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Episode 23: Football’s Valhalla: The Bob Ufer Story

Episode 23: Dan Chace — Football’s Valhalla: The Bob Ufer Story

Bob Ufer: 2 minutes and 25 seconds remaining, it’s a cliffhanger here from Ann Arbor… a barn burner call it what you will… wide to the right is Bo Rather. It’s Taylor deep and Cyprus close. Larry Cipa under center and a balanced line. Cipa rolls out to the right. Pitches it off to Taylor and Taylor to the 20.. down in the 15, down in the 10… 5,4,3,2,1. TOUCHDOWN BILLY TAYLOR! LET’S GO BILLY TAYLOR! BILLY TAYLOR SCORES A TOUCHDOWN FROM 21 YARDS OUT. THE CROWD GOES BERSERK! MICHIGAN LEADS 9 TO 7. OH MAN…

Hi, this is Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

Or should I say “Meee-chigan” Today. That was legendary Wolverines Football announcer Bob Ufer you just heard, basically losing his mind as all-American Billy Taylor scored a touchdown to beat Ohio State in 1971. “Meee-chigan football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day of obligation!” Ufer often would say during his Michigan broadcasting career. That career spanned 362 consecutive games from 1945 through 1981. It took a terminal illness to break that streak. Ufer called his last game at Iowa in 1981, and he passed away soon after. He was only 61 years old.

But even now, nearly 40 years after he left the airwaves, Ufer’s spirit survives among the Michigan faithful. Filmmaker Dan Chace, 1983 graduate, is one of those fervent faithful. He was one of those people who turned down the T.V. and turned up the radio, just to hear Ufer call the games. On Friday, October 5th, Dan will screen his documentary “Football’s Valhalla: The Bob Ufer Story,” at the Michigan Theater. It’s a total love-fest jammed with unseen footage and photographs, interviews with coaches, players, fans and family, even English professor Anne Curzan, here at U of M, who breaks down some of Bob’s nuttiest Ufer-isms and unique terms-of-phrase. So if you’re free this Friday, get down to the Michigan. And in the meantime, let’s go behind-the-scenes of Football’s Valhalla, with one of Ufer’s biggest friends… here’s Dan.

Dan Chace: I think I was probably about 7 or 8 years old and my mother was listening to Bob Ufer on a little portable radio that she would carry around the house. She would be doing housework and she’d have this radio on and I was thinking why on Earth my mother was listening to a football game? This is, you know, sports, and I didn’t think of her as being a sports fan in particular. What I learned was that she was listening to him as an entertainer. She loved folk writers and, you know, Mark Twain kind of writers: writers that had a dry sense of humor and personality. She was entertained by all of his his Ufer-isms and all of his funny phrases and just his sheer joy. And as a little kid who loved sports, you’ve got the entertainment factor plus the fact that he’s talking about Michigan Football and he’s telling that story and for most fans in Ann Arbor that was the preferred choice, I guess, for following Michigan Football. The one that was probably my favorite is “running down that mod sod like a penguin with a hot herring in his cumberbund.”

Holdship: (laughs) That’s genius!

Chace: And I have Anne Curzan breaking that down!

Holdship: (laughs) So cute!

Chace: She’s great, she says something like “so let’s start with mod sod,” you know, and proceed to kinda work through it. “Where do you get the penguin? Where do you get the hot herring?” (laughs) That’s one of my favorites that’s fun, but you know there’s so many others.
“He could run in the phone booth for 15 minutes and never touch the sides.” I tried to listen to as many of the game broadcasts as I could and I was really listening, not so much for football highlights, but for funny expressions or historical expressions. Especially if he was talking about his own life or childhood let’s say. There was one that he used, he just threw it out, he said um.
“Well everybody makes mistakes, and that’s why they put rubber mats under cuspidors.” And that one just kind of slid by and I was like “Wait a minute! I’m not sure I even know what a cuspidor is! I gotta go look it up…” and it’s a spitoon, and I was like “Now, that’s a little dated!” even for 1975 or whenever it was. Aside from the Ufer-isms and those funny expressions, also a big thing with Bob Ufer was nicknames. He nicknamed a lot of the players which also kind of made them more legendary. Rick Leech, “The Guts and Glue of the Maize and Blue.” Anthony “The Darter” Carter. All these things added to his flavor and helped to magnify these heroes that we were following.

