By the time the top-ranked University of Southern California came to Corvallis on a damp Veterans Day in 1967, the Beavers really weren’t underdogs anymore.
With a win against No. 2 Purdue and a 16-16 tie against UCLA — both games were on the road — the Beavers had earned the nickname “Giant Killers,” but one of the reasons OSU was up to the USC challenge was that team members felt that they belonged with the nation’s best.
“Going into the game we were definitely on a high,” said linebacker Skip Vanderbundt by phone from his home in Northern California. Coach Dee Andros "had us as ready as we could be. We are going to give the ball to Bill Enyart … can you stop us? We knew we were good enough to win.”
Tight end and punter Gary Houser, another Northern California native, recalls the “whole spectacle” of the matchup.
“I can remember being on the field watching them come down the ramp,” he said. “They had O.J. [Simpson] and those uniforms and you saw them all the time on TV. Right in front of you. It was a great feeling to be at that level and playing them.”
Nearly 42,000 fans made it into then-Parker Stadium, although traffic snarls involving Interstate 5 and Highway 34 (sound familiar?) kept some spectators out of their seats for most of the first half. Both governors, Tom McCall of Oregon and Ronald Reagan of California, were on hand after a joint appearance at the Albany Veterans Day parade.
And the Giant Killers rode again. OSU place-kicker Mike Haggard kicked a 30-yard field goal late in the second quarter for a 3-0 lead, with a Vanderbundt fumble recovery fueling the drive.
“Thinking that a field goal would stand up for the whole game. That was nuts,” Vanderbundt said. “They had O.J. He was the best running back I ever faced. Every play, we were sure he was going to break one.”
Simpson, a community college transfer from San Francisco who went on to pro football, TV and tabloid fame, actually broke two, a 40-yarder on the Trojans’ second play from scrimmage that led to a missed field goal … and a 41-yarder in which Simpson tried to juke past Mark Waletich. But as Simpson slowed to set up his blockers, defensive lineman Jess Lewis dragged him down at the 32.
“It was unbelievable,” Houser said. “How could Jess have done that? O.J. was such a tough back. He had such great balance. It looked like he was running on turf while others were running on grass. But there was Jess catching him from behind.”
And the score remained 3-0. Houser had one of his finest days as a punter, consistently pinning the Trojans deep in their own territory.
“Yes, I had a good day punting,” Houser said. “Why? I don’t know. The field was muddy. The ball was heavy and punters’ averages usually start to dip later in the season because you don’t get any roll on the soggy fields. Maybe it was rising to the occasion or an extra bit of adrenaline. That definitely was part of it.”
With three minutes left Simpson had his final carry, bringing him to 188 yards, but Vanderbundt knocked the ball away and Lewis recovered. The Beavers picked up two first downs and ran out the clock, one of Houser’s favorite memories.
“I remember standing in the huddle and looking across the line. We knew we had them. There wasn’t anything that they could do. I remember looking at them. All of those All-American guys. And I could see that they were beaten. That was real satisfying. … And all hell broke loose in Corvallis that night.”
OSU went on the road the next week to Eugene and beat the hated Ducks 14-10. The team’s 7-2-1 record earned them the No. 7 in the final Associated Press ranking. USC beat UCLA 21-20 in another remarkable game of the 1967 season to advance to the Rose Bowl, where the Trojans defeated Indiana 14-3. There was no bowl game for the Beavers, because at that time the conference only allowed its champion to play in the postseason.
Vanderbundt was drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers and played 11 years in the NFL, winning three division titles with the 49ers. He got an ash tray for being on the first title team … with his name misspelled on the bottom.
“That ball game got me drafted,” said Vanderbundt of the USC game. “Scouting was so much different in those days. Beating USC got me a chance to go to the East-West Shrine Game and Hula Bowl, and those college all-star games were where the scouts were.”
Vanderbundt, 71, still works in commercial real estate, a trade he picked up in his NFL off-seasons — he had to work because at that time the NFL didn’t pay like it does today.
Houser, also 71, spent nearly three decades as a high school and college coach before retiring in 2014 as the athletic director at Shasta College in Redding, California.
“The university has been so great at remembering the team at every milestone,” Houser said.
But this year, the 50th, was different, three days of socializing, culminating in an appearance on the field at the Oct. 14 Colorado game. A total of 38 players returned from the 73-man roster, said Scott Spiegelberg, Beavers’ director of alumni engagement. Lewis, also a standout wrestler for the Beavers who spent decades working on campus in facilities and maintenance, was there.
Fourteen squad members have passed away. The widows of three players attended, as well as Andros’ daughter Jeanna.
“It was like we had never left,” Vanderbundt said. “Telling war stories. It turned into a three- or four-day party, and that was just what I was hoping it would be. I just wanted to get together, get everybody back together. Those kids aren't going to remember us. And that’s OK. We’re just a bunch of fat old guys with bad legs.”
“It might be the last time we’re all together,” Houser said. “It was really something. We had a real unusual group of players that came together. We all liked each other — no cliques or groups. Everybody had a nickname."
Houser also noted that it was “a rough week for the university,” with the departure of coach Gary Andersen hitting the news three days before the reunion kicked off.
“I was so impressed with the way the kids regrouped for the Colorado game,” Houser said. “They’ve played really inspired ball the last few weeks. I think they are going to be OK.”