Through the Trifocals

The football recruiting classes of 1961 and 1962 were among the best in Illini history. And many of those players were the heart of the Rose Bowl Championship team in 1963-1964. Illinisports reminds us of that glorious time.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned seeing an article in a restaurant from the "News-Gazette" dated November 27, 1963. And I wrote a basketball recruiting article based on the memories that single newspaper induced in me. That newspaper also had articles about Illinois' upcoming Thanksgiving day football game game at Michigan State to decide the Big 10 Champion and Rose Bowl representative.

President Kennedy had just been assassinated, and our game with MSU had been postponed until Thanksgiving because everyone was in mourning over Kennedy's passing. I remember that situation and game quite well. But I did not remember that football coach Pete Elliott had injured his knee badly enough in a practice on the Monday before Thanksgiving that he needed a cast on his leg. Yet in the newspaper on that restaurant wall was a big picture of assistant coach Bill Taylor examining Elliott's cast. I wonder if Elliott thought that was a bad omen.

Regardless, Elliott and the team overcame all obstacles, including an outstanding opponent on their home field to beat MSU 13-0 and claim the Rose Bowl berth. We went on to defeat Washington in Pasadena 17-7 as MVP Jim Grabowski ran for over 100 yards and Dick Butkus tried to push Washington ball carriers backwards at least that far. It was a heady time for Illinois football since almost everyone on the team was an underclassman. The future seemed bright indeed.

The juniors on that team comprised an excellent recruiting class for Illinois. They included Archie Sutton, Ed Washington, Lynn Stewart, Wylie Fox, Bruce Capel, George Donnelly, Gregg Schumacher, Bill Minor, and the incomparable Butkus, among others. But I had not heard of them when they were recruited. My first recollection of them was during the 2-7 season of 1962 when they suffered injuries and embarrassment as they struggled to develop into an outstanding team.

But one fine day in September of 1962, I came home from school to find the "Champaign-Urbana Courier" sports page filled with excitement over the 1962 Illini football recruiting class. If it wasn't our best recruiting class in my lifetime, it was still special to me because it was my first. I remember it so well because I reread that paper at least 100 times. I would still be reading it today except my mother eventually gave me an ultimatum to move my collection of old newspapers and magazines out of the house or throw it away. In a fit of ultimate stupidity, I threw it all away, an act I will always regret.

I apologize that a few names have escaped me over the years, but most are still fresh in mind. A big headline stated that 20 All-Staters had chosen Illinois, and it took two large photographs to show them all. One had all the ball carriers and quarterbacks. Actually, there was only one quarterback, Ron Acks of Carbondale. He was a high school All-American known more for his running than passing at around 200 pounds. Ron later was switched to safety and ultimately played for awhile in the NFL as a linebacker.

Acks was shown handing off to Toledo, Ohio, star Sam Price. Boy did Sam look great in a football uniform as a 200 pound running back! It was not common back then to find runners that big who were also fast enough to play halfback, but Sam was an outstanding prospect.

In fact, Price was so highly regarded that the 1963 "Courier" newspaper article announcing the start of fall football practice showed one photo of Dick Butkus next to a Stop sign, and an adjacent photo of Sam Price in a running pose next to a stoplight with the light shining on "Go".

Sam earned a special reputation in spring practice that year, not only for his fine ball-carrying but also for a play where he rammed into Butkus on the sideline and actually had the power to knock Butkus backward a little. Usually, Butkus tackles ended with the runner lying flat on his back, but not this time.

Surrounding Acks and Price in the recruiting photo were a number of halfbacks and fullbacks with outstanding credentials. Some were from small schools such as Eldorado and Staunton, and I cannot remember their names. But there were also five highly rated fullbacks in the photo, four of which I still remember. Fullbacks were highly prized at that time. They could not only run with power, but they could block, either as blocking backs or after conversion to offensive linemen.

Tony Parola of Hillsboro was an All-American, and Jeff Lundeen of Moline, Jim Grabowski of Chicago Lane Tech and Don Hansen of Evansville, Indiana, were all at least All-Staters. All players were required to play both offense and defense, but it soon became clear that Don Hansen was superb as a linebacker, and Jim Grabowski ultimately became one of our greatest fullbacks. But they were just two of many at that time, and there was no mention of Grabowski or Hansen being special, possibly because so many were special.

Lundeen and Parola did not have successful careers at Illinois. I don't think Lundeen lasted past the first year, and I believe Parola had injury problems. Hansen went on to play many years in the NFL, and Grabowski was a high first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers as they tried to replace legends Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor with Donnie Anderson and Grabowski. Knee injuries limited Grabowski's pro career, but he remains one of Illinois' all-time best players.

