GREATEST MOMENTS | QB rocketed Toledo football to perfection in 1969-71
The sports moment judged the greatest in Toledo history nearly ended before it barely started.
The Rockets opened the 1969 football season with a 45-18 drubbing of Villanova and didn't lose again until the first game of 1972.
Toledo won 35 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in modern major college football history behnd Oklahoma’s 47 (1953-57). It was the fifth-longest in college football history.
But the streak nearly ended at three games against Bowling Green, Toledo's closest and fiercest rival. The schools are separated by 20 miles on I-75 in Ohio.
“It was heated," Steve Lanning, a senior tight end for the 1969 Falcons, told the Toledo Blade in 2000. "You had to beat Toledo. That was the season.”
Bowling Green's 1969 season was on the line until the Falcons rallied in the fourth quarter to take a 26-24 lead. But they missed the extra point and quarterback Chuck Ealey drove the Rockets to Bowling Green's 21-yard line with two seconds remaining.
Ken Crots booted a 37-yard field goal into a strong wind to give the Rockets a 27-26 win, extending Toledo's winning streak to four games.
"I remember Chuck telling everybody that we had 49 seconds, that we had to give it all we had left and make something happen,” Crots said in 2000. “He was a fierce competitor, always so confident."
The Rockets finished the season 11-0 and followed up with 12-0 records in 1970 and 1971. During their streak, the Rockets won three MAC titles and three Tangerine Bowls. They outscored opponents 1,152-344 and led the nation in total defense in all three undefeated seasons.
The remarkable team was led by the remarkable Ealey, one of the earlier African-Americans to play quarterback in major college football.
"The Wizard of Oohs and Aahs" was the first football player in MAC history considered for the Heisman Trophy, finishing eighth in 1971 voting. Undefeated as a high school quarterback (30-0), Ealey went 35-0 as Toledo's starter.
“When you're playing you don't really think about winning streaks,” he told the Toledo Blade in 2001. “You just come to expect it. It's kind of like, ‘Oh well, another day, another game.' You realize that some day you may lose, but until you do you take things as they come. That being said, it's still hard to believe we won 35 in a row.”
They did in large part because of Ealey's ability to make big plays. "His teammates have an almost mystical belief in his ability to get them out of any jam," Sports Illustrated's Joe Jares wrote in 1971.
Ealey helped pull out a 10-7 win against Villanova that season with a long pass to set up the winning score in the closing moments. Four weeks later, Western Michigan's head coach invoked God after Ealey rallied Toledo to a 35-24 victory with 21 points in the fourth quarter.
"I think God was throwing some of those passes," Bill Doolittle said after the game. "I know (Ealey) had to have some help, somehow."
The Rockets also were helped by a top-ranked defense with tackle Mel Long as the anchor. He entered Toledo as a decorated Vietnam War veteran, having won the Navy Cross for singlehandedly killing six of the enemy in one confrontation.
In 1971, when the Rockets allowed more than eight points in only two games, Long became the MAC's first consensus All-American.
"Chuck Ealey was a great football player," Frank Lauterbur, Toledo's head coach in 1969 and 1970, said in 2001. "As for Mel Long, he was a destroyer. He was practically unblockable."
For three seasons, they helped make Toledo unbeatable. After a 28-3 victory against Richmond in the 1971 Tangerine Bowl, the last of the winning streak, the Rockets finished in the top 15 of the AP poll for the second consecutive year.
“We had a great team for three years, as well as a confident team,” Long said in 2001. “When we ran onto the field, we expected to win.”
Today, Long is in the College Football Hall of Fame but Ealey is not. He's blocked by a rule stating any candidate must have received first-team All-America recognition "by a selector organization that is recognized by the NCAA." Ealey was named first-team All-American in 1971 by the Football News, which at the time was not recognized by the NCAA.
But Ealey's perfect record will forever be enshrined in Toledo's football history.
• Varsity 'T' Hall of Fame