John Burkhart peered at the grainy, black-and-white picture in the University of Toledo’s football media guide and asked, “Is that the Bluffton game?”
Yes, he was told.
“I was there,” Burkhart said.
The picture is dated Sept. 27, 1937. It shows the opening kickoff in the very first football game played at the Glass Bowl.
Burkhart was indeed there. He was 16 years old and rode a bus from his family’s home near Highland Park out to campus.
“I’d read stories about them building a new stadium and I was anxious to see it,” he recalled. “There were a couple thousand people there, I’d guess. I had a good time. I ate a couple hot dogs.”
On Saturday night, John Burkhart will be back at the Glass Bowl, certainly not for the first time since, but for the first time in a while.
Burkhart has seen a lot of UT football games; about 500 seems a safe guess.
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When three straight unbeaten Toledo teams played in the Tangerine Bowl to close the 1969, 70, and 71 seasons, Burkhart was there. When the 1972 team had the program’s 35-0 streak snapped in the opener at Tampa, Burkhart was there. He traveled, often with his late wife Blanche and some or all of their four kids, to see the Rockets at Arizona and at Florida State and in bowl games in Fresno, Calif., and Las Vegas. He saw them play in almost every MAC stadium and most Big Ten venues.
And he almost never missed a home game. But a game in 2008 was his last visit to the Glass Bowl because, as he put it, giving a thumb-down gesture, “My health started to go this way.”
Burkhart, 92, lives in a nice apartment at Perrysburg Commons Retirement Center. It is run by HCR ManorCare which has a program called “Heart’s Desire” which is designed to fulfill wishes of its residents.
Kelly Ebersbach, the executive director at Perrysburg Commons, had lunch with Burkhart recently and asked if he had a desire.
“He said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to go to a UT football game,’” Ebersbach said.
That seems simple enough. But Ebersbach had a trick or two up her sleeve — her husband, Dave, once worked with Toledo coach Matt Campbell on the football staff at Bowling Green — so when Campbell heard about Burkhart’s wish he saw to it that UT turned simple into special for its devoted fan.
With the help of a golf cart, Burkhart will lead the Rockets from the locker room to the field to the sideline before Saturday night’s game against Eastern Washington. Then he’ll adjourn to the stands where about 40 family members — kids and spouses, grandkids, great-grandkids — and friends from all over the country will enjoy John’s big night.
“I’ve missed those Saturdays at the Glass Bowl,” Burkhart said. “So this will be fun. But all the family coming in, that’s the best part. I don’t see them as much as I’d like.”
Burkhart is a retired attorney who served as the assistant law director and chief counsel for the City of Toledo for 28 years while also engaging in private practice. He can tell stories for hours, some salty, all funny, all with a pinpoint memory.
His apartment is equipped with a big-screen TV for football and Detroit Tigers games, and a state-of-the-art computer system he uses to Skype with family members as far away as Arizona and to write a monthly column for the Perrysburg Commons newsletter.
Oddly enough, although he has attended Toledo games since 1937 and saw all four his kids — John, Patrick, Michael, and Kathleen — attend UT, he matriculated elsewhere.
Burkhart attended the original St. John’s High School near downtown before it closed, but finished up at Central Catholic. He then did his undergraduate work at the old DeSales College in Toledo, where he was on the boxing team, and earned his law degree from Ohio Northern University.
“All my children got great educations at Toledo and have done very well,” he said. “Back when I was ready to go to college, and remember we’re talking a long, long time ago, Toledo University didn’t have a real good reputation. So I went to the diocesan college on Superior Street just north of Cherry. I guess my folks had hopes I’d be a priest.”
Instead, he became a lawyer and, from the age of 16 to present, a UT football fanatic.
To put it into perspective, Doc Spears was the first and Campbell is the most recent of 19 head coaches who have served UT since Burkhart began attending games and following the Rockets.
And who is his favorite of the thousands of athletes he has seen don the midnight blue and gold jerseys?
“Tommy Beutler,” Burkhart said, naming the MAC lineman of the year in 1967 when UT won its first conference championship. “My wife and I used to baby-sit for him when he was a scrawny little kid. Well, he didn’t grow up to be scrawny. In ’67, at home against Western Michigan, a Toledo guy was returning a punt and Tommy made the greatest block I’ve ever seen to spring him for a touchdown.”
By ’67, an already-renovated stadium had lights and a two-tier press box that was pretty spiffy for its day, although it was dwarfed when the current press and suites tower was built in 1990. Many UT fans remember what that version of the stadium looked like.
Only a few, like Burkhart, remember the Works Progress Administration project that opened in 1937 and was first called University Stadium, although the original stone walls and north end zone towers remain part of the current architecture. It included a one-story wooden press box with five tiny windows.
“It was about as big as the two-holer on my uncle’s farm,” Burkhart said, laughing.
A lot has changed in three-quarters of a century.
One thing has not. John Burkhart, age 16, was there for the opener and he’ll be back at the Glass Bowl Saturday night at age 92.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.