ELKINS -- The legend of John Bunch Jr. continues to live on long after he gained national notoriety on a Friday night in October in 1974.
Memories of the speedy small-town running back, known to his teammates as "Juice," are still vivid to many, even 35 years after cancer claimed his life and seemingly bright future.
"John was just a special human being, all the way around," said former teammate and close friend Mark Johnson. "He was probably more mature than the rest of us at that point, because he was focused on one thing, and that was to get an education. Football was really just a hobby for him, and he just happened to be really good at it."
The muscular 5-foot-10, 170-pound Bunch was one of just 12 players on the Elks' 1974 football roster. Known as the "Dirty Dozen," Elkins went 6-3-1 that season, finishing runner-up to Farmington in District 1B and claiming the first winning season in school history.
It was a brisk night in the Ozarks on Oct. 25, 1974, when Bunch and the Elks made history, turning all eyes of the high school football world on the small community in Northwest Arkansas. The senior captain carried the ball 38 times against the Winslow Squirrels and proceeded to run for more yards than any high school player had ever accumulated in a single game.
His then-national record of 608 rushing yards included five touchdowns -- on runs of 46, 17, 83, 39 and 32 yards -- and paced Elkins to a 74-0 rout. The historic performance came just two weeks after he broke the state record by amassing 441 yards and six touchdowns on 21 carries against Yellville.
"Our coaches saw that John had the ability to do it in the Yellville game, so they set out to break that record against Winslow," recalls Johnson, the team's senior quarterback. "After they realized he broke it that night, John's main focus turned to us and making sure some of the other guys got to play and do some things.
"John never made it about himself. It was always about the team. Matter of fact, the next game against Mountainburg, he went to the coaches and told them he wanted to take a back seat and let some of the other guys get most of the playing time. Mountainburg was playing us tough early, so we gave the ball to John a few times and were able to score and take control of the game. So the other guys then got to play the rest of the game."
Bunch went on to rush for 2,237 yards and 22 TDs on 223 carries his senior season -- averaging more than 10 yards per carry. He became the second player in state history to run for over 2,000 yards, following only Jerry Eckwood, who ran for 2,616 at Brinkley a year earlier. Bunch was recognized as one of Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" in its Nov. 18, 1974, issue.
Bunch's single-game record remained for more than 21 years, until Ronney Jenkins of Oxnard (Calif.) Hueneme High topped the mark with 619 in November 1995.
"John was a speedster, very fast," Johnson said. "And his running style was somewhat unique at that time. When he ran, his knees were jacking up and down, kind of like high-stepping, and that made him even harder to tackle. That's the way he ran all the time and at a very fast speed."
The game has changed in the 45 years since Bunch was ripping up football fields, but current Batesville football coach and athletic director Dave King believes Bunch's talent and style would be just as effective in today's game.
"He was very skilled, had really good moves, was very explosive with speed and power," said King, who was a junior receiver on that Elks team. "I have coached football for the past 38 years, and I can assure you that John was a special talent, no doubt about that. I would love to have a John Bunch at Batesville High School today, especially when we start football in about two weeks. He was a really good back, and he would be a really good back in any era."
A straight-A honor student at Elkins, Bunch earned an academic scholarship to Dartmouth of the Ivy League. He studied history and politics, was an active participant in church activities and was a running back on the freshman football team.
"John was extremely intelligent," Johnson said. "I really think he could have become our next governor or something even beyond that. John's main impact wasn't on the football field. His main impact was teaching people how to do things the right way and show them how important getting an education was. And it was an honor to play with someone like that and be around someone like that.
"He was going to be a benefit to society, I promise you that."
After getting injured his first year at Dartmouth, Bunch returned home to complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas and marry his long-time girlfriend, Aleta Joy. After graduation, he followed a long family tradition and went into banking.
His battle with cancer began in 1980, yet he remained positive and never ceased his fight. In 1982, he began law school at the University of Arkansas, where he completed two years before succumbing to his disease on Nov. 13, 1984, just 10 years after putting his name in the national record books.
Never boasting about his own accomplishments, Bunch is the only Elkins player to ever have his number retired, as his No. 20 jersey is still displayed in the gymnasium lobby. The school dedicated the football stadium, renaming it in his honor in 1990, and again when the new stadium was opened last year.
"John was the type of person that wasn't interested in making it all about him -- very humble, quiet and reserved," Johnson said. "He'd give you 100 percent on the field and he'd give you 100 percent in the classroom.
"I am honored to call him a teammate and a friend."
Sports on 07/19/2019
Print Headline: Best Ever! Former Elk piled up yardage in Bunches