Bethel – 1955 Graduate
“Darrell Borden and Gene Curbow started a tradition and they set the standard for the many great running backs who played for Bethel in the 1950’s and ’60’s”. —Dave Rich, a teammate of Mr. Curbow and a 1955 B.H.S. graduate.
In the 1940’s, the Black Knights of Army fielded some great football teams. In the mid-1940’s Army had two running backs who would become legends, not only at West Point, but in the history of college football as well. Fullback Felix “Doc” Blanchard was known as “Mr. Inside” and halfback Glen Davis was “Mr. Outside” and together, they led Army to two national championships (1944 and 1945). Both were Heisman Trophy winners – Blanchard in 1945 and Davis in 1946. Beginning in 1951 the Bethel Braves had their own version of “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside”. But first some history to put all of this into perspective.
The 1950 football team was the first to be known as the “Bethel Braves”. Coached by Earl Platt and Ed Kenrick the team won the Pierce County League championship, winning all six league games (7-1-0 overall) while recording four shutouts. The team was made up from a combination of two high schools that were part of the consolidated Bethel school district – the Kapowsin “Loggers” and the Roy “Lynx”. It’s no wonder that the new Bethel team was so successful in that the coaches had players from both high schools who had played on teams that were very competitive in the league.
1951 was the dawn of a new era for Bethel High School football. Earl Platt, as principal, hired Ed Niehl to be the new head football coach. Mr. Niehl was a 1951 graduate of Washington State College and in his words “was as green as they come”. However, in the 15 years that followed, his teams would win three league championships, tie for a fourth and finish second (or tied) three times. In 128 games overall, his record was 76-44-8, a .625 winning percentage. The season would pose some real problems for Mr. Ed Niehl as almost all of the key players from the 1950 championship team had graduated and there were only nine returning lettermen. The hardest hit was the offensive backfield – three of the four were gone – quarterback Tom McDonald and halfbacks Tony Raydon and Dean Tibbitts. All three were outstanding players and the only holdover was fullback Darrell Borden, now a junior. The line, both on offense and defense, also was in question. Of note, two all-league linemen were gone. They were Ray Flannery, a guard and tackle, who was awarded ten varsity letters in his career, including four in football, and Jim Andreason an end, who was a co-captain of the team (along with Tom McDonald) and the Inspirational Award winner that year. The only two remaining first-team linemen from that championship team were Bob Landgrebe (a guard and tackle) and center Dan Michener. Obviously this meant that six out of the nine returning lettermen were substitutes from the year before, and that the team needed to be rebuilt around those individuals.
After only two weeks of practice in September, head coach Ed Niehl managed to somehow put together a solid offensive and defensive line, as well as a great backfield. Gordon Barna, a junior, was the new quarterback. Sophomore Glen Fuhrman was at one halfback position and proved to be a very good football player in his own right. Of course, Darrell Borden would be the fullback – but there was a “catch” to all of this – an unknown quantity – a kid, a freshman, would be the other starting halfback. Darrell Borden, “Mr. Inside” would now be joined by “Mr. Outside”, Gene Curbow, and for the next two years they would create sheer bedlam for the opposing defenses. According to Mr. Niehl, these two players were a perfect match, a “one-two punch” if you will. Both were strong, “hard-nosed”, determined backs who could really punish a defense.
The 1951 season started out on a couple of dismal notes. In the first annual “King’s Axe” game against Eatonville – a non-league affair – the Cruisers prevailed 6-0. In a heart-breaking loss to Peninsula, the only score of the game was a safety and a 2-0 Seahawks win. Finally, the following week, the Braves defeated the Orting Cardinals 6-0 to post the first victory of the season. The October 12th, 1951 game against the Fife Trojans was probably the turning point of the season for the Braves. Federal Way and Fife were favored to win the league title and this game was a “must” for Bethel. In the second quarter, Darrell Borden rambled 70 yards to the Fife ten and scored three plays later. After a Bethel fumble, Fife scored the tying touchdown. At the start of the second half, Darrell Borden returned the kickoff to the Fife 45 yard line and with Gene and Darrell alternately carrying the football, Gene scored the winning touchdown on a three yard run. For the remainder of the game, the Braves’ defense held up, and the team came away with a 13-6 win. As it turned out, this would be Fife’s only league loss of the season.
