It was, Rex Kern said, the day he was accepted as a Baltimore Colt. A first-year defensive back in 1971, Kern was approached after practice at training camp in Westminster by quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall.
“Hey, rookie, want to stay and work out with us?” they asked. Kern obliged. Finished, they invited him to accompany them to O’s and Ginny’s, a tavern down the road where the Super Bowl champs hung out.
Kern agreed, but then thought better. After all, he didn’t drink.
“I thought, ‘Oh my, gosh, I don’t want to go there,’ ” he said. “So I showered real quick, grabbed my playbook, ran outside and hid in the bushes, hoping they wouldn’t see me.
“Pretty soon, Johnny drove up in his car and Earl got in. They sat there for five minutes before Earl rolled down the window and yelled, ‘Hey, rookie, get out of the bushes and into the car.’
“So we walk into the bar and there are all the guys — Tom Matte, Jerry Logan, Dan Sullivan — and I go to sit down and there are six cans of beer in front of me before I hit the seat. Well, I act like I’m drinking, but I’m really just lipping it, and after a while they say, ‘Hey, rookie, we’ve got to get going or we’ll miss our meal.’ So they all join in and finish my beers.”
That’s when Kern felt he belonged.
“It was a big family environment that season,” he said of the Colts regime. “Before every game, [team owner] Carroll Rosenbloom would stop at every locker, look you in the eye, shake your hand and say, ‘Glad you’re a Baltimore Colt, have a great game and is there anything I can do for you outside of football?’ ”
Kern played three years for the Colts. A star at Ohio State, he’d quarterbacked the Buckeyes to the national championship in 1968 and been Most Valuable Player of their Rose Bowl victory over Southern California and O.J. Simpson. Twice, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, placing third as a junior and fifth as a senior. Yet Kern was a 10th-round pick in the NFL draft, given his size (5 feet 11) and chronic back problems. His passing was a puzzle, given Ohio State coach Woody Hayes’ proclivity to run. A move to cornerback, in the pros, was a given.
“Everybody had written me off after college,” Kern said from his home outside Denver. “I couldn’t have gone to a better team.”
As a rookie, he played every game and started the last six, including playoffs, as the Colts (10-4) reached the AFC championship game. In the divisional playoff, Kern’s early theft set the tone in a 20-3 win in Cleveland. On the Browns’ first drive, Fair Hooker, their best receiver, caught a pass over Kern’s head and the latter gave chase.
“I wasn’t fast,” he said, “but I ran as hard as I could, caught [Hooker] at the 12-yard line and stripped the ball from him. I just took it out of his arms, like I’d seen [Colts linebacker] Mike Curtis do, and fell flat on the ground.
“That was a super-big play for me,” said Kern, who grew up a Browns fan in Lancaster, Ohio.
Sidelined for much of 1972 by a back injury and dislocated hand, he returned the next year, started eight games and intercepted two passes — both in games against defending Super Bowl champion Miami and Morrall, then its quarterback. The second pick helped the Colts to a 16-3 upset and ended the Dolphins’ 10-game winning streak.
“Earl was a Michigan State guy, so I felt good about that,” he said.
And then Kern was gone, placed on waivers in 1974 after a bitter 42-day players strike in which Kern was the Colts’ player representative. One night during the strike, he said, he was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by a call from general manager Joe Thomas.
“He [Thomas] said, ‘Rex, I want to tell you one thing: If there is anyone in camp who is not on strike, and whose ability is even half as good as the rest of you, I’ll cut [the strikers],’ ” Kern said.
Soon after the walkout ended, Kern was told to turn in his playbook. Signed by Buffalo, he helped the Bills defeat the Colts, 6-0, and reach the playoffs where they lost to Pittsburgh, the eventual Super Bowl champ. Against the Steelers, Kern had 13 tackles and a fumble recovery despite playing with a dislocated finger.
He retired (back problems), earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State and, for more than four decades, served as president of a firm that sells Nautilus equipment in California and Nevada. Ten years ago, he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“When I learned the news, I broke into tears,” he said.
Now 68, Kern lives with Nancy, his wife of 45 years and a former Rose Bowl princess whom he met there in 1968. Fourteen surgeries, including seven on his back and two hip replacements, have slowed him.
“My activity is basically zero,” he said. “Fortunately, I can still get around. Those are the cards I’ve been dealt.”
There’s a Colts mini-helmet on his desk at home. One side bears Unitas’ autograph; the other, that of Matte, former Colt and Ohio State star.
Kern can still throw the pigskin, as he did Saturday while attending the Ohio State-Penn State game in Columbus.
“I bought our 9-year-old grandson a scarlet-and-gray football,” he said. “Caleb tossed it to me, said, ‘Throw it here, Poppa!’ and took off running. I said, ‘Come back here, I can’t throw it that far.’
“I can still throw a tight spiral about 7 yards. That’s as far as Woody would have let me throw in college, anyway.”