Denfeld News

Jan. 1, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Rosy memories reach 60 years for Duluth team
By Jon Nowacki

When Steve Vekich returned to Duluth after playing in the Little Rose Bowl on Dec. 12, 1948, friends joked that he had Hugh McElhenny’s tracks on his back.

Vekich and his Duluth Junior College teammates came up on the short end of a 48-14 loss to McElhenny and powerful Compton (Calif.) College at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., but the game helped put Duluth on the football map. Today, Southern California plays Penn State in the 95th Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Little Rose Bowl no longer exists, except in memories now 60 years old.

More than 50,000 people attended the big game before the bigger game.

“I think our time has passed, but in those days, it was a big deal,” said Vekich, a 1947 Duluth Denfeld graduate who still lives in Duluth. “It was the precursor to the Rose Bowl. Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty.”

At that time, football still had the barnstorming feel of its early days, and the line between big and small college football was more blurred. Duluth traveled via train to California and after a long layoff between games and little time to practice, the squad proved no match for Compton.

Compton’s squad included California speedster Bill Fell and McElhenny, a future Minnesota Viking and Pro Football Hall of Famer known as “The King.”

“Compton just had way too much blazing speed for us, but it was still a tremendous experience,” Vekich said. “After World War II, there was a tremendous push to go to college, and JCs were the way of the world. It was 25 bucks a credit. What’s it now? Five hundred?”

Of the 36 members of the team, the 79-year-old Vekich estimates only about 10 are still living. Nearly all the players hailed from Duluth, while a few were from Proctor. Duluth Junior College folded within a couple of years after that game, giving rise to the Duluth State Teachers College, now the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Brothers Bob and John Zeleznikar of Duluth Central were star running backs, while Gene Kensel (Central) and Chet Luzcak (Cathedral) were standout linemen. Quarterback Peter Petersen, a 1944 Central graduate, ran the offense under coach Frank “Butch” Larson, a former All-American at Minnesota. Petersen, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz., was one of the few team members to leave the area, but he still returns to Duluth each summer.

“We just happened to have a bunch of talent from the Duluth area that year,” Vekich said. “It was like Hicksville goes to Hollywood.”

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