Fred Meier played at the University of Nebraska from 1937 through 1941 and was a member of the 1941 Rose Bowl team and played 40 minutes in that game at center. This interview was done on September 2, 2004 by David Max. This series of interviews with former players and athletic department personnel is being done in conjuction with the Bob Terrio Classic. Click here for Rose Bowl and other pictures.
DM Where are you from originally.
FM I was raised in Lincoln Nebraska.
DM And you went to high school in Lincoln?
FM Yes, I was born in a home at 200 N. 32nd Street. I lived there until I left home to go into the war in 1942.
DM What high school in Lincoln did you go to?
FM Lincoln High
DM When you were a football player in high school, were you recruited by schools or did you just pick Lincoln?
FM Well, I’m the youngest of five children and all my siblings went to college. I didn’t think anything about it, that was just where I was going to go – the University of Nebraska.
DM When was your freshman year?
FM The fall of 1937. I attended college five years – maybe I was one of the original redshirts because I should have graduated in four years but I didn’t get to play much my first year and I wanted to play football so I just managed to stay in school for five years so I could play more football.
DM So you played four years?
FM Yes, including the freshman year, playing on the varsity in those days.
DM So you were on the team for five years.
FM Including the freshman team, the freshman team and four more years on varsity. I lettered three years. I graduated in the Spring of ’42.
DM And then you went into the Service after that.
FM Immediately, yes.
DM So you just went to Nebraska and enrolled. There was no recruiting.
FM Yeah, if you wanted to play, fine and if you didn’t want to play, that was fine too.
DM So you just told the coach, I want to be on the team and they gave you a uniform?
FM Yeah, it seems that way.
DM What position did you play?
FM I played center and linebacker. The centers in those days, we played both ways and the centers automatically played linebacker.
DM When you played road games, like Kansas or Missouri, how did you go to the games?
FM We went by train. For Pittsburgh, it was a 5-6 days trip.
DM So you’d leave on Wednesday, have the game on Saturday and have a two-day train trip coming back.
FM It was probably Monday, I don’t recall.
DM So all the road games were by train?
FM Yeah, when we played in the Rose Bowl, we had our own train.
DM Tell me a little bit about the Pittsburgh trip. Did you stop along the way and practice?
FM We always stopped in Chicago and we always worked out in Soldiers’ Field and I think it was on the return trip that we always stopped for a football game. I can’t remember if we got to see the Cubs play baseball. We got to see the Chicago Bears play football. We always stopped to see games.
DM Do you remember when you went on the Pittsburg trip who won the game?
FM We won – it seems to me I played twice there – on the 1940 squad, we won the game. It was a tough game.
DM Do you have a regular season game that sticks out in your memory?
FM I had one play during the season that was outstanding. I told you about the way our strong plays were off tackle, the reverse and straight up the middle. We were playing Oklahoma and we had the ball on about Oklahoma’s 20-yard line and it was fourth down. I don’t know how many yards to go, maybe five yards to go, something like that. So we had a trick play that we had practiced and probably ran it once or twice during the year. The play was that I would center the ball to the fullback and in this case it was Vike Francis. He hit the line straight in, like a center smash, but just before he hit the line, he gave me the ball. I turned around backwards and I was to lateral the ball to a wingback coming around on a reverse route. I centered the ball, I turned around, Vike gave me the ball and I was to lateral the ball to Bob Kahler coming around on a reverse, but someone had tackled him already. So I turned around and carried the ball and got down to the 2-yard line and tripped over some guy lying on the ground. Nobody even tackled me. So I got the ball down to the 2-yard line and made a first down. On the next play we scored. So that had a lot to do with our going to the Rose Bowl. The play was all written up by many sports writers, but I don’t think any of them ever got it right. At a reunion of this team, 25 years later, Biff Jones asked me what really happened on that play.
DM Was that the original Fumble-Rooskie?
FM Yeah, pretty much the same play.
