Although I’m not a big numbers person, in honor of today being 12/12/12, it seemed like a good time to re-publish this “Behind the Stats” column I wrote in December 2007 for Metro Sports about KU’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your view) 12th man, Rick Abernethy. I’ve made minor edits for clarification.
Rick Abernethy will always remember the headline in the Miami Herald on January 2, 1969: “It’s All My Fault, Blame Me”
“The type they used must’ve been as big as when they announced Pearl Harbor,” Abernethy said with a laugh from his home in Leawood.
Indeed, it’s one of the worst tags to hang on an athlete: goat. It’s worse than “bust” or “past his prime.” It’s as bad as being called Bonds. Well, maybe not.
But it’s a tag that Abernethy has carried with him, to some degree, for nearly 45 years. During the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1969, a game the sixth-ranked Jayhawks lost 15-14 to No. 3 Penn State, KU had its goat.
Abernethy, a fifth-year senior linebacker, was the 12th man in KU’s infamous “12th man” loss that day. He was labeled the goat.
“It bothers me, sure,” he said, “but I don’t ever really get tired of talking about it. I can look at it humorously now.”
For almost 15 years, Abernethy carried the guilt from that loss. Finally, in 1982, he watched the game for the first time. Not only did he watch it; he broke it down. At the time, Abernethy was the strength coach for the Chiefs. He also broke down film for the coaches, so to break down that 1969 Orange Bowl would be a breeze. At least physically. During the NFL strike in ’82, Abernethy had a little extra time on his hands, plus the 15-year reunion of the Orange Bowl team was coming up, so he decided to go to Lawrence and get the film.
For the most part, no one really knew what happened in that game. Not the coaches nor the players nor the media. People had guessed, but no one went to the painstaking detail of figuring it out exactly. Abernethy did. And he watched in disbelief. There were 12 men on the field for four straight plays!
“I will say that I wasn’t the 12th man on the field for the first three plays,” Abernethy said, again with a laugh. “Of course, I was when they blew the whistle on us. But I’d rather be the 12th man on the field than the 11th man on the bench with 10 on field.”
Kansas had a great team in 1968. A four-point loss to Oklahoma was the only thing that kept the Jayhawks from a perfect regular season and the Big Eight title outright.
“In my opinion, when you look at nine guys from that team who went to play professional football,” said Abernethy, “I still think it’s the greatest season KU ever had.”
The week the KU went down to Miami for the Orange Bowl, coach Pepper Rodgers inserted a new defense that the Jayhawks hadn’t used before. It was more of a 4-4-3 prevent defense. The NCAA’s rules at the time stated that a team could sub four guys on a change of possession or for the punt and kick teams. But then only two subs per play. When KU subbed, the player coming in would shout the name of the guy he was replacing two times and tap him on the shoulder pads.
With KU leading Penn State 14-7 with about a minute to play, the Nittany Lions went from midfield to KU’s 3 with a long pass play. The Jayhawks quickly needed to change out of their new prevent and into a goal-line defense. The only problem was that they needed to sub more than two guys. Three came in, two went out. Using his memory and his notes from watching the game film, Abernethy says Orville Turgeon was one of the three but he didn’t tap anyone.
On third down, Penn State scored. Coach Joe Paterno decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. The Jayhawks finished making their substitutions by bringing in two more players. Two went out. See the problem? Still 12 men on the field.
“Nobody came in for me,” Abernethy said. “(Vernon) Vanoy and I were trying to occupy the same spot in the huddle. I should’ve known then that I shouldn’t have been in there, but nobody substituted me.”
Abernethy broke up the pass on the two-point conversion and the Jayhawks started celebrating their victory. Then, the official pulled out his flag. Among the noise and the chaos, there was some confusion about the call. Abernethy knew.
When the official told Abernethy and Emory Hicks, KU’s defensive captain and Abernethy’s roommate, the call, Abernethy and Hicks gave each other a sad, blank stare. They knew who the 12th man was.
Abernethy took the slow 30-yard walk down the KU sideline. On the second two-point attempt, Bob Campbell ran it to the left for, in essence, the Penn State win. Eight seconds remained, but it wasn’t enough time for the Jayhawks.
“I was devastated,” Abernethy said. “The newspaper people were walking around the locker room, trying to figure out what happened. I was crying. Emory was sitting next to me saying it wasn’t my fault. A writer from the Miami Herald heard me say it was my fault and they ran with it, including that headline.”
Looking back, the game didn’t necessarily come down to that play. KU had a chance to go up by 10 earlier in the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks had the ball at the Penn State 5 on fourth-and-1. Instead of going for the almost-sure three points, Rodgers chose to go for it. John Riggins was stuffed at the line.
“It was just a series of unfortunate events,” Abernethy says of the fourth quarter.
But it was easier for Abernethy to blame himself. And for people to say he was the 12th man.
Abernethy, who had gone to Center High School, moved back to the Kansas City area after receiving his degree in Advertising Journalism. He went to work for Phillips 66, but quickly decided he wanted to get into teaching and coaching.
After returning to KU and working with Don Fambrough as an assistant, Abernethy coached at several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wyandotte, Center and Ruskin. Then Marv Levy offered him the job with the Chiefs.
Today, he calls going to the NFL a “big mistake,” although it did give him a chance to watch the film from that Orange Bowl game and stop blaming himself for KU’s loss.
“The only thing I blame myself for now is that when we were lining up in the huddle, I should’ve known,” said Abernethy, who spent 18 years in the dairy business after Levy left to coach the Buffalo Bills. “If I could change it, I would in a heartbeat. If we would’ve lost the game with the right defense in there, I could’ve accepted that.
“Do I absolve myself from the blame? Not totally. Will I ever forget it? No. But look. If that — being the 12th man in a football game — is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ve had a pretty good life.”