Speed to burn
The Allies won the war, and the world began to heal in fits and starts. President Harry S. Truman argued in Congress that sending economic and military aid to democratic nations was an imperative of the United States. On the homefront, citizens of McMinnville voted down a plan to annex a section of territory surrounding the city, from Baker Creek Road to County Road 449, from the junction of Lafayette Highway and Highway 99W to Old Sheridan Road and Western Avenue.
It was in an environment of cataclysmic change that Hal Cuffel, a 1947 graduate of McMinnville High School and 2014 inductee into the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame, completed his high school education. Born in Rochester, Minn., in 1929, Cuffel and his parents moved to McMinnville in 1939 and he began his high school career four years later.
He participated in a number of disciplines as a Grizzly and excelled in many. Cuffel became a member of student government as a freshman and rose to become student body president his senior year. He played percussion and saxophone in the MHS band. He won the O’Malley Award for outstanding academic achievement as a senior.
In interscholastic competition, Cuffel was a four-sport athlete with varsity-level bona fides in each.
“Football is his greatest game, and the one he loves to play,” the McMinnville Telephone Register noted in a June 12, 1947 profile. “McMinnville fans will not soon forget his brilliant, driving runs.”
Athletes came in different shapes and sizes 70 years ago – the Telephone Register boasted of a Mac High offensive line that averaged 175 pounds – but Cuffel was a unique case even in this environment. He stood 5-foot-6 and 163 pounds, with blond hair and spectacles, stocky and studious in appearance.
His greatest athletic gift was his speed, and with it he propelled McMinnville football to great heights. Cuffel led the Tualatin-Yamhill Valley League in rushing yards as a senior halfback and was unanimously crowned Most Valuable Player for the 1946 season.
Cuffel was a natural focal point in the Wing-T offense of Grizzlies coach Orile Robbins, whose scheme earned him raised eyebrows and questions from detractors. (Sixty-seven years later, Robin Hill brought his wing-T offense to McMinnville football and made the OSAA Class 6A state playoffs.) Robbins took over a squad that won a single game in 1943 and five games in 1944; the coach of the ’44 team, Hal Smith, left McMinnville to join the military. Cuffel was a vital component in winning TYV League championships 1945 and 1946 and earning state playoff berths in each of those seasons, the first time Mac High teams had achieved either in consecutive seasons.
“He is one of the smartest and runners and ball carriers I’ve ever coached,” Robbins told the Telephone Register. “(He) follows his interference well, and is fine to work with. He ‘puts out’ at all times, whether in a practice scrimmage or a championship game.”
Cuffel was a three-year letterman for the varsity baseball team and a sprinter in track, running the 100-, 220- and 440-yard races for the Grizzlies. He started at guard for the McMinnville varsity basketball team for two seasons, both of which resulted in state playoff berths. “In basketball, his sheer determination and ‘everlasting scrap’ make up for any lack of ability to play the sport,” said Robbins, also his basketball coach.
He also appears to have had an imperious streak not uncommon in high school football to this day. “He also loved to score touchdowns against Newberg,” the Telephone Register noted, “’and then laugh.’”
McMinnville rolled through the 1946 regular season, defeating Tigard, 41-0, and carving up Newberg, 33-6, among other triumphs. (Cuffel scored two touchdowns against Newberg; presumably, he laughed at least twice.) The Grizzlies were voted into a state playoff game, where they were to face the Eugene High School Axemen on Nov. 15, 1946.
It was a closely contested game on the scoreboard, but, as the Eugene Register-Guard noted, “McMinnville … displayed a great proficiency at breaking backfield men away for long gains both around the Eugene ends and through the middle.” The Grizzlies would rack up 286 yards to 171 from the Axemen.
However, it was Eugene that led 7-0 after three quarters and put pressure on McMinnville. With 1 minute, 30 seconds left in the game, the Grizzlies engineered a drive on the ground that included a 23-yard run by Cuffel to the Eugene 1-yard line. Cuffel punched the ball in on a rush over his left guard, and Phil Polachek’s extra point tied the game. By dint of first downs – the Grizzlies accumulated 13 to Eugene’s four – McMinnville ascended to the state semifinal game.
To the sure dismay of the hometown faithful, the Grant High School Generals bottled up the Grizzlies the next week. Grant won a 20-0 contest on a “gooey, muddy and slippery terrain,” the McMinnville News-Reported told its readers. “The Grant outfit outweighed the McMinnville players and dominated most of the play.”
After high school, Cuffel matriculated to the University of Oregon and joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and the Webfoots football team, coached by Jim Aiken. The McMinnville boy struggled to gain traction on a depth chart that included George Bell, Woodley Lewis, Johnny McKay and Jim Aiken, Jr.; he would stick it out for three years. Cuffel was on the roster when Oregon participated in the 1949 Cotton Bowl, a 21-13 loss to Southern Methodist University; he did not record a statistic.
Cuffel graduated from UO with a degree of history in 1951 and returned to McMinnville. He married the former Beverly Withycombe in June of that year; the couple had two boys, Curtis and Stephen. He gained employment with the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States – now known as AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company – and rose to the level of district manager.
On April 14, 1959, at the age of 29, Cuffel passed away at a hospital in Portland. No cause of death was listed in his record or in an obituary provided to the News-Register.