HELMET HUT NEWS/REFLECTIONS October 2009:
By Dr. Ken
I have previously stated that the 1958 and 1959 college football seasons were especially memorable and meaningful to me. Though my full awareness of the professional game was blossoming, I still held the collegiate game closest to my senses of enjoyment, empowerment, and what I saw as a literal morality play of right and wrong. Interestingly, on October 31, 1959 one of my favorite players was caught in a morality play that involved what seemed to be all football fans, officials, and participants on the West Coast. Mike and Marlin McKeever were identical twins, High School All Americans at The Mount Carmel High School of Los Angeles, and certainly among the most highly recruited players in the nation. Inseparable, they planned to attend the same university and chose the University Of Southern California in large part because of the academic opportunities. Marlin’s statement that they chose USC “because of its high scholastic rating” was laughed at by some critics, but both eventually made the Academic All American Team, Mike twice, and they were solid students in their Accounting major. Without any doubt, they were both legitimate bad-asses in every sense of the word. Dominating and terrorizing opponents at the high school level, they were immediate starters for the USC varsity when their sophomore eligibility arrived.
Described as “glowering” by Time Magazine, the McKeever twins were team leaders in what was referred to as “a rib-rattling line that clears the way for T-Formation backs.” There was no doubt that the 6’1,” 220 pound weight trained brothers provided the engine for the offense. The hard-nosed style of play that every opposing player and coach described as “intimidating,” was something not usually ascribed to West Coast ball. Clark’s contemporary at the University Of Washington, Jim Owens [see HELMET HUT Helmet News for July and August of 2009 http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken69.html and http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken70.html ] was the more obvious example of eliminating the reputation of “softness” that West Coast football had been saddled with but the McKeevers were the best known battlers on the Coast and perhaps any place in the nation. After man-handling Ohio State to the tune of running up 301 rushing yards while yielding but eighty-four in a 17-0 win, everyone knew that the McKeever twins were not to be messed with. Stanford Head Coach Jack Curtice stated, “Those boys could go bear hunting with a switch and come back with meat.” Marlin agreed with the assessment and in an era where hardly any player made self-aggrandizing statements, just uttered the truth when he said, ”We get sheer pleasure out of football-out of knocking people down. It’s just plain fun.” Mike was a two-way guard, Marlin an offensive end and occasional fullback who was best known for his devastating play at linebacker. Mike had the additional reputation as the roughest player on any field he may have been on.
The season’s controversy arose in the October 31, 1959 game against CAL. Mike had been twice penalized in the ’58 contest after elbowing Bears’ quarterback Joe Kapp. He was tossed from the Stanford game for a similar infraction versus the Indians’ center Don Pursell the week prior to the 1959 CAL game and had unfairly in the minds of many, earned a reputation for dirty and overly aggressive play. As described by Time Magazine, in the USC 14-7 victory over the Golden Bears, “While Cal's Halfback Steve Bates lay spilled on his back, out of bounds, after an 11-yd. run, McKeever had piled on him. The play was over, yet McKeever not only continued his forward momentum but changed course towards Bates. He dived at Steve Bates with his elbow far extended, which hit Bates in the side of the face." Bates unfortunately underwent extensive facial surgery immediately afterward with the damage receiving rather sensational national dissemination. In another magazine account it read, “Last week in Berkeley's Cowell Memorial Hospital, surgeons operated on Halfback Bates, repairing the right side of his face, described by a staff doctor as ‘crushed in, distorted, flattened, and twisted by the fractured parts that hold the face in contour. Among the multiple fractures, the plate of bone that holds the upper teeth was cracked and the right sinus was fractured extensively.'" USC Coach Clark defended his player, pointing out that no penalty had been called and McKeever could not in fact, stop his forward momentum. The referees obviously agreed. He called the game Mike played “clean but aggressive” and stated that “A review of the films indicates no misconduct on the part of Mike McKeever. He played one of the greatest offensive and defensive games of football that I personally have ever seen.” Later in the contest McKeever was in fact ejected after elbowing CAL quarterback Pete Olson and opening a cut on the inside of the QB’s mouth. There was a firestorm of press activity and demands for an apology from CAL’s President Clark Kerr and Head Coach Pete Elliot that was in fact forthcoming from USC President Dr. Norman Topping who described the affair as a “regrettable incident.”