Holdship: Talk about an enthusiastic character! I mean what a time for Michigan Football and for the fans to experience it. I mean, it makes a huge difference when the person calling the game is really loving their job. And he really did!

Chace: One of the interesting things about Bob Ufer that we tried to cover in the film is that he was a broadcaster for Michigan Football games beginning in 1945, so he had been at Michigan broadcasting on kind of a small scale for 25 years before Bo Schembechler even arrived! But when Bo arrived and started having success for the team, and of course that juiced up the fans, but it also juiced up Bob Ufer. And really, the ten year war that Bo had with Woody really parallels the peak of Bob Ufer’s career, in my opinion, which was 11 or 12 years before his death. And Ufer rode that wave with Michigan in those years and was really a big part of it, along with Don Canham in my opinion. In building up the Michigan program, building up Bo Schembechler, making heroes – larger-than-life figures out of the players and coaches – so he was really a core part of it.

Holdship: Who are some of the people that you’ve spoken to that our audience will recognize? I know you’ve got Harbaugh in there.

Chace: Yes, Jim Harbaugh was someone who was a terrific surprise to me. I think of Jim Harbaugh as a younger guy or as a kid because I grew up in Ann Arbor and we had some mutual connections throughout the Minicks which were in our neighborhood and stuff. So, I vaguely knew of Jim Harbaugh, but I always thought of him as a little kid. But in talking with him I realized, not only does he have very vivid memories of Bob Ufer’s broadcast, but he was very direct in saying that Bob Ufer was an influence. You know? An actual real influence on how he developed as a boy and a young man in terms of his enthusiasm for Michigan. And the fact that Jim was growing up in a household with a dad who was a coach for Michigan at that time, Jack Harbaugh, only magnified that. You know, other things related to Bob Ufer that he said were beautiful. One of the things that he said that I didn’t even have to ask him about is he said, “I always wished that Bob User had called one of my games.” Because Jim Harbaugh came in as a quarterback about a year after Bob Ufer had passed away. So he never had that opportunity and that was a regret.

Holdship: Ah, so close.

Chace: But to answer your question, Jim Harbaugh, very important interviewee. His father, Jack is a tremendously articulate guy, a passionate guy – contributed great material for the film. Other coaches, Lloyd Carr didn’t know, hadn’t met Lloyd Carr, and was so delighted to have him. He’s also a passionate person he understands emotion and he remembers Ufer vividly and he was at the 1981 Rose Bowl where Bob Ufer made a very special speech and then Bo went out and proceeded to win his first bowl game, which was a very big deal. And Lloyd Carr was also there in 1981 when Bob Ufer made his final appearance. Jerry Hanlon was in my first film, he’s a charming guy, he’s a beloved figure in Michigan Athletics and in the community. One of the funny things is whenever I show the Billy Taylor film, it seems that whenever women see the film they go “Who’s that cute old guy?!” Chicks dig Jerry Hanlon! So of course for the female viewers, I had to put Jerry Hanlon in this film as well.

Holdship: (laughs) Is there any explanation in the movie about where his “Meee-chigan” came from?

Chace: Yeah! That’s a standard piece of Michigan lore, and the story with that is that when Bob Ufer came here to Michigan, he came in the fall of 1939. He initially had dreams of playing football at Michigan, so he was playing freshman football in 1939. He was coached by Wallee Webber, but certainly, Fritz Crisler would have been around and been aware of this speedy kid from Pennsylvania, but then I’m sure that winter, Bob began training for track, which was his other passion, his other excellent stand-out sport and in the process of that training… The legend is that they were at Yost field-house working out and running and that Fielding Yost would be hanging out. The athletes would stop by and they’d sit with Yost and he would tell them stories, which he apparently remembered quite vividly, of his glory days and different exploits of Michigan teams from the really really early years. So, the legend is that Ufer as a freshman athlete was listening to those stories. Fielding Yost was from West Virginia…

Holdship: Oh, okay!

Chace: The story was that as he would regale these kids with his stories about the good ol’ days, he would refer to Michigan as “Meee-chigan” with his southern accent.

Holdship: Okay!

Chace: So he kept saying “Meee-chigan,” “Meee-chigan!” He wasn’t trying to put anything on that was just his southern accent coming through! And Ufer remembered that and picked up on that, and that has been perpetuated until this day. You know, one of the details that I find interesting is that Bob Ufer is buried about 10 feet away from where Fielding Yost is buried.

Holdship: Cool!

Chace: At the high point in Forest Hill Cemetery, here in Ann Arbor.

