Induction of Beavers' 1962 season Liberty Bowl champs brings Heisman Trophy- winning quarterback and his star receiver back together

Legendary is an overused adjective, but there’s no more apt description of Terry Baker and Vern Burke in Oregon State sports lore.

They were the lynchpins of the 1962 Liberty Bowl team that will be honored Friday night in Corvallis and introduced to the Reser Stadium crowd before Saturday’s season opener against Wisconsin.

When the greatest athlete in Oregon State history and the receiver who set NCAA records playing with him get together Thursday in Portland, it will be the first time they have spoken in more than 45 years.

Not that there were any bad feelings between the pair that shares enshrinement in both the state of Oregon and Oregon State sports halls of fame.

“I call Vern ‘The Mystery Man,’ " says Baker, the 1962 Heisman Trophy winner who recently retired after a law career that spanned more than four decades. “Nobody knew where he went. I used to get calls in the middle of the night, asking, ‘Whatever happened to Vern Burke?’ "

Since retiring from football after a five-year NFL career in 1968, Burke has lived in Ladera Ranch in Orange County, Calif., except for one year, when he moved to Bend in the mid-2000s. He worked in real estate development and “dedicated myself to taking care of my family,” he says.

Baker and Burke will forever be intertwined in the minds of those old enough to have been around to watch their exploits on the gridiron in the early 1960s. They were the “B & B Boys,” and for one fabulous season in 1962, they were the best passing combination in the country.

Now they are 71, left to wonder how 50 years went by so quickly.

Burke believes part of the magic between the two emanates from the humble beginnings they shared. Burke grew up in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the son of a laborer who worked on a farm and built fences for the U.S. government up and down the West Coast to support his wife and three children.

“If there were a story about poverty, it’s about my family,” Burke says. “My mother had a second-grade education. My father had no education at all. Our family had a history of poverty.”

Baker, meanwhile, grew up in a single-parent family in North Portland. His mother, Laura, worked as a checker at grocery and drug stores to support her three boys.

“Terry comes from a broken home,” Burke says. “That’s precisely what happened to me. We both excelled in high school. For some reason, we get together at Oregon State and unbelievable things happened.

“There was a collation there between he and me, probably rooted in respect for one another. We just clicked.”

Baker isn’t sure background had anything to do with it.

“I think it’s more a personality thing,” he says. “Vern wanted to win. He was a competitive guy, He was focused on the job that we were trying to do. Focus is the key word there.”

Though Baker says the two were “inseparable my senior year,” he adds that “off the field, I didn’t know anything about Vern’s life. He seemed a little older, like he’d been around a little more than the rest of us.”

Burke, actually, is just five days older than Baker, born on April 30, 1941.

“I have just a tremendous parallel connection with Terry,” Burke says. “He was born on May 5. That’s my wedding anniversary. Crazy things like that.”

Baker arrived at Oregon State in 1959 as a three-sport star out of Jefferson High who signed a letter-of-intent to play basketball but was talked into going out for football by coach Tommy Prothro the spring of his freshman year.

Baker shared duty with Don Kasso as tailback in Prothro’s single-wing offense as a sophomore in 1960, then took over as quarterback when Prothro shifted to a wing-T set in 1961.

Burke, meanwhile, had played two years as an end at Bakersfield Junior College, earning most valuable player honors as his team won the Junior Rose Bowl his freshman year in 1959. He signed with the University of Houston and played spring ball there before leaving school and returning to Bakersfield, where he had gotten a job working in oil fields.

“I had determined I was through with football, didn’t want anything to do with it anymore,” Burke says. “Then I got a call from (OSU assistant coach) Ron Siegrist, who said, ‘Tommy wants you to come to Oregon State.’ I said no. He wouldn’t give up.”

Siegrist flew to Bakersfield, and over dinner, started talking up Oregon State.

