Saying Goodbye to Some of Football’s Best

Football has seen a lot of departures in the last month, some from the field and sideline, and some from the game of life.

There is little that Larry Kehres, Jack Butler, Brian Urlacher or Chuck Muncie had in common other than football. The game was an important part of their lives, and allowed them to achieve lifetime highlights in their chosen professions.

Here’s a thought or two and good byes.

Mount Union coach retires

The name Larry Kehres likely does not ring a bell for most football fans, even fanatics of the sport. But Kehres (pronounced Care-Us) was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.

At Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio (hometown of Len Dawson) over 27 seasons, Kehres led the Raiders to 11 national titles at the Division III level. His career record of 332-24-3 produces a .929 winning percentage, the best in NCAA history at a four-year college. The two coaches behind him on that list are Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864).

Of course Rockne and Leahy racked up their victories at Notre Dame; Kehres did his at Division III, and his job may have been tougher and may deserve designation as the best coach in college football history. In D-3 ball, there are no scholarships. Players get financial aid, and at times that comes in the form of scholarships not directly related to athletics.

In most of the 21 of the 27 seasons where Kehres teams went unbeaten in the regular season and it was done largely with kids from northeastern Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania and a few others from say southern parts of Michigan and western New York. But the success of the program has opened up the map for Mt. Union. On the spring roster for the 2013 season, there are approximately 10 players from Florida, 3 from California, 3 from Georgia and even one from Alaska

That’s evidence enough that a program at any level that wins, is going to attract interested parties. Kehres teams won the NCAA Division III championship in 1993, 1996-98, 2000-02, 2005-06, 2008 and 2012. His record in the playoffs was 78-13. Mt. Union beat St. Thomas (Mn) 28-10 in the Stagg Bowl to win the ’12 title.

Vince Kehres, the Purple Raiders defensive coordinator and the former head coach’s son, has moved into the head coaching position.

Jack Butler RIP

Until a year ago, not many football fans outside of Pittsburgh knew the name John Bradshaw “Jack” Butler. Even within the ranks of the Steelers Nation, only the oldest followers knew Butler as one of the best defensive backs in pro football in the 1950s.

Butler reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year, selected as one of the senior nominees. Thank goodness it happened in 2012, because 10 months later Butler passed away. It happened last week, as he died in his hometown of Pittsburgh at the age of 85.

His was a remarkable story from its very first moments in football. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he went to a seminary school in Canada where he didn’t play football. It was only when he landed at St. Bonaventure for college that he found the football field. Four years later, undrafted by the NFL, he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive end, at all of 6-1, 200 pounds. By the second game of his rookie season, he was moved to the secondary and there he played for nine years, made the Pro Bowl 4 times, was an All-Decade selection in the NFL for the 1950s. He had 52 interceptions when he retired, that ranked second all-time in the league when he retired in 1959. More than 54 years later he ranks tied for No. 26. He played only 103 games, and no player with that few games produced that many turnovers.

“I loved the game,” Butler said in Canton. “I loved playing the game. I would have done it forever if I could have.”

Yet, it was football that killed him. His career ended with a severe knee injury in 1959. While recovering from extensive surgery, he got a staph infection and was in critical condition for some time. For the rest of his life he limped and had to deal with constant pain. Over the next 50 years he had many surgeries in attempt to correct the problem.

It was during that nearly half-century, Butler became one of the founders and leaders of the BLESTO scouting service, a position he held for over 45 years. BLESTO stood for the Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization, and it became the first such service in pro football. It’s still operating today. The BLESTO headquarters were in Pittsburgh, so he never had to leave his home town in the 54 years that he was involved in pro football.

Butler underwent a knee replacement in 1995 and that stirred up the staph infection and it reappeared every five years or so. He entered a Pittsburgh hospital in November and with the exception of a few days where he went home, that’s where he lived out the final days of his life.

He passed on May 11th.

Brian Urlacher retires

He said his retirement decision was instigated by his lack of passion in preparation for the 2013 NFL season. If that’s true, then good for Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher – he made a life choice for big-boy reasons.

But if his leaving after 13 seasons in the NFL has more to do with the supposedly insulting $2 million contract offer he received for the coming season from the Bears, then his decision came for the wrong reasons.

Urlacher made the decision that the Chicago offer was sub-standard. He made the comment that if Lovie Smith was still the head coach of the Bears, he would be playing another season because the team would have been more forceful in attempting to sign him. He came off as a bit of a brat in that time.