Another game that I remember was first game of the year in 1940 we played Minnesota and I started that game. Minnesota had a play that was very successful and it went around our ends. Some guy blind sighted me on that play. I never found out where he came from He knocked me on my can a lot and I think the coaches should have caught that and told me what to do. Sonny Frank played tailback in that game for Minnesota. They ran our ends, one side then the other. They didn’t try to go through the middle until they got right down to the goal line. You’d think Sonny Frank would have been dragging at the end of that game. Well, after the game we were getting showered and dressed and kind of moping around. We had lost the game and were down. I admired Sonny a lot because he had enough energy after all of that running to get dressed before we could and come over to see us. I think the score of that game was the same as when we when we lost in the Rose Bowl. Minnesota ended up being national champions that year.
DM What were the practices like? Were they pretty structured?
FM I think you would say they were structured. On the day following the game there would be a rather light practice and you would see the movies of the game we played the week before and what we did wrong. On Wednesday or Thursday we’d have a scrimmage and the Friday before a game there would be a very light practice.
DM When you played games at home in Lincoln, what was the attendance like?
FM I think 40,000 were the most you could get in the stadium and even then they had to put up bleachers.
DM Was it always full?
FM No, it wasn’t always full. 30,000 would be a really good crowd.
DM During that Rose Bowl season, as the team did well, did the attendance improve as the season went on?
FM It was pretty steady.
DM Who were some of your teammates during those four years you played on the varsity?
FM Forry Behm was always my friend and we were usually roommates. He was a year ahead of me. He and I graduated from high school the same year. He graduated from college one year ahead of me. Herman Rohrig and Harry Hopp were tailbacks and they were both marvelous. Vike Francis, Wayne Blue and Henry Rohn played fullback, Butch Luther played wingback and Bob Kahler and Allan Zikman played wingback, Fred Preston was one of the ends. Ray Prochaska and Bob Ludwig played end. Forry Behm and King Kong Kahler played tackles and Ed Swartzkopf and George Abel – I think they played the same position at guard. Warren Alson was a marvelous football player He played guard and Bob Burruss and I played center.
DM Do you remember what your playing weight was?
FM Well, I never got over 197. That was the most I ever weighed. The fellows weren’t nearly as big then as they are now. And I wasn’t very big for my position either, but I was big enough to make it (laughed).
DM How many years were you a starter?
FM I started all my senior year and half the games as a junior.
DM So your senior year was the Rose Bowl year.
FM No, it was a year after the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl team was the 1940 squad and the Bowl game was the first day of the year of 1941. So the next Fall was my senior year. The season after the Rose Bowl game we just didn’t have good players. Many of the good players had graduated after the Bowl game or they got pulled into the Service. Anybody that was in the National Guard or anyone who had taken advanced ROTC were taken the summer after that Rose Bowl game. They got to finish that year in college (1941) but many of them never got to finish college.
DM When Nebraska played in the Rose Bowl, was there a large Nebraska contingent that went to the game?
FM Oh, yes. It was a news item; all those Cornhuskers coming to Pasadena, California. I remember the train that we were on pulled up on a track that crossed Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena..The train stopped there. There was quite a big crowd there. I remember George Binger’s sister was there. George was an outstanding player at Lincoln High School and he was a friend of many many people. He was one of these guys that knew everybody and I remember his sister was there. I don’t remember recognizing anyone else in that crowd but there was a significant crowd. They blocked the street.
DM So the Rose Bowl trip was also by train and you played Stanford – do you remember any of the social activities that were there for you before the game?
FM The thing that comes to mind is a radio show that we went to – it was Gracie Allen and George Burns radio show and they put chairs on the stage and we sat on the stage during the show and then later after the show was over, we came down to the seats that were for the regular audience and George Burns and Gracie Allen came on and they talked with us. We had a grand time with them and we had a visit to the MGM Grand movie studios and Robert Taylor escorted us through the studio. We had a great time – those were the only two things that come to mind before the game.
