Thursday, December 4, 1997
Bowl game more than football

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Frank Middendorf should have known better. Forty-seven Decembers ago, the University of Cincinnati football star bought a diamond ring at a big discount in a dark alley in Juarez, Mexico.

Twenty-four hours later, his ring finger had turned green.

''I don't know what I paid for that ring, but it was worth it,'' Middendorf said Wednesday night. ''Everybody seemed to have a lot of fun out of my finger turning green. That was a part of the education.''

Travel is broadening, or so say the travel agents. If UC's upcoming trip to the Humanitarian Bowl is half as instructive as the last Bearcat bowl trip, it ought to be priceless.

The 1950 UC team lost the Sun Bowl, 14-13, to West Texas State when a late field-goal attempt sailed wide. Nearly half a century later, the survivors of that Bearcat team lament that their regular kicker, Jim Holstein, had been left behind to play basketball.

Yet there is no regret in their voices, and much joy. In retrospect, a good time was had by all that week in El Paso. And, especially, across the border in Juarez.

''We went to a bullfight,'' Nick Shundich recalled, ''and we ended up cheering for the bull - which wasn't very pleasant for the Mexicans. We went around in these cowboy hats and University of Cincinnati red shirts, so if we got in any trouble, the police would take care of us.''

Being there is half the fun

This proved a useful precaution, for George Thompson wound up in a Mexican jail following a dispute with a street vendor. Glenn Sample, later UC's baseball coach, narrowly avoided an international incident after his teammates convinced a young woman of dubious morality that he was actually Mickey Rooney.

''She chased him,'' Shundich said, ''right over the border.''

Bowl trips tend to be the most memorable journeys college football teams take, for they are the longest and least regimented.

Curfews tend to be less tight before bowl games, and supervision far less suffocating. In theory, bowl trips should be approached as a reward for a successful season rather than an extra week of work. In practice, however, coaches do not always cooperate. Sid Gillman was less cooperative than most.

''We went out to this ranch, but the coaches didn't want anybody to ride any horses,'' said Jim Kelly, the leading receiver for the Sun Bowl Bearcats. ''(Ralph) Staub got on one and Sid was petrified. Here's the starting end, and he's on a horse.''

A lasting bond

Each man's reminiscence jogs another memory in the next. Glenn Sample recalls the flight to El Paso - his second airplane trip - as terrifying. Some of his teammates say the flight back was worse.

Teammates remember the late Joe Benzinger losing some teeth on game day. Pete St. Clair, the team captain, says he lost about 10 pounds in the Texas heat.
''I can remember we weren't that excited about going,'' said Norb Shibinski. ''It was Christmastime and we all wanted to go home after a long season. But once we got out there, it was fun. They gave us a cowboy hat and a pair of Levis. I had the cowboy hat for a long time, till my son used it for a Halloween costume.''

Still, the truly precious things have endured. Friendships. Laughter. Stories that improve with age. Friday night, some of the survivors of UC's Sun Bowl squad will gather to revisit their youth and renew their bond with each other.

''Even though we're 67 or 68 years old,'' Shibinski said, ''when you get together, it's like you've never been apart.''

Jim Kelly has never been far from UC football. As a player, coach, and administrator, he has spent much of his life at Nippert Stadium. He has been to all three of UC's bowl games, and is making plans for Boise.

''It's a great experience to be able to go to a bowl game,'' he said. ''It just shows what hard work and dedication will do. These players will look back at it later in life, and it will mean more to them.''

They are advised to take plenty of photographs, and to be wary of cut-rate jewels.