PETALUMA FOOTBALL HISTORY: Football players led on the gridiron and in the community

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the history of Petaluma football submitted by Scott Baker.

Petaluma High School Football of the 1930s and 1940s begins with one famous name: Gene Benedetti.

Not only was he an outstanding lineman for Petaluma High School in the 1930s, but he went on to be a hero for the Allied Forces during the D-Day invasion of 1944, the co-founder of the Petaluma Leghorns semi-pro football team, and later Clover Stornetta Dairy (Home of “Clo” the dairy cow).

If you have stayed with this series from the beginning, you are now picking up a sort of pattern, that most of the early Petaluma football players are almost larger than life, not just on the playing field but often in all pursuits, Homeric heroes in the sense that though they were not always perfect, they provided leadership and did their duty to their community and nation, without complaint (or so it would seem, as this was certainly how were portrayed by the media of that time).

As the narrator of NFL Films often says, “Great players aren’t always great, just great when they have to be.” No one can say what Gene Benedetti was thinking as he drove the boat that delivered the first wave of soldiers to Omaha Beach; if he had doubts or how afraid he might have been. However, given his history, it is certain that he proceeded with a strong sense of leadership and duty, which one imagines he gained from the farms and playing fields of Petaluma, like many of his peers.

Benedetti played for Petaluma High School from 1935 to 1938, alongside another great football player and friend, Bob Acorne.

From 1936 to 1939, the fearsome Duke Iversen played for Petaluma before going on to play college ball for the University of Oregon and later the NFL New York Giants, and the AAFC New York Yankees. Raised a farm boy, he later entered the local poultry business.

The Petaluma Leghorns were formed by Benedetti, with help from Acorne and Herm Jensen, in 1946 and entered a semi-pro league with the likes of the Santa Rosa Bonecrushers and the South San Francisco Windbreakers. They were in existence until 1958, and played in the original “Egg Bowl” with the Bonecrushers in 1947.

As for coaching, perhaps none of these old-school football mentors led Petaluma High long enough to be called “legendary” like Steve Ellison, who arrived in the 1970s and coached for more than 30 years, but J.C. “Cap” Schuster coached the team from 1926 to 1933, and Paul “Peewee” Lathrop coached from 1936 to 1944. Schuster is mentioned in an old newspaper clipping as co-organizer of a County Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day) football jamboree in 1932, as World War I was in recent memory, and high school football was rapidly becoming a part of autumn festivals, military observances and robust Americana.

A team of special note was the 1935 squad coached by Alfred Nicholas in his second and last year coaching at Petaluma High that went 8-0 and finally beat nemeses Vallejo, Napa and Santa Rosa, who were bigger schools and usually fielded deeper, more talented teams. Petaluma could usually handle Analy, San Rafael and Tamalpais, the other league opponents. The team was led by North Bay League All Stars Vogensen, Benedetti, Pinto, and Veronda, and had only given up 8 points going into the last game against Santa Rosa, whom they beat in a nail-biter 13-7.

Petaluma would not have a season that successful or exciting until the 1951 season when it also went undefeated in league and again overcame the Vallejo-Napa-Santa Rosa murderer’s row. That team was coached by Bill Abbey (1948-1958) and featured the formidable guard Tom Louderback, who went on to play for San Jose State, the NFL Philadelphia Eagles and the original AFC Oakland Raiders, and halfback Bill Schleth. Doc Sisler, the Petaluma High football team doctor for more than 50 years, began his long tenure with coach Abbey in 1957.

Other great players from the 1930s and 1940s include Robert Maddelena, Steven Mezzera, Byron Dorsett, Ernie Jensen, Don Ramatici, Richard Bacciocco, Frank Blankenship and Danny Pereira, among many others. They gave their hearts, blood, bone, sweat and sinew to Petaluma on the sweet grass of Durst (now Ellison) Field.

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