ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A few thousand Kansas State football fans were in the stands on New Year’s Day to watch the Wildcats’ battle Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Many thousands more saw it on television at home. But only a relative handful watched the game the way Tim Wasemiller did.
He saw it through the lens of personal experience.
The lifelong Lehigh resident played for the Wildcats from 1972 through 1975. He is the only Hillsboro High School graduate to play four years of NCAA Division I football.
Though the Wildcats never came close to a bowl game during his years there, Wasemiller knows what it’s like to wage war on the field. It’s been 25 years since he played his last college game, but the memories of those days are vivid.
“It was tough,” he said. “I wasn’t that fond of football by the time my senior year was over.”
Wasemiller graduated from HHS in 1972 as a two-time All-Cottonwood Valley League performer. Also recruited out of the CVL by K-State that year were Lou Wegerer of Marion and David Cooper of Cottonwood Falls.
The three CVLers became fast friends and were among only 13 of the 62 freshmen who reported to K-State in fall 1972 to make it through all four years in the program.
It was challenging. Though he was a premier player in the CVL, Wasemiller found himself in a new and challenging environment when he got to Manhattan.
“Everyone was so much quicker, first of all,” he said. “Everybody was strong, everybody was fast. It wasn’t like in high school, where you got to play against some people you could just dominate.”
Practices were much more physically and mentally demanding than in high school. They took him almost to the breaking point.
“I guarantee that I wanted to quit my freshman year when they were putting us through all that stuff,” Wasemiller said. “My folks had quite a phone bill from me calling home. I wanted to come home, but they wouldn’t let me. I’m glad I didn’t.”
His coaches were glad, too. Wasemiller came to K-State as a tackle, played guard as a freshman, then broke into the starting lineup as a center during his sophomore year. He stayed there through his senior season.
After his junior year, Wasemiller earned All-Big Eight recognition. Coming into his senior season, he was considered one of the premier offensive linemen in the conference and more than a few professional scouts openly admired the toughness and strength of the 6-2, 240-pounder.
Respected by his teammates, he and Wegerer were chosen as team captains that fall.
But Wasemiller’s last season was a painful one.
“My knees were torn up my senior year,” he said. “I had surgery toward the end of July, then I was back out for two-a-days in August.”
Refusing to stay on the sidelines to heal, Wasemiller played every game that year. His painful knees are one souvenir of his K-State career that has stayed with him to the present.
“I feel it every morning,” he said.
And it may have been the knees that ended any dream of an NFL career.
“I thought I’d get drafted, but I didn’t,” Wasemiller said. “I had an opportunity to go as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns. But a lot of it was that I was just so beat up.”
Wasemiller came to K-State near the end of Vince Gibson’s “Purple Pride” era. Lynn Dickey, the Wildcat’s All-American quarterback and eventual NFL star, had just graduated.
Little did anyone know at the time, but the Wildcats were slowly sliding into the abyss of futile football.
But the slide was gradual. Led by a hot-headed competitor at quarterback named Steve Grogan, who later went on to star in the NFL, the Cats were a respectable 5-6 during Wasemiller’s sophomore season.
The following season, they slipped to 4-7. Ellis Rainsberger replaced Gibson at the helm for Wasemiller’s senior year.
“Vince would have been a much better PR man or athletic director than a coach,” Wasemiller said. “He could really motivate. I think he could have raised a lot of money.”
The Wildcats finished a disappointing 3-8 in 1975.
“I think we could have been better my senior year than we were,” Wasemiller said. “I hate to slam the coaches now, but I didn’t think Ellis was much of a coach.”
The situation grew only worse after Wasemiller left. During the horrible 1980s, K-State won only a sprinkling of games and, by the end of the decade, was picked by Sports Illustrated as one of the worst college football programs in the country.
Wasemiller may have been long gone, but his heart still bled Purple Pride.
“It was bad,” he said. “I would still listen to every game and just be mad. Through the ’80s, when it was so bad, say anything about K-State football and you’d get ribbed and razzed.”
These days, Wasemiller is enjoying his revenge. Not only has K-State climbed out of the abyss under the leadership of coach Bill Snyder, but the Wildcats are a perennial conference power and one of the winningest programs in the country.
“It’s fun,” Wasemiller said. “They can step on the field and play with anybody.”
The days of ribbing and razzing are over.
“KU people have learned not to say anything to me anymore,” he said with a chuckle. “But I still hear, ‘Wait until basketball season’ and all that.”
Still, does Wasemiller harbor even a smidgen of jealousy over the Wildcats’ success these days compared to his playing days?
“None whatsoever,” he said without hesitation. “I’m just thrilled they’re winning. It always takes those guys from the former years to keep it going.”
Wasemiller does marvel at the changes at his alma mater since he was a student-athlete.
“There’s been a lot of money pumped into that program since I’ve been there,” he said. “Money makes a big difference.”
Winning so consistently has transformed the environment on campus and throughout Manhattan.
“If you go up on a game day, you can’t even find a place to park because everybody’s tailgating,” Wasemiller said.
The perk of free game tickets ended five years after he left school, but Wasemiller still tries to make it to Manhattan for two or three games a season.
“I never miss listening to one or watching one,” he said. “I bet I haven’t missed at least listening to a game since I left-well, maybe a few.”
Wasemiller realizes that K-State’s mediocrity during the 1970s may have worked in his favor.
“I don’t know if I could play there today,” he said. “I don’t think I could, to be real honest. They’re so huge. You’ve got to be 6-5 anymore to be an offensive lineman. Even then, I was probably the shortest guy on the offensive line.”
Wasemiller said the best thing he got from his four years as a Wildcat was the friendships he formed with teammates.
He said the opportunity to play also changed him personally.
“I probably learned a lot of discipline, especially mentally,” he said. “You get pretty tough mentally when you go through all that.”
Given the knee pain that follows him today, was it really worth it?
“No,” he said with a quick chuckle. Then he paused.
“Yeah, I’d do it again. I loved football, I just loved it. That’s what you need. If you don’t love it, you may as well not play.”