Holdship: I did not know that!

Chace: Beautiful location and Fielding Yost chose a good location. It’s my belief that Bob Ufer wanted to be very very close to Fielding Yost. The connection, I would say, the personal connection besides, you know, enjoying him on the radio as a kid, like so many kids did, is that I was in undergrad at Michigan when Ufer became ill. I happened, really by chance, to go to the Iowa game in 1981 where Bob Ufer made his last appearance. And it was emotional for the crowd because they suddenly realized, I think many of them suddenly realized that he was seriously ill and that he was going to die soon. This was his chance to say a final farewell. I get choked up…

Holdship: Yeah, that’s intense.

Chace: You know, I had my mother who had introduced me to Bob Ufer really, had passed away from cancer about 4 years before this. So I think I was still sensitive about that…

Holdship: Mhm!

Chace: And now, here’s this guy that we were so fond of, all of my friends, everybody knows about this. The game watches where you would turn the TV volume down, but the radio would always be on. That was the way to watch those games.

Holdship: (laughs) Yeah!

Chace: So that was a very emotional moment. I’ve talked to various people that I’ve interviewed in the film about that moment, and it was a very dramatic, very emotional moment. And for me, it’s probably the moment that fueled the making of this film.

Holdship: The other thing that’s great about college sports and then when you have a character like Ufer, how much it belongs to EVERYONE as an alum!

Chace: In talking to all of these people about Michigan and about love for Michigan, what I’ve learned is that the legacy is really remarkable. It really is what distinguishes this university, this football program: is the richness, the depth, and length of this tradition, of this history. And Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler were giants in college football nationally, not just here. So, we have that at Michigan which is great. And Bob Ufer was really a bridge from the past to the present. That is a strong feeling I have for the film that Bob Ufer met and spoke with Fielding Yost when he was alive as an athletic director, and then Bob Ufer is around chronicling and broadcasting Michigan Football and is able to influence somebody named Jim Harbaugh who was a little boy, then develops and grows and now becomes a football coach carrying on the same tradition. I’ve always felt that what’s important is to draw the positives from someone’s life and to really carry that forward. So, certainly, it’s my hope that the story of Bob Ufer is going to be a reminder to people of the kind of enthusiastic, positive choices you can make in your life.

Holdship: It’s such a kick to be able to see footage that you haven’t seen in a long time, or may never have seen, or just to see him alive again I think will be just a real joy for people.

Chace: It’s true, one of the great things about building a documentary is that you get to do that kind of research, and you’re really looking for video where you can find it, you’re looking for photos where you can find them, and it’s been a joy to uncover images both moving and still. A lot of people don’t know that Bob Ufer was not just a varsity track athlete at Michigan but a world-record holder in the quarter-mile. So, he was a serious serious athlete. But, this intern came back to me and said “Well I found something, I don’t know if you’re gonna like it. I hope it’s okay.” And what it turned out to be was an intact race shot in Madison Square Garden with two different cameras filmed.

Holdship: Nice! (laughing)

Chace: It shows an entire race! For the most part, that Bob Ufer ran… and won! I shouldn’t give away the fact that he won the race, I was kind of hoping to hold that back. But anyway, it’s everything I could have hoped for in terms of being able to show clearly – here’s Bob Ufer Running, and yes he is fast, and yes he beat everybody by a mile! That was a find! That was a find that no other Michigan fan, and there’s many many of them that love to collect that stuff. Nobody’s got that yet! No one has seen that yet! So, I get to share that.

Holdship: Score!

Chace: In researching his story and starting to talk to the family and read about him, you learn that there was much, much more to it. He was divorced which was a painful thing that happened and sort of seems… you kinda go wow… How could Bob Ufer ever get divorced, that’s terrible! He had a father Clarence Ufer who was also a track standout at Michigan and Clarence Ufer struggled with the Great Depression, ended up becoming an alcoholic and died also prematurely. These are details where you suddenly go, wow! Bob Ufer when he came to Michigan was, his family was fairly affluent but, early in his student career his father went bankrupt and the family suddenly had no more money. And apparently Ufer’s tuition check bounced, and he had to start scrambling, as many students do, to pay their way through school and figure out a way to make it work! So that colors the way you look at Bob Ufer and he’s not just this happy clown on a broadcast, that many people, that’s all they know. But, it will be sentimental, I would say. As an artist, a direction I want to go is to tell stories that are sentimental, that do pull at the heartstrings, that celebrate what’s joyful and sad in the same breath if that’s possible. But beyond that, laughter is essential. And laughter paired with tragedy is pretty exquisite if you can pull that off!

