The Red Sanders Single Wingers, a group of UCLA football players who played for legendary coach Red Sanders from 1949 through Red’s untimely demise in 1958, meet annually in November at the UCLA J.D. Morgan Center on the UCLA campus.
This year’s luncheon saluted the 1953 team, one of the best in UCLA’s history. They were 8-1, the only loss coming at Stanford by one point, 21-20, the only game in which they allowed more than one touchdown. In fact, only four other touchdowns were scored against them in their other 8 games until the Rose Bowl. They allowed the second fewest points, 48, of any team in the NCAA. They went to the 1954 Rose Bowl and lost to a powerful Michigan State team, 28-20, finishing the season ranked #4 in the nation.
Present were most of the living members of the team, including consensus All-American tailback Paul Cameron, who led the team in rushing, passing, punting, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns, total yardage, and interceptions (players played both offense and defense in those days). Paul finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting to Notre Dame’s Johnny Lattner, even though many Notre Damers admitted that Paul was the better player.
Moderator Rudy Feldman, who was the co-captain (with Chuck Doud) of the 1953 team and who puts these annual luncheons together, asked if anyone had any stories to contribute and several players volunteered humorous anecdotes about the Sanders practice field, which was dominated by Sanders, who viewed every practice from an elevated platform and peppered the practices with caustic comments about each player’s ability (“you couldn’t hurt a blade of grass!”). Many related the humorous digs Sanders used against them, and all recalled that Sanders did not allow water at practice.
All American linebacker Donn Moomaw, who graduated in 1952 and as a Presbyterian minister was Ronald Reagan’s minister, recalled that one time he asked Sanders if he could lead a prayer before a game. Sanders, who was a man of the world, initially demurred, but after a lot of cajoling by Moomaw, very reluctantly agreed to let him do it. Immediately after the Bruins barely won a game in which they had been heavily favored, Sanders called Donn into his office and said, “Moomaw, I don’t think we’ll have any more prayers before the game.”
Since Cameron was there it gave me an opportunity to ask him about last year’s meeting, which I wrote up for The Tolucan Times. One of the speakers last year, Ed Flynn, had said that the pivotal interception that USC’s Elmer Wilhoite made on a Cameron pass in the fourth quarter of the 1952 USC-UCLA game as the Bruins were leading 12-7 and driving for another touchdown was because UCLA’s right end, Ike Jones, split wide when he wasn’t supposed to. As a result Wilhoite, who Flynn was supposed to block on the play, saw this and didn’t rush and was in a position Cameron had not anticipated when he threw the pass over the middle.
I asked Cameron about that. He said he wasn’t aware that Jones had split wide, but if he did, that might have been what caused the interception but not because of anything Wilhoite did. Cameron said he had a receiver wide open in the end zone, but he was rushed and someone hit his arm as he threw the ball, so instead of sailing over Wilhoite’s head into the receiver’s arms in the end zone for a lead-enhancing touchdown, it went low, right into Wilhoite’s arms who galloped 72 yards setting USC up for the game winning touchdown. He said maybe the reason he was rushed so hard was because Jones split wide when it wasn’t called for and missed his blocking assignment. What’s fascinating about this is that two of the principals of the play, in fact perhaps the two most important principals on the UCLA team, have different viewpoints of this pivotal play, that resulted in a 14-12 loss and cost them a Rose Bowl bid. If you ask this unbiased observer, I think both are right. Because Jones was split out he didn’t block someone he should have and that caused Cameron’s arm to be hit, resulting in a low pass into Wilhoite’s hands. But had Wilhoite rushed, he wouldn’t have been there to make the interception.
Today’s UCLA football coach, Jim Mora, once again made an appearance, and brought the former players up to speed on today’s program. Mora is an enthusiastic, optimistic person with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye and he expressed appreciation for all that the players had done for UCLA and for the tradition they helped to establish.
The players don’t take this luncheon lightly. It was attended by at least 16 of the 37 members of the 1953 team and their wives, along with 40 more former Sanders players, some athletes on other teams like basketball player Jerry Norman, who as John Wooden’s assistant coach was an essential driving force behind UCLA’s incomparable basketball success, and two former Daily Bruin Sports Editors from the era, Bob Seizer and me.
Pete Dailey, a wingback on the 1953 team who was President Reagan’s Ambassador to Ireland from 1982-84, pointed out that if a luncheon like this had been held when they played in 1953, the players attending would have played in 1895! It’s a tribute to UCLA that so many players faithfully attend a luncheon like this over a half century after they played.