The next two league games would showcase the Braves’ growing maturity, both on offense and defense. In a 25-7 victory over the Yelm Tornadoes, Darrell Borden scored two touchdowns, one on an intercepted pass and, not to be outdone, Gene scored the other two, one from short yardage and the other on a 20 yard end sweep. The official league game with Eatonville, just like in the first “King’s Axe” game earlier in the season, proved to be another defensive struggle. After a scoreless first half, Eatonville struck first early in the third quarter. A 15 yard pass to Gary Allison put the ball on Bethel’s three yard line and on the next play, another pass to Allison was good for the touchdown. In what proved to be the difference in the game, the Cruisers’ kicker missed the point-after (P.A.T.). Several minutes later, the Braves culminated an 80 yard drive with Gene, now known as the “freshman sensation”, scoring a touchdown on a five yard run. With the score tied at 6-6, the P.A.T. would be a must, yet it proved to be anything but easy. Darrell Borden’s kick was good, but a 15 yard penalty nullified the P.A.T., however, on the next attempt, Borden completed a pass to Gene in the end zone for the one point. For the rest of the game Bethel’s defense was solid and the Brave’s avenged their “King’s Axe” loss with a 7-6 victory. At this point in the season, three teams had conference records of 4-1-0, Bethel, Fife and Federal Way. However, the next day Peninsula High School issued a press release indicating that it would be forfeiting both the Orting and Fife games because of a case of polio on the Seahawk football team. A horrible crippling decease, now unknown, but still feared back in that day. Fife would be assured of a tie for the 1951 Pierce County League championship.
On November 2nd, 1951, Bethel travelled north to play a non-league game with Tahoma, a member of the highly regarded KINGCO Conference. With Tahoma ahead 7-0, Gene put Bethel on the scoreboard with a 12 yard touchdown run to make it a 7-6 game at halftime. In the third quarter, Darrell Borden took control of the game, scoring two touchdowns and a P.A.T., with Gordon Barna adding a fourth touchdown to close out a 26-7 Bethel win. The stage was now set for a final game showdown with the Federal Way Eagles and whoever wins the game ties Fife for the league championship. The game turned out to be a complete disaster for the Braves, an absolute nightmare. In a 37-6 thrashing, fumbles, penalties, botched plays and mental mistakes led to the team’s downfall. Federal Way held the halftime lead at 14-6, then exploded for three touchdowns in the third quarter. Bethel’s only score came on an eight yard pass from Darrell Borden to Terry Piper. There was one other touchdown, a 57 yard pass from Gene to Darrell Borden, only to have it nullified by a clipping penalty.
In spite of the lopsided loss to Federal Way, the ’51 season had to be considered a success. The sportswriters handicapping their pre-season favorites had picked Bethel to be the “dark horse” entry in the league, and the Braves finished with a 4-2-0 record (5-3-0 overall) good for second place finish, one game ahead of Eatonville (3-3-0). For the season, Darrell Borden led the team with 39 points (6 TD’s and 3 P.A.T.’s); Gene was second with 37 points (6 TD’s and 1 P.A.T.).
A great amount of optimism was felt entering the 1952 football season and two of the major contributing factors were as follows: (1) The entire starting backfield, including the two quarterbacks, Gordon Barna and Ken Olive, would be returning, as well as most of the starting line, and (2) Gary Allison transferred from Eatonville and entered Bethel as a junior. He was well known to the Bethel players and coaches, having scored the Cruisers’ touchdown in a 7-6 loss to the Braves during the ’51 season. Allison was an outstanding football player; a solid, play-making guard on the basketball team; and a “Cracker Jack” second baseman as a baseball player. While at Bethel, he would go on to earn six varsity letters, two in each sport.
