Jan. 1, 2009
Rosy memories reach 60 years for Duluth
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
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.”