LEXINGTON — Former University of Kentucky football great Steve Meilinger said his only regret about going into the College Football Hall of Fame at age 82, 60 years after his college playing days ended, is that he won’t have much time to enjoy the honor.
“I wish it could have happened about 40 years ago so I could have enjoyed it for that long,” said Meilinger, who played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Kentucky from 1951-53. “I know my days are numbered because I’ll be 83 years old come December. Forty years ago would have been fantastic.
“But I’m happy to be there now. This is the greatest. I’m in five halls of fame, and this is the big one.”
Meilinger will be officially inducted into the college hall Dec. 10 in New York City during the annual National Football Foundation Awards Dinner. He will also be honored during an enshrinement festival at the Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
But any watches, rings, trophies or other hardware he may receive for this are relatively superficial riches compared to all that lies between the bookends of Meilinger’s life.
Start with the three men Meilinger played football for, through four years at UK and six years in the NFL: Bryant, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
“I played for three of the greatest coaches who ever lived, and that was my claim to fame,” said Meilinger, who was honored by UK during halftime of Saturday night’s football game with Alabama.
“I’ll tell you what, Bear Bryant was one of the greatest coaches you could ever want to play for,” Meilinger said during a press conference here this week. “During football season ... practices ... you hated his guts.
“But, I tell you what, after you graduate, he’s the best man you could ever have. If you needed anything, he’d give it to you. Or he’d advise you. He was the greatest thing in the world.”
Meilinger played football at Kentucky with a versatility that would make Randall Cobb blush. On offense, Meilinger played wide receiver, halfback and quarterback. On defense, he played end, linebacker and defensive back.
Meilinger also punted and returned punts and kickoffs.
“And I enjoyed doing it all,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit on the sideline and watch the other guy. I wanted to get in on the action.”
Meilinger was a three-time first-team All Southeastern Conference selection and a two-time first-team All American for the Wildcats.
He then served two years as a tank commander in the United States Army, played six years in the NFL, and later became a pioneer as a United States Marshal. He was one of the original six marshals who founded the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program.
Meilinger traces much of the credit for his success back to, again, Bryant, who was part football coach, part drill sergeant and part mom and dad.
“I tell you, Bear was tough,” Meilinger said.
Meilinger said one day in his freshman year, he messed up during a drill in practice. Bryant called him into his office afterward and hit Meilinger with a forearm that took Melinger off his feet, into a wall and then into a chair.
“I didn’t get up,” Meilinger said.
“Bob Gaines was a junior when I was a freshman, and I saw Bear Bryant pick him up — and Bob weighed a good 270 pounds — by the seat of his pants and jersey and throw him about three yards. I saw him do that a lot of times.
“One day we were practicing kickoffs, and a kid named Ted Kerns screwed up twice, and Bryant gave him a body block and, I mean, he knocked Ted Kerns a long way.
“But that’s the way Bryant was. He’d get down in the action, and every time somebody did something wrong, he’d start running after you, and we’d all yell ‘Toot, toot,’ because Bear was coming.”
But there was also this side of Bear Bryant:
“Bear would do things that would benefit ourselves,” Meilinger said. “He would try to make everybody go to church on Sundays. A lot of guys didn’t, but I did. He was that kind of fella.
“He sent a letter home to your mother and father every now and then, telling them how you are doing. And that really helped me because I was kind of wild when I first got here. Bear calmed me down, and I was really happy about that.”
A reporter asked Meilinger about the controversies these days with the NCAA over student-athletes taking illegal benefits ... money, food, cars, etc. He was asked if that kind of stuff went on in his day.
“Oh, I’d like to answer that,” Meilinger said. “Two players got kicked off the (UK) team their senior year because they got clothes from somebody to come to UK. And I had received a couple clothes and britches.
“Oh, let me tell you something about britches,” he added. “I had never heard the word britches when I came here. I didn’t know what they were. But this guy told me, ‘Come on, I’m going to buy you a couple pairs of britches,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ Then he told me that britches were pants.
“So they had this investigation, and the gentleman swore me in, and they asked me if I had ever received anything — gratuity, clothing or something. Being the good old Catholic boy I am, I never told a lie.”
Meilinger paused and added: “Until then.”