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Archive for Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Woodling: Recalling former Jayhawks

December 27, 2006

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As we come closer to the end of 2006, I hope you'll take a couple of minutes with me to remember four former Kansas University football players who died this year.

Most notable of the four was Galen Fiss, a fullback and linebacker who played for the Jayhawks from 1950-53, then spent 11 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, two as a Pro Bowler.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas City and watching the NFL on a small black-and-white TV set, the Browns always seemed to be in the league championship game, and Fiss was one of Cleveland's defensive standouts.

Back in those days, pro football was rougher than it is now, in large part because a ball-carrier wasn't considered down until he was on the ground for at least three seconds. Cheap shots were prevalent, too.

So I figured that everybody who played defense in those days had to be a mean SOB, and since Fiss was one of the NFL's best, it stood to reason he would be one of the meanest SOBs south of Lake Erie.

Over the years, however, I learned that Fiss was just the opposite. He was a quiet, unassuming man. I ran into him often while he was a member of as many KU athletics committees as he was NFL championship teams.

Fiss clearly cared deeply about KU, yet went out of his way to avoid the limelight.

Galen Fiss died in June in Overland Park. He was 75.

¢ Over the years, KU athletics has had many track athletes who also dabbled unsuccessfully in football, but none was more adept at both sports than Ron Jessie.

A transfer from a California junior college, Jessie was the Jayhawks' second-leading rusher behind John Riggins in 1969 and KU's leading receiver after he was switched to wide receiver in 1970.

At the same time, Jessie earned an NCAA championship in the long jump, and his :13.8 clocking in the 110-meter hurdles still ranks as one of the best in school history.

Jessie went on to play 11 seasons as a wide receiver and kick returner in the NFL. Jessie's best year was 1976, when he made the Pro Bowl after catching 34 passes and six touchdowns for the Los Angeles Rams.

Jessie died in January in Huntington Beach, Calif. He was 57.

¢ John Wertzberger was a former Lawrence High and Kansas University football player who later became one of the Jayhawks' team doctors.

A KU offensive lineman in the late 1950s, he went on to graduate from the Kansas School of Medicine and may have performed more knee surgeries on KU football players than any doctor except his younger brother, Ken, who followed in his footsteps.

John Wertzberger died in May in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 69.

¢ Derek Berry was hardly a great KU football player. A defensive back, Berry lettered twice back in the mid-1980s and often played in the same secondary with older brother Tony.

Later, the Berry brothers assembled one of Lawrence's best slow-pitch teams, the Crunchberries. Those of us who had the misfortune to pitch against the Crunchberries were often, yes, crunched.

I'm not sure I ever saw one of the Berry brothers, always upbeat guys, when he wasn't smiling.

Derek Berry died in June in Grandview, Mo. He was 41.

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