“At one point, I said, ‘Ron, you’ve mentioned this Terry Baker guy. Can he throw the football?’ " Burke says. “Ron says, ‘Yeah, he can throw the football.’ I asked him three times. Finally, he says, ‘Hell yes, he can throw. Do you want him to throw it right-handed or left=handed?’ I said, ‘OK, I’m coming to Oregon State to meet Terry Baker.’ "

When Burke tells me this story, he is unaware that Baker threw the football left-handed but pitched the baseball right-handed. Baker learned to throw the baseball that way because his older brother, Gary, threw right-handed, and his mother couldn’t afford to buy another glove. Terry used Gary’s hand-me-down.

“I’d never heard that story,” Burke says.

The 6-4, 195-pound Burke sat out the 1961 season in Corvallis, playing as a member of the scout team as Baker earned All-Coast honors as a junior on a 5-5 OSU team that was playing without conference affiliation.

“What a terrific year that was,” Burke says. “I had that entire season to watch Terry play and see what he was doing. Let me tell you something — Ron Siegrist was right.”

It took a year for the Beavers to transition from the single-wing to T formation.

“A lot of people think Tommy converted because of me,” the 6-3, 205-pound Baker says. “That may have been one factor, but the overriding factor was, it was getting hard to schedule teams to play a single-wing team. Tommy viewed it as a necessity to get into step with the rest of the country. He happened to have me, a player who could make that switch pretty easily.

“In the single-wing, all the linemen we had were small, fast guys. I towered over all them. We got some bigger guys in, and we hit our stride my senior year.”

The 1962 season got off to a rousing start in a 39-35 victory Iowa State as Burke caught 12 passes for three touchdowns. He ended the season with 69 receptions for 1,007 yards, both NCAA records.

“The success Terry and I enjoyed came from working together in my redshirt year,” Burke says. “The chemistry was there. He knew what I was going to do on every single route. He knew where I was going to be, and I knew what he was going to do. It worked.”

Says Baker: “I was just waiting for him to get into the lineup, because I had seen his ability to get open and his great hands. He didn’t have blinding speed, but he was smart and knew how to get open.”

Oregon State split its first four games, losing 28-8 at Iowa and 14-13 to Washington. The Beavers closed out with seven straight wins, including the 6-0 Liberty Bowl victory over Villanova in which Baker made history with a 99-yard run for the only score.

After a regular season-ending 20-17 win over Oregon, the Beavers flew to Philadelphia into weather that was more than inclement.

“We got off the plane two days before the game and it was 60 below zero with the wind-chill factor,” Baker recalls. “It warmed up to 8 degrees for the game. Nobody should play football in weather like that. That’s why Terry ran 99 yards. He was trying to get warm.”

Baker chuckles at the thought of his run in tennis shoes on the icy turf, avoiding a potential safety by eluding a pair of tacklers in the end zone, then another defender at the 10-yard line as he raced around the left side and up the field to paydirt.

“Prothro and I got into several arguments over the years about who called that play,” he says. “I’ve always maintained it was a stupid play to call. You don’t call a play (a foot outside the goal line) where you can be tackled in the end zone. That will be a mystery right up there with Amelia Earhart.

“George Gnoss, the left guard, had gotten his knee injured the play before. He told me he completely missed his block on the play, so we were playing with 10 1/2 players. ... it’s hilarious. I remember a safety had a shot at me (at the 10), and I ducked. He went over my head, and then it was clear sailing.”

Playing in that kind of weather, Baker allows, “wasn’t fun.”

“Every time I got tackled, I’d hit the frozen ground, which was like sliding across a wood rack,” he says. “It would take the skin off your hand. I had a sore on the back of my hand that must have been there for two months. I’ve never been so sore. We might as well have played on concrete.”

Baker won every award possible that year, including Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, and was the No. 1 pick in the 1963 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He went on to three undistinguished seasons with the Rams, played one year in the Canadian Football League and retired, beginning a law career in 1968 that focused on business litigation.

Burke was taken in the fifth round by San Francisco in that draft, but chose to return to Oregon State. “I wanted to be with the Beavers and play my senior year,” he says.

Baker’s successor, Gordon Queen, led the nation with 16 touchdown passes, and Burke caught nine of them, with 48 receptions in all. He was a consensus All-American and won the Voit and Pop Warner awards as the top player on the West Coast for an OSU team that went 5-5.

“It was a different team,” Burke says. “Gordon was a very good passer, and we had some great players, but we didn’t have the same team.”