DM What do you remember about the game itself?
FM I think there were 92,000 people there and I remember that the Stanford defense was arranged to stop our strongest plays. We played single wingback formation and for people who don’t know, the two tackles on offense played side by side and gave a lot of power. Wherever they were that, was the strong side. They did a lot of powerful blocking from that side and so we had off tackle plays that were very strong and our tailback would carry the ball. We had a very strong reverse play off of that same setup. The tailback would run as if he were going to go into that hole where the tackles were. But then he’d hand the ball off to the wingback who would reverse to the weak side. That was a very strong play for us.
Stanford shifted their defense so that they had more players playing right opposite where those tackles were to stop the off tackle plays and then they bunched some of their defensive players over to the weak side to stop the reverse play. That left it open in the middle. And so we had great success because immediately we learned what they were doing. Our coaches or the players discovered they were weak in the middle. We had a trap play that worked great. Ordinarily in those days people played a six-man defensive line with two linebackers. The guard that would play opposite the center position where I was on offense, would play pretty much right off of my right shoulder. That was in a position halfway between me and the guard on my right. Well, in that game the defensive guard was clear over in front or maybe even further away from me than the guard that was on my right. There was no way I could block that guy. I’d center the ball and dive over at the same time trying to block him, but I couldn’t block him, he was too far over. His name was Chuck Taylor who later played for the San Francisco 49ers and was later Athletic Director at Stanford. He may have been a coach there too later on. When the guard on my right would pull out, he’d go right through that hole. We didn’t even have to block him. He’d charge like a damn bull. Maybe we would have to nudge him a little. That left a big a big hole in the defensive line. There was nobody there to tackle our fullback. He made ten yards every time he touched the ball. I think we scored first.
They took Taylor out and they put another guard in there. Evidently he had instruction not to charge because we were going through that hole all the time right where he was. So then we just called a regular center smash play and the fullback just ran straight ahead and we knocked that guy on his can and went right on through. The linebackers were spread out to stop these other two plays (off tackle and reverse). It was open in the middle. The play that Vike Francis made so much press on was the trap play. We trapped Chuck Taylor. It was a half spinner play. I would center the ball to Vike and then he would spin half way and offer the ball to the wingback coming around on a reverse pattern. Vike would keep the ball and go right straight through the center where Taylor had been. When Taylor was not in on defense we called the center smash, when the guard didn’t charge at all. I just centered the ball to the fullback and he’d hit the line straight ahead.
Most people don’t realize that in those days the center had to have considerable skill to pass the ball. If you passed the ball to the tailback, it was usually an off tackle or around-the-end play and on the snap signal the tailback was already running. You had to lead him and give it to him hard enough to catch up with him but soft enough so he could catch it. The fullback was only a couple of yards back so we had to send the ball back to him like a pillow, otherwise he couldn’t catch it.
Before the Bowl game, the Chicago Bears came out to Wrigley Field and played an exhibition game. That is where the Los Angeles Angels played at that time. The Angels were not a national league team, they were a minor league team . The Chicago Bears played the T-formation and they were the only pro team that did. The big purpose was for us to see what the T-formation looked like. No college team played the T-formation except Stanford. Our coaches devised a defense probably similarly to what the other team was playing against the Bears. We had three linebackers and five down linemen. Between the end, the guard on one side and the linebacker on one side, those three guys would make up their own play every play. So one of us would charge in with abandon and try to disrupt the offense. The other defenders would play more conservatively. They would stand their ground. The game was much more conservative in those days. So on one of those plays I was supposed to charge in with abandon and I did. I went like a bat out of hell and lo and behold it was a pass play. Frankie Albert was their passer and here was Chuck Taylor, who was my nemesis, whom I tried to block and I couldn’t. He was protecting Albert. I was so mad at him I could kill him. And so here he was and I ran full tilt. I got under him with my forearms and I flipped him in the air and just as I passed over him one of my knees hit him right in the head. My knee hit him awfully hard and I just knew I’d knocked him out. But I’ll be darned, he got up. So at any rate, I was happy that I got a good hard hit on Chuck Taylor.