Bethel opened the 1952 football season with a convincing 28-0 win over Eatonville in the second annual “King’s Axe” game. Gary Allison, probably much to the chagrin felt by his former team, scored the first touchdown. Gene was responsible for the next two, running one in and his 12 yard pass to Terry Piper accounted for the other. Darrell Borden scored Bethel’s fourth touchdown. The two pre-season favorites, Federal Way and Bethel, squared off in the Pierce County League opener, which ended up in a 6-6 tie. A 20 yard touchdown pass from Darrell Borden to Terry Piper was all that the Braves could muster. The next two league games were also ties – a scoreless battle with Orting, and a 6-6 standoff with Peninsula. The Braves’ only score against the Seahawks was a Glen Fuhrman touchdown run from three yards out. The next encounter was a non-league match-up with Vashon and in a 7-0 Bethel win, the team’s only touchdown came in the fourth quarter on a double reverse, with Gary Allison carrying for 18 yards. A pass from Ken Olive to Gene Ketter was good for the extra point. The Fife Trojans were next on the schedule and Bethel finally broke into the win column with a 13-7 victory, but it wasn’t easy. Bethel’s first touchdown came on a 35 yard pass from Ken Olive to Gene Ketter. After Fife tied the score, and the game winding down to the closing minutes, Gene broke through the Trojans’ defense and galloped 30 yards for the winning score. This win kept the Braves in contention for the league title.
Next on the schedule was Yelm, and in a 7-0 win the game’s only touchdown was on a 15 yard pass from Gene to Gene Ketter. Ketter also scored the P.A.T.. The last game of the season was against Eatonville and Gary Allison was again a Cruiser nemesis. In a 33-13 rout, he, along with Ken Olive and Gene scored one touchdown each – Darrell Borden scored two.
The Braves finished the season with a 3-0-3 league record (5-1-3 overall) which was good for a second place tie with Federal Way (4-1-1). The Orting Cardinals took the championship with a 5-0-1 league record. In many respects, the 1952 season was a disappointment in that Bethel was one of the pre-season favorites and the three tie games cost them dearly. However, a second place tie was not the worst of all worlds. On the season, Gene, Gary Allison and Darrell Borden scored three touchdowns apiece to lead the team. Terry Piper and Gene Ketter shared the honors for the most touchdown receptions, each with two – Piper from Gene and Darrell Borden; and Ketter from Gene and Ken Olive.
Both Ed Niehl and Jack Justice knew that there was a lot of work to be done going into the 1953 season. Graduation took both quarterbacks, Gordon Barna and Ken Olive, along with end Terry Piper and fullback Darrell Borden. With Borden’s graduation Gene had a new fullback, John Kerr, a converted offensive end, and he proved his worth as a great lead blocker and he could run with the football as well. Also, in what probably was a gamble at the time, Gene Ketter was the new quarterback; Dave Rich replaced him at end; and with John Kerr moving to fullback, Felix Brodigan took over as the other offensive end. All of these moves proved to be very successful. Now a junior, and wearing a new uniform with #10 on his back (he wore #49 his freshman and sophomore seasons – he would wear #33 his senior year), Gene was a seasoned veteran and a force to be reckoned with for the next two years.
The season began on September 18th, 1953 with the now traditional “Kings Axe” game against Eatonville. In an 18-0 win, Gene, Gary Allison and Felix Brodigan scored the three touchdowns. A week later the Braves travelled to Orting to meet the defending league champions and in a 14-0 win, Gary Allison scored the first touchdown and Gene Ketter accounted for the second – a three yard pass from Gene Curbow. The next game was against the Vashon Pirates, now a member of the newly formed nine team West Central League. The Braves had little difficulty in posting a 25-0 victory. Gary Allison scored twice, Gene Ketter once, and Gene threw a touchdown pass to Felix Brodigan. The Braves chalked up their third league win against Eatonville – 33-0. Gene scored three times on runs of one, nine and 50 yards. John Kerr added Bethel’s other touchdowns on runs of 58 and two yards. This set the stage for a match-up between Bethel and Peninsula, two of the three pre-season favorites. Federal Way was the other.
