"You modeled how a Christian should live every day you were with us."
Led by their All-conference safety Stephen Burkholder, 53 former McPherson College football players from the classes of the 1973 to 1977 returned to campus Friday and Saturday for a reunion and to honor their former head coach Don Rominger. Players came from as far away as Texas, Florida and New York while Rominger, now 77, made the four-hour trek from tiny Tecumseh, Oklahoma, all to reminisce and remember their time together at Mac College.
Rominger came to McPherson College in 1973 as a single dad with his then 9-year old daughter Leslie and took on many roles including head football coach, head track coach, history professor, minister and doctoral student. While at Mac he met the love of his life Janelle his first day as the track coach and together they have raised five wonderful children.
During his tenure on the sidelines for Bulldogs' football 135 young men donned the cardinal and white uniform. Of these 135 players, 87 were identified as having played two or more years on the football team, twenty-nine of them played all four years while 16 were four-year starters.
Rominger's five year stint only produced a record of 11-34-2 with the highlight coming in 1976 when they finished 5-4 and snapped an 18 year run of losing records that dated back to 1958. The year after Rominger left the sidelines for the athletic director's office Mac again saw a 5-4 record, which would be the only other one from 1958 to 1986.
The Bulldogs defense was highly respected throughout the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference during the 1970s, ranking no lower than fourth and as high as second in the annual rankings. Ten McPherson defensive players and one offensive player were named All-KCAC during Rominger's five-year run.
Five years ago Rominger mentioned to Burkholder how nice it would be to get back together with all these guys. His increasingly frequent suggestions continued over the next several years until finally, after a personal conversation with Rominger about his time at McPherson and some health issues, Burkholder decided it was time to act.
"I finally said to myself that if we don't get it done now we'll never get it done," said Burkholder. "So I spent six months working to put together a reunion weekend rather than just a three-hour get together at a football game."
In his planning he found contact information for 83 players, could not find any on 11 others and 17 players were already deceased. Of the 83, 54 committed to attending the reunion weekend, with 53 actually coming together as a group for the first time in nearly 40 years. Among those attending were Dr. Mark Melhorn of Wichita, for whom Melhorn Hall on the McPherson College campus is named, and Glen Anderson, who reached the NFL level with a tryout for the Cleveland Browns but was cut due to a training camp injury.
But more than anything else this reunion was about Rominger, who, while he may not have produced championship seasons or inspired trophies or roads or buildings to be named after him, gave his heart and soul to 135 young men during a most impressionable time of their life. It turned out to be the last group of young men he would coach, as he moved into academic administration after the 1977 season and, according to Rominger, he never looked back.
"I was extremely honored that they came together," Rominger said. "My first thought was a homecoming game and a gathering after but it turned into so much more. I was very surprised, very humbled and felt undeserving."
Rominger was gifted with a painting of himself, done by one of his former players, and two plaques, one from his players and one from McPherson College. However, the biggest gift of the weekend was not in paintings or plaques, in fellowship or friendships rekindled, but in the final words of his introduction to the crowd gathered to hear from their coach, given my Burkholder, to a coach who all these years later still lived with the thought that he had somehow let these players down.
"You gave us everything you had and still spent much of your life believing you failed us," Burkholder said. "Look around the room tonight, I don't see failures. You did not fail us. You cared for us, taught us in many aspects of life, helped us learn to believe in ourselves and our teammates and you modeled how a Christian should live every day you were with us. Hopefully every former player present will get the chance this weekend to thank you for your devotion to us. Coach, we were your mercies in disguise."
Contact Matt Cole by email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MacSentinel.