Ten years ago, on October 27, 1951, a record football crowd of 49,000 pushed and packed their way into Princeton's Palmer Stadium to watch undefeated Cornell play undefeated Princeton. As the huge throng settled back on that warm Indian summer afternoon, it looked forward eagerly to a tight, exciting game between two powerful defensive teams and two volatile offenses—Cornell's, geared around the superb passing and T quarterbacking of Rocco Calvo, Princeton's, around its magnificent triple-threat tailback, Dick Kazmaier. What it saw, however, was one of the most memorable one-man offensive spectacles in college football history. It was a performance that ranked with the best of Red Grange or Tommy Harmon and which eventually brought to its creator, Richard William Kazmaier Jr. just about every honor a football player can win in one season.
Too small for football
Three years earlier few people thought that Kazmaier, then a scrawny, 17-year-old Princeton freshman from Maumee, Ohio, would ever amount to much as a college football player. He was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed only 155 pounds when he trotted timidly onto the football field for the first day of freshman practice in the fall of 1948. His narrow shoulders and slim build made him look like a tennis player who had wandered into the wrong locker room and had been tucked into a football suit by mistake. Back home in Maumee (pop. 5,500 in 1948), Kazmaier was considered a pretty good back and an even better basketball player (he averaged 23 points a game with a deadly one-hand push shot). But at Princeton, Kazmaier seemed to be out of his league.
"I tell you I really felt like the country boy I was," Kazmaier said recently. "I'd never really been away from home before. There were almost as many guys out for freshman football as there were boys in my entire high school. They looked so much more formidable, so much more proficient than anything I'd ever encountered before. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't get to play football at all."
Kazmaier did get to play as a freshman, but he didn't impress anyone. He started the season as a defensive safety man and third-string offensive tailback. As the fall progressed, he was dropped from the defensive team, but saw action for 10 to 15 minutes on offense in each of the last three games and bobbed up with a 60-yard touchdown run against the Penn frosh. Princeton Varsity Coach Charlie Caldwell brushed him aside as simply "too small for varsity athletics."
It was Kazmaier's experience with the freshman basketball team during the winter that finally started him off on his amazing football career. A terrier for detail, he stayed late after practice every day, working alone on his moves and his shots. The combination of hard work and natural ability proved to be a profitable pairing for both Kazmaier and the basketball coach. He ended the 1948-49 basketball season as the freshman team's leading scorer with an average of more than 17 points a game but, more importantly, he had a brand-new feeling of confidence and power.
"What the basketball season told me," said Kazmaier, "was that I could still come out on top, that I could still be a good athlete in this kind of competition. I was developing more confidence in all respects and getting adjusted to the campus environment. I had no friends at all when I first came to school, but now I knew a lot of people. I was a different guy when I went out for spring football practice in 1949."
Kazmaier was an athlete who always showed a profound if slightly humorless devotion to the mastery of any technique he thought made good sense. As a high school junior, for instance, he was taught a Frank Leahy passing drill by his coach (alternately crouching on one knee and standing, he would snatch up a football from the ground and then fake a pass in one direction before flipping it quickly to a teammate running in another). The drill seemed to work so well that it became one he performed almost every day during the football season for the next six years. Now in the spring the already hard-working Kazmaier played with a confident flair that had been missing the previous autumn. He threw two touchdown passes in the varsity's climactic spring intrasquad game and became a leading candidate for the starting tailback spot.
Tigers' offensive star
Kazmaier progressed rapidly after that. He started every game of his sophomore year and led the Ivy League in total offense with 1,155 yards gained running and passing. In his junior year Kazmaier was the offensive star of the powerful Tiger squad that swept unbeaten and untied through a nine-game season and finished the year as the eighth-ranked team in the country. Oddly enough, it was not until the Cornell game that year (1950) that he really began to feel that he knew what he was doing.