My information came from the coverage provided by Sports Illustrated and Time magazines and as a youngster, I was rather confused as to McKeever’s real or imagined culpability. My attraction to the McKeever twins came not only from their obvious ability and the overt toughness that was now under fire, but because of their involvement in weight training. They were among the early proponents of strength training for football improvement, an activity that was at the time, very much frowned upon by most coaches and players. The February 1960 issue of Iron Man Magazine had a lengthy article about their weight work and I knew this was one of the factors that separated them from their peers.
While I did not begin to train until the end of that 1959 season, my interest in any athlete connected to weight training was certainly high. Talented, tough, and strong because of weight training was a combination that appealed to me and laid the foundation for anything related to athletics that I pursued from that time forward.
Mike pushes an awful lot of weight overhead, 1959
That either of the McKeevers would be guilty of an egregious violation of the rules of the game was upsetting. I was relieved when a review was made by the AAWU Conference and additional perspective on the incident was provided. Commissioner Tom Hammilton stated that “It is unfortunate and regrettable that the boy Bates is hurt but the whole thing should not be tried in the press because it damages Mike McKeever, a fine boy.” Obscured too was the fact that the McKeever twins were stronger and tougher than most of their opponents and didn’t need to play dirty football to be dominant. The debate raged among fans and media types for months putting Mike, and for some, by association, Marlin in the middle. They continued to pursue their degrees and remained affable off the field, making humorous comments related to their social lives. Asked about dating twins, it was noted that they “fret mildly because they cannot find identical twins to date-'not even unattractive ones.'"
In time, the Bates Incident blew over and attention was instead given to the twins’ football prowess. In 1960, Marlin completed a storied college career, a three-time First Team All Conference performer who pummeled opponents on defense and proved to be extremely versatile on offense, including work as the Trojan punter. He was an All America in both his junior and senior seasons and an Academic All American in 1960. He added to his USC legacy as a two-time shot put and discus throwing letterman. As a pro, Marlin was the Rams first round draft choice and performed well on both sides of the ball as a tight end and linebacker. He was with the Vikings in 1967, the Redskins from ’68 through 1970, and completed a very solid career with the Eagles in 1971. Successful in business, he was deeply involved with the Trojan Football Alumni Club at the time of his tragic, accidental death on October 27, 2006.
Mike’s ferocious play earned him entry to The College Football Hall Of Fame even though he had to give up the game after sustaining a serious head injury during the 1960 season. The team captain who was seen by some in the public as a brute was a two-time Academic All American and as an All American in ’59, joined Marlin as the first twins to ever be granted such an honor. Also a track star, he alternated with his twin throwing the shot put or discus. Life after football was good to Mike but unfortunately brief. In 1967 he suffered what proved to be a fatal injury in an automobile accident after establishing himself well in the construction industry. He also endeared himself to many with his extensive charitable work. Mike’s children achieved their own degree of athletic success. His daughter Teri was a swimmer at USC, became the head swimming coach at CAL and was the 2004 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team coach, the first female to hold the position. His sons Mike, Jr. and John, better known as Barry, were National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award winners with Barry playing linebacker at Stanford. Barry’s protests to submit to NCAA random drug testing as a violation of his rights and those of other athletes created a change in mandated testing regulations which required the NCAA to specify the substances they were testing for. Barry it should be noted, tested “clean” in every drug test he took. Thus, the legacy of the McKeevers has lived on past the great play of the twins at USC. An award in Mike’s name is given to the Most Valuable USC player each season and for those who remember, the twins were ground breakers due to their involvement with strength training, and a ferocious style of play that truly separated them from most of their peers.