I could list any number of reasons why Rex Kern was one of my heroes while I was growing up. First and foremost, of course, was the fact that he led Ohio State to the 1968 national championship. Every kid I knew tried to emulate Kern’s swashbuckling style on the field and anyone who played quarterback in those days – whether in organized football on in the backyard – wanted to wear a No. 10 jersey in tribute.
In my years with Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I have become lucky enough to become friends with my boyhood idol. Rex graciously consented to write the forward for my upcoming book, “When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.” The book is already available online at most of the major booksellers and will be on bookshelves in August.
One of the many stories Rex told me during our correspondence last spring was one I’d never heard before. It concerned an injury he sustained during practice for the Rose Bowl date with Southern Cal and its Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson.
Rex told me that as the team was preparing on its first day of bowl practice, the running backs were having a tackling drill. The quarterbacks were not involved in the drill, he said, and weren’t paying much attention to it.
“But everyone was pumped up, we were going to the Rose Bowl, Woody had turned the heat up in French Fieldhouse to about 98-plus degrees and he somehow decided it was a good idea to have the quarterbacks hit the tackling dummy,” Rex said. “Fired up and not knowing any better, we ran over to Woody and got ready to hit the tackling dummy.”
Kern was the starter, so he was first in line. He ran the few yards and flew into the tackling dummy before promptly falling to the ground in a heap. Woody came running up in a panic as his prized quarterback was writhing in pain and asked what had happened. Kern told him he thought he had dislocated his shoulder.
“Oh s**t! Oh s**t! Oh s**t!” the coach yelled, causing longtime trainer Ernie Biggs to run over to tend to Kern. When Biggs confirmed that Kern had indeed separated his shoulder – his non-throwing left shoulder, thank goodness – Woody stood up, shook his head, sighed, and then in true fashion said, “All right, you quarterbacks. That’s enough of that for today.”
Rex said he couldn’t practice at all until the team arrived on the West Coast, and even then had to wear a special harness that wouldn’t allow him to raise his left arm any higher than a 90-degree angle. The harness took some getting used to but worked almost to perfection during the game – except at the end of the third quarter when Kern got hit on the shoulder, dislocated the joint again. But he ran to the sideline where Biggs quickly reset the shoulder. He didn’t miss a play and the Buckeyes went on to win the game, 27-16, and the national championship.
In the contest, Kern completed 9 of 15 passes for 101 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and added 35 yards rushing. No wonder he was voted the game’s MVP and later inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
MY TOP TEN BUCKEYE QUARTERBACKS
That brings me to what will be a regular feature of the blog – the top 10 Ohio State players ever at each position. Here are my top 10 quarterbacks in order. How does the list stack up with yours?
1. Art Schlichter (1978-81) – What he has done after leaving school haunts him, but the guy was a whale of athletic ability. He never won a national championship and was only 1-3 in bowl games, but Schlichter still holds the school records for most yardage in a single game, most career passing yards and most career total offense – all more than a quarter-century after he played his last game. You have to wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up had the Buckeyes been willing to throw the ball more.
2. Troy Smith (2003-06) – The Heisman Trophy and three straight victories over Michigan pretty much speak for themselves. Smith came to Ohio State with a tempestuous persona and somewhat checkered past and turned himself into a model citizen. Along the way, he also transformed himself from a runner who could throw to one of the most productive passers in school history.
3. Rex Kern (1968-70) – He wasn’t the fastest guy on the team and didn’t have the strongest arm. What set Kern apart was his sheer determination – a will to win. And win the Buckeyes did when he was under center. It is a common misconception that Kern started every game between 1968 and ’70 – injuries put backup Ron Maciejowski into the lineup on several occasions during that span and Mace deserves his due for that. But Kern was the undisputed leader and there is no doubt that the Buckeyes were 27-2 during that three-year stretch because of him.
4. Bobby Hoying (1992-95) – The benefactor of Ohio State’s offensive firepower in the mid-1990s, Hoying probably doesn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. After all, he does hold the school records for most career completions and most TD passes while standing second all-time to Schlichter in career passing yardage – 7,547 for Art to 7,232 for the so-called Hoy Wonder – and finished 10th in the Heisman balloting in 1995, the same year teammate Eddie George won the award.
5. Cornelius Greene (1973-75) – Archie Griffin got all the publicity, Pete Johnson scored all the touchdowns, and Greene was the fire that lit the fuse on the Buckeyes in the mid-1970s. He was the first African-American to start at quarterback for Ohio State and he was an electrifying blur of kinetic energy. All you need to know about Greene’s value to the team can be summed up in the fact that Griffin voted for him as team MVP in 1975. That’s how Corny came to be Big Ten player of the year the same year Archie won his second Heisman.
