College Football 2011: The 10 Most Underrated Players of the Past 50 Years
The past five decades have seen the growth of media attention concerning sports.
Television, in particular, has been kind to college football. Multiple contests are available for viewing each week during the fall season.
Cable and satellite provide channels featuring highlights from games of national interest that were played in previous years.
Viewers can be treated to in-depth reports of featured players from long ago like Vince Young, Adrian Peterson or even someone from the previous century like Charles Woodson or Peyton Manning.
You know, the ancient ones who used to be great in the far distant time of 2004 or 1997?
Hidden in the shadows of only the past 50 years we discover forgotten names and impressive performances that deserve to receive recognition and praise.
Among the most outstanding, but hardly unappreciated, is Terry Baker of Oregon State (see photo).
Baker won the Heisman Trophy in 1962 and four months later led his basketball team from the point guard position to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
Terry overcame many obstacles in his life; the path for a young man coming from a "broken home" environment has never been a stroll down the yellow brick road.
Admired as he was, Terry received his acclaim during the era in America known as "Camelot."
But what of the other great stars whose accomplishments on the field have been swallowed by the layers of time? Someone that has no life story told in print or has not been the subject of any flashback series?
Who carries the torch to keep warm the memory of those forgotten stars from days gone by?
The following is a peek into that world of 10 such men.
The 1960s: Lance Alworth, the Best Player You Never Saw
Lance Alworth (pictured) was born in Texas, raised in Mississippi and played college football at Arkansas from 1959 through 1961.
Razorbacks head coach Frank Broyles utilized Alworth's gift of speed, and his nearly supernatural ability to "cut on a dime," from the position of halfback.
During Alworth's three-year varsity career (freshmen were ineligible to play major college football prior to 1972) the Hogs won 25 and lost eight. Lance had his best success against schools located in states where he had not lived.
The Razorbacks lost three times to Mississippi (where he grew up) and twice to the University of Texas (where he was born). Those opponents were no slouches in that era, combining for a 55-8 record.
Arkansas went to bowl games each of young Alworth's three years of varsity ball in Fayetteville. First the Gator Bowl, then the Cotton Bowl and finally coming just short of derailing eventual national champion Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The schedule for televising college football during this era generally included only a single game, to be played early on Saturday afternoon.
Due this limited situation, Alworth's exposure to the rest of the nation was restricted to bowl games and one nationally covered regular-season contest with Ole Miss.
As a Razorback, Lance showed glimmers of the pass-catching ability that would propel him to become one of the greatest receivers of all time in professional football.
His uncanny ability to run like the wind made Alworth the most talked-about player south of Syracuse, New York during the 1961 season.
1961 was the year Ernie Davis of Syracuse won the Heisman Trophy.
Davis, totally deserving of the prize, was the first African American to capture the award and the celebration was covered in great detail by the press.
Within a year the unfortunate Davis would be diagnosed with an incurable disease, and pass away in 1963.
Lance Alworth went on to become a star among stars in the professional game, leaving behind the legacy of the best player ever to play football at Arkansas.
The best player you never saw.
The 1960s: Johnny Roland, the Hammer and Tong of the Show-Me State
Johnny Roland is a Texas native who traveled to Missouri for his college education.
He was a tireless athlete with incredible ability, superior size, shocking speed and enormous hands.
Standing nearly 6'3" and tipping the scales at a powerful 227 pounds, Roland lettered for the Tigers in 1962, '64 and '65, earning an All-Big Eight Conference selection each season.
In the mid-'60s, the presence of the "two-way player" had faded from campus. However, Johnny Roland established himself as a star on offense, defense and the kicking team.
Demonstrating unequaled skill as a halfback and receiver on offense, Johnny was recognized as one of the finest offensive players in the nation.
On defense, he had no equal. He was considered the finest defensive back in college football.
Adding to his acclaim, Roland was regarded as the premier kickoff and punt return specialist in the country.
