SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He just may be the best Kansas State football story you’ve never heard about.
Lynn Larson leaned back in his chair. It wasn’t the first time he had told his story this week, and it wouldn’t be his last. His already wide smile became even larger as he thought back through the years. It’s no wonder former teammates dubbed him “Horse.”
Larson, who played football at K-State from 1968 to 1970, has been volunteering at the Fiesta Bowl for five years. The Phoenix native went on to play for the Baltimore Colts, who won Super Bowl V in 1971— Larson was the first Wildcat in school history to be part of the Super Bowl.
This proud K-Stater is anything but ordinary, and with his Wildcats competing in his hometown for the first time in almost a decade, this week has been a special one for the former left tackle.
K-State had fallen on hard times before Larson arrived in Manhattan —losing 42 out of 47 games during a span of five years. So when Vince Gibson became the new head coach in 1968, he decided the only way to go about business was to clean house, and that’s just what he did.
That’s also when he found the 6-foot-4 Larson at Phoenix College. He was just the athlete Gibson was looking for.
“Vince brought in a whole slew of us junior college players and restarted the program immediately,” said Larson, who will be working on-the-field security before tonight’s Fiesta Bowl. “The first year, we were only 4-6, but winning four games at K-State back then was just miraculous, so the town really got behind us and it was phenomenal.”
In 1968 K-State traveled to Nebraska and beat the Cornhuskers 12-0 on their homecoming night. It was the last victory the Wildcats celebrated over Nebraska for the next 29 years until the Michael Bishop-led Wildcats won 40-30 in Manhattan. The1969 team – Larson’s senior season — defeated Oklahoma 59-21. The Wildcats finished 9-10 in Larson’s two seasons.
Choosing K-State wasn’t a tough decision. He was recruited by three other schools during his time at Phoenix College, but Larson fell in love with the small town school in the middle of Kansas.
“Kansas State was, to me, the most intriguing,” said Larson, who has a deep voice that can be heard from across any room. “Number one, because they hadn’t won a football game in years, and I love being the underdog. Secondly, K-State at that time was a part of the Big Eight. So, I thought to myself, ‘If I go to K-State, play in the Big Eight, there’s going to be pro scouts watching Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, those guys, and if I can do well against them then I‘ll get noticed and possibly get drafted.’”
That’s exactly what happened. Larson was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1970. The road wasn’t easy from there, however, as Larson spent July to October of 1970 moving to and from three different NFL teams — the Bears, Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos — before finding a spot with the Baltimore Colts.
“I felt like an old chair, I mean I just felt like a piece of furniture that got shipped from apartment to apartment,” Larson said. “There was none of the feeling that I had at K-State. At K-State where I was loved and appreciated by the coaches, by the town and by my fellow players.”
At a time when the NFL only had 40-man rosters, most teams only had two tackles — the starter and the backup. But the Colts’ starting tackle had bad knees and wasn’t expected to last much longer, so the team decided to invest in Larson as well. During the 1970-71 season, that team Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys.
“As it turned out, I stayed on the practice squad,” Larson said as he glanced down at the polished Super Bowl ring on his right hand. “But because I was there, on the practice squad, earning my keep, I got a ring just like everybody else on the team.”
Though he only played two seasons with the Colts, Larson’s story was far from over.
“My life after football is kind of like a Swiss Army Knife,” Larson said as he laughed. “There’s kind of just a little bit of everything in there.”
Larson has delivered beer, played a season with the British Columbia Lions, taught school and coached football. He’s also worked with tax-deferred investments, was a stock broker, and worked in various schools’ gang and dropout prevention programs. Larson was also the national curriculum chair for Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE).
He’s spent the last 18 years with the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training, where he is currently a testing administrator. Larson plans to retire in July of next year.
Like many other K-State alumni and fans, the 2012 K-State football season is a year Larson will never forget, even though he followed it from a distance. The achievements of K-State quarterback Collin Klein have really meant a lot to Larson, who was last in Manhattan to help honor his former coach during the 2010 season. Gibson died last year.
Klein was awarded the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award last month in Baltimore. Seeing Klein win that trophy was special for Larson, who was a teammate of Unitas with the Colts.
“John Unitas was just such an absolutely phenomenal man,” Larson said. “I know I’m a little biased, but I really do believe he is best all-time quarterback. Nobody ever sent in a play from the sideline to John Unitas — he ran the show and it was his team. He did everything. So to watch Collin win the award that’s named after a wonderful man is just really special.”
Before the game, Larson expected to have the opportunity to spend time with some former teammates and other former K-State football players at the Golden Cats event in the team’s hotel. Then it will be back to work as a volunteer for the Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s wonderful, but it’s also hard,” Larson said about volunteering for the same bowl game that his former team is competing in. “It’s wonderful because I get to talk to people that have the same passion about K-State that I do, and it’s hard because I can’t wear all my purple. As a Fiesta Bowl volunteer I have to be neutral and not show favoritism in my duties.”
Although four decades have past, Larson still thinks fondly of K-State and his time spent in Manhattan.
“The kind of family that I felt with my K-State coaches and with the town is just so unique,” Larson said, “and I’m sure that the young men playing today feel that same caring.”