Holdship: Mhm!

Chace: And that’s what I hope to do. Bob Ufer had a huge sense of humor, he was a funny person. And the film has to have humor! We’re trying to build humor in several places.

Holdship: What a great way to pay tribute to someone that you love! I mean, did you feel a lot of pressure like “I’ve got to make the Bob Ufer movie now…”?

Chace: Yeah it’s a huge amount of pressure, and it’s for a number of reasons. First of all, I’ve become very aware of how much he meant to this community. So, Michigan fans my age and older really know who Bob Ufer is, and they have fond memories of Bob Ufer. And if you’re gonna stick your neck out and make a film about Bob Ufer… well of course I understand it has to be good. I’m just one person telling this story. I think it will raise the bar. I think it will celebrate his story in a beautiful way, and I think hopefully take away that we can too life a kind of life that is filled with enthusiasm, that is a resilient life, that we get back up when we have obstacles as Bob Ufer did, and maintain a positive attitude in life.

Holdship: Well I hope you enjoyed this chat with Dan as much as I did. If you want to screen the film at an alumni event, Dan would love to talk to you. Send him a note via the comment section at Michigan Today. You can hear more Listen-in Michigan Podcasts at GooglePlay Music, iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. Alright, Happy Homecoming, Wolverines! Until next time as always, Go Blue!

All American

Documentary filmmaker Dan Chace’s keen interest in Wolverine football history began as a youngster growing up in Ann Arbor and attending games in The Big House. His 2012 documentary Perseverance: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor (co-directed with Bob Hercules, MA ’84) recounted the “ups and downs” story of Wolverine Billy Taylor (running back 1969-71). The three-time All-American went to prison for robbery and lived on the streets of Detroit for two years before turning his life around. Taylor went back to school, earned a doctorate, and founded a Detroit center for similar men in crisis. Perseverance drew wide praise for its inspiring and moving portrayal of a great U-M athlete who, seemingly down and out, makes a triumphant recovery.

Ufer in booth

Bob Ufer’s enthusiasm for
“Meeechigan” football was infectious. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

On Friday, October 5, Homecoming Eve for Wolverine football fans, Ann Arbor’s grand Michigan Theater will host the premiere of Chace’s second documentary Football’s Valhalla: The Bob Ufer Story. That endeavor has been a labor of love, a three-year journey to put the story of legendary football broadcaster Bob Ufer, ’43, on the screen.

Ufer’s presence in the Michigan Stadium radio broadcast booth from 1945 to his death in 1981 of cancer would become inextricably entwined with the fabled football program’s history. Fans deeply loved Ufer for his passion and unique style in calling games: dynamic, animated, colorful.

“His broadcasts were recognized as genuine emotional honesty,” Chace, BA ’83, told me during a recent trip to Ann Arbor. “He was joyous in Michigan victories, crestfallen when the team lost. Fans adored and respected Bob Ufer because in his broadcasts they could tell he felt what we felt. He was entertaining, engaging, funny, articulate. He was a broadcaster with a creative language, fond of military metaphors. Not unlike Shakespeare, he could generate words and phrases to express himself.”

That creative gift is evident in the source of Chace’s documentary title. Let’s flash back to the waning seconds of the 1979 U-M versus Indiana football game at the Big House. The teams are tied 21-21 with Michigan in possession of the ball, 45 yards away from the goal line with six seconds left on the clock. Quarterback John Wangler throws a pass to Michigan’s all-time leading receiver, Anthony-the-Darter-Carter, who darts into the end zone just as time expired. The score: Michigan 27-Indiana 21. The TD would stand as one of the most memorable in Wolverine history. The ever-partisan and fervent Michigan football radio broadcaster Ufer shouts into his microphone that the play must have been sent down to Bo Schembechler from Football’s Valhalla.  It’s a mythic, classic “Uferism” that remains one of the most memorable calls in sports broadcast history.

A personal feat

Chace launched his three-year production in November 2015 during the U-M vs. Ohio State game in Columbus, Oh. It was a freezing, bitterly cold day as Chace and his hired crew filmed “on-the-street” interviews outside the stadium. From that day, Chace estimates he made approximately 15 roundtrips between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles where he works as a producer-director at Black Point West Films.

