In a time when “going viral” meant you had the flu, a 1983 football game between Prairie and Camas was noticed nationwide.
Gordon Elliott, then 30, was in his first year as a high school football head coach. From the Camas sideline on a misty fall evening, Elliott witnessed a freak play he still remembers vividly.
And in the game’s aftermath, a gesture by veteran Prairie coach Gordon Buslach taught Elliott a principle that has guided his coaching career, which continues to this day.
In a scoreless game in Camas on Oct. 21, Prairie lined up to punt on the first play of the second quarter.
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The snap went over the head of punter John Sutton, who scooped up the ball at the 5-yard line and dodged two would-be tacklers. Scrambling near the sideline, Sutton got off a wobbly punt that Scott Gibson of Camas caught at the 35.
With players from both teams near him, Gibson dashed backward toward his own end zone. At first, Elliott thought his player was trying to buy space to avoid would-be Prairie tacklers.
Perhaps it’s because the teams had just switched directions between quarters, but Gibson kept going and going. He eventually reached his own end zone and celebrated as if he had scored a touchdown.
Prairie instead was awarded two points for a safety. Those turned out to be the only points of the game.
Final: Prairie 2, Camas 0.
So unusual was the play, Sports Illustrated mentioned it. Elliott heard from a football historian in Florida who believed it was the first time in the sport’s history where points were scored on a punt returned the wrong way. It had previously happened on plays from scrimmage, fumbles and interceptions.
“It was one of those strange but true things,” Elliott, who now lives in Puyallup, said in an interview this week. “Coaches, we all have stories. But it’s one of those things nobody had seen before. I was like ‘what kind of a head coach am I when my players don’t know which way to run?'”
As word spread, multiple TV stations reached out to both schools in search of film showing the play.
Camas didn’t have any. According to Elliott, the team’s camera operator was loading a fresh roll of film during the quarter break and missed the play.
Prairie had film of the play. But for Buslach, who had coached Prairie since it opened in 1979, there were more important things than feeding the hype.
In his 2019 obituary published in The Columbian, Buslach, 86, was remembered as “a man of integrity, justness, honor and pride.” He simply wouldn’t share footage that might embarrass an opponent, let alone a high-school kid.
That left an impression on Elliott.
“We were able to thank them for not making it a national thing,” Elliott said. “It really was a class act. As a young coach, that was a big lesson to me.”
Elliott said his team, which finished that season 3-6, didn’t dwell on the freak play very long. His players were happy they had basically shut out a tough Prairie team that had just upset Kelso, the eventual Class 2A state champion. Camas nearly knocked off Kelso later in the season, losing 13-7.
“Playing head to head with one of the best teams in the state gave us confidence,” Elliott said. “By Camas standards back then, we were pretty good.”
Elliott coached two more years at Camas, then spent eight years as Columbia River’s head coach.
He coached his alma mater, University of Puget Sound, from 1994-2001 before taking the reins at Auburn High. Elliott stepped down as Auburn’s head coach in 2017, but remains there as an assistant coach for his son-in-law, Aaron Chantler.
Elliott still has a soft spot for Camas, where he lived during junior high before moving to Kirkland.
“(Camas coach) Jon Eagle is a good friend of mine,” Elliott said. “He’s got one or two guys on his staff who played for me. I always follow the Papermakers and stay in touch with them.”
With two Class 4A state titles in the past four years, Camas has come a long way from the small, scrappy program that didn’t reach the state playoffs until 2003.
But those early days are still rich with stories and memories, including one that helped shape a young head coach’s career.