HELMET REFLECTIONS: XAVIER UNIVERSITY
By Dr. Ken
Even in 1965 I knew that Xavier University in Cincinnati represented everything that college football should have been about. They reflected what most college programs, and especially those college programs not at the very top of the national charts were all about. Many of these qualities would not only be unbelievable to young players and coaches, but not even conceivable! Simply put, imagine a university playing the equivalent of a Division One schedule where the head football coach was also the Chairman of the Physical Education Department and had full time teaching and administrative responsibilities; where the assistant coaches all came through the high school ranks within the state; where forty-seven of the sixty-one rostered players were in-state and most of those from the city of Cincinnati and of the fourteen out of state players, only three were not from a bordering state; where a lack of enough “quality players available” for two-platoon football guaranteed that despite the rules changes of that season, most players would continue to play both ways; where Saturday classes still required mandatory attendance on home game dates. With all of this, Ed Biles, the Head Football Coach, Chairman Of The Department Of Physical Education and the future head football coach of the Houston Oilers won, turned out professional players, and still insured that his players attended chapel services at this all-male Jesuit University. I don’t believe this could happen in today’s college football environment yet the Musketeers of X as everyone in Cincinnati referred to the school that resided in the Avondale area of the City, thrived on the field. Biles had the background to recruit well in the Cincinnati area. As a Reading native he played his college ball down the road at Miami (OH) University with teammates Bo Schembechler (Miami, Michigan), John McVay (Dayton, Memphis Southmen, N.Y. Giants), John Pont (Yale, Northwestern, Indiana), and Clive Rush (Jets and Patriots), all who became coaching legends. Xavier had their own 15,000 seat stadium but all of our cross-town rivalry games were played at UC’s Nippert Stadium, primarily because it would be packed with 25-30,000 area residents screaming their lungs out for teams loaded with former high school stars from the surrounding region. With the stadium at X holding about half of that, Nippert offered us a guaranteed home contest whenever we squared off with them. Their uniforms reflected the basic, down-to-earth values of their program, with white jerseys and pants, blue numbers and trim, and a white helmet with blue striping. Simple and unadorned, they had two of the best offensive players in the Midwest when we took the field against them in QB Carroll Williams and receiver Dan Abramowicz. Biles knew how to mine home-state talent and Abramowicz, later to have a terrific career with the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, was a typical recruit. He didn’t look like much physically during warm-ups, not at 6’ and 187 pounds. We had a player from Steubenville, Ohio where Abramowicz had played at Central Catholic High School and one from Weirton, West Virginia, across the river from Steubenville and one said, “This guy is great, we won’t stop him.” He was impressive on film but I asked, “Great or just really good.” Almost in unison the two Bearcats stated, “He’s great!” and he was, making everyone’s All Opponent Team just as he had made ours. The quarterback was Carroll Williams, one of the few out-of-state players Biles had on the roster, hailing from Miami, Florida. We had no idea how he wound up at X but I was impressed. About the same physical size as Abramowicz, he ran harder and faster than his 185 pounds dictated and he could throw. Even at this point in the mid-1960’s, it was significant that a major college team had an African-American quarterback although Cincinnati’s Brig Owens, later a Pro Bowl defensive back with the Redskins, had held the reins for the Bearcats for two seasons. Williams was in the top five nationally in a few passing or offensive categories and the passing attack was bolstered by the running of Walt Mainer and Ty Anthony, another pair of 185 pounders who were like the wind. The latter was the younger brother of Michigan’s Mel Anthony who had starred in the last Rose Bowl and both were quick, good, and out of Cincinnati high schools so all of our guys knew them.
The one player that impressed me was their fullback and linebacker, Denny Caponi. Not a big player, perhaps less than 185 pounds, he was everywhere. I always took note of everyone’s fullbacks, trying to watch and learn as much as possible. Caponi was more of a defensive player, often spelled on offense by Mike Junker, a fellow that a few of our players were teammates with at Elder H.S. in Cincinnati and the younger brother of Steve Junker, another Xavier product out of Elder who played a few years with the Lions and Redskins in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. Caponi was aggressive and often unstoppable. Needless to add, he also made our All Opponent team.
I had made the acquaintance of two Xavier football players at the Central YMCA weight room, located in the basement of the Elm Street building, typical for the era. On Friday nights, when everyone else was busy partying, I would hitchhike downtown and lift weights. As we did not have a real weight room, it was exciting to be in an atmosphere like the storefront gym I frequently trained at when not in my garage back home. In the early and mid-1960’s, you could purchase a tee shirt in white, black, red, or gray. One could not purchase a tee shirt that was emblazoned with one’s college football team across its front, these were provided only by the equipment managers. Thus, when two huge guys entered the weight room of the Y one Friday evening, my eyes must have stuck out; both were around 250 pounds, muscular, and wearing Xavier Football tee shirts. When they warmed up for the bench press, they kept throwing 45 pound plates on the bar. The went from 135 to 225 to 315 to 405 in those four steps and this was when a 400 pound bench press could put you in the top three places in almost any powerlifting contest in the nation short of the national championships and in any weight class. At 455, they were banging out reps! Other than some of the hard-core lifters in the New York City area or my visits to York Barbell’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, I hadn’t seen anything quite like this. They had nodded towards me in the almost empty room, typical for 8 PM on a Friday evening, when they entered and perhaps took notice of my sweatshirt. Every player had upon reporting to camp, been given a red, black, or white sweatshirt with a cartoon type depiction of a bearcat wearing a tattered football jersey, the number 89 on the bearcat’s jersey (and I never did know why that number had been selected by the artist) and in bold letters, CINCINNATI FOOTBALL. We all cherished those sweatshirts because it gave you notoriety on campus and off, something to where when returning home for Christmas vacation that indicated that you truly were on the football team at school. They finished their bench press and moved on to another exercise. I was squatting and they asked if I needed a spot. I was flattered that these monsters would even notice me and we spoke. After introductions and names that are now long forgotten, we spoke of our prospects for next season as friendly rivals. Like me, they were among the very few who lifted weights seriously if at all and they planned to come to the Y every few weeks to do so. They spoke of Caponi and the others and noted, more than anything else, that Caponi embodied a will to win that reflected the Xavier spirit. These two players made a huge impression upon me because they were among the first football players I had witnessed that literally threw big weights around like play toys and were serious about it. I have noted in a previous article, written for a strength training publication, that I made sure to obtain an Xavier Football tee shirt that I trained in for years, a reminder that I had to work as hard as possible because of the way this team played and approached the game. The simplicity of their blue and white uniforms was also a reminder that I carried with me as a high school coach, that it was an emphasis on the basics that wins and brings success, not “dressing up” the product. I was saddened when Xavier dropped their football program, a victim of escalating economics because they embodied so many of the things that were right about the game!