On an ordinary 1965 spring night the great Bubba Smith encountered Michigan State All-American wrestler Don Behm hurrying down a Wonders Hall residential first floor hallway. Bubba challenged him to wrestling match on the spot.
Behm gave away 15 inches and 150-some pounds, but believe it or not he flipped Bubba, much to the delight of two other Michigan State’s football players in the hallway, George Webster and Charlie Thornhill. They burst into laughter as the 5-foot-4, 130-pound Behm embarrassed the 6-7, 285-pound Smith.
Innocently enough, Behm maybe flicked on a light bulb within Bubba. Smith had been a disappointment the previous fall in 1964, his first varsity season.
Smith went on to become one of Michigan State’s all-time greatest players. He was a two-time All-American defensive end enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988. He led Michigan State to national titles in 1965 and 1966.
Behm was already a Big Ten champion and All-American from the winter of 1965 and repeated in 1967. The 1967 Spartans won the NCAA championship. Behm capped his career with a 1968 Olympics silver medal in Mexico City.
Smith passed away in 2011 at age 66, but the two Wonders Hall grapplers are now on equal footing in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame. Smith was a member of the inaugural class, in 1992. Behm joins him on Sept. 22 as part of the eight-member 2016 class.
But that’s not all that links them in time. There’s an argument to be made that Behm spurred something in the gentle giant to reach his enormous but as yet untapped potential.
The first time Behm got under Smith’s skin was in Behm’s Wonders Hall room. They were both sophomores the 1964-65 school year when Smith noticed Behm’s All-American certificate on his desk.
“What’s that?” Bubba asked.
“I’m an All-American. Aren’t you?” Behm replied.
A week or so later Behm returned to Wonders from an off-season workout. He rushed to get to dinner before the cafeteria closed, taking a shortcut to the cafeteria’s back entrance down the dorm’s first floor where Smith resided.
“Bubba sees me and says, ‘Hey, Behm. Let’s wrassle,’ ” Behm recalled.
“I said, ‘Bubba, you’re tired.’ ” He was trying to lighten the moment with a colloquialism the black players used that meant don’t bother me.
“Come on, Behm. Let’s wrassle,” Bubba repeated.
“Bubba, don’t make me do this,” Behm warned.
Smith crouched in the ready position, his arm stuck out like an amateur. It was in perfect position for Behm’s signature move, wrestling’s fireman’s carry. He stepped in, grabbed Smith’s arm, used his over-matched body as a fulcrum and flipped Smith onto his back.
As Webster and Thornhill laughed, Behm got to his feet. Suddenly he went down.
“Here comes one hand around both my ankles,” Behm said. “I’m stuck. Bubba stands up, he’s got my ankles in one hand. Then he grabs my ankles with both hands; with one ankle in each hand he proceeds to pound my head into the floor. I covered my head with my hands until George Webster and Charlie Thornhill stopped him.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Smith became an unstoppable force on the football field. Spartan Stadium echoed “Kill, Bubba kill!” for two years.
Maybe, without Smith’s dominating play, Michigan State doesn’t reach its place opposite Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of Century on Nov. 19, 1966, a seminal moment in modern college football.
An overflow crowd of 80,111 and the nation’s largest football television audience in the pre-Super Bowl era was captivated.
The epic showdown ended in a controversial 10-10 tie. On the second series, Smith separated the shoulder of Notre Dame All-American quarterback Terry Hanratty, knocking him out of the game. Hanratty was running free when Thornhill wrapped him up. He was still upright with Smith in pursuit like a freight train. Bubba drove Hanratty’s shoulder into the turf.
“It was a good hit,” said Hanratty, recalling the play in a recent interview. “There wasn’t anything cheap about it. It was a good, hard football play.”
Late in the game as the clock ran down toward a tie, Smith sacked backup quarterback Coley O’Brien on Notre Dame’s only pass attempt of the final series.
Smith had shifted to the middle of the line before he leaped over the center and grabbed O’Brien as he backpedaled. Smith jumped to his feet to call timeout, but the Spartans didn’t get the ball back as time expired in the era prior to tiebreakers.
Smith’s quick leap to his feet was akin to grabbing Behm. Maybe it’s a stretch to say Behm had anything to do with Smith’s light flicking on before his junior year, but we know how their stories turned out and about the Game of the Century.
It has been a long wait for Behm to enter the Michigan State Hall of Fame, but he only mentioned how proud he is to join Smith and other athletes throughout the athletic program from that mid-1960s golden era.
Football greats include Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones as two-time All-Americans and College Football Hall of Famers.
Jeff Richardson and Mike Bradley aren’t in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame, but they were Behm’s teammates as Big Ten wrestling individual champions and NCAA team champions and Smith’s football teammates on Big Ten and national title teams.
Hockey (1966) and men’s soccer (1967 and 1968 co-titles) also won national crowns.
Behm wasn’t the only Olympian. Three-time Big Ten champion gymnast Dave Thor was a 1968 Olympian enshrined in the MSU Hall in 2014.
“I’m so honored and proud to be recognized as part of that group when there were so many great Michigan State athletes,” Behm said.