Johnny led Missouri in rushing and scoring in 1962, in punt returns in 1964 and '65, in kickoff returns in 1962 and '64 and in interceptions in 1965.
During his sophomore year of 1962 he led the Big Eight Conference in scoring and was a unanimous All-American in 1965. Johnny also was elected as team captain for his final season.
Absent from the laudable achievements listed previously is the year of 1963, the season that was to be Johnny's junior year.
The actions of young Roland in 1963 left him booted out of school, but he eventually re-earned the respect of his teammates and Tigers head coach Dan Devine.
Thought to have stolen a pair of tires, Roland told a weak story of swapping tires with a teammate. Coach Devine suspected Roland was protecting someone else and taking the blame for the action to keep the other person out of trouble.
Unable to get to the bottom of the situation, Devine was forced to boot Johnny off the team and out of school.
Not one to crawl back home defeated, Roland moved to Kansas City and began work. He supported himself with an ordinary job in 1963.
Over the course of the next 12 months, information concerning the tire situation surfaced, which enabled Dan Devine to go visit Kansas City and ask Johnny to return to school and the team.
Although such youthful chivalry and codes of honor now seem passé, Johnny Roland is viewed as a man who does not turn on friends regardless of the personal consequences.
In Roland's final college game (pictured), he led the Tigers to a 20-0 lead going into the fourth quarter against quarterback Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators in the 1965 season Sugar Bowl.
Big No. 23 even found time to throw a touchdown pass in the first half to Tigers teammate Earl Denny
Spurrier led a furious fourth-quarter assault that eventually cut the margin of victory for the Tigers down to 20-18 but, Roland's constant dogging of Florida All-American receiver Charlie Casey kept the Gators out of the end zone as time ran out.
And lest you believe Roland may have been some kind of "flame out" professionally, he was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1966.
Following his retirement as a player in the 1970s, Roland would go on to coach running backs for over 30 years. He followed his college mentor, Dan Devine, to Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers.
Later, he was the position coach for Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Jerome Bettis among other notables in the professional ranks.
Roland's fearsome rushing attack philosophy is best recognized from his work as the running backs coach of the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s.
Under Johnny's direction the Bears led the NFL in rushing four consecutive years and his ground attack was the backbone of "'Da Bears" in 1985, one of the most powerful teams in the history of professional football.
Johnny Roland is a man among men to remember.
The 1970s: Mark Harmon, the Perfect Man Brings Down the Perfect Team
Mark Harmon (pictured) played quarterback at UCLA during his junior and senior years of 1972 and '73. His freshman and sophomore seasons were spent at nearby Pierce Junior College, where he was awarded All-American honors.
When Mark arrived on campus at UCLA he was known only as someone related to the famous celebrities Tom Harmon (father) and Rick Nelson (brother-in-law).
Young Harmon was listed as a very ordinary 6'0", 180 pounds and had to prove himself to Bruins head coach Pepper Rodgers.
Coach Rodgers had an innovative mind, steeped in college football lore and experience.
A former quarterback for the legendary Bobby Dodd and position coach Frank Broyles at Georgia Tech, the highly regarded Pepper later blazed his own trail as an assistant, soaking up knowledge across the nation.
In the 1965 season Rodgers was on coach Tommy Prothro's staff at UCLA. The Bruins had a sophomore quarterback named Gary Beban who led them to a Rose Bowl victory over No. 1-ranked Michigan State.
When Pepper looked at Mark Harmon he did not see the rock 'n' roll star brother-in-law or the Heisman Trophy winning parent, the coach saw a player of nearly identical size and frame to Beban, with the same great leadership qualities burning in his eyes.
Coach Rodgers installed the wishbone offense and trusted Mark Harmon as the starting quarterback to make the key reads of turning upfield, pitching or handing off.
The opponent in UCLA's opening game would be a challenge—two-time defending national champion Nebraska, undefeated in 32 games.
With Mark Harmon operating the wishbone at top efficiency the Bruins took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Harmon was driving the mighty Cornhuskers silly with his superb reads and running ability while finding time to toss a 46-yard touchdown pass.
