Meilinger marched into UK football lore

THIS TRICK WAS A REAL TREAT

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 1, 2009 

The Kentucky Wildcats were off to a shaky start in their bid for a fourth consecutive bowl bid.

It didn't help that injury had created instability at the quarterback position.

After that happened, the idea took shape of trying the team's best receiver at QB.

UK football with Randall Cobb in 2009?

Yes.

But the above scenario also describes the situation for Coach Bear Bryant's 1952 Wildcats and star end Steve Meilinger.

That year, Bryant's surprise mid-season decision to move Meilinger to quarterback — a position he had not previously played — did more than turn around a sagging Kentucky season.

It produced a prank by the UK marching band that is one of the lasting moments in the lore of Wildcats football.

Replacing the Babe

The three seasons before 1952 are the gold standard of football at UK.

In those three years, Bryant's Wildcats — led by the fancy passing of star quarterback Vito "Babe" Parilli — went a combined 28-8. UK played in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls respectively, winning the latter two.

Yet with Parilli lost to graduation for 1952, the Bear found himself alternating Harold "Bunky" Gruner and former halfback Larry Jones at quarterback early in the season.

Both got hurt.

UK started the year with a 2-3-1 record.

The Bear was scrambling.

With Kentucky facing a Halloween Night meeting with the Miami Hurricanes in South Florida, the Kentucky coach approached Meilinger during the Tuesday practice that preceded the game.

"He came up to me, asked me to walk around the field with him flipping the ball like you do on pitch outs," Meilinger said recently. "We did that, and he said, 'Yeah, that's good enough.' And he told me I was going to play quarterback."

A junior from the blue-collar town Bethlehem, Pa., Meilinger was a standout end on offense and played some halfback, too. On defense, he was a safety.

Yet Meilinger had never played the first down of quarterback. When Bryant told him he was about to, "I almost died," he said.

Yet by the time he found himself on the field in Miami getting ready to run Bryant's split-T attack, Meilinger says he was not nervous.

"After the first play, I was just playing football," he said. "I wasn't in there to do much passing. I was a runner. And I knew I could do that."

Still wearing the No. 80 jersey of an end, Meilinger engineered a scoring drive from quarterback to get Kentucky on the scoreboard. Next, he returned to his normal end position and caught a TD pass from Herbie Hunt.

Moving back to QB, Meilinger threw a 49-yard pass to Clyde Carlig that took the Cats to the Miami 1-yard line. Meilinger ran the ball in himself for the touchdown.

By the time the game had ended, Meilinger had run for 82 yards on 13 carries.

In the next day's Lexington Herald game story, Ed Ashford wrote, "Big Steve Meilinger made Halloween Night a real night of horror for the Miami Hurricanes here tonight as he did everything but play in the band as the Kentucky Wildcats romped to a 29-0 triumph over the Hurricanes ... "

Everything but play in the band. An idea had been planted.

'Does he ever get a rest?'

The next week, UK returned to Lexington for a homecoming date with Tulane. With his parents, Steve Sr. and Anna, at Stoll Field to watch, Meilinger again got the start at QB.

In what became a 27-6 Cats win, the 212-pounder ran 10 times for 105 yards and two TDs. Meilinger completed three of four passes for 78 yards and a touchdown and caught one pass for 11 yards.

Yet it is what "Meilinger" did at halftime that had people buzzing.

When the Kentucky marching band took the field, a call over the public address system went out for the "missing musician."

Out scurried a trombone player — in full football uniform including a blue jersey with Meilinger's No. 80 jersey.

Up in the stands, Meilinger says his flummoxed dad turned to his mom and asked, "Don't they ever give that boy a rest?"

It wasn't Meilinger on the trombone, of course. Ashley Ward, a 19-year-old sophomore music major from Louisville, was dressed like the ballplayer.

"I didn't even find out about it until after the game," Meilinger said.

The next day's Lexington Herald credited the band "with the best laugh of the day."

Turns out, the prank has had staying power.

Link between families

The 1952 season ended with Kentucky beating Clemson, playing Tennessee to a tie and losing at Florida to finish 5-4-1. In an era before mass bowl proliferation, that was not enough to extend UK's post-season streak.

In 1953, Bob Hardy established himself as Kentucky's quarterback. Meilinger returned to end and was chosen a first-team All-American by The Associated Press.

He went on to play pro football with Washington, Dallas and Pittsburgh.

After football, Meilinger returned to Kentucky and worked for the U.S. Marshals. For a time in the 1970s, he did color commentary on the UK football radio network.

Ward, the man who "played Meilinger" for the Kentucky marching band that day in 1952, became a high school band director in Northern Kentucky.

He died in 1984.

The moment that links the two men has never totally faded.

My interest in the event began not long ago when the syndicated sports radio talk show host Joe B. Hall — I'm pretty sure he used to have some kind of job in basketball — called and asked me to try to find the name of the band member who had played Meilinger.

In the Herald-Leader micro-film, I found it.

Turns out, Ward's son, Ashley Ward Jr., is a Lexington attorney.

"Growing up, I heard the story about Dad and the day he dressed up as Steve Meilinger," says Ward Jr., 50. "But when you are a kid, you don't always pay a lot of attention to your parents' stories. Once he was gone, you kind of wished you'd paid more attention."

After a prior mention of the band story in the media, Ward Jr. contacted Meilinger. The two met. The ex-UK football great gave the younger man a picture he had of Ward Sr. marching in the No. 80 uniform with his trombone.

"To have that picture of Dad from that day, that meant a lot to our family," Ward Jr. said.

Meilinger, now a 78-year-old grandfather, is one of the more decorated football players ever to play at Kentucky. Sometimes, Meilinger says he frets that the football accomplishments of his era are totally lost in the mist of history.

Thanks to the day "Steve Meilinger" did everything including play in the band, his remains a memorable niche in UK sports lore.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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