Born May 28, 1949, Rex William Kern was a multi-sport star at Lancaster (Ohio) High School, achieving a rare hat trick by earning first-team All-Ohio honors in football, basketball and baseball. He had scholarship offers from a number of major college programs in all three sports, but wanted to play basketball at Ohio State for head coach Fred Taylor.
"When I was a boy, my heroes had names like Havlicek, Lucas and Roberts, and as long as I can remember, I wanted to go to Ohio State to play basketball," Kern said in the book What It Means To Be A Buckeye. "I had several colleges to choose from. I could have gone to UCLA to play for John Wooden or North Carolina to play for Dean Smith. Ohio University had a great baseball program, and I considered going there because they would let be play all three sports. I also was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics my senior season.
"Then Wayne Woodrow Hayes walked into my life."
The rest, as they say, is history. Kern headed to Ohio State with the idea of playing both football for Hayes and basketball for Taylor.
As a member of the freshman team in 1967, Kern and his classmates – including such future stars as John Brockington, Larry Zelina and Jack Tatum – were called the "Baby Bucks" by the coaching staff. When the freshmen scrimmaged against the varsity, that nickname quickly faded. The upperclassmen couldn't stop the freshmen no matter what drill they tried.
The following spring, Kern began running the offense in preparation for taking over the starting quarterback position. But a nagging hamstring injury that he had sustained late in his freshman basketball season flared up, and one day he could not get out of bed.
The supposed hamstring injury was diagnosed as a ruptured disk in his lower back, requiring surgery. He underwent the procedure in June 1968 and wasn't expected to be ready for that season's opening game just three months later. But he was. Kern threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third as the Buckeyes ripped SMU, 35-14.
It was just the beginning of a magical season. Although his back plagued him throughout the season, Kern missed just one game and directed the Buckeyes to a perfect 10-0 record that included a 50-14 pounding of Michigan and a 27-16 win over Southern California and Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson in the Rose Bowl. Kern was named the most outstanding offensive player in the game after completing 9 of 15 passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Ohio State won its first undisputed national championship since 1957 and Kern finished his sophomore season by throwing for 972 yards and seven touchdowns and running for 534 yards and eight TDs.
The following season, the Buckeyes were selected by nearly every college football expert to repeat as champions and the team continued to churn out victory after victory. Coupled with four consecutive wins at the end of the '67 season and the perfect '68 campaign, OSU won its first eight games in 1969 with Kern at the controls, setting a school record with 22 consecutive victories.
But somehow the team was upset in Michigan under first-year head coach Bo Schembechler – who had been a member of Hayes' 1968 coaching staff at Ohio State – and was denied a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl and a shot at a second national championship in a row.
Nevertheless, Kern earned first-team All-America honors for his play as a junior when he threw for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns. It marked only the fourth 1,000-yard season by an Ohio State quarterback at that time, following John Borton (1,555 in 1952), Don Unverferth (1,061 in 1965) and Bill Long (1,180 in 1966).
The Buckeyes were eager for revenge in 1970 as the "Baby Bucks" had grown into one of the most talent-laden senior classes in college football history. This time, they sailed through nine straight regular-season opponents, including knocking off No. 4 Michigan in Ohio Stadium by a 20-9 score.
But in a matchup against No. 12-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl featured another upset as Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett rallied the Cardinal to a 27-17 victory over the Buckeyes. Kern, who again battled through back problems all season, saved his best for last, running for 124 yards and setting up two Brockington touchdowns in the game.
When he finished his career at Ohio State, Kern had reigned over one of the most prosperous three-year periods in the long history of Buckeye football. The team had a three-year record of 27-2, a winning percentage of better than 93.1. Kern wound up with 2,444 yards passing and 19 TDs to go along with 1,714 yards rushing and 16 scores.
Despite the fact he was a first-team All-American as a junior, a team co-captain as a senior and one of the winningest quarterbacks in league history, ironically Kern never earned first-team All-Big Ten honors during his career.
His chronic back problems, size (6-0, 184) and questions about his arm strength caused him to fall all the way to a 10th-round selection in the 1971 NFL draft.
Even then, the Baltimore Colts – even with Johnny Unitas in the twilight of his career – did not want Kern as a quarterback. He spent all three seasons with the Colts as a defensive back, appearing in 33 games from 1971-73 and registering two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Baltimore also used Kern as an occasional punt returner and he averaged just over 6.0 yards per return.
After three years with the Colts, Kern played one season in Buffalo before retiring after the 1974 season.
In 1978, he was inducted into the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame and then joined a star-studded class in 1991 for induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Other inductees that year were former Southern Cal head coach John McKay and such legendary players as Ernie Nevers of Stanford and Roy Riegels of California.
Since his retirement, Kern – who later earned his Ph.D from Ohio State – has lived mostly in the Ventura, Calif., area as a successful investment broker, counselor and fund-raiser. He continues to be active in Columbus-area charities as well.
Last year, Kern received the ultimate honor for a college football player when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
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