Gene, in what was one of the finest games of his career, took Peninsula’s opening kickoff 90 yards to the Seahawks three yard line. Two plays later he flipped a pass to Felix Brodigan for the score. After Peninsula tied it with a touchdown in the second quarter, Gene scored again on a two yard plunge – Bethel led at halftime 12-6. That score held up until, with five minutes left to go in the game, Peninsula scored a touchdown and the game ended in a 12-12 tie. One post-game write-up stated the following: “Curbow amassed 221 yards from scrimmage during the game. Defensively, ends John Kerr and Gene Ketter stood out for Bethel.”. Another summary stated that “the game was a bitter struggle from start to finish with both teams showing their power on the offense as well as defensively. Gene Curbow, Bethel back, was easily the outstanding offensive star of the game.”. Gene’s 221 rushing yards was a school record at the time. Bethel shut out their next two opponents – 13-0 over a new-comer to the league, Buckley (later known as White River) and 14-0 over Fife. In the Buckley game, Gary Allison scored from short yardage and John Kerr scored the last touchdown on a 14 yard run. The Fife game proved to be more interesting and part of the game summary in The News Tribune read as follows: “A 48 yard pass play, Gene Curbow to Dave Rich, accounted for Bethel’s initial touchdown. Rich caught the toss on the Fife 20 and romped the rest of the way untouched.”………”Midway in the third quarter, Curbow’s punt rolled dead in the mud on the Fife 2-yard line to set up Bethel’s second touchdown.”. The Trojans then tried to punt and a bad snap from center resulted in Gary Allison falling on the ball in the end zone.
The Braves put themselves in a position for another championship clash with Federal Way for the league title with a 46-0 victory over Yelm. Gene Ketter had his best game of the season, throwing three touchdown passes – two to Felix Brodigan and one to Dave Rich. Gene Curbow added another to Brodigan. Gary Allison (2) and Dennis McGraw (1) accounted for the other touchdowns. Now for the second time in three years, the Braves and the Eagles would lock horns in a game with championship implications, only this time, unlike 1951, the winner would take the league title outright. Federal Way’s record was 7-0-0; Bethel’s was 6-0-1. The game was scheduled for November 20th, 1953 at Federal Way. However, it was determined that the field was unplayable and the contest was moved to Sumner High School and that field wasn’t much better.
The Eagles took the opening kick-off and went 62 yards in ten plays to score the first touchdown. The Braves came right back to score, moving the ball 69 yards in five plays. A pass from Gene Ketter to Felix Brodigan was good for 55 yards, to the Federal Way three yard line and Gene went in for the touchdown on the next play. For the next three quarters, the game turned into a brutal, defensive battle and the outcome was never certain until the Eagles scored a second touchdown with only 55 seconds left to go in the game. Federal Way would prevail 13-6 and Bethel would finish alone in second place with a 6-1-1 record (7-1-1 overall). For the season, the team statistics were impressive. Bethel finished second to Federal Way in points scored in league play with 163 (181 overall) and tied them for the fewest points allowed with 25. The Braves also recorded six league shutouts (seven overall). Gary Allison led the team with 49 points, followed by Felix Brodigan with 42 and Gene with 41. Gene also threw five touchdown passes – three to Felix Brodigan and one each to Gene Ketter and Dave Rich. Gene Ketter threw three – one to Dave Rich and the other two to Brodigan.
The 1954 football season would end three years of frustration for the Bethel faithful – the team would tie Fife for the league championship. Going into the season the Braves would have to replace three stalwarts on offense and defense; John Kerr, Gary Allison and Felix Brodigan, and, as in the past, the coaches made the right decisions. Walt Leigh replaced Brodigan at an end position, Gene was joined by a new fullback, Gene Ressler and junior Dennis McGraw, backed up by sophomore Wayne Bush, replaced Gary Allison as the other halfback. Sadly, not all of the game summaries were available and it’s unfortunate because the ’54 season was probably the best year for both Gene and Gene Ketter.