Burke’s pro career was disappointing, too. After fall term, he left Oregon State and enlisted in the Army.

When he was released after a six-month stint at Fort Ord, Calif., the 49ers were a week away from playing their first preseason game against Dallas in Portland’s Multnomah Stadium. Coach Jack Christiansen told Burke that because he had played at Oregon State, he wanted Burke to play.

“I told him I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t in football shape,” Burke says. “He said, ‘I’ll put you in for a few plays, let the fans see you and then take you out.’ "

The Pacific Coast League’s Beavers played at Multnomah, so infield dirt covered part of the field. On Burke’s third play, his right leg caught in the transfer from grass to dirt.

“My posterior cruciate ligament snapped in half,” he says. “I thought my career was over.”

After nine hours of surgery, Burke spent six weeks in traction and a full-length cast.

“Rehab was slow and painful, and I never did get back to 100 percent — 80 to 85 percent, maybe,” he says. “Essentially, my career was over.”

Burke hung in for four years, catching 38 career passes with the 49ers, Atlanta and New Orleans. After he blew out his other knee, he retired from the game.

“No doubt in my mind, Terry Baker was the greatest player I ever played with,” Burke says. “And I played with some great ones, including John Brodie, Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen. My roommates in New Orleans were Billy Kilmer and Paul Hornung.”

Burke and Baker both consider the 1962 season the highlight of their careers.

“What a great team Oregon State put together,” Burke says. “They created a winning environment, and Tommy had the best coaching staff in the country, without a doubt. Everything was positive. If you screwed up, they encouraged you to do it right.

“The attitude that was displayed on and off the practice field, and especially in the games ... every player had it. It was a total team effort that season.”

“We must have had a pretty good team,” Baker says. “We had a good defense. What makes a team really special is very good coaching. They got 110 percent out of us. They made overachievers out of a bunch of guys who were average.”

Baker and Burke were far from average, of course. As a 9-year-old growing up in Corvallis, they were my heroes. My late father, John, was OSU’s sports information director during that time. Baker often has credited Dad with making him the first Heisman Trophy winner from a program west of the Mississippi.

Dad was innovative, sending out postcards on Sundays (in those pre-Internet years) to Heisman voters throughout the country with stats and opposing coaches’ quotes from the previous game. Nobody had waged a Heisman campaign like that. But Dad always maintained Baker would have won the Heisman without such help.

Baker and Burke each made dinner visits to our household, a thrill for me and my younger brother, Brent, as well as all of our friends, who wanted autographs and all the details. Since I was more a receiver type than a quarterback, I was probably the only kid in Corvallis who regarded Burke on equal terms with the greatest athlete in America.

Burke told me at the start of our conversation Wednesday of his feelings for my father.

“He was probably the No. 1 influence on my life when I was at Oregon State,” Burke said. “I cannot tell you the gratitude and love I have for him. I’d had a pretty difficult life until the time I got to Oregon State. I didn’t trust a lot of people. Then I met your dad. Every time I had a question, he was there. Every time I had a problem I wanted to talk to somebody about, he was there.

“The biggest smile I ever saw on his face was at the banquet at Stanford when I won the Pop Warner Award. I was very honored to have won the thing. I was sharing the stage with Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie, guys who were my heroes. I got halfway through my speech and I stopped talking. And I said, ‘Where is Johnny Eggers? My friend John is in this crowd somewhere.’ I asked him to stand up. He hesitated. I thanked him publicly for his contributions. He wanted no recognition. What a remarkable man.

“That Oregon State experience changed my life. Your dad was the leading character.”

Baker and Burke will be reunited for the first time since the mid-1960s Friday night in Corvallis, along with dozens of their teammates as the ‘62 team is inducted into the OSU Sports Hall of Fame. They’re both excited. Baker feels that way, in particular, for his teammates.

“It’s maybe too late in a sense,” he says. “Some of the guys feel we were overlooked for this honor. Some of my closest friends are no longer with us, including Tom Holley and Rich Koeper. But for the guys still here, it means an awful lot to them.”

For one grand weekend, they’re back together, with the B & B Boys leading the way.

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