The other All-Stater photo included Sam Price's Toledo teammate Eddie Russell, a two-way end, as well as outstanding lineman Gary Eichman and Ed Silkaitis, a 6-7, 265 pound behemeth from suburban Chicago (Olympia Fields?)who did not finish his freshman year at Illinois. I am sorry I do not remember the others in the two photos.

This freshman team was not limited to just the players in the photos. All told, there were more than 50 players including walkons. I don't know how many were on scholarship, but there were some outstanding players. The late Fred Custardo beat out Acks as a quarterback and ended up sharing time as a sophomore with senior Mike Taliaferro for our Rose Bowl team. Taliaferro was later to play pro ball, and he actually competed with Joe Namath and Heisman winner John Huarte for a starting spot with the New York Jets one year.

Custardo was not as good a passer as Taliaferro, but he had exciting option-running skills. Some thought he should have been starting ahead of Taliaferro in 1963, but the team benefitted from Taliaferro's senior leadership. Still, Custardo played significant minutes each game that year. I will always remember one singular event in Custardo's career. He got knocked hard on one play as an upperclassman, leaving him lying motionless on the field. His mother jumped out of the stands and ran onto the field to check on him. That was the first and only time I ever witnessed such an event. Custardo was not seriously injured.

Another outstanding prospect was defensive lineman Dick Fitzgerald. He played significant minutes as a sophomore for the Rose Bowl team, and great things were expected of him afterward. Unfortunately, he flunked out before he could fulfill his promise for the Illini. After leaving Illinois, he was accepted at Nebraska and proceeded to receive eligibility and play for them. I have always distrusted Nebraska ever since. There was no level playing field, then or now.

I don't remember names, but some reserves on that special 1962 freshman team realized they would always be reserves and transferred to other schools. I remember one large lineman went onto a fine career at Western Illinois, I believe. There were just too many good players for everyone to receive playing time.

This outstanding freshman group combined their sophomore year with the juniors mentioned earlier to give us a nucleus of one of Illinois' all-time best teams. Taliaferro, Jimmy Warren, Norm Willis, Al Wheatland, Dick Deller, and Ron Plankenhorn were among the seniors who also helped considerably. I loved that team so much that almost daily I would write down their names by position, studying our depth through 5-6 teams of players. I was obsessed, and they rewarded my faith in them with an extremely memorable 1963 season.

One thing that is rarely mentioned about our 1963 team is that we benefitted from a rule that limited substitutions to three players with each change of possession. In other words, most players had to play both ways, and we had outstanding two-way players. Our linemen were not as big (or as fat) as linemen on some other teams, so they had more quickness and endurance and eventually wore down their opponents. Jim Grabowski and the quarterback were replaced by Don Hansen and George Donnelly on defense, and Dick Butkus was replaced by Bruce Capel on offense. But everyone else stayed on the field, and Butkus did as well when we needed a strong center push.

I really believe our 1964 team was hurt by the rule change that allowed two-platoon football as it eliminated our advantage. Of course, we were also hurt by the no-repeat Rose Bowl rule and the absense of alternative Bowl games for us to attend. It eliminated a big incentive for us to excel.

But we were still ranked second in the country going into the 1964 homecoming game with fourth-rated Ohio State. I sold programs that year, and I had sold 200 programs with 45 minutes still to go before gametime (I made $12.00 and got into the game free). Memorial Stadium was packed with over 71,000 fans who came from everywhere to support their special team. We lost that game 26-0 and ended with a 6-3 season, but we were still a great team.

Illini fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, and success has always been far too brief for my taste. But when success is near, optimistic anticipation reigns supreme, not only among the coaching staff and players, but also among the fans and media. Many people sensed the 1963 team was special long before it proved it on the field. There was this feeling of excitement that attracted fans from far and wide to the games. It was even apparent to the beat writer for "Street & Smith's College Football Yearbook" for 1963. Even though Illinois was 0-9 in 1961 and 2-7 in 1962, this preseason magazine called us the "darkhorse" for the Big 10 Championship.

The Illini football recruiting classes of 1961 and 1962 were as good of consecutive recruiting classes as we have ever had, in my opinion. And the 1962 class was supremely special to me. I am grateful to have stumbled across the newspaper reminder of that team. It is easier to face each new day after surges of uplifting energy and enthusiasm surrounding special memorable experiences flood our consciousness. It helps especially in the down times, as we use these memories to sustain us until the dawning of a new period of excitement and success.

Let's hope we soon have reason to develop new memories that will be as special to all of us as the ones from the early 1960's were for me.

Go Illini!
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