In Ann Arbor, he gathered photos from U-M’s Bentley Library and Ufer family members. He also acquired critical assets from radio-video archivist Art Vuolo, who began recording Ufer in the 1970s. As a result of the research, the documentary touches numerous themes: radio history and culture, the impact of World War II, and Ufer’s connection to coaches Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler and Athletic Director Don Canham.

Interviews

Ufer at WPAG, 1951

Ufer calls the 1951 Indiana game from the WPAG booth. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

During his Ann Arbor visits Chace interviewed Ufer’s four children, former football coaches Jerry Hanlon, Lloyd Carr, and Jack Harbaugh, and Jack’s son — current U-M coach Jim Harbaugh. It’s an embarrassment of riches, he admits. “I created a problem for myself. To get at [Ufer’s] expansive story, I did something like 40 sit-down interviews.”

Many of the interviews included discussions of Ufer’s 1979 Valhalla reference and its possible personal and symbolic meanings for those working in the world of football. In mythology, ruling god Odin controls access to Valhalla, an afterlife hall-of-honor. Chace views the Valhalla pantheon as “a very big tent” that surely includes legendary U-M players, coaches, and their families, as well as members of the Michigan Marching Band and those unwavering Wolverine fans who regard Michigan Stadium as a metaphorical “heaven on earth.” And, of course, Bob Ufer.

Meeting Challenges

Ufer running

Ufer was one of U-M’s all-time greatest track stars. (Image: Michiganensian via U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

“For me,” Chace says, “the material derives from the subject itself, the setbacks and the comebacks. In the end, it’s the story of a life well-lived. I like films that celebrate the human spirit.”

Coping with poor eyesight dating to his childhood is one challenge that serves as a key arc in telling Ufer’s inspiring story. Although often having to wear eyeglasses while running field and track meets, Ufer had a remarkable running career that led to numerous titles and championships, All-American honors, and a 1943 world record in the quarter-mile run. Football’s Valhalla includes previously unseen, pristine newsreel footage of Ufer running a meet at Madison Square Garden.

And though his poor eyesight disqualified Ufer from military service during World War II, he contributed to the war effort through volunteer work with the V-12 Naval College training program at U-M.

Labor of love

Though Chace says making the documentary “was sometimes grueling,” he can cite many thrilling aspects to the process: finding and including the rare footage of Ufer at Madison Square Garden; listening to Harbaugh draw an analogy between Ufer’s enthusiasm for Michigan football and his own; and observing the interaction and support of Ufer’s four children. Revisiting his hometown Ann Arbor “to revisit familiar landmarks from my younger life” fed his creativity during the filmmaking process.

Curtain call

Ufer and Pres. Ford

In 1976, Ufer was delighted to present alumnus, former football star, and U.S. President Gerald Ford with a new Michigan jersey. (Image: Robert Kalmbach, U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

It was a pleasure talking with Chace, and for both of us it was somewhat of a walk down memory lane. I first attended football games at Michigan as a graduate student in the late 1960s, right about the time Chace got hooked on Ufer and the Wolverines. I recalled to him that I found it odd to see fans around me holding small portable radios to their ears. I came to learn they were listening to Ufer call the game. Chace recalled that too.

We also conjured up the magical, circus-like atmosphere that began in Michigan Stadium after the 1969 victory over Ohio State. It’s hard to imagine now, but Brandy and Whiskey, two little dogs, were trained to push a soccer ball from end zone to end zone. Fans roared with every “touchdown.” A unicyclist showed off his balancing maneuvers on the field at halftime. And there’s nothing like the special thrill of watching alumni band members and cheerleaders return to strut their stuff on Homecoming Day.

Dan Chace is a gifted, humane, and dedicated documentary filmmaker. His Football’s Valhalla: The Bob Ufer Story promises to be an ideal entree to Homecoming 2018. Try to get to the Michigan Theater Oct. 5. You’re going to love this cinematic “blast from the past.”

Comments

  1. Mark Willmarth - Law '77

    After graduation, I would turn on Bob Ufer’s broadcast as I watched the game on TV. His broadcasts were almost as much fun as watching the game!

    Reply

  2. Russell Wedemeier - None

    I’ve never heard a broadcast call like the one Ufer delivered after the Carter catch. I was as depressed as he sounded and then as happy as he sounded afterward. A day I will never forget.

    Reply

  3. Brad Switzer - 1991

    Where can we find the documentary?

    Reply

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