The one and only Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated wrote a summary of the contest the following week:
Harmon ran for a touchdown to put UCLA ahead 17-10 going into the fourth quarter. So Nebraska fussed around and tied the game again. Which meant that it was Harmon's turn once more...UCLA was in a drive to win and Nebraska…was hoping, by now, to salvage something with a tie (there was no overtime in the 1970s).
Mark Harmon was not finished. He relentlessly drove the Bruins down the field, fighting the awesome Cornhuskers defense as well as the ever-expiring clock.
What it came to was third down and 11 yards to go at the Nebraska 33, and very little time remaining. Harmon went back to pass from UCLA's new Wishbone, squirmed in the midst of a furious Nebraska rush, turned one way, then another, and suddenly fired as sharp a pass as any quarterback ever threw to his tight end, Jack Lassner, who was cutting across the middle of the secondary. Thirteen yards. First down. New Life. Down close.
Pepper Rodgers called upon kicker Efren Herrera.
Down went the team that did not know how to lose, 20-17.
The Bruins completed the '72 season ranked No. 17 nationally with a record of 8-3. Harmon rushed for 444 yards, ran for seven touchdowns and passed for another six scores.
UCLA finished the 1973 season with a 9-2 record and a No. 9 ranking. Mark ran for 532 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards a carry, for a team that scored over 50 points on six occasions.
For comparison's sake, the much-heralded running quarterback of the 1983 Nebraska juggernaut, Turner Gill, rushed for 531 yards and averaged 4.9 per carry during the Cornhuskers' spectacular 12-1 season.
Looks like the man voted "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1986 knew something about football as well.
The 1970s: Walter Packer, Hard Work and Determination Leads to Success
Walter Packer (pictured) was a running back at Mississippi State from 1973 to '76. An athlete with incredibly quick feet, Packer held the record for most rushing yards by a Bulldog for nearly 30 years.
Packer was a two-time All-SEC performer for Mississippi State and had his biggest games in the toughest environments.
Walter was an All-State football performer during his high school days in Mississippi. He was known among college recruiters for being able to make sharp cuts while blowing by defenders with speed.
When he enrolled in Starkville there were raised eyebrows among onlookers. "He says he is 5'10" 170 so he had better be able to run fast," wrote Bo Augustly, contributor for the New Orleans-based tip sheet Gridiron Gazette.
And fast he was.
In many ways, Walter was an SEC version of 1965 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett of Southern California. Both had a shiftiness when surrounded by the defense and possessed enormous bursts of speed. They were also similar in size.
And like Garrett, Packer had to work hard to overcome notions concerning the role of a smaller back.
Through his determination and hard work Packer became the Bulldogs' go-to back in short-yardage situations. This ability complemented his great speed in the open field.
In the 1974 Sun Bowl, Packer rushed for a career-best 183 yards and two touchdowns as Mississippi State whipped UNC, 26-24.
"The Sun Bowl was very interesting," said Packer. "We had never really played in bad weather with snow piled up on the sidelines. But we had a great game plan and executed it well."
Determination to get the job done. That is the reputation of Walter Packer.
The 1980s: Walter Lewis, Tide Talent with No Equal
Walter Lewis was one of the most breathtaking talents ever on display in the SEC.
At 6'2" and 210 pounds there was nothing beyond his ability as he performed the duties of quarterback for the Crimson Tide of Alabama during coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's final seasons.
As part of the third "golden age" of SEC football in the early 1980s, Lewis was on the scene during the same years as Herschel Walker of Georgia, Reggie White of Tennessee, Bo Jackson of Auburn and the dreaded "Peace Corps" of Florida under the direction of coaches Charlie Pell and Mike Shanahan.
There was no room left for publicity in SEC country regarding Walter Lewis, an Alabama native who simply went about the business of learning plays and leading his men by example.
