Refrigerator Bowl veterans reunite

J. Michael Moore

Memories may fade over time, but some remain clear – those are the football memories.

The 1952 Refrigerator Bowl was like yesterday for the Western alumni who played in it. They remember every play, every practice.

That year, 50 years ago, was their season of firsts.

It was the first Hilltopper football team to win an Ohio Valley Conference championship and first to play in a bowl game – a 34-19 win over Arkansas State.

The team’s 9-1 record stands as one of the best in school history.

It was hard-nose, old-school football.

And the Toppers were good at it.

“We trapped if they came at us.”

Four 1952 Toppers still call Bowling Green home.

They won’t have to travel far to see their friends this weekend.

Thirty-eight of the 53 members of the Refrigerator Bowl team are expected to attend a reunion tomorrow night at the Craig Alumni Center.

Jimmy Feix, quarterback on the team and former Hilltopper head coach, has grayed with age and lost a step, much like his old friends.

“When I think of the 1952 team, I think of family and togetherness,” Feix said.

The four local players gathered last week in the Holiday Inn lobby.

From the moment they sat down, they talked football. Their real names disappeared for an evening, giving way for gridiron identities.

Robert “Bubber” Simpson played tight end and flanker. He taught psychology at Western until 2000. His brother couldn’t say “brother” as a child. The name stuck.

To his right was Ray “Muggs” Nutter, who left his name a mystery.

Next to Nutter was Bobby “Spook” Bilyeu, who led the 1952 defense by running the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds.

Feix led the crew, just as he did as an All-American in 1952. His nickname is Botts.

“I was running slow at practice one day and coach said, ‘Feix, you’ve got the damn botts!'” Feix said. “We didn’t know what that meant, so we looked it up in the dictionary. Turns out it’s a disease that horses get.”

The men laughed, then dove back into the past, reliving the first game of the 1952 season – a lack-luster win against Middle Tennessee State.

“I remember Botts coming in at halftime with blood all over him because we weren’t blocking for him,” Simpson said.

The Toppers picked it up, using an offensive attack that would carry them to a win and a winning season.

Head coach “Gentleman” Jack Clayton’s tactics were cutting edge.

“We ran as close to a pro offense that you could get in those days,” Feix said.

The style might seem weird in today’s loud and boisterous game, but it seemed to work in Bowling Green in the early 50s.

The Hilltoppers threw the ball 25-30 times, more than twice the normal rate of the time.

Defensively, the Toppers were a wall, intercepting more passes than their opponents completed the entire season.

“Defense was the key,” Bilyeu said, explaining the intricacies of a stingy attack that sometimes got so complex one half of the team couldn’t remember what the other half was doing.

An equally successful running attack kept opposing defenses off balance. They had no problem changing to a running play if the pass stopped working.

“We trapped if they came at us, and we threw it if they didn’t,” Nutter said.

The big game

Maybe they were picked because of proximity to Evansville, Ind.

But former Toppers said they didn’t care where the school’s first postseason appearance was or who it was against, as long as they could take the field one last time together.

They were underdogs in the Refrigerator Bowl, but stuck to their game plan from the first snap.

“I walked up under center,” Feix said, lowering his voice and cupping his hands while glancing left and right.

He was a quarterback sitting in an easy chair.

“I noticed that the linebackers were 15 or 20 yards deep because they were afraid of our pass,” he added. “So, I called a fullback play up the middle.”

Feix gave the ball to fullback Gene “Knotty” McFadden, who ran straight up the gut for an 80-yard run. Words were exchanged and McFadden kicked a player. He was ejected from the game.

The Toppers lost McFadden, but went on to win 34-19. They lost him again a few years ago, this time, to death.

Most on the team agree McFadden was their heart that season and a main reason why the team has remained so close for five decades.

“He made a concise effort to call everyone on the team,” Muggs said.

Bringing back memories

Friday won’t be the first time members of the squad have rubbed shoulders since they left Western.

But this time around is special.

Number 50 didn’t come easy, and the honor associated for this reunion is something that will never be forgotten.

The foursome knows life has changed tremendously in the past 50 years. First downs and touchdowns will no longer dominate their conversations.

Feix, Simpson, Bilyeu and Nutter have grandchildren to talk about and pictures to show.

Friday is an excuse to get together and become brothers again.