Andy Livingston played high school football and was pretty good at it. How good? The Mesa High grad, a gridiron product of the early 1960s, made it into the National Football League while still a teenager.
Mike Brown toiled for three seasons during the mid-1990s at Saguaro, tormenting foes on defense in the secondary and running over them as a running back for a Sabercats team that won the 4A title in 1995.
Then there’s linebacker Bill Crowe, who played for McClintock from 1968-70 and earned all-state honors each year, but his career foundered at the University of Texas.
That is a glimpse of three players Varsity Xtra selected as it attempted to identify the top 10 East Valley high school football players dating to 1950.
It was quite a chore. Sorting through six East Valley cities, a half century of players and identifying the top 10 is highly subjective. Few people have been fortunate enough to see every outstanding East Valley player over the last 50 years.
So we at Varsity Xtra first picked the brain of noted high school historian Barry Sollenberger, editor of Phoenix Metro magazine and currently the sports information director for the Arizona Interscholastic Association. We even hobnobbed with several longtime coaches, including Karl Kiefer and Jesse Parker, to name a couple.
There were no definitive choices in this endeavor. But to help the decision-making process become more manageable, we at Varsity Xtra established a criteria in choosing the players.
The player must have played at least one full season of high school ball and finished his high school career at an East Valley school. Also, in most cases he must have gone on to at least the collegiate level. Position allocation was not considered (three quarterbacks and four running backs make our top-10 list). Finally, anyone who played in the current decade was not considered.
Even with those limitations, it’s a daunting task. But it has been a heck of a lot of fun along the way. Here goes, in chronological order:
Andy Livingston, Mesa FB, 1960-1961
Livingston was just 19 when he made his pro debut with the Chicago Bears in 1964. He played one year at Phoenix College before a jump to the NFL. He was an all-around athlete who led Mesa High to the state title in 1960, rushing for three touchdowns in the championship game against Yuma. The following year as a senior, he led the state in scoring with 129 points despite missing two games of a 10-game schedule with injuries.
"Great backs will come and go,’’ Mesa Tribune sports writer Ed Wiggins wrote after Livingston completed his senior season. ‘‘But this state has never had a back like Andy Livingston."
Kenny Johnson, Arcadia QB,
Johnson starred for two years at Arcadia (1967-68) and was the second-team quarterback for Phoenix Metro’s all-decade team (second to Danny White). His senior year he passed for 1,521 yards and 11 TDs and was the all-city quarterback. Like White, Johnson went on to college at Colorado (starting in ’71 and ’72) and then spent time in the pros with Buffalo as a backup in 1977 and in the Canadian Football League and the United States Football League.
"I think he was the best quarterback to come out of Scottsdale,’’ said Sollenberger. ‘‘What he did later on in college and the pros proved how good he was.’’
Danny White, Westwood QB,
White started two seasons at Westwood and was a four-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball, track). His best prep year was 1969 when he passed for 1,365 yards. White was just getting started. Turns out, that was only the beginning. He went on to star at ASU and later was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, where he played from 1976-1988. He was the starter most of the 1980s and passed for 21,959 yards and 155 touchdowns in his pro career. Here’s a stat not likely to be match: White kicked 15 extra points in a 100-6 win over Kofa.
"I went to an all-star banquet Danny was at and Frank Kush was there,’’ former Westwood assistant Joe Pico said. ‘‘He said, ‘Tell me about this kid (Danny)’. I said, ‘Coach he’ll be the best athlete you’ll ever recruit.’ ‘’
Bill Crowe, McClintock LB,
Crowe was a three-time all-stater who earned high school All-American honors. His greatest single game may have been in 1969 when the Chargers shut down Westwood and White, 12-9. McClintock and Crowe forced five turnovers that night, preventing Westwood from a playoff berth. Crowe remains the all-time defensive points leader at McClintock (726 points in a system designed to credit defensive players for outstanding performances), which now has 40 years of history behind it. Only one other McClintock player has more than 600 defensive points (Kenny Wheaton). Crowe attended the University of Texas, but his career never got off the ground and ended after two years in Austin because of injury.
"He was exceptional for the time period,’’ former McClintock coach Kiefer said. ‘‘(Texas coach) Darrell Royal flew out personally to recruit him, and that was a big deal. He went to Texas and was there a couple years, but didn’t finish.’’
