Before he was a national champion and All-American quarterback at Ohio State, Rex Kern was a high school three-sport star in Lancaster, Ohio.
Kern's talent on the hardwood especially stood out. He fielded recruiting calls from the likes of John Wooden and Dean Smith, but ultimately, Kern wanted to be a Buckeye.
"I had always wanted to go to Ohio State to play basketball for Fred Taylor. I grew up when Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and those guys won a national championship," Kern told Eleven Warriors. "I was probably in the fourth grade at that point and had my heart set on playing for Ohio State basketball."
After watching the Buckeyes win a national title in 1960, playing for Taylor was a dream of Kern's. He also wanted to play football, but Woody Hayes did not enter the picture until midway through his senior year of high school.
His high school basketball coach at Lancaster High School eventually approached Kern and asked him where he wanted to go to school. Kern expressed his concerns about playing both sports at Ohio State, which prompted his coach to place calls to both legendary OSU coaches.
“(I) had my heart set on playing for Ohio State basketball.”– Rex Kern
"He went in and picked up the phone and said, 'Hey Fred, if you guys want him, he wants to play both basketball and football,' and Fred said that would be great with him," Kern said. "Woody did likewise, and I think the next night Ohio State was having a home basketball game, and we were off to the races then."
Kern then played both freshman football and basketball at Ohio State (freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football or basketball until 1972-73). After finishing the 1967 season with the freshman football Buckeyes, Kern became a starting guard on Taylor's freshman basketball squad alongside Jim Cleamons.
After playing for both freshman teams, Kern said he began to notice a problem with his hamstring as he entered spring football. Before long, it was evident that the injury was more than just a hamstring.
"About the end of May, I couldn't get out of bed. I eventually found out I had a ruptured disk and I was looking at back surgery," Kern said. "In June of 1968 after spring football, I went in to have back surgery. I can still remember Woody saying to my mom and dad, 'If Rex never plays a down for us, he will continue to get his scholarship and he will graduate from Ohio State.'"
As everyone now knows, Kern was able to return to the football field at Ohio State. As Kern tells it, he was back on the field 45 days after surgery to play quarterback for the Buckeyes. He then beat out returning starter Bill Long for the starting job, and led the 1968 team to an undefeated season and a national championship, putting a stamp on what is arguably the greatest campaign in OSU history.
However, prior to defeating Southern California in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1969 to complete the title season, Kern nearly saw his career come to a screeching halt again during bowl prep.
Practicing at French Field House, Hayes – in a great mood during the first day of bowl practice – brought the quarterbacks over to hit the tackling dummy during individual position drills.
A former all-state high school safety and future NFL defensive back, Kern was more than excited to hit again. The starting QB was first up to hit the dummy, but what resulted was less than ideal and sent Hayes into a profanity-laced fit.
"I fell down and Woody said, 'Rex, what's wrong?' I said, 'Coach, I think I dislocated my shoulder,'" Kern said, sending Hayes into a frenzy. "(Trainer) Ernie Biggs ran over and asked what was wrong. He reached down, felt around, and said 'Coach, the kid dislocated his shoulder.'"
Needless to say, the Ohio State quarterbacks did not participate in that drill again.
As for Kern, he had now dislocated his non-throwing shoulder two weeks before the de facto national championship game, and had undergone back surgery just a few months prior to that. In Ohio State's 27-16 win over USC in the Rose Bowl, Kern still managed to complete 9-of-15 passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns, adding 35 yards on the ground on 12 carries.
After the game, Kern was looking at shoulder surgery in March. After a team physician recommended that he not play basketball, his hoops career officially came to an end.
Kern, though, would go on to have one of the most successful quarterback careers in Ohio State history. An All-American in 1969, Kern led the Buckeyes to a 25-2 record in three seasons as their starting signal-caller, losing only to Michigan in 1969 and Stanford in the 1971 Rose Bowl.
Stay tuned to Eleven Warriors throughout the week for more from our exclusive interview with Kern as he discusses the 1968 team in length, J.T. Barrett's legacy as an OSU signal-caller and more.