The key play of the whole game came after Nebraska held Stanford for four downs starting on our four-yard line. Nebraska held Stanford for four downs – they didn’t score. On their first play, Nebraska punted. This was kind of standard in those days. It was a very conservative situation on offense when you were near your own goal line. They punted on the first play and it was a heck of a good punt. It went down about 60 yards to Pete Kmetovic from Stanford. He caught the ball near one side line and ran clear over to the other side. Then he just started angling for the far corner of the field. Every guy on Nebraska’s team was blocked – everybody got knocked down and he ran for a touchdown.
DM And that was the difference in the game, right?
FM Yeah it was 21-13.
DM Who was the head coach?
FM Biff Jones was the head coach; Link Lyman was the line coach. We had a head coach, a line coach, a coach for the ends and a coach for the backs and I think Paul Amen was a coach on that team, although he had just graduated from college. As I remember, we had five coaches in those days.
DM When you got back to Lincoln after the game, what was the reception like?
FM Oh my, it was marvelous. They had tables down the streets in every direction. We stopped at the Burlington Station.
DM So there was a big crowd to meet you when the train arrived.
FM Yes, it was great.
DM Do you remember, during the games, were there any big half-time speeches or was the coach a fiery type guy or was just kind of laid back?
FM No Hank Byron would be a kind of a fiery type guy for a lineman.
DM What about Biff Jones – what was his personality like?
FM He was a very conservative guy all the way around. But you listened when he talked. He was a great person. I went in to the Seabees right out of college and I had about a month’s training in Norfolk, Virginia. Then they gave us a week or two leave. So Jane and I went to New York. We had friends from Nebraska there and they let us stay in their apartment. I called up Biff Jones. He was Graduate Manager of Athletics at West Point. He was a major at the time I believe. I he was a West Point man. So he must have been retired from the Army at that time he was at Nebraska. Biff invited us to come and spend the week-end at their home at West Point. Biff cooked a great barbeque dinner for us. They were going to have a dance that night at West Point so they insisted that Jane and I go to this dance. Mrs. Jones and their daughter Barbara, provided Jane with a dress and a pair of shoes. We went to the dance and I was the only guy there in a Naval uniform. But the point is they were so nice to us.
DM So he took care of his players, obviously.
FM Well, I remember that one rally that was held in the Stadium and the crowd was in the East Stadium and they built a platform out from the Stadium towards the track. All the players were there and he introduced every player and gave their name and hometown, including the freshman team. That’s quite a memory. He cared for us all.
DM How often do you go back to a game now?
FM About every third year. We used to take trips back there often, we’d been there almost year, but in the summertime. Since I retired in 1987, I suppose we’ve been back in the Fall about every third year.
DM Do you remember your last game there? Did you go back for the reunion game when they had all the players last year?
FM No, I didn’t go back last year, but I was there the year before. That’s when they had the 60-year reunion of the Rose Bowl Team and I was probably there the year before that. Two of my nephews have tickets. They let me have their tickets sometimes. George and Betty Abel took us to a game once. I think they had three reunions of the Rose Bowl team and I went to each one of those. I always saw a game at those times.
DM: Did they allow much substituting?
FM: Well in those days the rule was that if a player came out during a quarter, he couldn’t come back in during that same quarter.
