K-State's Veryl Switzer greets fans during Football: The Exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas on February 8, 2014. (Scott D. Weaver/K-State Athletics)
April 15, 2014
By Mark Janssen
Picking "the greatest" of anything is always a topic for conversation, if not debate.
In Kansas State Wildcat history, is it Olympic decathlete Steve Fritz or Austra Skujyte, a multiple-time Olympic medalist in the heptathlon? Or is it basketballer Bob Boozer or Kendra Wecker? Or is it a Darren Sproles or a Michael Bishop from football?
For certain, a good case could be made for all.
But this writing is to acknowledge Veryl "Joe" Switzer as the most splendid athlete in Kansas State history.
A former K-State assistant coach Don Stehley once said of Switzer, "He was quick as hell, tough as hell and his defensive hits were absolutely devastating."
From 1950 to 1953, Switzer became the second African-American scholarship athlete in K-State history when he ruled the grass of the Wildcats' Memorial Stadium, plus the cinders of the track facility within the stadium.
For the record, to this day he holds the distinction of being the highest draft selection - fourth overall in 1954 - in football, plus was a Big Seven champion in track and field.
On being suggested as the "Greatest Wildcat Ever," the now 81-year-old Switzer humbly replied, "That's quite a compliment, but I played only because I loved it."
THE EARLY YEARS: Switzer grew up in the 125-person community of Nicodemus in northwestern Kansas. With his parents and five older brothers and sisters, he was raised in a 10-room limestone house, which today stands as a Nicodemus historical landmark.
"I knew our outhouse was about 150 feet from the house, but I never looked at us being poor because we had food on the table every night," recalled Switzer. "I didn't know we were poor until I saw in the paper that we were in an economically disadvantage category as a family."
For Switzer, his life seemed to be the norm, and one that he cherished.
He patrolled cattle by foot, feathered chickens by hand, cleaned the Baptist Church for 35 cents, and stuffed as many kids as he could into his Model A Ford so they could bounce and jiggle their way to nearby Bogue High School, which had an enrollment of 24 - 12 white and 12 black.
"The area was billed as the 'Promised Land,'" reflected Switzer. "Families from five colonies in Kentucky were encouraged to come out for the so-called '40 acres and a mule' concept. If you lived on the property so long, then the land became yours."
THE ALL-STAR ATHLETE: To say that Bogue had a tremendous six-man football team in the late-1940s would be an understatement.
On the roster of nine players, Switzer said, "Four of us could run under 10.2 (for the 100-yard dash), so we were pretty good. This is true: we honestly tried to get our coach to schedule a game with Kansas State. (Laughing) We had a little cockiness to us."
Switzer and his gang may have had a point. In Switzer's four high school years K-State was 3-36. In his last two-plus high school seasons, Bogue went undefeated and out-scored its opponents 950-52.
Bring on the 'Cats!
Weight programs didn't exist in the 1940s, yet Switzer says he had his own strength and conditioning formula. Giving a reflective chuckle, he said, "I lifted bales of hay and bags of cement... and I got paid $1.50 to $2.00 per hour to do it."
In high school track, he posted a 10.0-second 100-yard-dash, broad jumped 22 feet, 7 inches and pole vaulted 11 feet, 6 inches. Later at K-State, those numbers improved to 9.8, 24-7 and vaulting 13-9 with an aluminum poll.
Oh yes, Switzer also showed his versatility when "... I also played the tuba in the marching band at halftime with my football uniform on."
While a focused kid, Switzer's one outing on the wild side came prior to coming to K-State in the late-summer of 1950 when he and a buddy hopped in his Model A and tore off at 45 miles per hour across the Nebraska state line to get a six-pack of beer.
While a non-drinker himself, Switzer said, "I did it to say that I'd been out-of-state prior to coming to Kansas State. (Pausing) I knew there was a California because I had relatives there, but to me the outside world was Hill City."
A TRAILBLAZER: While Harold Robinson holds the distinction of being the first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship from K-State, Switzer was the second when he arrived in 1950.
He admits, "Life wasn't all roses. I had to use the back doors to hotels, eat away from my teammates and if I did eat in a restaurant, I had to use a paper cup instead of glass."
Pausing, he added, "But do you know what? It only made me work harder and be even more determined to excel and demonstrate my worthiness."
On Thursday, Switzer the Wildcat and beyond