Sports

Sequim’s McKeta was a UW football star

University of Washington football star Don McKeta started at right halfback for the Huskies as they romped past Wisconsin in the 1960 Rose Bowl, 44-8.  - Photo courtesy of Don McKeta
University of Washington football star Don McKeta started at right halfback for the Huskies as they romped past Wisconsin in the 1960 Rose Bowl, 44-8.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Don McKeta

By Col. John Lundberg

For the Sequim Gazette

Editor’s Note: Don McKeta has been a Sequim resident for the past decade. He first spotted the Dungeness Valley in 1961 on his way to a speaking engagement at the Port Angeles Lions Club. Though he won’t be playing (injury), McKeta will be taking part in the festivities at the fourth Sonny Sixkiller Husky Golf Classic on July 25. In the following story, John Lundberg — student manager for the 1959-1962 Huskies — recounts McKeta’s gridiron greatness. — MD

 

Eighty-year-old Don McKeta, still very physically fit, lives quietly on the big hill overlooking Sequim. He is hardly a household name in town. But if local residents were aware of his football career at the University of Washington from 1958-1960, he might be the most popular person in Sequim.

The reason is that McKeta’s impact on Washington football may be the greatest of any Husky who ever wore purple.

McKeta enrolled at Washington in the fall of 1958, a junior college transfer from California. He quickly emerged as the team leader. The 1958 Huskies were 3-7.

But in 1959 and 1960 the team won 20 games, lost two, won two consecutive Rose Bowls and was voted national college football champion in 1960 for the first time in school history.

It was an incredible run, maybe the best two years in UW football history; the two Rose Bowl wins, the first in school history, captivated a victory-starved Seattle and excited beyond words the entire Pacific Northwest.

Two-way star

There were many stars on the 1959 and 1960 teams. But no one was more responsible for the team’s success than McKeta. A running back and defensive back in an era of single-platoon football (1954-1965), he was the undisputed leader of the pack and the captain of the team. And for two consecutive years, teammates also voted him the Guy Flaherty Award, given annually to its most inspirational player. It was only the second time in the 117-year history of the award that a player had won the award twice.

The 1959 junior-laden Huskies’ shocked Wisconsin, 44-8, in the 1960 Rose Bowl, arguably the biggest upset in Rose Bowl history (the Huskies were 14-point underdogs). The next year, essentially the same Husky team returned to Pasadena and defeated Minnesota, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, 17-7, earning the Huskies a national championship from the Helms Foundation.

Peer respect

Henry Broderick, for years a Seattle civic leader and president of the city’s largest real estate company, was extremely impressed with McKeta’s leadership. In a note to McKeta in 1960, he said, “As a close follower of Washington football since 1902, I bracket you with the immortal George Wilson.” Many consider Wilson Washington’s greatest player. Wilson was part of Grantland Rice’s All-American backfield in 1925 consisting of Wilson, Red Grange of Illinois and Ernie Nevers of Stanford.

“Don was the heart and soul of our team,” said teammate Tim Bullard, who now lives in Poulsbo. “He was so tough. The son of a coal miner from Pennsylvania and a Navy veteran, he was older than the rest of us. We all looked up to him. No one wanted to let him down. He had an innate sense of when the team was dogging it, at which point he would level an opponent or purposely get an unnecessary roughness penalty. It would fire everyone up.”

Said another teammate Chuck Allen, who played 12 years in the National Football League (nine with the San Diego Chargers, two with the Pittsburgh Steelers and one with the Philadelphia Eagles). “Some guys want to be leaders. Don was a leader. It wasn’t just his ability that impressed us. It was the effort he always gave.” Allen lives in Port Townsend.

Roger Hagberg, University of Minnesota star who played against McKeta in the 1961 Rose Bowl and then played nine years of professional football in the National Football League and in Canada, stated, “Don McKeta was the toughest player I ever played against.”

Small-town beginning

McKeta grew up in the small coal-mining town of Wood, Pa.

“Wood was a special place,” he said. “It was a tightly knit Polish community, with lots of love, hard work and laughter. But times were tough. People didn’t have much. Mom and Dad and all their friends had grown up during the Depression. We lived first in a house provided by the mining company and then eight miles from town on a farm.”

McKeta was a star football player at Robertsdale High School as a sophomore and junior. But he dropped out of school before his senior year (he later got a high school GED in the Navy) to earn money for the family. At age 16 he found himself living in a boarding house in Allentown, 200 miles from home, working for a construction company. He later worked for an electric company in Philadelphia. For more than two years he dug sewer ditches and climbed electric poles.

In 1953, at age 18, McKeta joined the Navy, fighting in the Korean War and earning all-service football honors. He played football at San Jose Community College in 1957, where UW football coach Jim Owens saw him play on film and recruited him to Washington.

Owens later said that McKeta was “one of the select few that always played football as it was meant to be played.”

Honors and pros

McKeta was named Seattle’s Man of the Year in Sports in 1960; selected to play in the Senior Bowl and the All-American Bowl all-star games in 1961; selected a member of the 100-Year All-Time Husky Team selected by the Tacoma News Tribune; declared an “Unsung Hero” by the All-American Football Foundation; and inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame, Washington Husky Football Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Husky football legend Hugh McElhenny paid McKeta the ultimate compliment in 1998 when he said, “Don McKeta was not the most gifted athlete, but no one had a bigger heart. He was willing to sacrifice personal glory for the team’s success, which was always his No. 1 priority.”

The New York Giants drafted McKeta in 1961 after he graduated from Washington. He elected to take a better offer from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. However, six games into his rookie season, he suffered a serious neck injury that ended his playing days. McKeta says he is fortunate it did not leave him paralyzed.

‘Toughness’

A battered sign that hung in the Husky locker room in the late 1950s and early 1960s described so well the players of the Jim Owens era at Washington. It read, “Toughness is a quality of the mind. Without it physical condition is a mockery.” Teammates said it described McKeta perfectly.

McKeta constantly praised teammates for his success. After a game in which a reporter complimented him for running the ball well, he said, “You can have a great back and with an average line, the team and the back will be average. If you have an average back with a great line, the team and back will become great. A great line will create a memory for a lifetime.”

It’s easy to see why Don McKeta is considered by many the greatest Husky of them all.

 

John Lundberg was a student manager for the 1959-1962 Huskies. Born and raised in Port Orchard, he now lives in Front Royal, Va., near his children and grandchildren.

 

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