The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

October 28, 2013

Mighty Marvin

Kuula was two-way standout for fine Ashtabula Harbor squads

For the Star Beacon

— There are no 60-minute men left in college football. There were few in Marvin Kuula’s college days, back in the late 1950s.

In fact, Kuula, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame on Dec. 9 at Our Lady of Peace (formerly Mount Carmel), may have been the only one.

“We played two-platoon football (separate players on offense and defense),” Kuula said. “We played some racehorse football even.

“It was fun. I liked playing football, liked watching football and still do. I don’t think anybody else was playing 60 minutes a game then.”

His high school coach, Norb Saltys, who was inducted into the ACTC Hall of Fame in 2006, said he was the toughest lineman he ever coached.

Even then, Kuula, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Onni Kuula, was a surprise star in college, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He had played at Harbor, where he remembers the Mariners having winning records in his junior and senior seasons and was named a captain for his senior year.  

But he had played just two games of his senior season before tearing cartilage in his knee. Even then, he had impressed enough to be named All-Western Reserve League and Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County.

Kuula played on the same Mariner team that had stars like Bob Lampela, chosen for the ACTC Hall of Fame in 2008, Jim Bordeau, Bob Sidbeck and Dick Wiitinen.

“We ran a wing-T,” Kuula said. “I was honorable mention, or something like that, even though I didn’t play much.”

After graduating from Harbor in 1956, Kuula  went to Rensselaer (located in Troy, N.Y.), a Division III school, on an academic scholarship. As a sophomore, he was part of a three-man rotation at tackle for Rensselaer.

“We would rotate every five minutes,” he said. “My junior year., I beat out the two seniors. I was in the whole game.

“It was tough at first, but I got used to it after a while. My forte was endurance and technique.”

After the 1958 game against Union College, the opposing Union players nicknamed Kuula, “The Mountain.”

That was a high compliment since Kuula was only 5-foot-10, 215 pounds at the time.

“I was pretty small compared to other tackles,” Kuula said. “Most tackles then were 230 (pounds); some were 260 or 270. But I don’t think I had much trouble with them.

“Defensively, he is immovable,” one article said. “Offensively, he led every RPI try for clutch yardage. The likeable blond mechanical engineering major shoved two established veterans aside to land a regular job in 1957 as a sophomore.

After high school, Marvin received a scholarship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he played football for four years. He was selected as an All-American at tackle by the Williamson National Football Rating System in 1959.

“This selection is based on the consensus opinion of the nation’s college athletic departments as expressed in a poll,” Williamson said.

He was also accorded “the highest tribute ever paid to a Rensselaer football player” when he was named to the first team of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s Small-College All-North squad.

The article about that selection pointed out that in four games — against Worcester, Rochester, Middlebury and Union — he was picked as the best lineman on the field by sports writers.

The Harbor coaches had expected Kuula to become an outstanding college lineman. He played on Rennselaer’s freshman team since freshmen couldn’t play varsity ball at that time.

“Following a fine freshman season, Kuula moved up to the varsity, and, surpassing expectations, beat out two good senior lettermen for the starting tackle assignment,” one article said.

After sitting out the first two varsity games with a knee injury, he took over the starting left tackle position. From then on, he played almost every single snap for three years, except coming out for a few breathers.

“From that point on, none of the painful bruises he incurred kept the 5-10, 215-pound tackle from playing nearly 60 minutes a game.

One of his opponent’s coaches, Middlebury Coach Duke Nelson, said, “It’s too bad he didn’t  have help on either side of him.” Coaches like Rochester’s Elmer Burnham and Worcester’s Bot Pritchard adjusted their offenses to run away from Kuula.

In fact, Rochester ran 80 percent of its plays away from Kuula. Against Worcester, Coach Hoffman switched Kuula from side to side to enable him to take part in as many plays as possible. Then Worcester countered by seeing where he was and again running away from him.

“On offense, Marv was a second quarterback, working closely with his co-captain, quarterback Lee Wilcox,” the article said, pointing out that the team ran most of its plays over him.

Coach Hoffman attributed Kuula’s success to his “alertness, savvy, high school background and love of the game.”

Kuula loved physical fitness and always returned to the team after summer breaks in top form. Not only did coaches not have to push him, sometimes they thought Kuula was too hard on himself.

“Marv was always thinking, and if he missed a block, he figured out by himself what mistakes he made,” an article said. “He rarely made the same mistake.”

The accolades that came his way demonstrated his ability, since Rensselaer went just 2-6 that season.

“To have one of our players selected for such an honor for the first time is perhaps an indication that football players at RPI are being recognized as competent athletes in their own right,” Coach Hoffman said.

When Kuula was selected as a Little All-American, Hoffman called him, “the best lineman I saw in the East this year,” and added that Kuula could have started for any team, large or small, in Eastern College ball.

“One of the things I remember was playing the Coast Guard Academy with Otto Graham, who was a great Cleveland Browns quarterback, as its coach,” Kuula said recently. “Some of the best plays I had were against Coast Guard.”

Kuula graduated in 1960 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He went to work for Cleveland Crane and Engineering in Wickliffe. After several years of working with Cleveland-area engineering firms, he was recruited by Detroit Hoist and Crane as chief engineer of  small division.

“Before I left, I was chief engineer of the company,” he said. “I went into business for myself in 1985 and am still working.”

Kuula is now 75 years old, working in his own office in Chesterfield, Mich.

“Basically, we design overhead cranes and railways,” he said. “My son and I are partners. I’m a registered professional engineer, a status that is required by some companies. You have to take tests and so forth.”

Kuula met his wife, Nancy, who is from Mechanicsville, Ohio, in Cleveland. The couple has been married for 50 years and have two sons: Tom, 45, who is Marvin’s business partner; and Matt, 43, who is an automobile salesman.

He played golf for several years, but had to give it up about 30 years ago.

“I have a bad ankle and a bad back,” he said. “I’ve had multiple surgeries on the ankle, which I injured jogging. I played shirts-and-skins basketball for a while, but the pain got to be so bad that I couldn’t do it anymore. I watch my grandsons’ football games and still try to exercise every day. “

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.