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May 12, 2013

Time and Change: Rex Kern

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"You Win With People".

This is obviously the title to the famous book written by Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes. It is also a way of life that Woody practiced and preached to all of us as his Buckeye football players. It continues to resonate today with many of us, specifically former Buckeye great Rex Kern.

Kern is one of the all-time great Ohio State football players, who quarterbacked the Buckeyes during the 1968-70 seasons. He was team captain and the All-American quarterback of the 1968 National Championship team. The Buckeyes went 27-2 during Kern's tenure and defeated the O.J. Simpson-led USC Trojans in the 1969 Rose Bowl.

In something that has to be compared to a true "Cinderella Story", Rex met his wife Nancy at that Rose Bowl. Nancy was a Rose Bowl Princess who intended to enter USC the following fall. However after the Kern-led Buckeyes beat the Trojans, he persuaded her to enroll at Ohio State, and they married five years later.

Kern went on and played for four seasons in the National Football League and then returned to Ohio State where he has earned three academic degrees, his Bachelor of Arts, Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy.

I had the chance to speak with Rex recently and he identified one of the major changes he has seen in college football since his playing days, the NCAA rule which was created in 1972 allowing freshman eligibility.

"Today, freshmen are eligible to play before they even take a class at the university," Kern said. "I really believe kids need that first year to get their feet on the ground. It would provide them the opportunity to mature and get acclimated to the larger college atmosphere, their classes and study habits, all without the pressure to perform immediately in football on the college level. I also think it really affects their ability to get their degree.

"Ohio State has always cared about the education of their players and they really paid that extra attention to us as freshman to ensure we established a good foundation during our first year. I'm sure you remember what Woody said to all of us which was 'You're going to get a great education at the Ohio State University and it is my responsibility to see that you do.'"

Kern continued to recount the story of how Woody viewed academics for his football players.

"When the 'Old Man' took that on, you knew that we should go to class, we would show up on time, we would sit in the front row and we would set our watches on 'Woody time', ten minutes fast, because you knew the "old man" set his watch ten minutes fast and we had to do those types of things," Kern added.

"Woody had systems in place, through our assistant coaches, so that he knew when we had quizzes, he knew when we had mid-terms, he knew when we had tests and he made sure we were prepared and he made sure we got it done."

All of these measures were in place before the advent of the Academic Progress Rate (APR) and other NCAA-led mandates to put the 'student' in student-athlete.

"Ohio State has always had a great record on their graduation rate," Kern said. "After I was done and I was working on my Master's and my Ph.D, I did a longitudinal study on Woody's first 25 years on the graduation rate. Of the Varsity "O" players that played for Woody, he graduated roughly 87.6 percent of its players and of those players another 37 percent went on to graduate school. I don't know that any college or university other than the true academic institutions that can boast that and I don't think anybody can come close to that today. The kids are either dropping out or they are going to the NFL.

"So I see where the freshman rule really hurts the player. The average NFL playing career is about 4.7 years or less, so what are you going to do after those 4.7 years? Well, Woody prepared us for that. Our freshman year, we really had the luxury of time that allowed us to bond as a team and to get our routines and academics in order. I really believe it allowed us to prepare for our great year as the 'Super Sophs', as we were called in our second year, when we went on to win the National Championship."

One of the great stories that Buckeye fans may remember about Rex Kern occurred during the Southern Methodist (SMU) game on September 28th, 1968. The Buckeyes and Mustangs were tied 7-all and It was just before halftime with the Buckeye offense sputtering. The Buckeyes had the ball near midfield and had just failed on a third down conversion with ten yards to go. As Woody sent on punter Mike Sensibaugh and the punt team, Kern saw a look in his lineman's eyes in the huddle that told him 'You're not going to let the 'old man' punt are you?' Kern turned and waived the punt team off the field.

Rex remembered the elements of the fourth down play like it was yesterday.

"It was my very first game and we were playing Southern Methodist," Kern said. "Chuck Hickson from SMU had attempted 76 passes that day, which was an NCAA record back then, but our defense was playing well. I didn't throw 76 passes in a year back then."

"It was close to the end of the first half and the offense just wasn't clicking on all cylinders. I might miss a pass here or there and we'd miss a block or drop the ball. There were about two or three minutes to go in the first half and our defense was still playing great. I felt we were just one play away from breaking things open. Woody had already punted on third down earlier in the game when we were backed up near our own end zone and because of the number of sophomores we had, he thought we might do something stupid and really get ourselves in trouble."