He obviously saw the light when other NFL teams were not knocking down his door to sign him in the weeks since it was apparent Urlacher wasn’t going back to Chicago.

Saying good bye to a player that’s done so much for a franchise is one of the toughest things general managers and head coaches must do as they shuffle the roster deck each season. Decades ago, Hank Stram had the problem when the great stars of the Super Bowl Chiefs started to fade. But Stram knew what they had contributed and couldn’t pull the chain on players that had reached the end.

Over his career, Urlacher was one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He came out of New Mexico as a safety, but was moved to linebacker in Chicago and rose to rank with the best in the NFC. Whether he played at the level of a Hall of Famer remains a foggy subject in my mind. I’d have to do plenty of research, but if I still had a vote, Urlacher wouldn’t be an automatic selection. His 41.5 sacks and 22 interceptions is a combination of production that few middle or inside linebackers have been able to produce over their careers. Only 3 other LBs had 40 sacks and 20 interceptions – Seth Joyner, Wilbur Marshall and Ray Lewis.

In three games against the Chiefs, Urlacher had 2 sacks and 2 tackles. Remember the 2011 game where his failure to handle a jump-ball pass in the end zone as the first half came to conclusion was caught by Dexter McCluster for a touchdown.

Chuck Muncie RIP

Two weeks ago, former Saints-Chargers running back Chuck Muncie died at his home in the Los Angeles area due to a heart attack. He was 60 years old.

That Muncie lived to be 60 was quite an upset considering the circumstances of his life at the end and in the years after his career in pro football ended because of cocaine. Selected with the third choice in the 1976 NFL Draft by New Orleans and the Saints new head coach that season Hank Stram, his time with the Saints was filled with problems involving alcohol, marijuana and eventually cocaine. Traded to San Diego in 1980, his problems continued there and he did several rehab stints with the Chargers before they eventually traded him to Miami. But on his arrival with the Dolphins, he flunked a drug test and the trade was voided. He never played again.

Less than five years after his final NFL game, Muncie was discovered by a police officer living in the area outside of Memorial Stadium in Berkley. He was unwashed and homeless. In 1989, he was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison after he pleaded guilty to intent to sell cocaine.

The stories about Muncie over his college and professional football careers are legendary among the coaching fraternity. Those coaches that handled him at the University of California, including then head coach Mike White, found out quickly that Muncie was quite an operator. On top of that, he was intelligent and earned a degree from Cal-Berkley in social studies with a minor in business.

Finding Muncie was one of the biggest problems coaches had; he was chronically late for meetings, practices and road trips. Famously, he was late for a meeting with White to discuss his being late for meetings. Ultimately, his time with the Chargers ended when he missed a team flight to Seattle. He admitted a few years ago that he was “a functioning addict” while with the Chargers.

His time in prison apparently changed his life, because he spent his last years working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, plus he started his own foundation to help at risk and chronically ill children. He reportedly did some great work in telling young people his story and how he wasted his life, career and money.

There’s no doubt he wasted his career. For Muncie to put up 9,025 yards in rushing/receiving yards over his 9-year career while being an addict speaks to how talented his skills were on the football field.

Muncie played 7 games against the Chiefs during his career, including the 2nd game of his rookie season, when he helped Stram enjoy a victorious Kansas City homecoming with 126 yards on 25 carries in the Saints 27-17 victory. In 1982 with the Chargers, Muncie threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to WR Wes Chandler in San Diego’s victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead.

In those 7 games, Muncie ran 118 times for 492 yards and 5 TDs, caught 26 passes for 231 yards and threw that one pass for a touchdown.

2 Responses to “Saying Goodbye to Some of Football’s Best”

  • May 26, 2013  - johnfromfairfax says:

    Thanks Bob for covering four different men and their impacts on the game. I’m not sure Kehres got the credit he deserved on his way to the record he established. On another note, Chuck Muncie was a beast on the field and it is a shame he squandered what might have been a HOF career because of his addiction.

    Perhaps this can become a regular feature on occasion to introduce readers to contributors to the game they may not have followed or know about. Another that might be popular are the where are they now segments that you’ve done in the past, partiularly regarding the old time Chiefs.

  • May 26, 2013  - ChuckXX says:

    When I see a story like this one I can’t help but think of our beloved Derrick Thomas who was a rookie in 1989. God we all miss him. If his story doesn’t convince everyone to wear a seat belt then nothing will.

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