Bohls: Longhorns running back Jim Bertelsen's career said it all (because it had to)
- Jim Bertelsen, one of the best 10 Longhorn running backs ever, died late Thursday night.
- The native of Hudson, Wis., chose to come to Texas, in part, after riding horses at the LBJ Ranch.
- "Jim was a power floater," Longhorn teammate Ted Koy said.
Jim Bertelsen was a man of few words.
Actually, that’s wrong. A man of no words would be a better description.
But the career of the legendary Texas running back who helped lead the Longhorns to a pair of national championships and three Southwest Conference titles from 1969 to 1971 spoke volumes about this painfully quiet but extremely driven man from Wisconsin, who died of bone cancer Thursday night. He was 71.
Ted Koy, his fellow Longhorns running back who was two years older than Bertelsen, can still recall the stoic image of his former teammate and roommate on road games.
“He was as bland as they come,” Koy said fondly. “No color, no humor. It was just Jim. I still remember when the Southwest Conference press tour came around for interviews in the summer. The reporters asked Jim how a running back from Wisconsin got to Texas.
"By plane," Koy said Bertelsen replied without expression.
“And,” Koy said, “he wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck.”
But why talk when everybody else around him would sing his praises?
And there was plenty to talk about. Bertelsen also played five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams with a Pro Bowl selection in 1973 before tearing up his knee, retiring and moving to Wimberley, where he worked as everything from a horse trainer to a concrete salesman to an oil-change service man. He had spent the past four months in hospice care.
He didn’t have extraordinary size at 5 feet 11 and 205 pounds or speed, but he rarely went backward. And he had a gritty toughness to him along with some sense of theater. Once, when he went down with an injury during a spring practice, Bertelsen stayed down a little longer than necessary before wryly asking the trainer about the anxious coaches, “Are they still watching?”
His numbers on the football field still rank high in UT history, even though he shared one of the best backfields ever with All-American Steve Worster, Koy and James Street. His 2,510 career yards rank 14th on Texas’ all-time rushing list, but eight of those ahead of him played four seasons to Bertelsen’s three years in the new wishbone formation. And Vince Young, who ranks sixth, played quarterback.
“He was a load,” Texas quarterback Eddie Phillips said. “He had good speed and was built low to the ground. But he had a dry sense of humor. You’d better be listening real good, but he was not going to tell you much.”
Bertelsen’s 33 touchdowns for one of the most prolific offenses in college football remain the eighth most in school history. He scored four touchdowns in a 1969 game against SMU, tying Bobby Layne’s record at the time before Ricky Williams eventually broke the mark with six scores and duplicated it against Rice and New Mexico State.
"He went wild in that game," All-America offensive tackle Bob McKay said Friday.
“Jim Bertelsen was one of the top 10 running backs in Texas history,” Longhorns historian Bill Little said. “Often because the 1969 team was so loaded with talent, his contributions may have gone overlooked. He followed Chris Gilbert, who became a college football Hall of Famer, and played with Worster and Street, both media magnets.”
Following Gilbert, the first college running back with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, was no task for the faint-hearted because Darrell Royal faced a lot of pressure about finding anyone close to an adequate replacement.
“Jim was a pretty shy guy, but one whale of a football player,” said Bill Hall, a former Texas team manager whom Royal actually recruited as such when he was a teammate of quarterback “Super Bill” Bradley’s at Palestine High School. “He took over for Gilbert, and those were big shoes to fill. But he rolled right in there.”
Bertelsen's average of 6.1 yards per carry over his career was a stretch of the ball short of Williams’ and Jamaal Charles’ 6.2 averages, although those were bested by Vince Young’s staggering 6.8 school record as well as D’Onta Foreman’s 6.4.
Bertelsen’s first season as a sophomore in 1969 coincided with my freshman year at Texas, and I marveled at how effortless his running style was. If you never saw him, you missed out because he ran with a grace and a fluidity that few could match.
“It almost looked like he wasn’t running at full speed,” Koy said.
But that was the beauty of his elegant game. There was no wasted motion with this classic runner.
“Jim was a power floater,” Koy said. “By that, I mean if there was a crease, he was going to get in it, but he’s also going to bring a punch. Some guys were always looking for a gap, and others bowled you over. Jim was a combination. If he got you one on one, he was going to win. There were no bad days for Jim Bertelsen. He always gave you his consistent best."
Bertelsen was a rare out-of-stater on the Longhorns' roster, joining Coloradoans Freddie Steinmark and Bobby Mitchell, and all had an enormous impact on the football program. He had become aware of the Longhorns after their first national championship in 1963 and detested the cold weather up north.
Everyone who ever knew Bertelsen loved the guy but would attest to his soft-spoken manner. Well, his never-spoken manner.
McKay used to pick up Bertelsen in his truck and drive to teammate Leo Brooks’ ranch outside Llano, west of Austin, to work some cattle. When McKay returned home and his wife, Donna, asked him what they talked about, McKay laughed and said, “Donna, you don’t understand. He said ‘hello’ when I picked him up’ and ‘goodbye’ when we got home. It was like driving by myself.”
McKay recalled one occasion when he and Bertelsen were treated to a dinner at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin and the general in charge showed them a rare satellite phone that would allow you to call anywhere in the world. McKay’s friend in Vietnam couldn’t be found, and Bertelsen told the general they could call his parents in Wisconsin.
“All we heard was hello, yeah and goodbye,” McKay said. “There weren’t four words spoken. That’s just the way he’s always been.”
Legend had it that an aunt of Bertelsen’s mentioned her nephew to a Dallas orthodontist, who was a huge Longhorns fan and mentioned this to Royal’s staff. Bertelsen came to Austin for his visit and, since NCAA rules did not disallow it, he was taken to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch in Stonewall and rode horses.
“He’d heard about the LBJ Ranch, so they took him there,” Little said. “That was pretty much the clincher on the deal.”
Once he arrived at the Forty, Bertelsen largely kept his mouth shut, tended to his own business and never began or ended a conversation. His gifts never included gab.
“He absolutely never said a word,” Koy said. “When we were roommates on the road, I still chuckle to this day. From the time we’d check in to our room until we left for the game the next day, I bet there weren’t five words said.”
But his teammates now say goodbye to Jim Bertelsen, who was, in a word, was special.