April 17, 2014
By Mark Janssen
It was on Tuesday that K-State Sports Extra orchestrated some coffee shop debate by declaring Veryl "Joe" Switzer the "Greatest Athlete" in Wildcat history.
Switzer was a two-way Wildcat performer in football as a running back and safety, plus a two-way performer in track and field in the sprints and broad jump.
Here's part of his story as he arrived at K-State as only the second African American to be awarded with an athletic scholarship in the fall of 1950.
In his post-Wildcat years, Switzer has been elected to the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame, the State of Kansas Sports Hall of Fame and the Kansas High School Activities Association Hall of Fame.
ADJUSTING TO K-STATE: Change came from every direction for the young 18-year-old.
From an all-black community of no more than 150, Switzer was now on a campus of thousands, and all but four or five were white.
"There was some adjusting, for sure," said Switzer, who in the fall of 1999 was honored with "Veryl Switzer Week" with the proclamation coming from Kansas State, Manhattan and the state of Kansas. "I was a trailblazer. I was asked to knock down barriers. I was reminded of that daily."
On the field, life was just as cluttered.
From playing six-man football as the quarterback/halfback for Bogue High School, Switzer faced the significant adjustment to an 11-man game at K-State.
"I was used to getting by five or six players and seeing open field," said Switzer. "Here, I'd go through five or six guys and there would be another five or six out there. That was frustrating because I was used to scoring a home run every time I touched the ball. That was my attitude"
And losing was new to Switzer as well. He was coming from a Bogue High School team that outscored opponents, 950-52, in his last two-plus seasons, but at K-State in his playing seasons of 1951, 1952 and 1953, the Wildcats went 0-9, 1-9 and 6-3-1 under coach Bill Meek.
Switzer led the team in rushing his junior and senior seasons, but with just 201 and 558 yards, respectively. He led in receptions with 27 as a senior plus held the K-State career punt return record until the Bill Snyder era. He, unquestionably, would have set tackle records, but defensive statistics only started in 1966.
As a two-way performer, Switzer said, "I loved to play both ways, but defense was my red meat. I liked the stardom that went with scoring touchdowns, but defense was my meat and potatoes."
As a running back, those years of lifting bales of hay and bags of cement back in Nicodemus, Kan., as a teenager paid off in developing a forearm shiver.
"I heard Joe Lewis (boxer) talked about his six-inch punch," said the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Switzer. "That got me to thinking about a short forearm shiver. I could knock a bull down with that forearm. I figured running through a guy was easier than going around him."
Overall, the two-time second team All-American and three-time All-Big Seven performer said, "I hope I'm remembered for playing with a great deal of heart and sense of love for competition."
In track, Switzer was a Big Seven champion, posting a best time of 9.8 seconds in the 100-yard dash, long jumping 24-feet, 7-inches and pole vaulting 13-feet, 9 inches with an aluminum pole.
"That's before the 40-yard dash was kept, but I know I could beat Thane Baker in the first 40 yards of the 60, and he held the world record and was an Olympian," Switzer said.
In 100-plus years of intercollegiate football, it's Switzer who holds the distinction of being the highest drafted player in Kansas State history. He was the fourth selection in the 1954 draft by Green Bay.
"I signed for $10,000, but had to borrow $500 so I could get a new car," Switzer recalled. "I asked for a $2,000 signing bonus, but didn't get it."
He was selected only behind quarterback Bobby Garrett of Stanford, quarterback Lamar McHan of Arkansas and Notre Dame tackle Art Hunter, but as the No. 1 running back, which meant going ahead of Heisman Trophy winner John Lattner of Notre Dame.
Switzer played for the Packers for two seasons before being drafted again... this time by Uncle Sam with Switzer joining the Air Force, where he played on the title-winning team at the World Armed Forces Championships.
Returning to Green Bay, Switzer found the likes of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor on the roster, which sent the former Wildcat packing for the Canadian Football League where he finished his career in Montreal and Calgary.
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL: After his professional career, Switzer taught in Chicago and later worked with the Chicago Board of Education.
After turning down multiple offers from K-State to return to help with the black student enrollment, finally athletic director Ernie Barrett refused to take no for an answer.
"I was back in Manhattan and had the feeling that he wasn't letting me out of town without saying, 'Yes,'" said Switzer. "I came back and took a $3,000 pay cut to help with minority affairs and athletics."
Before retirement, Switzer served as associate dean and assistant vice president for minority affairs, chairperson of the Wildcats' Intercollegiate Athletic Council and eventually associate athletics director.
Off the field, he said, "My reward has been seeing young people grow and graduate. I tried to help young people see their opportunities. I always had the motto that if I saved one kid a year, I've paid my salary."