Merritt Norvell was sitting in a business meeting in Chicago with a few corporate executives last year making small talk, when conversation shifted to the large Wisconsin Badgers ring positioned on one of his fingers. For five decades, Norvell has worn the ring with great pride despite the result associated with it. Even now, discoveries of his participation in the 1963 Rose Bowl draw stunned looks and excited queries from those with knowledge of the event.
In that room, a question arose that Norvell has heard many times over the years: Was that the game when quarterback Ron Vander Kelen and receiver Pat Richter nearly led the greatest comeback in college football history?
"Everybody remembers the game," Norvell said.
Fifty-three years later, what most people remember isn't the fact Wisconsin lost 42-37 to USC in the Rose Bowl. Instead, it is that the Badgers staged one of the most remarkable comebacks sports fans had ever witnessed, nearly pulling off an all-time stunner in college football's first No. 1 vs. No. 2 bowl game matchup.
This week, a tinge of nostalgia will wash over the participants, with Wisconsin and USC set to meet Dec. 30 in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. The stakes aren't nearly as high, but it marks the first time the schools will play in a bowl game since that famous Jan. 1, 1963, Rose Bowl, rekindling emotions that have lived on over the years.
"You think about back then," said Steve Underwood, a guard and linebacker on that Wisconsin team and one of the Badgers' co-captains. "You think, 'Gosh darn it, I wish I was still playing.' The memories continue to be so fresh in my mind 53 years later."
USC entered that Rose Bowl 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Wisconsin stood 8-1, with a lone loss at Ohio State, and ranked No. 2. But six seconds into the fourth quarter, the game was a complete whitewash. USC quarterback Pete Beathard connected with tight end Fred Hill on a 13-yard touchdown pass to give the Trojans a seemingly insurmountable 42-14 lead.
On the sideline, there were two distinctly different reactions. As USC coach John McKay recalled after the game, "some of our guys were congratulating each other, like the game was over." Meanwhile, Badgers players were determined to show the nation they deserved to be on the same field with the Trojans.
"It was more a question of trying to get some respectability back and do as much as you can," said Richter, a co-captain who went on to serve as Wisconsin's athletic director from 1989 to 2004. "I'm sure Southern Cal probably took their foot off the gas a little bit. It's just human nature.
"On the other hand, we were embarrassed, and we hadn't played well. Those two things happened at the same time. Once you shut it down a little bit, it's hard to crank it back up again."
The Wisconsin comeback began when Badgers halfback Lou Holland took a pitchout 13 yards for a touchdown. USC's Ben Wilson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Wisconsin converted the mistake into a 4-yard touchdown pass from Vander Kelen to halfback Gary Kroner that trimmed the deficit to 42-28. A bad USC snap in the end zone on a punt attempt resulted in a Wisconsin safety to make the score 42-30. Then, with 1:19 remaining, Vander Kelen threw another touchdown pass, this time to Richter, to bring Wisconsin to within 42-37.
A USC attempt to stall backfired when the Trojans were forced to punt after their tailbacks intentionally lost yardage on runs to keep the clock moving. Underwood distinctly recalled teammate Elmars Ezerins having a free lane to the punter but pulling off at the last instant. When Holland caught the punt at his own 44-yard line, USC tacklers met him immediately and time ran out on Wisconsin.
"He said after the game that he didn't do it because he thought he saw somebody else was going to block it, so he backed off," Underwood said. "Well, there wasn't anybody there, and he could've done it. That's the way the game is. We could have very well won that game in the last 30 seconds."
Wisconsin players retreated to the locker room, tears flowing as they lamented a game full of missed opportunities. But no one could imagine the fan reaction afterward. The public, thrilled by such an exciting finish on national television, rallied around the Badgers like no losing team ever before.
"You would've thought that we won the game because of the way people were congratulating us and talking about the game, which really pissed off the guys from USC to this day," said Norvell, a fullback on the team.
Vander Kelen set four Rose Bowl records that day: for completions (33), pass attempts (48), passing yards (401) and total offense (406). Richter caught 11 passes for 163 yards, two yards shy of the Rose Bowl high set in 1935 by Alabama's Don Hutson. Vander Kelen and Beathard were named co-MVPs of the game.
Richter noted USC players felt compelled to remind television reporters they actually won the game, after Richter and Vander Kelen received so much attention during the postseason Hula Bowl. Even all these years later, an appreciation for the fourth-quarter effort that day has trumped the feelings of loss among Badgers players, who have realized their place in one of the most spectacular college football games in history.
"There's still nothing like the pageantry and all that goes along with the Rose Bowl," Norvell said, "and that's a memory you'll take to your grave with you."