The young Buckeye quarterback knew what had to be done.

"So, I called one of the great plays in college football, 'Robust Fullback Delay', that meant Jim Otis was going to block the defensive end and slide over the middle. He would be the only receiver. We have 10 yards to go for the first down and SMU blitzes their rover back and Otis has two linebackers covering him. I'm dead in the backfield about six or seven yards deep. The blitzing defensive back comes in and I have to scramble for my life. Before I can really get out of there, the guy hits me; I do a 360 pirouette, land on my feet and run for 16 or 17 yards to make the first down. I come out to a standing ovation. I guess it kind of endeared me to Ohio State fans, I guess being a sophomore and not knowing a lot.

"I was out two plays because I was either exhausted or I was scared to death because in a blink of an eye, I knew if I didn't make that first down, I would never play at Ohio State again. The next play, I hit Dave Brungard on a seam pass over the middle for a touchdown and the rest is history."

The Bucks went on to win 35-14, the first step in an undefeated season.

Ohio State fans remember the 1968 season fondly, with the Buckeyes finishing the year with nine wins and no losses, including victories over No. 1-ranked Purdue and a culminating victory over Michigan.

In that game, with the Ohio State leading 42-14 in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes scored and Hayes elected to go for the two-point conversion, which was successful, resulting in a final score of Ohio State 50, Michigan 14. After the game, Woody was asked why he went for the two point conversion, since Ohio State was leading 48 to 14, and Woody said, "Because they wouldn't let me go for three!" The table was set for an incredible Rose Bowl against Heisman Trophy winner, O.J. Simpson and the USC Trojans.

The '68 Buckeyes, nicknamed the 'Super Sophs', with sophomore players such as John Brockington, Leo Hayden, Rex Kern, Jim Otis, Jim Stillwagon and Jack Tatum were excited to prepare for the Rose Bowl. Kern remembers one of the first days of preparation that went down in Buckeye football lore.

"I was so lucky to play with those guys," Kern said. "We were all sky high to play USC in the Rose Bowl and I remember our first practice in preparation. We were starting our first practice at the French Field House. There was a foot of snow on the ground in Columbus and we walk in and Woody has the temperature set at 97 degrees. We're like, 'What in the dickens are we doing here?!' We get going with practice and break into our individual position drills. The linemen are hitting and blocking. As quarterbacks, we are doing more of our finesse drills and the running backs are hitting the tackling sled.

"Woody is sky high and says 'Let's get those quarterbacks over here to hit the tackling sled too!. Go ahead Rex, you go first!' Now, I haven't hit the tackling sled in over a year, but I fire our and give it my best shot. I hit the sled and fall on my left shoulder and I know I'm hurt. Woody comes running up and says, "Rex, what's the matter?' and I say, 'Coach, I think I've dislocated my shoulder.' Woody yells at head trainer, Ernie Biggs to check me out, when Ernie says, 'Coach, he's dislocated his shoulder,' Woody says, 'Sh*t!..Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t sh*t, sh*t. All right, no more work for the quarterbacks.'"

Fortunately for everyone, they created a brace for Kern's shoulder that allowed him to play in the Rose Bowl, where the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes defeated the No. 2-ranked Trojans 27-16. Kern was named Player of the Game.

Kern went on to four years in the NFL, but returned to The Ohio State University to complete his Masters degree and also worked as an intern in the athletic department.

"I'll never forget my first day of that internship, Kern said. "My wife Nancy helped me pick out my clothes for that first day and I was excited to get going.

"I was walking out of an office and notice the 'Old Man' walking down the hall and I said, 'Hey Coach, how are you doing?' I reached out my hand, we shook hands, but then Woody pulled his hand away and walked away. I said, 'Coach, what did I do wrong?' He said, 'I'm not talking to you until you go home and change your clothes.' I looked down and then realized I was dressed in Maize and Blue,"

Kern delivered Buckeye Nation, myself included, memories of a lifetime and experienced many himself. When I asked Rex about his greatest experiences in all of football, he told me, "Without question, I was proud to earn three degrees from Ohio State. But, it was the opportunity to make friends with all my teammates; the opportunity to play with those guys, every one of them. I have learned so much from them through the victories and the two adversities that we had. I have lifetime friends of my teammates and to know if I ever needed anything, they'd be there. It was incredible to play for Ohio State and a guy like Woody and the relationships were the most important thing."

You win with people and Rex won with people.

Some things will never change.



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