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The first team I loved was the University of Toledo Rockets football team. From 1969-71, they went 35-0. For three straight seasons, they didn’t lose. I went to every 真人百家家乐官网网站home game in the Glass Bowl with my father, siblings and a collection of neighborhood kids. My dad was the Pied Piper with season tickets. (My mom stayed 真人百家家乐官网网站home with my little sister, except for one game a year.) Our seats were on the 40-yard line, behind the visiting team’s bench. They were a great spot to witness one of the most magical runs a college football team has ever experienced.
Early on, I knew something special was going on with this team. The fourth game of the season, Oct. 11, 1969, I was on a Girl Scout trip to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., the day the Rockets played at arch-rival Bowling Green. I brought a transistor radio in the hope that I could pick up the signal on a Toledo station an hour away as we toured the historic sites.
I must have been quite a sight standing alone on a sidewalk with that radio pressed to my ear as the Rockets lined up for a field goal to win the game. I leaped for joy in my Girl Scout dress when I heard the kick was good, then dashed ahead to join my friends to celebrate. I couldn’t wait to tell them the Rockets had won in such exciting fashion.
They gave me a bemused look. “That’s nice,” one of them said. They didn’t care about football. That was fine. I actually didn’t care that they didn’t care.
Led by sophomore quarterback Chuck Ealey, the Rockets went on to finish 11-0, winning the Mid-American Conference and defeating Davidson in the Tangerine Bowl, 56-33. The next season, we again attended every 真人百家家乐官网网站home game as they ran their unbeaten streak to 23 games, defeating William and Mary, 40-12, in the Tangerine Bowl. The Rockets ended the season ranked 12th by the Associated Press, ahead of the likes of USC, Penn State and Oklahoma. Nothing like this had ever happened to our city and our team.
As the 1971 season began, people around the country were starting to notice. CBS came to town to do a feature on Ealey, now a senior, and Sports Illustrated devoted 1½ pages to him. Ealey was attracting attention because he had never lost a game he started in high school, nor in college. He seemed incapable of losing.
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But then came trouble. In the second game of the season, the first at 真人百家家乐官网网站home, the Rockets were tied with Villanova, 7-7, late in the fourth quarter.
“Does it count if we tie them?” I asked my father.
“Well, it’s not a loss, so you can say it’s an unbeaten streak, but you can’t say it’s a winning streak anymore.”
I had almost given up hope when the Rockets took over at their 29-yard-line after a punt with only 29 seconds remaining. But Ealey stepped back into the pocket and threw the ball deep toward our sideline for a 57-yard completion to the Villanova 14.
Moments later, a sophomore kicker named George Keim, who had missed field goal attempts of 30 and 44 yards earlier, came onto the field to try another 30-yarder.
I crossed my fingers and held my breath as Keim, one of the last of the straight-on kickers, stepped toward the ball. It flew over the Villanova linemen and headed for the left upright of the goalpost.
I thought he might miss. He didn’t. Toledo had won again, 10-7. Fans stormed the field as all of us jumped around and hugged each other in the stands.
“See, there was no reason to worry about that tie,” my dad yelled over the screaming crowd.
Two years later, a young student teacher appeared in my school. He wrote his name on the blackboard: Mr. Keim.
I had to know, so I walked to the front of the room. “Are you George Keim?”
“The man who kicked the field goal to beat Villanova?”
“Well,” I said as I stood in front of him, my eyes wide, “thank you for doing that.”
The Rockets kept right on winning, earning another MAC championship and one more trip to the Tangerine Bowl. When I opened a small present from my parents under our tree Christmas morning 1971, I realized I was going too. There were two tickets to the game in Orlando; one for me, one for my dad.
We sat side by side in the Toledo section as the Rockets beat Richmond, 28-3. It was a delight, but as the clock wound down, I strangely started to wish it would go the other way. I wanted to add time to the clock to watch this team, not subtract it.
When the game ended, I could feel tears welling in my eyes.
“That’s the end of an era, honey,” my dad said as he put his arm around me. Thirty-five games I had watched, or listened to on the radio. Three consecutive years of football games. The Rockets had won them all.
Toledo was ranked 14th in the final AP poll in 1971, and Ealey finished eighth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy. I was excited to see how he would do in the NFL draft, but pro teams were talking about moving him to defensive back, or maybe wide receiver. Ealey told them he wanted to be a quarterback.
There were 17 rounds of the NFL draft back then; 442 players were selected by the 26 NFL teams.
No one took Chuck Ealey.
I was crestfallen. My father tried to explain the inexplicable. Ealey is African-American, and back then, NFL teams rarely let black men play quarterback.
Ealey never played a down in the NFL. Instead, he went to the Canadian Football League and won the Grey Cup in his rookie season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, then played six more years in the league before settling into a very successful career in business in the suburbs of Toronto.
That’s where I found him on Jan. 8, 2003. I had met him once before, briefly, at a charity golf outing in Toledo, but this time, we talked at length. I had a lot of questions for him; he was going to be the subject of my weekly column in USA Today.
Why? A few days earlier, I was with friends in D.C. watching the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Miami, in which Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey was trying to win his 35th consecutive game as a starting quarterback. (He didn’t; the Buckeyes won.)
Late in the game, a graphic appeared on the TV screen detailing the greatest winning streaks by starting quarterbacks in NCAA history. Dorsey was second on the list, with 34 consecutive games started and won.
At the top of the list, with 35, was Chuck Ealey.
“Who’s that?” asked one of my friends.
I have never been more ready to answer a question in my life.
It took just two phone calls to find Chuck for my column. As I caught up with him to hear his story, he started asking me about mine. I was thrilled to tell him I traced my love of sports back to my days cheering for him and his teammates.
A few days after the column ran, I received a call from a friend in Toledo, and Chuck and I soon were hosting a charity golf tournament for several years not far from the university where it all began.
We stay in touch to this day, and if we’re ever around a group of people, invariably someone asks us to tell our story: the starting quarterback with the greatest winning streak in college football, and the girl sitting in the seat on the 40-yard line.