Friday night marked the end of Picher High School as we know it.

The final graduation for the school was held and the remaining students will be absorbed by Commerce and Quapaw.

Two of the best athletes to ever come out of PHS were on hand for Saturday’s Northeastern A&M Athletic Hall of Fame awards banquet — Ron Yankowski and Doug Mathews.

Yankowski, a defensive tackle who helped the Golden Norsemen win the 1967 national championship then moved on to Kansas State and the St. Louis Cardinals, was among the seven inductees.

“It’s a tremendous honor for me to be here and to be recognized with all these great athletes,” Yankowski said.

Mathews, who earned All-American honors in ‘67 and was a member of last year’s hall of fame class, and their coach, Bob Thompson, were on hand for the occasion. 

“I had the greatest honor of any coach in America — to coach those guys,” Thompson said.

Yankowski said nobody had shown an interest in him as he was graduating from PHS. He had been in the service and after being discharged, wanted to go to college.

“Nobody wanted me at that time,” he said. “If not for (NEO assistant coach) Jack Wallace, Chuck Bowman and Doug Mathews, I wouldn’t have made it. That’s what it takes, just get in and have the coaches believe in you. You don’t want to let them down either.”

Rallying from a first-round knockdown in a Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing match at the Civic Center might have helped earn him that chance at NEO.

“Russ Martin (the longtime announcer for KGLC when it was an AM radio station) was announcing the fight and he asked ‘Bob, what do you think?’” Thompson said following Saturday’s banquet. “I got up and talked to him. He whipped that guy in the second and third round. Doug came by and asked if he played football. I said yeah. They recruited him that night.”

“You only get so many chances and I took my chance,” Yankowski said. “I worked hard at it. I saw when I was here what hard work could do. Oklahoma didn’t get me. I felt that K-State was the place for me to be. It worked out for me.”

Yankowski earned all-Big Eight honors as a senior for the Wildcats.

He was an eighth-round draft pick of the St. Louis  — now Arizona — Cardinals.

The “Cardiac Cards” of Don Coryell made the playoffs twice during Yankowski’s playing time.

“It was a great time,” he said. “We had some great players, Jim Hart, Dan Dierdorf and Conrad Dobler — the meanest man in football. I played against him in practice, and when you play against the best, that makes you better.

“One of my coaches in the pros said ‘we’ve got about 10 all-pros here and rest of you are average ballplayers.’ I knew whom he was talking about. ‘If we can get you people to play above your average, we can win.’ We went through four seasons where we went 10-1 and 10-5 and made the playoffs twice. That is what team is all about and that is what I got from NEO: the harder you work, the better you are gong to be for you and your teammates.”

Yankowski was pleased to see the Arizona Cardinals make it to Super Bowl XLIII — the team’s first ever appearance.

“It was great,” he said. “To make the Super Bowl — it was just super to see them there.”

Yankowski continues to live in St. Louis. He’s retired from a second job and is embarking on a third career.

“I’m running a small tree service — three guys and I work together,” Yankowski said. “It’s fun. It keeps me in shape.”

Among the other inductees were the 1951 football team, football standouts Donne Pitman and Ron Yankowski, a pair of NEO grads who came back — men’s basketball coach Cletus Green and Ray Judkins, who launched the Norse wrestling program — and football coach Chuck Bowman.

Members of the’51 team who were on hand included Jack Ward, Rudy Taylor, Don Tidmore, Bill Boyce, John Ferguson, Don Enos, Ben Hanning, Rex Coppedge, Jim Rusher, Bob Wallace, Bill Scantlin and Ken Lawson.

Also honored during the banquet were NJCAA Football Hall of Fame inductees Bob Maxwell and Richard Haynes. Maxwell died earlier this month.

 Jim Ellis, 542-5533, ext. 3052

jim.ellis@miaminewsrecord.com