Ex-Cats

Mark Story: Three fun stories — and one poignant one — about ex-UK football great Steve Meilinger

Steve Meilinger missed the express mail package from the National Football Foundation telling him he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. UK athletics publicist Tony Neely tracked him down.
Steve Meilinger missed the express mail package from the National Football Foundation telling him he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. UK athletics publicist Tony Neely tracked him down. AP

When you are chosen for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, you are notified by express mail at your home. Yet when the National Football Foundation tried to get the good news to former Kentucky All-American Steve Meilinger in 2013, there was no one at his Lexington residence to sign for the package.

Getting Meilinger, who passed away Monday at age 84, into the Hall of Fame was a cause championed by UK athletics publicist Tony Neely. So when the NFF couldn't reach Meilinger, they contacted Neely and said "Help."

By late that Monday afternoon, Neely came up with a cell phone number for Meilinger's wife, Eileen. When Neely called, the Meilingers were driving home from visiting their daughter, Lisa Marie, in Connecticut. They had stopped for supper in West Virginia.

"I called, and Eileen explained they were eating — and asked if I could call back tomorrow," Neely said. "I didn't want to be rude, but I said 'Well, it's kind of important that I talk to Steve right now.'"

So it was Neely who got to tell Meilinger, a standout for three seasons (1951-53) at UK under Bear Bryant, that he had been chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame.

"Steve was so excited," Neely says. "That call was one of the highlights of my career in media relations."

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Meilinger inspired one of the most famous light-hearted moments in UK sports history. At Kentucky, the Bethlehem, Pa., product was a Randall Cobb-style jack of all trades.

As a sophomore end in 1951, Meilinger emerged as the favorite target of Kentucky's star senior quarterback, Vito "Babe" Parilli. He caught 41 passes and eight touchdowns while UK went 8-4 and won the Cotton Bowl.

With Parilli gone the next season, UK stumbled to a 2-3-1 start. To make it worse, the Cats' top two quarterbacks got hurt. With a Halloween meeting in Miami against the Hurricanes approaching, Bryant told Meilinger the Tuesday before the game he would start at quarterback — a position he had never played.

Still wearing the No. 80 jersey of an end, Meilinger ran for a touchdown, set up a score by throwing a 49-yard pass, moved back to end and caught a TD and led UK to a 29-0 victory over Miami.

In the next day's Lexington Herald, Ed Ashford wrote Meilinger "did everything but play in the band."

The next week, Meilinger again started at quarterback and directed UK to a 27-6 home win over Tulane — and "No. 80" also played in the band.

When the Kentucky marching band took the field at halftime, a call went out over the p.a. for "the missing musician." Out scurried a trombone player in full football uniform that included a blue jersey with Meilinger's No. 80.

It was a gag. Ashley Ward, then a 19-year-old music major from Louisville, was dressed like the football star.

Over 50 years later, Ward's son, a Lexington attorney also named Ashley, contacted Meilinger about that moment.

The younger Ward's father had passed away in 1984. Meilinger gave the Ward family a picture he had of Ward Sr. marching in that No. 80 jersey.

"That picture meant a lot to our family," Ward Jr. said Wednesday. "In getting to meet Steve, the bonus was, he was so gregarious, I loved getting to hear his stories."

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Many people too young to remember Meilinger as a football player recall him from his stint in the 1970s working with Cawood Ledford and Ralph Hacker as a football color analyst on the UK Radio Network.

Ever the storyteller, Meilinger "had a great ability to translate things happening then to a comparison of teams and players when he played," said Jim Host, whose company then owned the Kentucky radio rights.

Host said travel conflicts with Meilinger's job with the U.S. Marshals Service caused him to give up his UK radio gig after three years.

"What I hope people don't forget, Steve Meilinger was a phenomenal football player," Host said Friday.

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Meilinger played college football for Bear Bryant and pro football in Green Bay for Vince Lombardi.

Yet in 2013 he told The Morning Call, the newspaper in Allentown, Pa., that the coach who made the biggest impact on his life was John Butler at Liberty High School in Bethlehem.

"I quit school in ninth grade," Meilinger explained. "I wasn't going to go back, but Butler came after me. He talked me into going back to school. ... I owe John Butler a great debt of gratitude."

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