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The Play that Defined Rex Kern of Ohio State

Buckeye fans love the game of football about as much as any fan base. They follow not only the game, but they are all over the entire game such as coaching, personnel and recruiting. Whatever is involved with football, fans like the Buckeyes know all about it. All fans know all about the quarterback situation since that is the most important position on the field.

But, going into the 1968 college football season, the fans at Ohio State probably had little idea what kind of player they had in Rex Kern at Quarterback.

If you’ve followed the game long term and are old enough, you will already know that freshmen were not eligible in those years. It wasn’t even about redshirting. A player came in and practiced, basically, as a freshman. Some schools had freshmen teams, and some didn’t, but they all practiced all the time.

Some fans may have seen Kern play in high school and they knew that he was an incredible athlete.

He was such a great athlete that schools like UCLA and North Carolina were interested in him as a basketball player. He was so good in baseball that Major League teams were interested in him and he was, in fact, drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.

He really wanted to play both football and basketball at Ohio State. After all, he had grown up dreaming of playing basketball for the Buckeyes.

Rex Kern wasn’t really so hard to recruit to Ohio State. He was raised in nearby Lancaster which is only about a 40 minute drive, and he did want to be the next John Havlicek for the Buckeyes. Ohio kids, in general, want to play at Ohio State. If offered the chance, most will jump on a scholarship from the Ohio State Buckeyes and Kern was probably not much different.

The mighty Buckeyes’ football program had fallen on hard times of late. Woody and his staff pulled out all the stops in the off season after the disastrous 1966 season when they had finished with a less than satisfying 4-5 record. They signed one of the top recruiting classes of all time led by quarterback Rex Kern, running backs John Brockington and Jack Tatum, and defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon. The class was big, fast and talented, but going into the 1968 season, none of the Buckeye faithful had ever seen any of them play at the college level and against college talent.

When the Buckeyes won the national championship in 2014 in the first ever college playoffs, people started comparing that 2013 recruiting class with the one of 1967. They were the almost mythological Super Sophomores. People still speak of them with an almost reverence, especially in the state of Ohio.

The 1967 season had been slightly better for the Buckeyes. They finished with a 6-3 record, but behind the trio of Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota for the Big 10 championship which was again less than satisfying.

Rex Kern and the other talented recruits played on the freshman team in 1967 and scrimmaged against the varsity, and they supposedly beat them handily. But, when basketball season came around, Kern was playing on the basketball team when he injured his back.

He had to have surgery during the summer before his sophomore season and it wasn’t known if he was going to make it back.

When I was in college, I worked at a trucking company and I was young and strong and seemingly invincible. Well, obviously nobody is indestructible and I injured my back when I went against company policy when loading freight. I hurt my back severely and I am still paying for it decades

later. Back injuries are serious and it’s hard to come back from them.

Going into the 1968 season, Ohio State returned senior quarterback William Long and Woody usually preferred experience over a newcomer.

But, sometimes you have to go with talent over experience and this was one of those times. If, that talent could come back from his back surgery.

However, when the 1968 season got going, Rex Kern was the starting quarterback. He had recovered and he was too good to keep on the sidelines.

There was a lot of other talent, but they were all mostly sophomores and nobody really knew how they would do against college competition in real games.

That would all change on September 28th when the SMU Mustangs came to town.

Things were different in many ways back in those days. The seasons didn’t often get started until late in September and most teams only played 10 games. Ohio State only played 9 games in the 1968 season and the very first game would open some eyes.

The young Buckeyes got off to a really slow start against SMU. The Mustangs came into Columbus with a game already under their belts. SMU had beaten Auburn already, 37-28, at Auburn. It’s said that a team makes it’s greatest improvement during a season between it’s first and second game and these Mustangs were not a bad team at all. They had a really potent passing attack led by record shattering quarterback Chuck Hixson and speedy receiver Jerry Levias. They were coached by Hayden Fry who went on to change the culture at Iowa.

The Buckeyes were struggling to move the ball on SMU. They even punted on a 3rd down from deep in their own territory just because that’s the way Woody Hayes was, old school.

Later in the game, with the score still tied at zero, Ohio State had a 4th down and 10 at the SMU 41 yard line.

Woody Hayes sent the punter, fellow Super Sophomore member and starting cornerback Mike

Sensibaugh, unto the field to try and pin the Mustangs back against their own goal line. Young and brash quarterback Rex Kern sent the punter back to the sideline and he had elected to go for it on 4th and long.

It’s said that Woody Hayes was having a fit over on the sidelines waving his arms all over the place and practically having a panic attack. What was this? Insubordination? Ohio State needed to punt the ball and Kern sent the punter back and was changing the called play. It was madness. If he failed, Woody would light into him and sit him on the bench and put senior William Long into the game, or fellow sophomore quarterback Ron Maciejowski another member of the Super Sophomores.

With 4th and 10 on the SMU 41 yard line, and maybe his career riding on it, Kern dropped back to pass. But, his first target was covered and he had to come up with another plan really quickly, or else he would be Woody fodder. He got heavy pressure from a couple of Mustang defenders and he rolled out to his right. At the 45 yard line, a Mustang linebacker dove at his legs trying to take Kern down. But, the athletic Kern did a 180 degree turn and kept running gracefully. His tight end, Bruce Jankowski, blocked a Mustang defender at about the 40 yard line and Kern was able to get past him and keep running. Then, he eluded another would be tackler at about the Mustang 33, and then a horde took him down at around the 26 yard line. 

Kern had needed 10 yards for a first down and he got 15 mostly on talent, heart and maybe a little fear of Woody Hayes mixed in. 

It was first and 10 at the SMU 26 yard line and I can imagine Ohio State fans in the stands turning to one another and excitingly yell something like “we have ourselves a quarterback”. I feel pretty certain that Kern turned any doubters into believers on that very play.

Ohio State went on to win the game, 35-14. This was no slouch of a team, the Ponies, they beat

Auburn, North Carolina State, 19th ranked Texas Tech, Texas A%M and 10th ranked Oklahoma. Their only losses came to Ohio State, 11th ranked Texas and 10th ranked Arkansas.

Kern and his teammates went on to beat everyone they played including USC to win the national championship in 1968 finishing undefeated.

The Rex Kern and Super Sophomore class would ride off into the sunset with a rather impressive 27-2 record and after achieving legendary status.

But, it may have been that one play against SMU on opening Saturday in September of 1968 that won  Rex Kern over to the hearts of the fans. In Columbus, Ohio or wherever Buckeye fans tend to be, Kern will always be a hero and a legend just like Archie Griffin and Chris Spielman and so many others.