Lewis was the understudy to senior Steadman Shealy during the 1980 campaign. He is remembered from that season as a loyal team player who was ready when called upon to help his school.
Walter's accomplishments as a team player included winning the final SEC championship for Bear Bryant in 1981, taking Coach Bryant to his record-breaking 315th win and handing Joe Paterno and Penn State a 42-21 loss in the Nittany Lions' national championship year of 1982.
Additionally, Lewis led the Crimson Tide to victory in three of the four bowl games he appeared in, annihilated the vaunted "Pony Express" of SMU 28-7 in his final game (pictured), was named All-SEC quarterback in 1983 and served as Alabama team captain throughout his senior year.
In Walter Lewis' four years in Tuscaloosa the Red Elephants finished No. 6 nationally in 1980 and '81, 17th in '82 and 12th in 1983 according to the coaches' polls of the day.
The Altoona Mirror in Pennsylvania ran the following article in 2010 and we can draw from the words how Walter Lewis carried himself as a man.
Walter Lewis walked into Bear Bryant's office on Jan. 24, 1983 to apologize.
Alabama's junior quarterback felt terrible about what he had done four weeks earlier during a 21-15 victory in the Liberty Bowl.
"Coach Bryant and I had a confrontation in his last game against Illinois, and I was disrespectful to him on the sidelines," Lewis said. "There was a decision he wanted to make, and I didn't like it. And it was the first time I'd ever been disrespectful to him."
So on that day in late January, Lewis entered the legendary coach's office and said: "I'm sorry for disrespecting you."
"No sweat," the coach told Lewis, understanding that, in the heat of battle, competitive people sometimes lose their cool.
Two days later, Bear Bryant died at the age of 69.
"When he died it was unbelievable," Lewis said. "Him retiring and then all of a sudden passing away a month later, that was just totally unheard of.
"I was in disbelief."
So was the entire state of Alabama.
"Everyone was stunned," Lewis said. "Most of the homes in Alabama, everybody was just so emotional and was in total shock."
"He is still beloved," Lewis said.
"Coach Bryant had the utmost respect for Joe Paterno about how he handled his team," Lewis said.
"He knew the heartbeat. Even at the age of 69, he knew the heartbeat of the team, and he knew how to push the buttons in order to get you to do what you need to do to perform well on Saturday."
Walter Lewis, a great leader and an outstanding southern gentleman.
The 1980s: Don McPherson, Portrait of a Man
Don McPherson (pictured) came out of Brooklyn, New York and led Syracuse University to an undefeated season in his senior year of 1987.
McPherson was described by his coaches and peers as a tremendous leader who was an even greater person.
In the year 1987, Don won the Maxwell Award, the Davey O'Brien Award and finished second to Tim Brown of Notre Dame for the Heisman Trophy.
He led the nation in passing efficiency and set 22 school records at Syracuse, leaving as the all-time leader in passing yards, completions and most consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
In '87 the Orange won every regular-season game, blasting defending national champion Penn State by a score of 48-21 along the way, finished with a No. 4 ranking nationally and received a bid to play SEC champion Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
That contest ended in a 16-16 tie, the infamous "Pat Dye Tie Game" where the Auburn coach balked on going for the win at the end and settled for a field goal to tie the game.
Don McPherson won the "Most Outstanding Player Award" for the Sugar Bowl as the Orange running game dominated the Tigers on the ground 174-41, and accumulated 23 first downs to Auburn's 14.
So why have you never heard of him?
Because Don McPherson has been busy helping Americans in ways that affect everyday life.
Don has spent the better part of the past 20 years as an activist and an educator.
One merely needs to review McPherson's own website or his accomplishments listed on the Syracuse alumni information page to see the following activities he has been involved with since his playing days ended.
After retiring from professional football in 1994, McPherson joined the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. He later became founder and executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University.
Don has founded multiple outreach and mentoring programs, and regularly speaks at college campuses as a critic of society's treatment of gender, believing it limits a man's emotions and contributes to violence such as stalking, rape, and domestic abuse.
