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Remembering the Life and Times of Lebanon’s John Houser

By Jerry Reigel
For Lebanon Sports Buzz
     At halftime of Central Dauphin’s recent season-opening 23-7 football win over Wilson, a gentleman named Jim Heilig was inducted into the CD Hall of Fame.
     Heilig is best known for being a captain and starting center for Arizona State in 1975 when the Sun Devils were 12-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Two of the top players on that team were NFL stars John Jefferson and Mike Haynes.
    In ’73-’74, the right guard next to Heilig was John Houser of Lebanon. Heilig remembers him very well.
     “Johnny Houser, that was my boy,” Heilig said. “We roomed together my freshman year. Man, could that boy block. His nickname at ASU was Johnny Trap. He hardly ever said anything, but when he pulled you could hear him coming. He made a noise like a locomotive.”
     Houser twice landed on the All-Western Athletic Conference first team and was named Honorable Mention All-American in ’74.
     He was a three-year starter for coach Frank Kush, which, in itself, was quite an accomplishment. Kush took pride in being perhaps the hardest-nosed coach in college football. His summer camps in the desert heat were legendary.
     He (Kush) was definitely old school, cut from the same cloth as Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and the dean of them all, Vince Lombardi. He held three-a-day practices, two of which were full contact, made his players practice on Sunday after a bad game and made them do sprints up a hill named Mt. Kush.
     One of his former players, Mark Hardy, was quoted as saying, “Frank Kush was by far the hardest coach I ever played for. I played for Don Shula in Miami and Shula was a little kitten compared to Kush.”
     Like Hayes of Ohio State, Kush was eventually fired for punching a player. Whereas Hayes was fired for punching an opposing player, Kush was fired for punching his own.
     After shanking a punt, Kevin Rutledge went to the sideline and drew Kush’s ire. Kush grabbed his face mask and shook it. Rutledge later claimed in a $1.1 million lawsuit that Kush hit him with an upper cut to the throat.
     Kush was fired before the end of the “79 season.
     In ’73, his Sun Devils were 11-1 behind the record-setting arm of Danny White, who later played for the Cowboys. That was one of two Fiesta Bowls Houser played in on national TV.
     In ’74 without White, the Sun Devils dipped to 7-5, before bouncing back the next year to go undefeated.
     Houser learned to not only survive Kush’s harsh ways, but actually thrived. Kush was one of 15 kids from a  Pennsylvania coal region town and might have had a soft spot for Pa. players 
     When he recruited Houser, he was a two-way running back and defensive tackle for the Cedars. He was coached at Lebanon by Frank Reich Sr. and Harry Matala, with an assist fro Scrapper Farrell, whose son Denny also played for Kush at Arizona State. Kush also recruited Lebanon High quarterback Tom Paine, but he never made it to Tempe. 
     Heilig remembers Houser running the ball for the Cedars.
     “I know Johnny played running back for Lebanon,” Heilig said. “I had to tackle him right here at Landis Field.”
     When he got to ASU, he bulked up to at least 235 pounds and was made a right guard. He was given No. 63, which was worn previously by ASU legend Mike Tomco. A Tempe scribe once wrote that Houser was an “Honorable Mention Sun Devil Legend. He took over No. 63 upon Mike Tomco’s graduation and left quite a mark on the number.”
     Late in the ’74 season, Heilig said, the Sun Devils were thrown a scare.
     “We were playing at BYU,” Heilig said. “John hardly ever said anything and had a very high threshold of pain. All of a sudden just before halftime, we hear this yell from John and he’s on the ground. We gather around him and he said he hurt his ankle.
     “We go into the locker room at halftime and all the doctors and trainers are gathered around him. We go back out for the second half and John’s still in the locker room. I’m looking all around for him because BYU had some Samoan guys on their line who were big and strong. They really got after it. Our backup at right guard wasn’t all that good and I really needed Johnny there to help me with these guys.
     “Our defense holds them and we get the ball. We’re in the huddle when finally we look over and Johnny s sprinting onto the field. I said to him ‘How’s your ankle?’ He said, “My ankle, Hell, I can’t feel anything from my knee down.'”
     Later years weren’t kind to Houser. He was said to have reportedly taken his own life, vaguely similar to the vagaries that beset the family of Junior Seau, long before the deadly CTE brain disease became prevalent among football players. 
     At any rate, he was one of the top and most decorated gridiron stars to come from Lebanon. Heilig said he isn’t forgotten in Tempe or by his former teammates.
     “We wish we had known,” he said. “If we had, maybe we could have helped John. At every homecoming or reunion I go to, we have a toast to our departed teammates and John is always one of the first names. I think he was even named to the All-Decade team.”

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