Fred Mortensen, Tempe QB,
Mortensen led Tempe High to prominence, passing for 1,793 yards and 17 TDs in helping the Buffaloes reach the state title game in 1971. He passed for 4,009 yards in his prep career. Mortensen played at ASU mostly as a backup from 1975-77. He also played in the NFL as a backup with Washington.
"His senior year when he was throwing to Rick Molina and Rex Shumway, he made it look so easy,’’ said former Tempe High coach Tim McBurney, an assistant for the Buffs during Mortensen’s senior year. ‘‘In the (state) championship game in ’71 the passing game looked futuristic. It looked like passing games do today at the pro level.’’
Todd Shell, Mountain View
Shell helped the Toros win their first state title in 1978 and was alleverything at linebacker in 1979. He was a college All-American at BYU where he played from 1980-83. He was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and played there from 1984-87 despite being hampered by an injuries that led to an early retirement.
"Todd had a special intensity, maybe the most intense player I ever coached,’’ former Mountain View coach Jesse Parker said. ‘‘We lost our last game in 1979 to Mesa, and it really affected Todd. He ran away from the school. (Then Mountain View assistant coach) Joe (Pico) and I had to chase him down the street. He hated to lose more than anyone.’’
Anthony Parker, McClintock
Parker is still the school’s all-time scoring leader with 344 points and the career leader in touchdowns (54). He was voted the Phoenix Metro player of the Year in 1983. Parker played four years at ASU as a cornerback and punt returner. Parker went on to an NFL career, playing with Indianapolis (’89), Kansas City (’91), Minnesota (’92-94), St. Louis (’95-96) and Tampa Bay (1997-98).
"He’s got to be a guy considered as an all-timer,’’ Kiefer said. ‘‘What he did in high school, at ASU and then fighting back after a knee injury in college was something to make it as long he did in the NFL.’’
Cleveland Colter Jr.,
McClintock WR/RB/DB, 1983-85
Colter was used as a defensive back and receiver his first two seasons but helped out as a running back in 1985 and rushed for 1,115 yards and 18 TDs. He added 752 yards receiving with six TDs and intercepted 10 passes that season. He attended USC and lettered from 1986-89. He was selected a first-team All-American and first-team all-Pac-10 in 1988. An injury his final season at USC prevented him from playing in the NFL.
"He was another outstanding player who could do it all,’’ Kiefer said. ‘‘Not many players from around here end up at USC and become an All-American.’’
Mike Brown, Saguaro RB/DB,
Brown helped bring resurgence to Saguaro in the mid-1990s. He capped his final year with a three-TD title game performance, rushing for two and passing for one in the Sabercats’ 42-7 rout of Glendale Ironwood. He rushed for 2,023 yards and scored 35 TDs that season. He also was selected the state’s best running back and defensive back for 1995. Brown was a blue chip recruit and took his services to Nebraska (1996-99). He was an All-American in 1999 and was chosen on the school’s allcentury team as a safety. Brown was drafted in the second round of the 2000 draft by Chicago and is currently a starter at safety for the Bears.
"I remember before we played them in 1995, I told the kids to wrap their arms around him and hold on until help came,’’ McBurney said. ‘‘He always kept his legs moving. He was tenacious on both sides of the ball. I think he could have played running back or safety in college.’’
Todd Heap, Mountain View TE,
Heap enjoyed a brilliant three-year stay at Mountain View. The Toros won two state titles (’96-97), going 14-0 both years. Heap did his part with 87 catches for 1,377 yards and 25 TDs in those years. ASU nabbed Heap and coaxed him to come across town to Tempe. Heap started two of his three seasons at ASU, where he caught 115 passes for 1,685 yards and 10 TDs. He skipped his senior year to enter the NFL draft and was a first-round pick in 2001 by the Baltimore Ravens. Heap earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season and was the Ravens leading receiver. He leads the Ravens in receiving so far this season.
"Todd could do it all,’’ said Red Mountain coach Jim Jones, whose teams regularly faced the rival Toros. ‘‘He could run, catch and block. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I think as a freshman (junior high) he played quarterback. He might have been the best player to come out of Mesa."