McPherson is now recognized nationally as an authority on these issues, McPherson has testified in hearings held before the United States Congress concerning gender-based violence.
According to his own foundation, "Don McPherson has used the power and appeal of
sport to address complex social issues."
His message is "Positive, Proactive and Practical" as an approach against violence toward women that stems from ignorance and mental illness in the United States.
McPherson is the founder of the Jenna Foundation for Nonviolence and serves on the board of directors. He is also the founder of Athletes Helping Athletes and serves on the board of that organization as well.
On a more personal/football level, as a board member of the Nassau County Sports Commission, Don created the John Mackey Award in 2000.
This highly respected trophy is awarded annually to the nation's most outstanding player at the position of tight end in college football.
This award is named in honor of the great Syracuse All-American who played for the Orange from 1960 to 1962.
Yes, Don McPherson has been busy.
Don McPherson, a man among men, and still leading after all of these years.
The 1990s: Tee Martin, First Quarterback to Win a BCS Championship
After the retirement of general Robert Neyland, many quarterbacks wore the Tennessee orange uniform.
Among the great names of the past half-century we find Dewey Warren, Peyton Manning, Casey Clausen, Condredge Holloway, Heath Shuler, et al.
Their accomplishments were many, the awards they received numerous.
One item you do not find listed by any of those names is "national champion."
The Tennessee signal-caller who has that distinction alone is Tee Martin (pictured).
In 1998 Martin attained perfection in leading the Volunteers to an undefeated season and achieved historical success by becoming the star quarterback of the first ever BCS champions.
The significance of Tennessee's 23-16 victory over Florida State in the initial BCS championship game will live on in the record books forever.
In 1998 Martin completed over 57 percent of his 267 passes for 19 touchdowns and 2,164 yards.
He was particularly effective in the national championship game, completing a 76-yard pass to Peerless Price and also a 79-yard touchdown pass to the same receiver.
Not only did Martin lead the Vols to a perfect season and BCS championship during his career in Knoxville, he set a Volunteer record by completing 24 passes in a row, and has the lowest career interception rate (2.39 percent) of any quarterback in the history of Tennessee football.
Those are impressive statistics.
Tee knows the only designation that really matters in the world of Rocky Top is "BCS champion."
When you say Tee Martin, you've said it all.
The 1990s: Scott Frost, the Iceman Cometh
Scott Frost (pictured) attended Stanford during his first two years of college. A native of Nebraska, Scott left the West Coast and found himself back home as a Cornhusker for his final two seasons of eligibility.
Frost became the starting quarterback in Lincoln and helped produce outstanding records of 11-2 and 13-0 for coach Tom Osborne's Cornhuskers in 1996 and '97.
In his final season, Scott led Nebraska to the national championship.
A bizarre play from the game against Missouri in 1997 is one of the most talked-about events from that national championship season.
Frost threw a pass that was apparently kicked by a player and caught by Matt Davison of the Cornhuskers for a touchdown. The resulting score allowed Big Red to send the game into overtime.
Scott Frost kept Nebraska's undefeated season alive by running for a touchdown in the extra period.
A demonstration of Scott's calmness under pressure is his Cornhuskers record for having no interceptions during a streak of 155 consecutive passes.
As a reward for his superb performances, Scott Frost became a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.
The actual playing career of Scott Frost has been overlooked and he has been vastly underrated. In discussions of great Cornhuskers during the past 20 years.
In this writer's opinion he appears to be a victim of bias.
A bias that is unfounded based upon actual statistics and on-field performance.
Scott Frost, as a passing quarterback in 1996, averaged over 120 yards a game through the air and tossed 13 touchdown passes with only three interceptions.
In 1997, as a running quarterback, Frost averaged over 91 yards rushing per game. His season totals were 1,095 yards on the ground while barreling across the goal line for 19 touchdowns.
Scott ran for three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl as the Cornhuskers claimed the '97 national championship by destroying No. 3 Tennessee and the heralded Peyton Manning, 42-17
This man was an awesome quarterback, quite possibly the most underrated player in the past 50 years of college football.