The Braves opened the season with a 6-0 win over the Vashon Pirates. With about a minute left to go in the game, Gene Ketter’s 12 yard touchdown pass to Gene Ressler was the difference. In the next game the team defended the “King’s Axe” in a 20-0 victory over Eatonvile. Gene Ketter ran for one touchdown, passed for another to Walt Leigh, and was on the receiving end of a pass from Gene for the final score. After a 45-0 rout against Peninsula, the Braves took on the White River Hornets. Both teams were undefeated and the Braves had to come from behind to score a 14-13 win. The game summary in the TNT stated the following: “Gene Curbow had one of his best nights of the season for Bethel, scoring all 14 of his team’s points. One touchdown was on a 15-yard run, the second on a 12-yard pass from Gene Ketter. He ran over both conversions. He also picked up 103 yards on 16 carries (6.4 yard average) during the contest.”.
Bethel, still unbeaten, now faced Fife, one of the pre-season favorites. They had one loss, a 21-8 defeat against White River, and to their credit the underdog Trojans came away with a 14-6 win. Bethel held a 6-0 halftime lead on a 31 yard scoring pass from Gene Ketter to Dave Rich, but Fife came back in the second half to gain the victory. The following week Bethel bounced back with a 13-6 win over a stubborn and talented Yelm team. Now, with two games left in the season, the Braves set their sights on Federal Way and Orting – and both were absolute mismatches. In a 51-0 thrashing of Federal Way, Gene Ketter had a career night, throwing five touchdown passes, three of them to Dave Rich. Gene would add two more, one to Rich and the other to Ketter. Also, on 12 carries Gene picked up 105 yards, an 8.8 average and one touchdown. Wayne Bush would pick up the other two scores. Bethel closed out the season with a 49-0 win over Orting, and with Fife’s win against Eatonville, this meant that the Braves would share the league title with the Trojans, both at 7-1-0.
In the four years that Gene played football, all of the teams were solid, well-coached and blessed with some awfully good talent – these guys could really play some football. From 1951 through 1954, the teams were 20-4-4 (.786%) in league play; 4-2-0 in non-league and overall, 24-6-4 (.765%). Gene would eventully be awarded nine varsity letters – four in football, two in basketball, two in baseball and one in track. However, according to Gene, these other sports were just mere “passtimes” for him – his true passion was football. Be that as it may, he played on the 1952-’53 basketball team that posted the first winning record in the school’s history and the 1953-’54 team that won the league championship with a perfect 16-0 record. While never a starter on those teams, he was a reliable substitute off of the bench and could score some points. Gene was also the starting second baseman for the 1952 and 1953 baseball teams and his ninth, and last varsity letter was in 1954, as a participant in the field events on the track team.
Gene was a local boy born on March 10th, 1935 at Fort Lewis. He attended Spanaway grade school before entering Bethel. After he graduated in the Spring of 1955, Gene worked in heavy construction for fifteen years, then was with Nordstrom in a management position at South Center and finally, for fifteen years was an R.V. technician at Sumner Trailer Sales. He and his wife Jean have been married for 63 years and raised three children; two boys Dennis and Jeff, and a daughter Penny. They also had a family business, a nursery near Orting, and since there was a Gene and a Jean it was only fitting that they called the business “A Pair of Geans”. Finally, for many years they were active members of the Daffodilians and helped to build, or actually built floats that participated in the annual daffodil parade.
According to Ed Niehl, had Gene continued his education beyond high school, he could have played football for a junior college or small college and he would have been successful. He was that good.
Finally, Darrell Borden was inducted into The Hall of Fame in 2017 and he holds a unique place in that he is the first athlete to become a member who played on the first football team known as the “Bethel Braves”. Gene is also unique in that he is the only player to receive four varsity letters in football in the Ed Niehl “era”. To say the least, both were “dynamite” football players, and it is only fitting that Gene Curbow joins his teammate as a very worthy member of The Bethel School District Athletic Hall of Fame.