I was not very fast. In high school there was only one guy that I could beat in the hundred-yard dash on the whole team. So I went out for track to improve my speed. When I went to college, the first couple of years, I went out for track. There was a little guy named Red Littler that was the leading sprinter on the track squad. He worked with me to teach me how to run faster. Then I had trouble getting the ball passed back to the punters because I just couldn’t throw hard enough. They had a discus net under the east Stadium. It was made of ¾” diameter rope and was woven into about 6” squares. Guys would practice throwing the discus into that. So I practiced centering the ball into that net thousands of times. I carried the ball around with me and would get people to stand back and let me center the ball to them. I just wore people out. I remember one guy, when I had a summer job with the State Highway Department. This was Lee Graham. He had a big belly and he got back about eleven yards and I threw the ball back to him and it came faster than he expected and hit him in the belly and knocked the wind out of him.
FM I never had a lot of talent as a football player but I had a lot of desire and my main talent was that I was tough. I was never out of shape to play – every minute of every game and my senior year I played a lot of 60-minute games.
DM Did they allow much substituting?
FM Well in those days the rule was that if a player came out during a quarter, he couldn’t come back in during that same quarter. I was very fast. In high school there was only one guy that I could beat in the hundred-yard dash on the whole team. So I went out for football and I went out for track to improve my speed and worked on that and in the early days when I went to college the first couple of years I went out for football and went out for track, to improve my football skills. There was a little guy named Red that was the leading sprinter on the track squad and he worked with me to teach me how to run faster. Then we had trouble getting the ball passed back to the punters because they just couldn’t throw hard enough so they had a discus net under the east Stadium. A net made about a ¾” diameter rope and was woven into squares about 6” square. Guys would practice throwing the discus into that. So I practiced throwing the ball into that net thousands of times. I carried the ball around with me and would get people to stand back and let me center the ball to them, just wore people out. I remember one guy, I always got jobs in the summer time- I had a job with the State Highway(?) Department at least one year and a guy by the name of Lee Graham was an engineer that was working on a job where I was and he was raised down the street from us about half a block. He had a big belly and he got back about eleven yards and I threw the ball back to him and it came faster than he expected and hit him in the belly and knocked the wind out of him.
DM How many players were on the team?
FM It seems to me about a hundred, but the traveling squad wasn’t that much. Bob Ramey was on the first team at center. Bob Burruss was second team and I was third team. This was my third year trying to play football. My sophomore year I didn’t play at all, so my second sophomore year one or two games had gone by and I didn’t get in. So I waited out in front of the student union where we had our training table, one evening after practice. I caught Biff Jones coming in and talked to him about my playing. I said, you know, Biff, if I don’t get to play I don’t want to continue I will do something else with my time. I forget what he said to me but the next game we played Baylor. He put me in and I intercepted a pass and ran it down to the 20-yard line. I played from then on. I lettered that year.
DM How did you manage to get yourself in the 1940 team picture twice?
FM On the center line of the Stadium, in that south practice field, where the South Stadium is now, they put a camera and the camera had a spring motor in it and it would travel. They lined up all the players in this radius and so we all stood in a circle all around this camera. I ran behind the camera after it took my picture and it took my picture twice in the same picture.
You said that you attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Al Zikman was the Athletic Director at Kearney. He played wingback on the Rose Bowl team. His leg was broken in that game. Zell Meier, coached women’s volleyball at Kearney. She is married to my nephew William Edward Meier. Another distant cousin, Gene Beck, was a swimming and diving coach there. Zell Meier was Rosella Zimmerman. Her father started the Zimmerman Printing Co. It is still going on the old highway in Kearney.
DM Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you think people would be interested in hearing about?
FM My father-in-law was Grove Porter. He lettered in football as did my brother-in-law, Mort Porter and his two sons, Budge and Scott. Budge Porter was badly injured in a spring practice scrimmage. His neck was nearly broken. He is nearly a quadriplegic. The University has given Budge seats in the press box. Scott Porter played on at least one of the Nebraska national championship teams. He alternated with Tom Rathman who later became famous as a player for the San Francisco 49ers.