Where is this dynamo today?
You can find him on the offensive coaching staff of the Oregon Ducks.
Now there is an offense to write home about.
The 21st Century: Jacob Hester, a Tiger Who Could Beat Anything
Jacob Hester (pictured) was an unusual player for the LSU Tigers.
He was a 6'0", 225-pound running back who had an incredible burst of speed lasting 20 yards that would leave quicker defenders reaching for air.
Jacob enjoyed playing on special teams, he accounted for 38 tackles during his four-year career in Baton Rouge.
As a freshman in 2004, Hester played in every game.
In the 2005 season Jacob rushed for 70 yards in a Peach Bowl victory over Miami.
In the 2006 season, he played both fullback and tailback. Hester had 35 pass receptions for 269 yards, and ran for 440 yards.
In the 2007 season, Hester led the Tigers in rushing in nearly every game. He rushed for over 100 yards against defending BCS champion Florida. He also scored the game-winning touchdown.
Because of these accomplishments, Hester was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week and selected National Player of the Week by the Sporting News.
In Jacob's final game of his college career in the BCS championship contest against Ohio State, he rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown as the Tigers captured another national title.
Hester was a 1950s-style throwback player who got the most out of his ability.
The player who could do it all started 27 straight games at running back during his final two years with the Tigers.
In his senior season Jacob rushed for 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns while hauling in 14 passes and another score.
During his four years on Tigers special teams Jacob Hester accounted for 38 tackles.
The finishing touch concerning this overlooked player is the astonishing 43 wins against only nine losses in the career of Jacob Hester.
These achievements should keep his memory alive among new generations of Bayou Bengals faithful.
The 21st Century: John Navarre, a Man for All Seasons
John Navarre (pictured) received criticism from fans and writers alike during his time as the starting quarterback of the Michigan Wolverines.
It was often undeserved.
A three-year starter for the Maize and Blue from 2001 to 2003, Navarre took the Wolverines to the Big Ten championship in his final season.
John Navarre stood 6'6" and weighed 225 pounds. He was rarely brought down by a single defensive player.
In 2001, John passed for 2,345 yards and 19 touchdowns. Michigan ended the year with a record of 8-4.
The 2002 season found Navarre leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 record. In the Outback Bowl against Florida he passed for a career-high 319 yards resulting in a 38-30 Wolverine victory.
In 2003 Navarre led Michigan to another 10-3 record, finishing the season with a Rose Bowl invitation.
Big John accumulated 3,602 passing yards and 25 touchdowns during his senior year.
A statistical review of the John Navarre era reveals he carved up the Michigan record books.
By the time he left Ann Arbor, he owned the Wolverines record for most pass completions and yards gained in a season, most passing yards in a game and tied the all-time school record of most touchdown passes in a single contest.
What is not to like?
Three items stand out in any criticism of John Navarre:
1. He Was an Unproductive Runner
The reason for this is obvious—he was a huge man and not nimble on his feet.
2. He Had a Tendency To Throw More Than His Share of Interceptions
During his career he did pitch the ball to the other team 31 times, but he also threw for 72 touchdowns.
Reasoned minds should agree a ratio of better than 2-1 and an overall "plus-41" in the TD-to-interception category are hardly weaknesses.
3. Wolverines Fans Were Still Attached to Previous QBs Brian Griese and Tom Brady
Griese was the quarterback of the 1997 "split" national championship team and Tom Brady took the Wolverines to the 1999 season Orange Bowl where they defeated Alabama.
The facts are Griese played for three seasons at quarterback in Ann Arbor, and he threw for 33 career touchdowns with 18 interceptions.
Brady played behind Griese until the '98 season and was effectively only a two-year player for the Wolverines. For his time in Ann Arbor he passed for 35 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
When the college performance of John Navarre is compared to his more-celebrated contemporaries he is clearly underrated.
Ball don't lie.
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