By Thom Loverro
Green Bay Packers defensive end Willie Davis has a lot of memories he can still call on from his NFL playing days -- the time he stripped Johnny Unitas of the ball to clinch a division crown in 1966; sacking Len Dawson in Super Bowl I a few weeks later.
But there is one play in particular that he can still see in his mind's eye -- a young Pat Richter out of Wisconsin taking a 20-yard pass and then sprinting another 73 yards for a touchdown in the College All-Star Football Classic to give his team a 20-10 lead over the NFL champion Green Bay Packers, on the college squad's way to a 20-17 upset win on August 2, 1963.
"I can still see Pat Richter take that turnout and race all the way down the field," said the 79-year-old Davis. "That created a lot of fallout."
After all, Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers were not supposed to lose to a group of talented but untested college football players, exhibition game or not. In the history of the contest -- originally called the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game and started by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward in 1934 -- the amateurs beat the pros only eight times prior to that day, with most of those victories coming before 1950, when college football was more dominant.
Half a century later, the upset is still seared in the players' memories.
"The game was close, but we just didn't play very well," said Green Bay receiver Boyd Dowler. "We didn't think they could do offensively what they did to us. That Richter turnout pattern…"
"We were able to go toe-to-toe with them, and I think they were surprised at that," said Richter, 71, who would go on to play eight years for the Washington Redskins. "We had a quarterback who moved the ball well and we had a good defense. And that long pass really gave us the play we needed to put the game away."
The college team fielded an impressive defensive unit, with future Packers linebacker and Hall of Famer Dave Robinson, another future Green Bay linebacker named Lee Roy Caffey, plus Hall of Fame defensive end Bobby Bell and College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. But the quarterback -- the game's Most Valuable Player -- was an undrafted college passer who played five forgettable years in the NFL as a backup for the Minnesota Vikings.
Ron Vander Kelen, now 73, was the Wisconsin quarterback who, on the first day of 1963, orchestrated one of the greatest near-comebacks in Rose Bowl history, a contest that pitted for the first time the top-ranked team in the country, USC, vs. the second-ranked Badgers.
Down 42-14 in the fourth quarter, Vander Kelen led Wisconsin to 23 unanswered points and set numerous Rose Bowl records in the process, some of which still stand today. Though USC hung on for a 42-37 victory, it was an unforgettable performance by Vander Kelen, who completed 33 of 48 passes for 401 yards.
But Vander Kelen wasn't the Heisman Trophy winner for the 1962 college football season -- that went to Oregon State's Terry Baker, and it was Baker who was expected to get the starting nod for the College All-Stars, coached by legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham.
"Originally, I wasn't on the team," Vander Kelen said. "But Otto's son Dewey kept telling him he needed to put me on the roster. Otto refused, saying he didn't need another quarterback, but he finally called the Tribune people, and they said, 'Yes, bring him in. He's a big name in the Midwest and will draw people.' So that's how I got on the team.
"The day before the game Otto calls me and Terry Baker aside," Vander Kelen said. "He says, 'One of you needs to start, but I can't make up my mind. So I'm going to toss a coin, and whoever calls it right starts.' I gave Baker the chance to call it and he called heads. It came up tails.
"I've been calling tails ever since."
It was that kind of quirky, unique atmosphere that Graham -- then the head coach at the Coast Guard Academy and a good friend of George Steinbrenner's -- created.
"I roomed with Dave Robinson," Richter said. "Otto purposely put black players with white players. It wasn't something that was talked about. This was just a year after the Redskins had finally integrated with Bobby Mitchell. But it may have been something he felt would bring us together."
On the other side, the 1963 Packers team was hurting. Running back Paul Hornung had been suspended for a season for gambling, and middle linebacker Ray Nitschke was out with a broken arm. But they were still the reigning NFL champs, and that was enough to make the starting-QB-by-coin-flip Vander Kelen's knees a little weak when the game started.
"I was so nervous I took the ball from center and fumbled it [on the first play]," he said.
The Packers took a 7-0 lead early in the game when All-Stars running back Larry Ferguson fumbled at his own 11-yard line, and Jim Taylor took it over for a touchdown. But the All-Stars, with Vander Kelen leading a 57-yard drive, came back with a Bob Jencks 20-yard field goal to make it a 7-3 game. Then they intercepted a Bart Starr pass, and got their first touchdown when Ferguson went in from five yards out for 10-7 lead. Green Bay tied it with a Jerry Kramer field goal for a 10-10 game at halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, the All-Stars took a 13-10 lead on a Jencks 33-yard field goal. Kramer missed a 37-yard field goal attempt. Then came The Play -- Vander Kelen hitting Richter, his former Wisconsin teammate, for that 73-yard touchdown. The All-Stars led 20-10. The Packers added a Taylor touchdown with seconds left in the game, but the All-Stars prevailed 20-17, and Lombardi got ill.
"We used to have a social get-together after a night game," the 75-year-old Dowler said. "Lombardi came in, and he looked visibly upset -- like death warmed over. He wasn't real kind when we got together for training camp again."
The Packers would go 11-2-1 in 1963, with both of their losses coming against the eventual NFL champion Chicago Bears. They would come back to beat the College All-Stars in three straight games from 1966 through '68 by a combined score of 99-17 (the exhibition eventually ended in 1976). But no matter how bad a beating Lombardi tried to put on those kids, it never erased the memory of that 1963 game.
"He would always bring it up to us when we weren't playing well," Davis said. "Believe me, we never would forget it."
Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.