There is a story about when my brother Frank played. He was an outstanding player, he was all conference twice and third team all-American in his last year. The team was not up to par that year, the same as in my senior year. We were down then also. So I got to see some of the practices when Frank played and got to know many of the players. I was in junior high then. On game days I’d go down and stand beside the player’s gate and always some player would put his arm around me and talk to the gatekeeper and take me in. I’d go in the locker room when they were dressing and I sat on the bench during the games. This continued while I was in high school. Then when I was in college I was sitting on the bench too. So I didn’t pay to see a football game from the time I was in junior high until I got out of college.
You know that wooden fence they had around the practice field? That was where the South Stadium is now. The wall wasn’t too hard to scale. They had two national AAU track meets in the Stadium when I was a kid. The track at that time was one of the best tracks around and of course it was right in the middle of the United States so it was a good place to have a national meet. I remember Jesse Owens ran one time. I watched him and he was beaten in the hundred-yard dash. At any rate, I jumped over the fence twice and I went to those track meets. I wasn’t used to paying to get in to the Stadium.
At any rate, Sam Francis became my hero and I think he was about the best athlete that ever attended the University. He was an all-American fullback and he was the best shot putter in the United States for the 1936 Olympics. That’s the year that Jesse Owens made so many records in Germany.
In the dressing room under the Stadium they had a cage full of baskets, sheet metal baskets. They would keep the football uniforms in those baskets. So when the players would come in to change clothes, they’d go to the cage and get their basket of uniforms.Then they’d take off their clothes and put them in the basket and put it back in the cage. I would do that for Sam Francis. I would go and get his basket and carry it out there and he’d put his clothes on and I’d take it back. I even laced up his shoes one time. He would let me do that. He had a job at the Lincoln Star. It was not the Journal Star then. His job was to answer the telephone after hours. Well, it wasn’t like it is now. The telephone hardly ever rang and so he studied there. Many times I rode my bicycle down to the Star and just sat there and when Sam got ready to talk, we’d talk. He had a great scar on the inside of one of his thighs that he got when he was in high school. They had bamboo vaulting poles then. He even did some pole vaulting. One time the pole broke and sliced him open on the inside of one thigh. I remember when Nebraska was playing Indiana and Sam didn’t play in the first half. He had been injured and Indiana got ahead of us. So the coach put Sam Francis in to start the second half. He caught the kickoff and ran it back for a touchdown. I remember he could punt the ball a country mile. They called the guys a triple threat, players that were accomplished. I think under Dana Bible they played a short punt formation. Sam did the punting and a lot of the passing. I remember the game when they played Minnesota. Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Michigan were the guys that were the national championships in those days. In the Minnesota game Sam punted the ball. They didn’t have the game on radio and of course they didn’t have TV in those days. At least I couldn’t get the game on radio, maybe it was and I couldn’t get it. Down at the Lincoln Journal they had somebody receiving the game play by play. He would announce the game out the window. There was a whole bunch of people standing around the front of the building, on the street between the Lincoln Journal and the Post Office. They were listening to this guy describe the game that way. On one play, Sam Francis punted the ball 70 yards. Andy Uram from Minnesota caught that ball and ran it back for a touchdown and won the game.
After Sam graduated, I didn’t have any contact with him. I went to see him play one time in Omaha. It was a pre-season game for the Bears, I guess. Then one time I saw a Nebraska game in Lincoln. This was probably about eight years ago and Sam was living in Springfield, Missouri. He was retired. He had spent most of his life in the Army. He was honored for that game. We were playing Iowa State. On the west Stadium there is a little platform that came out, from the press box, I guess. At half time they asked Sam Francis to come out there on that platform and address the crowd. Well, of course I was real interested in that but I didn’t get to see him on that visit. I wrote him a letter to his home after that and I related all this stuff that I just told you and he called me on the phone. We had a nice telephone conversation. He died a year or two later.
I never had a lot of talent as a football player but I had a lot of desire and my main talent was that I was tough. I was never out of shape to play. In my senior year I played a lot of 60-minute games.
DM Fred, thanks for sharing your memories with us.
Fred Meier can be reached at this email.