"Spartans of the Early 1960's"





By Dr. Ken


In the New York City metropolitan area, college football no longer had numerous local teams one could follow. Columbia, long removed from its Rose Bowl days and as part of the de-emphasizing Ivy League, played an acceptable brand of football that was certainly worth a trip to Manhattan to watch, but it wasn’t the hallowed Ivy quality games of a decade before. Fordham had basked in the glory of Vince Lombardi and The Seven Blocks Of Granite but had dropped football as an intercollegiate sport, as had Brooklyn College although their former star Allie Sherman had become the head coach of the very popular NFL Giants. Long Island offered games at “Small College” Division Hofstra and a relatively new and upgraded program at C.W. Post College. Most collegiate fans were ardent supporters of Army football although the ninety minute to two hour road trip to West Point was difficult if not impossible for the teenagers I knew. Bob Anderson, Pete Dawkins, the Lonely End Offense, and of course, the legacy of Coach Earl Blaik ( see HELMET HUT   http://www.helmethut.com/College/Army/armyindex.html ) made many fans close observers of Army football and some viewed Syracuse as “the State’s team” and thus knew the players and lived and died with the fortunes of the Orangemen. Army caught my attention early and years ago in a HELMET NEWS column I spoke of the disruption I caused in Pop Warner League football when I spray painted my white helmet a beautiful “Army gold” which clashed with the remainder of my blue and white uniform. However, I was taken with the entire spectacle of college football and often “latched onto” teams that seemingly would have no influence upon a New York area youngster.



One of those university teams was Michigan State. Because Big Ten football was seen as “top of the line” and often presented as the one televised college game each Saturday, I was familiar with the green and white uniforms and some of the better known players. I also had a “Spartan experience” that left me, after arriving at college as a frosh player, as one of the few voices in Cincinnati who rooted for Michigan State when they played Ohio State. One of my uncles became the owner of an upstate New York summer camp. These type of places catered to middle and upper middle class youth who would spend two months fishing, camping, hiking, and enjoying “the country” under the supervision of counselors who in some cases were not very much older than some of the adolescent campers. Food was provided as well as sleeping quarters in rustic “bunks” with occasional forays to the largest town in the area, Monticello, for a movie or a visit to the local ice cream parlor. My father told me that my uncle wanted to talk to me about a summer job but admonished me to “listen very carefully.” I knew my father was a bit leery of my uncle’s motives but I chalked it up to his relative uneasiness with almost all members of my mother’s side of the family. My uncle made me an offer difficult to refuse. My summers were split between work for my father and work for another uncle who was a chef. Both required a great deal of physical effort and hot, often unrelenting labor. In the iron shop and outside on any job I was a “mule” required to carry rivets, in the days that manual riveting was still done, up ladders. I did the “grunt work” of pulling the block and tackle, drilling, cutting with the torch, and moving heavy beams from “Point A” to “Point B.” My night job a few evenings per week and on the weekends was with my uncle where I was eventually a sixteen year old broiler man responsible for perhaps forty steaks and three or four racks of chops at any one time but I began my foray into kitchen work at the bottom. I washed pots, stirred huge vats of noodles or vegetables with a canoe paddle, and did a ton of the type of work I did in the shop as I was viewed as “the kid who could carry stuff.” My uncle had a proposal that seemed like I would have a summer in an exotic paradise. I would be a “maintenance man” because he was shorthanded, with time to arise early and run through the beautiful forest scenery, breathing the fresh and healthy mountain air. I would be called upon to occasionally fix a door hinge or perhaps hammer a nail into a board to repair the outside of one of the residential bunks. I could transport my barbell and plates and he would provide an airy, private, spacious “training center” for me with time set aside to lift to my heart’s content. Food was plentiful, delicious, and I could partake of the generous and upscale cuisine as often as my need to gain muscular weight required. I was told of the beautiful counselors-in-training who would be my age and who would no doubt provide wonderful company, and I could perhaps be emboldened in my approach to them due to my status as a “camp employee.”  My father rolled his eyes at almost every statement and at one point I thought they might fall out of their sockets. Despite his warnings that “its too good to be true” I bought the deal because anything that would pay me to do less than what I viewed as harsh, Industrial Revolution Era labor under my father’s watch would be a vacation.


Of course, my father was right. From the moment I arrived, I was the one called upon at 2 AM to unstuff toilets, pull four pounds of hair from the clogged drain in the girl’s shower, and as it was at the iron shop, carry and haul anything that was of substantial weight. My toil began at 6 AM and was unrelenting until almost 8 PM. There was barely time to run at 4:30 AM and dangerous in the pitch blackness of the wooded area. My weights were relegated to a storage shack that required me to literally toss everything out onto the grass in front of it and do a series of contrived, modified movements again in the pitch dark. If I was making repairs and did not arrive at the dining hall during very limited times, I would miss meals with no recourse nor outlet for a substitute as “town” was miles away and I lacked time and transportation. The moment I arrived, I was given strict instructions to “stay away from the girls” and the reminder that the well-off parents of “high class girls like these” wouldn’t tolerate the prospect of their daughters hanging around a maintenance man “like me.” Talk about a let down! Needless to say, instead of the two month “tour” I had agreed to, I left within a month but in that month, I met one of the male counselors and he played basketball at Michigan State. He also ran daily so I had a running partner. Best of all, he knew all of the Michigan State football players and had a matching set of genuine, white and green Michigan State home and away game jerseys. I always felt that this fellow might have become a psychologist because one day he approached and offered me the jerseys, “just to borrow, run and lift in them until you go back to the City.” The gesture was not only appreciated, it was a stroke of genius. My focus went from black, violent thoughts about the disaster my summer had become to visions of rushing through the line, leading the Spartan varsity to victory.


I already knew about All American George Saimes and my high school track coach who had been a decathelete on the 1948 Olympic team had mentioned the Spartans’ two-way halfback Herman Johnson and described him as one of the best track stars at the college level.



Football stars Clinton Jones and Herman Johnson were track greats too



 I learned that Ernie Clark, a future Detroit Lion, and All American tackle Dave Behrman were just as well known on campus as Saimes and Sherman Lewis, the other super back. I would become a fan of Jim Kanicki because my basketball friend noted that he was 270 pounds “but all steel because he lifts weights.” Kanicki of course played well for the Browns through the mid-to-late-1960’s and completed his pro career as a Giant. I would, as a freshman at Cincinnati, be perhaps the only one who could “talk Michigan State football” and note the superiority of their National Championship team of 1965, much to the chagrin of the numerous Buckeye fans among the Cincinnati football squad. I knew everything about the MSU uniforms (see HELMET HUT http://www.helmethut.com/College/MichState/MSUINDEX.html ).



I noted that the externally padded helmets of Michigan State were superior to those worn by Ohio State in part because “they’re more subtle, their padded insert isn’t as noticeable, its classier.” I was a fan of Buckeye All American linebacker “Ike” Kelley but it was the Spartans’ George Webster and “Mad Dog” Thornhill that I believed to be the class of college football.


I can look back and note that the generosity and insight that brought the young man whose name I have long forgotten, to lend me his Michigan State jerseys for a month of training made a tremendously positive impact, one that carried my own preparation for both high school and college football forward for years to follow.