Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — Sixty years ago, when he was 19-year old sophomore at Michigan State, Sam Mitchell and four of his friends packed a car and drove more than 2,000 miles non-stop to California.
Mitchell and his friends were avid Spartan football fans, and even though they had little money in their pockets, the school's first Rose Bowl appearance was just too important to pass up.
In a couple weeks, Mitchell, a Traverse City real estate agent, will return to Pasadena to cheer on his Spartans for a second time.
"Sixty years to the day," he said.
And he's hoping for the same result. Michigan State rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat UCLA 28-20 in the 1954 clash.
"It was an exciting game," Mitchell recalled. "That was when we had the Pony Backfield. All those guys made a name for themselves. They were all about 175 pounds, but they were fast. Billy Wells broke some big plays."
Wells, in fact, was the game's MVP. He scored two touchdowns, returning a punt 62 yards for a fourth quarter score to seal the win.
The Pony Backfield included Tom Yewcic (5-11, 172) at quarterback, Wells (5-9, 175) and LeRoy Bolden (5-7, 157) at the halfbacks and Evan Slonac (5-8, 170) at fullback.
"When the Spartans lined up for photographs yesterday, everyone in the backfield except for Tom Yewcic seemed to be standing in a hole," quipped a West Coast writer before the game.
Mitchell and his buddies had a great view of the game, too. They had seats near the 50, about halfway up the stands behind the Michigan State bench. Actor Bob Hope sat a few rows behind them.
"How we were so lucky to get those great seats, I don't know," Mitchell said. "Today, those seats are going for $3,000 (and up).
"I think we recognized at the time we were pretty fortunate to be there. We had to watch our pennies. We didn't have a lot of extra money."
The game held special significance for Michigan State. The school had been admitted to the Big Ten in 1950, but did not play a full league schedule until 1953, the first year it was eligible for the Rose Bowl.
"I remember when we got selected for the Big Ten," Mitchell said. "The parade that day was bigger than when we won the war. It was huge. There was a tremendous celebration on Grand River. (President) John Hannah put us on the map. Of course, if I remember right, Michigan voted against us. But we won't hold that against them."
During that time, Biggie Munn built a powerhouse in East Lansing. The Spartans won 28 games in a row, including the 1952 national championship, until Purdue snapped the streak in 1953. Still, with that one loss, the Spartans were the Big Ten representatives in the Rose Bowl.
Mitchell felt connected to the team. He lived in West Shaw Dorm, as did several of the players. He often played ping pong with Yewcic.
"We had some great matches," Mitchell said. "It was the one sport I could keep up with those guys."
As for Wells, he created a stir in Pasadena when he reportedly had a date with actress Debbie Reynolds, Mitchell said.
Wells was part of the northern Michigan connection on the team. He hailed from Menominee. Lineman Carl "Buck" Nystrom came from Marquette. End Chuck Fairbanks played at Charlevoix. Back Bert Zagers prepped at Cadillac. Two assistants on Munn's staff, Bob Devaney and Dan Devine, previously coached high school ball in Alpena and East Jordan, respectively.
Two other starters on that team were lineman Hank Bullough and end Don Dohoney. Bullough's grandsons, St. Francis graduates Max and Riley Bullough, will be on the field for the Spartans New Year's Day against Stanford — Max as an all-Big Ten linebacker and Riley as a special teams contributor. Dohoney's grandson, Eric Gordon, will be in the stands watching. Gordon, who attended Traverse City West, was a four-year starter for the Spartans.
Mitchell enjoys talking about the Traverse City connection at Michigan State. Then again, he likes talking about Michigan State athletics in general.
Mitchell recalls his grade school and middle school days in East Lansing when he would show up at the stadium at half, well, because that's when they would let everyone in for free.
In those days, he was also a bat boy for the baseball team, coached by John Kobs.
"I thought that was great because I got all of the broken bats and all the balls that went into the Red Cedar River I could get out," he said, laughing.
Mitchell remembers hustling out of school one day for a basketball game against Kentucky at Jenison Fieldhouse.
"Kentucky's center had transferred to Michigan State," he said. "His name was Bob Brannum. The fire marshal back then didn't enforce crowd control. They were hanging from the rafters. It was a huge crowd. We unfortunately lost and Brannum, our hero, was thrown out of the game. It didn't turn out well.
"Now, I have a son in Lexington (Kentucky) and, of course, we've had some good games with them, especially that first game this year."
Mitchell, who married Traverse City's Karen Olson in 1958, has been impressed with how this Spartan football team has developed.
"They've really come together," he said. "It was so discouraging the first three games. It didn't look like we were going to have an offense. There wasn't any excitement until they found (Connor) Cook as the quarterback. He's matured so much every game. The defense has been there all along. You like to see more than three yards and a cloud of dust and now we have the capability to break plays all the time."
So what's he looking forward to New Year's Day?
"Obviously, a Spartan victory," he said. "That's a given. I don't want to go all the way out there and not celebrate."