That was in 1948 and the eerie similarity of that squad to the present starting eleven players in Silver and Blue is that the team was led by a sensational quarterback. This season it is Colin Kaepernick and in 1948 it was Stan Heath.
Heath, who died at age 83 on the same day that the national ranking was announced for this year’s team, was a first team All-American and was listed in the backfield with Jackie Jensen. Perhaps some local football aficionado can recall the other two men in that 1948 backfield.
Heath earned his All-American status by virtue of the heroics he performed on the turf in the 1947 and 1948 seasons. In 1948, he finished fifth in the Heisman trophy voting behind first place Doak Walker of Southern Methodist University, second place Charlie Justice of the University of North Carolina, third place Chuck Bednarik of Pennsylvania and fourth place Jackie Jensen of the University of California, Berkeley.
To get the full story behind Heath’s mystique, one has only to sit down with University of Nevada, Reno Athletic Director Emeritus Dick Trachok.
Well known and respected for the voluminous stack of material on every athlete that played for the Wolf Pack, Trachok also was Health's teammate on those 1947 and 1948 squads. As a right halfback for Nevada, Trachok was part and parcel of the talented squad that boasted future NFL player Tommy Kalmanir at left halfback.
Digging through the files of the Heath years in Trachok’s Legacy Hall office on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, we came across reams and reams of statistics and other teammate information from that long ago super squad. Head coach was Joe Sheeketski and his assistants included Jack Lawlor, Dick Evans and Hugh Smithwick.
This writer was fortunate to have been on campus those two years and I never missed a home football game, as well as any that were played in nearby California venues.
Old Mackay Stadium was sold-out for every home appearance the Pack made and in 1948, Nevada was en route to a perfect season and a possible matchup with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. However, a windswept field in Sacramento, Calif. proved the team’s undoing as Santa Clara upset the Pack and subsequently the team lost to Villanova in the Harbor Bowl.
Watching the Pack’s vaunted air attack utterly destroyed by the swirling winds in Sacramento was a bitter pill for those of us who made the trip to the California capital city.
Riffling through the old tomes in Trachok’s office, one comes across descriptions of Heath such as this: “Most of Nevada’s record molesting was accomplished by its air game. Wolf Pack pitchers, led by Stan Heath, averaged 225 yards per game, and whipped a total of 27 scoring strikes into the end zone. The Wolf Pack’s average of 15.6 completions per game is without collegiate parallel, next best being 14.7 by Ole Miss in 1947. In addition, Nevada’s 57.1 percent completion rate just failed to match the all-time peak of 57.4 percent for teams throwing 200 or more times in a season.”
In that same release, top forward passing stats for 1948 were listed by teams and Nevada ranked first, far ahead of second place Georgia Tech and above such pigskin powers as UCLA, Michigan, Southern Methodist and Boston College.
Another such paragraph in the official "NCAA Football Guide" for 1948 read, “Nevada had its greatest season in history, thanks to Stan Heath, who broke every collegiate passing mark in the book.”
As I recall, the most exciting thing to watch in a Heath-directed game was to see him drop back into his own end zone and loft the ball perfectly about 70 or 75 yards down the sideline to one of his streaking, speedy receivers that included Carl Robinson and Willy Elder among many others. Opposing defenders would shake their heads in disbelief as the oblate spheroid sailed far over their heads. In addition to his bevy of quick, speedburners Heath also had some towering receivers in the persons of Dan Orlich and Harold Hayes.
Heath was a well proportioned athlete, standing 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 190 pounds. By today’s standards that is not overly impressive, but what is impressive is the fact that he played safety on defense. Like many of his teammates he was a gifted player on both sides of the ball. Running was not his forte, but he had some terrific ball carriers in the backfield so it was not an issue.
His records included the following:
In a single season
• Most passing yardage — 2,005 yards
• Most touchdown passes — 22
• Average passing and rushing yards per game — 221.3 yards
• Most 300-yard (or more) passing games — 3, against San Jose State, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
In a single game
• Most passing yardage — 327 yards against Oklahoma City
• Most touchdown passes — 5 against Oklahoma City
• Most completed passes — 22 against Tulsa
NCAA single season records in 1948
• Average rushing and passing gain per game — 487 yards
• Average passing gain per game — 255 yards
• Average number of completed passes per game — 15.6
• Total number of touchdown passes –— 27
The déjà vu in the headline obviously refers to the comparisons that currently are being made between Heath and Kaepernick. Certainly the latter is at least the second greatest quarterback in Nevada history and, depending on what happens the rest of the season, could someday stand shoulder to shoulder with Heath in the Pantheon of great Nevada football players.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.