On November 22, 1969, a slaughter was supposed to take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mighty number one ranked Ohio State University was a 17 point favorite to demolish the Wolverines. This rivalry pitted the winningest teams in college football. However, the year before, Woody Hayes, the tyrant, legendary coach of the Buckeyes went for a two-point conversion on their last touchdown, making the score 50 to 14. How could the Wolverines compete in this battle? Did it matter that their coach Bo Schembechler was in fact a position coach under Woody years before, and now the enemy?
Nine men tell their account of that classic football event, of how, what, and where it happened. Once again, the underdog David again beat mighty Goliath. Their account dissects a multitude of stories within a story. Bo Schembechler, in no uncertain terms, was an obsessive, ruthless control freak in dealing with his young men during practices and on the field of play. In fact, he told them in no uncertain terms that he was going to treat them all the same “like dogs.” He was true to his word. His practices were brutal, physical, regardless of potential pain, and punishment. He rationalized that he was going to change their country club psyche into one of attaining and reaching higher unfathomable levels of physical and mental toughness. In fact, Wolfman Frank Gusich heard the NFL scouts remarking, “these guys practice hard.” Defensive end linebacker Mike Keller said “in many ways our games on Saturday were easier than our practices. “ Bo kicked, quarterback Jim Betts in the ass for dropping a snap from center during practice. Bo also ran after, slapped, and screamed at Jim Brandstatter thinking that he missed his block in practice resulting in the blocked kick. Jerry Hanlon, one of the coaches, told him that Jim made his block and Bo replied, “He needed it anyway.”
There was a time when All-American, all Pro, Reggie McKenzie was talked out of quitting the team by his family. Reggie didn’t quit, and became a dominating force at Michigan and in the NFL. When given an opportunity to play in an All-Star game coached by Bo and Bear Bryant, Reggie made up the story and said to Bo, he was unavailable. Reggie told me he was through with that son of a bitch. On another occasion, defensive end Cecil Pryor knocked a fellow teammate out of the boxing ring during a so called conditioning drill. Bo immediately jumped into that ring and confronted Cecil with “if you want to fight someone, fight me.” There are other countless examples of disrespect, physical and verbal aggressiveness during their U of M careers. Yet, each of these men today tell me how much they love Bo Schembechler and would go through again the abasement, putdowns, embarrassment and belittling by their Bo Schembechler. Their ambivalence of hate and love for this man was made clear.
Another story within a story was the individual players, insecurity, or lack of self-confidence about their ability to play on the big stage. Mike Keller was a big fish in a little pond, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He wondered why he was given a scholarship and hoped to make the traveling team at best. This All-American was drafted by the world champion Dallas Cowboy In the third round. Thom Darden, 173 pounds soaking wet, doubted his ability to play. After making a tackle behind the line the scrimmage, his confidence improved. He became Bo’s first Wolfman, All-American, first round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, and became their all-time interception leader. Tom Curtis, initially, a quarterback, fought the town crier who spread the rumor that he would not even make the traveling squad. Tom became the all-time leader in Michigan history for interceptions and attained two Super Bowl rings in the NFL. Tackle Jim Brandstatter also insecure went to the University of Michigan and didn’t become secure until he made a bone crushing block, resulting in a winning touchdown. Incidentally, Jim’s father was an All-American at Michigan State University, and his older brother, a tight end for Duffy Daugherty.
Thom Darden from Sandusky, Ohio, didn’t dare dance with a white girl, in that segregated community. His parents among everyone else would not have approved. Then he goes to the University of Michigan during tumultuous times of Woodstock, free Angela Davis, burning draft cards, burning bras and free love. Yes, Thom took advantage of his celebrity status with all the admiring groupie white girls. Thom Darden, Reggie McKenzie and five other of his Mellow Men joined by the Black Panthers in a campus demonstration, with their M sweaters actually blocked and closed down the engineering building to other fellow students
All these men, even with Frank Guich’s death of his father and welfare bound; Jim Betts alcoholic father and bedridden mother; Reggie McKenzie’s limited blue-collar father with community financial assistance on one hand, and on the other with Country Club ease for Jim Brandstatter, Fritz Seyferth, Mike Keller, and Tom Curtis came together as one. But, in spite hardships or financial security, they all exhibited mental toughness, will to compete, and not giving up, irrespective of the unreasonable demands made by their coach on the field. Witnessing the 100,000+ mass celebration of fans rushing onto the field of play after the final whistle that November day of the Wolverines victory, says it all. Mike Keller told me that he was exhausted and on the field for that final play, and if it wasn’t for the fans, protecting him, leading into the tunnel he would been trampled. These men all say, on that historic day, that they experienced their greatest joy, satisfaction, and oceanic feeling with their teammates and adoring fans.