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Local Hero
December 02, 2008
By Wendell Barnhouse
Big 12 Correspondent

A headline cliche in the newspaper business is "Local Boy Makes Good."

Cliche or not, that's an apt description of John Hadl.

At Lawrence (Kans.) High School, Hadl led the team to 21 consecutive victories. When it came time to attend college, Hadl turned down a chance to play at Oklahoma and chose to stay put. While at Kansas, he became the answer to a trivia question.

Hadl, who still lives in Lawrence, is Kansas' Big 12 Legend. He'll be honored along with the other 11 Legends this Friday and Saturday during the Dr Pepper Football Championship game.

"The University of Kansas has always been a special place to me," said Hadl, who is an associate athletic director at Kansas. "I remember going to football and basketball games there when I was in grade school. With all the great players the school has produced, it's quite an honor to be considered a Big 12 Legend."

In high school, Hadl was the classic triple threat player. He could run, pass and kick. He also excelled on defense. But if not for a coaching change, Hadl probably would have passed on playing for Kansas.

"I got a chance to make a recruiting visit to Oklahoma," Hadl recalled. "Bud Wilkinson was the coach and he was like a god. He told me they wanted to give me a scholarship to play football there.

"Down deep inside, I really wanted to play at Kansas. It was kind of in my blood."

Then Kansas hired Jack Mitchell as its coach and Hadl had a reason to believe the Jayhawks would become competitive. During Hadl's three seasons playing for the varsity - 1959-61 - KU went 19-10-2.

As a sophomore halfback in 1959, Hadl was named All-Big Eight Conference. He played both offense and defense. Hadl had a 98-yard touchdown run against TCU and returned an interception back 98 yards for a touchdown ... and also led the nation in punting, averaging 45.6 yards per kick. Hadl still holds the school record for longest punt - 94 yards.

Before Hadl's junior season in 1960, Mitchell decided on a position switch and Hadl moved from running back to quarterback. Hadl had no problem with the move.

"First of all, back then, we didn't throw the ball more than 10 or 15 times a game," said Hadl, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994. "Playing quarterback wasn't that much different than running back. Also, we had a guy named Bert Coan who was about 6-3, 220 and ran a 9.6 in the 100. He was going to play left halfback, my position.

"I could never outrun that guy. I figured if I was gonna play on offense that year, my best chance was at quarterback."

Against Oklahoma - the school that had offered him a scholarship - Hadl passed for 182 yards and had three consecutive punts that went out of bounds at the one-foot line, the 5-yard line and the 10-yard line. After the game Wilkinson said that Hadl was "truly a remarkable athlete."

Also in 1960, the Jayhawks upset No. 1 ranked Missouri.

"Coach Mitchell was a great guy to play for, he recruited a lot of good players," Hadl said, noting that the Jayhawks' starting backfield all wound up playing in the NFL.

Hadl was so impressive that Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder said, "If we had our choice of one player in the country, he would be John Hadl."

Hadl played in the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game and was named Most Valuable Player in both. He is the only player ever to win both honors.

Kansas defeated Rice, 33-7, in the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl - the first bowl victory in school history. Still in uniform and standing under a goal post at Rice Stadium, Hadl signed a contract with the fledgling American Football League.

Hadl played in the AFL and the NFL for 16 seasons. Joe Namath considered Hadl one of the greatest competitors he ever faced and said that Hadl excelled in the clutch.

"If you needed a guy to make the play you had to have, you'd want John in charge," said Larry Hatfield, who was a high school teammate of Hadl.

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