Gridiron glory: Palmyra honors ’78 champs

High school’s 1978 football team celebrates 40th anniversary of its state championship

Coaches, players and statisticians from Palmyra High School’s 1978 football team, the Palmyra Pals, returned to their hometown school for the 40th anniversary of their state championship victory.

Stephen Finn

The Sun

“We are the Pals! The mighty mighty Pals!”

This chant hasn’t been heard in Palmyra since the borough’s high school football team changed its name to the Panthers in the 1980s. Before the name change, the Pals cemented themselves as hometown heroes in 1978 for their momentous state championship victory.

This year on Thanksgiving Day, residents of Palmyra bundled up and braved the biting morning cold to support the current Palmyra Panthers as they faced off against their longtime rivals from Burlington City, the Blue Devils. Although the day ended in defeat, Burlington City won 52 to 15, it began with a remembrance of a major victory from 1978.

Before the game, the high school honored its 1978 football team, the Pals, named for Palmyra, for the 40th anniversary of their state championship victory when the team posted an impressive 11–1 final record.

“The history of this game is one of the oldest rivalries in the nation. Palmyra and Burlington City have played since 1908 on Thanksgiving Day,” said Chuck Zuschnitt, one of the team’s assistant coaches at the time. “This team that they’re honoring today is so special because it is Palmyra’s only state championship football team to this day,” said Zuschnitt.”

One can hear the pride the former coach still feels for his team when has a chance to talk about its accomplishments. The team still holds Palmyra’s all-time record for back-to-back seasons winning 20 games and only losing two.

“They are unique because they had eight young men to go on to play college football, most teams 94 percent of a high school’s players never play again,” said Zuschnitt.

Although he credits the entire team for working together to achieve the 1978 victory, Zuschnitt couldn’t help but talk up some of the individual players whose efforts were instrumental in pushing the team forward.

“One player, Derek Holloway, held the record in the state for most points scored in a season. The very next year Otto Birkhead set the state record for highest number of yards gained by a running back in one year. Our quarterback of that team, Willie Mahan, held the school record for 37 years for most touchdown passes,” said Zuschnitt.

Holloway was one of the star players from the 1978 team, and after college went on to play professionally in the NFL for the Washington Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Over the years, he has lent his considerable talents to a number of professional teams, but on this day, he was sporting his Palmyra Pals letterman jacket.

The closeness and familiarity of the team was instrumental in their victory, according to Holloway. Many of them had been playing together since they were young.

“We all played little league football together and we came up as freshmen through to our senior year, we played together a lot,” said Holloway.

Even after his professional career he has held on to fond memories of his time playing in high school.

“It was awesome! We set our sights on being champions that year, we worked hard that summer and we came out and we did it,” said Holloway. “It was a great day, we broke some records and etched our names in the record books.”