Originally printed in the Nov. 8 Wayne State Gameday Football Program
The significance of the year 1968 in Detroit sports history cannot be understated. The city, just one year removed from the 1967 riots, was captivated in early October by the Tigers' comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.
Just down Trumbull Avenue that fall, a memorable season was also unfolding on the Wayne State University gridiron.
For a football program, at the time, marking its 50th year of existence, the '68 season was a significant step forward.
Wayne State opened with a win at Michigan Tech before playing against Temple in front 8,212 at University of Detroit Stadium, which remains the largest crowd ever to watch the Warriors.
One month later, the Warriors christened the brand new WSU Stadium with the greatest offensive showing in school history.
And while the Warriors finished with a pedestrian 3-6 record, the events of the 1968 season remain entrenched in WSU history, along with the individual legacy of one player that stands above most others to this day.
Under head coach Vernon Gale, the Warriors thrived with their 5-2 defense in 1967, led by linebackers Ed Pavoras and Solack, a hard-hitting junior from Grosse Ile who had started since his freshman year.
"He had an unbelievable nose for the ball. He knew where it was going and would always be there," said Bill Cortis, who played high school football with Solack and was his best friend on the team.
"The reason we had such a good year in '67 was because of those two," said Ken Semelsberger, a three-year letterwinner (1966-68), while recalling WSU's 7-2 finish the year before - although the Warriors also coupled that stifling defense with a high-octane offense.
According to teammates, Solack suffered from appendicitis and had an appendectomy during the summer of `68. Cortis said that the procedure was slightly complicated. However, aside from wearing a protective pad, Solack returned to football action with no ill effects.
"He was a tough kid," said Leit Jones, a four-year letterwinner and classmate of Solack's who captained the 1969 team.
One week after playing in front of the record crowd at U of D, the 1968 WSU gridders had another high-profile date: an Oct. 4 matchup with Illinois-Chicago (then Chicago-Circle) at Soldier Field.
WSU held its own until, according to teammates, Solack was kicked in the stomach under a pile and was doubled over on the sidelines.
"I could tell right away that he was in some bit of pain," Cortis said. "He didn't play at all in the second half."
The blow was far from normal. Solack was taken to a Chicago-area hospital - St. Luke's, Cortis recalled - and never made it back to Detroit.
"They performed immediate emergency surgery," Cortis said. "The first thing in the morning, we got a call that said there were complications."
Cortis, who had flown home with the team, drove back to Chicago immediately the next day with Pavoras, Fred White and Dan Fortune.
He acknowledged that the Warriors didn't play very well with Solack's life hanging in the balance, and the records show it: WSU dropped its next two contests as Solack remained hospitalized.
And a little more than 24 hours before WSU was set to open its new stadium, the Warriors lost more than a game.
According to records released by the team, Solack died of post-surgery complications on October 25, 1968.
"That was devastating," Jones said.
"You could hear a pin drop in the locker room, other than the crying.
"I don't think he was 20 yet. I guess we figured he was indestructible."
Besides coping with the untimely loss of one of their football brethren, the WSU players and coaches were faced with an even tougher task: playing a game one day later.
Suddenly, all the hype, buildup and anticipation surrounding the Homecoming game and the opening of WSU Stadium lost its importance.
But somehow, Wayne State pieced together one of those days where, according to Semelsberger and Cortis, everything clicked on the field.
"It was magical," Cortis said. "Emotionally, we were at a level that we probably never reached before ... and never reached again."
With Cortis at quarterback, the Warriors unleashed an offensive barrage on Washington (Mo.) University, winning 61-29, with the offensive production remaining the best in school history.
"It was a very odd kind of game, and an odd kind of feeling," Jones said. "It wasn't fun. It was a win that was wasn't uppermost in my mind, or the team's. "But we dedicated the game and the rest of the season to him."
The magic continued for one more week as WSU won its next game over Washington & Jefferson, 14-6, before dropping its final two contests.
The season's end hardly brought closure to Solack's untimely death.
But players, coaches and supporters from that '68 team made sure Solack wasn't forgotten.
His legacy remains largely intact at Wayne State more than 40 years after his passing.
In the history of Wayne State football, there have been just two jerseys retired: No. 28, worn by Tom Adams, and the No. 35 shirt of Ron Solack.
And the '68 team established an award in his name to honor a teammate that personified the Solack way: playing the game for the Wayne State program with pride, dedication, loyalty and enthusiasm.
The Ron Solack No. 35 Award remains the longest-standing continuous honor given at WSU's annual postseason banquet.
Bill Cortis, fittingly, was the first winner in 1969; Don Didlake was the second.
"When Bill got that, it was pretty emotional ... for him and for all of us," Semelsberger said.
The list of No. 35 Award winners reads like a testament to WSU's true program players: Ed Skowneski (1975) and Keith Anleitner (1976) from the 70s, along with Bob VanGorder (1984), Todd Vydick (1991) and Huston Julian (2000).
"When I was a player, everyone held what the award meant for Ron and meant for the program almost in reverence," said Phil Emery, a three-year letterwinner who won the award in 1980 and is currently the Eastern Regional scout for the Atlanta Falcons. "When you look at those that won the award, you knew that, like Ron, it was somebody that had given their all for the program," he said.
Semelsberger said: "All those players on that list embody Ron's spirit of dedication, desire and enthusiasm."
Cortis agreed that through the award, Solack has been remembered in appropriate fashion.
"People may not remember him, because it certainly was a long time ago, but at least once a year, stories are told again about who he was and what he was about," he said.
"At least every year, somebody is thinking about him again and that is a great thing."
- Kyle Stefan is a writer/editor for The South End as well as a student-athlete on the men's golf team.