Gene Knutson, one of Beloit's greatest all-around athletes - and a former Green Bay Packer - passed away Saturday in Cassopolis, Mich., after a sixth-month struggle with cancer.
Knutson excelled in baseball, basketball, track and field and, most notably, football. After starring at Beloit Memorial High School, he went on to play for the University of Michigan and later two seasons at defensive end for the Packers.
But there wasn't much in the way of memorabilia around his home in Cassopolis. He could have filled the walls and the shelves with plaques and trophies, but he preferred to give everything away.
In an interview with this reporter in 1998, he explained why.
“One day I gathered everything - trophies, awards, plaques, press clippings, sweaters and jackets,” he said. “I had the clothes cleaned and polished up the trophies and put all that stuff in the trunk of my car. Every time I'd see a grandkid I'd explain what an item was, what it meant to me and that I was giving it to them.
“I just thought, when I kick the bucket this stuff may end up going to Goodwill. At least I had the pleasure to explain to each child what each item meant to me. I have them in my memory now and I don't care where they are. I don't need them on the wall anywhere.”
Among the plaques he gave away was the one he received when he was inducted into the Beloit Historical Society's Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. He gave that plaque to one of his eight grandchildren.
One of the few things Knutson kept in his possession was a small letter “L” and he produced it when he was inducted at the Lincoln Center.
“The school (Lincoln Junior High) is no longer here,” he told the audience that night, “but my career began out on that field.”
Knutson's athletic career nearly ended before it began. He failed his first physical due to high blood pressure and a heart murmur. He played anyway, however, admitting years later that he lied to the football coach, telling him he had turned in his doctor's permission slip.
Born in Beloit on Nov. 10, 1932, Knutson participated in football, basketball and track and field at the high school and during the summer, he pitched for an American Legion baseball team that won a state championship in 1947.
He won three letters in football in high school, earning all-conference honors in 1948 and 1949 and All-State honors in '49. He also earned two letters and was co-captain of the 1950 basketball team, earning All-State honors as a forward. He lettered twice in track and was a member of a state championship team as a junior.
“Gene was probably one of the best all-around athletes Beloit High School ever had,” said Gene Weeden, a former teammate who was a year ahead of Knutson. “He was a hard worker, had loads of talent and he was a great team player.”
Knutson credited another legend, Coach Carl “Pill” Nelson as being instrumental in his success.
“Whatever Coach Nelson said was gospel,” Knutson said. “He was a great influence on me as far as my work ethic and training.”
Nelson talked Knutson out of going out for tennis his sophomore year, steering him onto the track, where he became an accomplished hurdler.
Nelson left the high school to coach at Beloit College, but instead of trying to lure Knutson there, he advised him to attend the University of Michigan.
“Coach Nelson said, ‘Gene, I understand you wanting to go to Michigan and if you don't go there you'll be sorry,'” Knutson said.
He wasn't. The first time he left the tunnel at Ann Arbor, there were over 100,000 fans on hand for a game against Michigan State.
“That was such a thrill to me, so exciting,” Knutson said. “How could I ever explain that to someone? Unless you experience sitting in that locker room, getting dressed, warming up and then going out to that crowd and playing in that ballgame, you'll never know. It was exhilarating.”
The 6-foot-5 Knutson, who played at 200 pounds in high school, was up to 230 by his senior year at Michigan and playing both ways at end. He caught the winning touchdown pass in a 14-13 victory over Iowa in 1953. He earned all-Midwest honors and All-American honorable mention, playing in the college all-star Hula Bowl.
The Packers drafted him in the 10th round of the NFL draft and he played 18 games over two seasons, in 1954 and 1956. He missed 1955 due to a knee injury. In his two seasons, Green Bay finished 4-8 twice under head coach Lisle Blackbourn.
Knutson did play with many Packers considered the nucleus of the later great Packer teams under Vince Lombardi - Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Max McGee, Jim Ringo and Bart Starr.
But in 1956, he turned down a contract offer due to chronic knee problems. He taught at St. Joseph's High School in South Bend before going into private business. He eventually became executive vice president for Ara Parsegian Enterprises.
Knutson also became director of the NFL Alumni and served as a vice chairman of the board. He founded the NFL Alumni chapter in South Bend and for 14 years organized a celebrity golf tournament that benefited CANCO Child Development Center and the Ara Parsegian Medical Research Foundation.
Knutson loved his experiences at Michigan, but the NFL was a different story.
“It was more of a business - dog eat dog,” he said. “When I played there were only 12 teams (in the NFL) and the (roster) limit was 33. It was a lot harder to get on a pro roster that it is now. I would love to be coming out of college now.”
He never minded comparing the stars of his generation to today's.
“There is the assumption that players today are bigger and better today,” he said. “We had guys like Johnny Unitas and Sid Luckman. Guys who played in the '40s and '50s, if they grew up today, they'd be stars today, too.”