6. Joe Germaine (1996-98 )– No one ever squeezed more talent out of their right arm than Germaine. I can still remember the beating he took from Florida State in the 1998 Sugar Bowl. But he kept coming back and coming back, and broke a bunch of school records the following fall. His 3,330 yards that season ranks as the best all-time in Ohio State history – not bad for a guy who had to start his college career at the JUCO level because no one wanted to give him a scholarship to play quarterback.
7. Don Unverferth (1963-65) – A player whose athletic legacy has largely been forgotten, Unverferth was a strong-armed quarterback out of Dayton. As a sophomore, he ran for the winning touchdown in OSU’s 14-10 victory at Michigan in 1963 and then engineered a 9-7 win at Ann Arbor two years later. When he finished his career, he had set the school career record with 2,518 passing yards. The mark stayed on the books for 16 years until Schlichter broke it midway through the 1979 season. After his football career ended, Unverferth went on to graduate No. 1 in his class from the OSU Medical School and became a world-renowned cardiologist at University Medical Center. He died in 1988 and the Unverferth House on the university campus was dedicated in May 1989 in his honor.
8. Mike Tomczak (1981-84) – Mikey suffered from being forced to follow Schlichter as quarterback for the Buckeyes and from the fact the team seemed to underachieve during his tenure. Nevertheless, Tomczak was the catalyst for a couple of ultra-talented rosters that featured such stars as Tim Spencer, Keith Byars, John Frank, Jim Lachey, Cris Carter, Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman, William Roberts, Marcus Marek, Garcia Lane and Kirk Lowdermilk.
9. Greg Frey (1987-90) – This guy is never mentioned among the best QBs in school history because he is associated with an era when the Buckeyes quite frankly weren’t very good. Still, he remains the only player in the history of the program to produce three consecutive seasons with 2,000 or more passing yards. Also forgotten is Frey coming off the bench as a freshman for a 19-yard completion to Vince Workman late in the 1987 Michigan game, an important third-down conversion in the Buckeyes’ march for the game-winning field goal in Earle Bruce’s final game as head coach.
10. William “Tippy” Dye (1934-36) – Hey, the guy beat Michigan three times in a row. That’s good enough to make anyone’s top 10 list. He was also a three-time letterman in basketball at OSU and a two-time letterwinner in baseball. And how did he get the nickname? The answer comes later in the blog.
A big ol’ bunch of birthdays today include singer Tom Jones (always one of my mom’s favorites), former talk show host Jenny Jones, actor Liam Neeson, eponymous singer/songwriter Prince, professional wrestler Mick Foley, Dallas Stars captain Mike Modano, Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson, and comely former tennis star Anna Kournikova.
On Sunday, the birthday parade is led by Butch Reynolds, the former world record holder in the 400 meters and former speed coach on Jim Tressel’s football staff. Butch, who was born Harry Reynolds in Columbus on June 8, 1964, set the 400-meter record at 43.29 seconds on Aug. 17, 1988. It stood for 11 years until broken by Michael Johnson in 1999 at 43.18.
Also celebrating Sunday are former first lady Barbara Bush, comic legend Jerry Stiller, former comic legend Joan Rivers, singer Nancy Sinatra (Frank’s daughter), gravelly-voiced single Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”), actor/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes, former NFL defensive back Troy Vincent, tennis players Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters, and Grammy Award-winning rapper Kanye West.
** Here is the answer to how Tippy Dye got his nickname. He was born William Henry Harrison Dye, named after the nation’s ninth president. William Henry Harrison’s nickname was “Tippecanoe” – hence the shortened version of “Tippy” for Mr. Dye.
** Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese will step down next summer and his replacement may already be known. Dan Gavitt, son of Basketball Hall of Famer and Big East founder Dave Gavitt, would appear to have the inside track. The younger Gavitt is currently the Big East’s associate commissioner for basketball, and the only perceived hang-up for him is a lack of experience football-wise.
** Did you wonder what happened to Kelvin Sampson after he was forced to resign from Indiana in disgrace? Did he have to slink home to rural North Carolina and get a job flipping burgers? Nope. He accepted a position as assistant coach on Scott Skiles’ staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. Some disgrace, huh?
** If you had Florida outfielder Cody Ross on your fantasy team during the month of May, my congratulations. After hitting only .159 in April, Ross went 14 for 50 during May, good for a .280 batting average. Better still was the fact that 10 of Ross’ 14 hits during the month were home runs. He didn’t hit any in April.
** Remember: It’s never just a game when you’re winning.