “That’s how we want to be tough.”
The day after the team’s loss to Clearfield in 1999, the Bellefonte players sat quietly on the bus trip to see Pittsburgh take on Temple.
As they drove through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, the team’s manager, Jon Riggall, stood and yelled to Gravish: “Coach, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Rigall then turned and delivered the message to the Red Raiders, who were 1-4 on the year: “Hey guys, I’m talking about the season. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The players bonded during the trip — the Red Raiders grilled 55 steaks and threw the football around with some Pitt women’s basketball players during their tailgate — and returned to practice with a refreshed perspective.
“Another great example of a guy who was much a part of that team as the starting quarterback was,” McKee said of the team manager. “That was just the way that team was. Everybody loved Jon.”
The Red Raiders then started one of the most memorable runs in program history, winning seven straight games to reach the PIAA quarterfinals. Witmer said the team’s game against Central was one of his favorite matchups that season.
“It was back-and-forth,” Witmer said. “It was everything. Defense, offense, special teams — we had a blocked punt. It was just an exciting game back-and-forth. I’d say one of the hardest-fought games we had that year to pull out a win.”
The Red Raiders held off Central 39-32 for the win at home to remain in the playoff picture and climb back to .500 at 4-4.
“That’s when we started to believe we could probably accomplish something pretty special,” Glunt said.
The 1999 Red Raiders still needed to beat rival Bald Eagle Area to clinch a postseason berth — and one parent wanted to do something special for the Curtin Bowl.
Mike Stone, Nate’s father, contacted Gravish and told him that he wanted to paint the Rogers Stadium end zones with a red-and-white checkerboard pattern like Tennessee. When the players arrived at practice Thursday night, they were in awe. And when they took the field Friday night, they ran through a cloud of steam like the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl.
“There was no doubt we were going to win that game,” Gravish said.
The Red Raiders dominated in a 28-6 victory, with Witmer completing 12 of 20 passes and throwing for two touchdowns and Stone finishing with 127 yards rushing on 28 carries. McKee said that game would often be discussed when the players gathered after the season to reminisce.
“We, at that point, were really hitting a stride and we stuck one on ’em that day,” McKee said. “And that was in front of a big crowd.”
The Red Raiders then upset top-seeded Huntingdon 14-0 to advance to the district championship game against Central Cambria. Again, Stone and Witmer led the way in a dominant performance as Bellefonte rolled to a 34-12 win over Central Cambria at Altoona’s Mansion Park. Stone rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns, while Witmer was 14 for 21 for 183 yards.
The Red Raiders each received mini plaques to commemorate the victory, and Gravish’s still sits on one of the walls of his Williamsport home. Bellefonte went from 0-9 in 1998 to champions, fulfilling a goal he discussed at his first meeting with the players. That win also made the view of Hershey seem within reach, a far cry from the reaction of the players on the first day of camp.
“We really started to think, ‘Hey, maybe the sky is the limit here,’” Glunt said.
Bellefonte went on to beat Clearfield in the state playoffs before falling to Perry Traditional Academy 42-7 in the PIAA quarterfinals in Pittsburgh.
Gravish, who is now the head coach at Jersey Shore, actually watched the 1999 season highlight tape this week — it’s been converted to DVD now — while searching for ideas to get his offense going.
Eighteen years later, Gravish cherishes his memories with that Bellefonte team.
“That ’99 group,” Gravish said, “they’re just the most special group that I think I’ve ever been associated with in my whole life.”
Gravish got to see this year’s Red Raiders when they faced his Jersey Shore team in the opener. Since that win, Bellefonte has only improved and turned 2017 into another special season for fans in the community. They’re shooting to add their year alongside 1999 as another district champion in the program’s history. And they’ve received support from the 1999 team at Rogers Stadium, as the old teammates take some time to reminisce at games and still take great pride in their magical season.
Nearly two decades later, his playing days now behind him, McKee has gained perspective on his time on the football field.
“You can’t understand how important it is when you’re in it,” McKee said. “The Bellefonte team is going to go out and play on Friday night. There’s no way they can understand how important what they’re doing right then will be the rest of their lives because you can’t — you dont have that kind of perspective. You don’t get it ’til after.”