The way Lambert Brown remembers it, this was a game he and his White Bear Lake teammates were not about to lose.
Brown, now the head football coach at Wayzata, was a tailback at White Bear Lake in the late 1990s. Under coach Bob Jackson, the Bears were a hard-scrabble team that depended on being more physical than their opponent. In 1999 -- Brown’s senior year -- they operated their typical effective-but-unsexy veer offense. They rarely threw the ball but still managed to compile nearly 300 yards of offense per game, often the result of the strong legs and stronger will of QB Mark Jansen.
At the same time, nearby Mounds View was a bit more diversified on offense but was far from a pushover. The Mustangs, then coached by Gary Engen, had a dual-threat quarterback in Don Eustice and a potent passing combination in Eustice and receiver Mike Leach.
In those days, the two school districts not only shared a border but also a hearty helping of bad blood.
“It was a heated rivalry,” Brown recalled. “I can remember going to basketball games and yelling back and forth about football.”
It was a rivalry stoked by success. Both teams were routinely among the top in the old Twin Cities Suburban Conference and battled seemingly every year for Section 4 crown in Class 5A. They played twice a year, with a state tournament berth on the line in the final meeting.
“Both teams played really good football and that makes a good rivalry every time,” Brown said. “We felt like every play mattered. Every play was a big deal.”
That season White Bear Lake had been on the wrong end of some rough luck, losing three times in the final minute. The toughest to take may have been their first game against Mounds View. The Mustangs pulled a miracle victory when a long Eustice pass tipped off the fingertips of a White Bear Lake defender and into the hands of a Mounds View player, who raced into the end zone for the victory as time expired.
“I never want to feel that way again,” Jackson said at the time.
That loss lingered in the minds of the White Bear Lake players as they prepared to play that chilly November night, the Section 4 title on the line.
“We wanted to redeem ourselves,” Brown said.
Both offenses came out with a purpose and never slowed down. White Bear Lake scored, Mounds View answered. For the first 3½ quarters, it was back and forth. White Bear Lake never trailed but it never led by more the seven points, either, as the teams traded touchdowns.
Late in the fourth quarter, Mounds View appeared to have sealed the victory when Eustice threw a 34-yard touchdown pass with 1:21 left, giving Mounds View at 35-28 lead. Considering White Bear Lake’s time-consuming offensive style, a comeback looked unlikely.
"We were feeling pretty good about then," Engen said.
But Jansen refused to let the Bears lose. Repeatedly breaking tackles and picking up large chunks of yardage with his feet (expected) and his arm (unexpected), Jansen brought the Bears to the Mounds View 13-yard-line in a span of about 45 seconds.
White Bear Lake quarterback Mark Jansen
With 29 seconds left and his team out of time outs, Jansen took the snap, ran left and veered upfield. The Mounds View defense closed in and appeared to stop him at the 8-yard-line. Suddenly, Jansen flung the football behind him to Brown, a perfect option-style pitch, which the tailback knew was coming but the defense didn’t. He caught it and raced past the surprised Mounds View defenders for a game-tying touchdown.
“Mark and I had been together for so long, we were comfortable with where the other one was going to be,” Brown said. “All those reps in practice. I knew where Mark liked to cut and when he would pitch it. He had the confidence in me to be there.”
Regulation time expired 23 seconds later. After an exhausting see-saw battle that produced nearly 850 yards of total offense, the score was tied, 35-35.
Nobody left. Nobody sat down. Few had voices left.
White Bear Lake got the ball first and scored on three consecutive Jansen runs to take a 42-35 lead. Mounds View managed just three yards on its first three plays on the fired-up White Bear Lake defense. On fourth down, Eustice dropped back to pass and looked for his favorite target, Leach.
“They were a really good combination,” Brown said. “We knew that if they were going to make a play at the end of the game, it would be Eustice to Leach.”
It was, but this time, there would be no miracle. White Bear Lake’s Luke Whipple got a hand on the ball and knocked it to the ground. Game over.
“If you go back and watch the tape, you see that coach Jackson wasn’t watching the play. He couldn’t watch it,” Brown said with a chuckle. “It was nerve-wracking, but we found a way to get it done.”
Eustice went on to play quarterback at Drake University in Des Moines< He now lives in the Chicago area.
Jackson coached at White Bear Lake through 2011 before retiring after 19 seasons. He passed the time as an assistant at Spring Lake Park and, last year, at Wayzata, under Brown, his former player. He died in March of 2018.
Jansen went on to the U.S. Air Force Academy and is still a member of the Air Force, his service going on 20 years. Brown said he, Jansen and other members of that 1999 team still get together once a year to reminisce. That victory over Mounds View comes up often.
“The memories of that senior year, the kids you grew up playing with and a chance to go to state against one of your rivals, it was exciting to be a part of that,” Brown said. “I can’t think of a game I enjoyed more.”