Ex-Gopher Taylor resolved ugliness of his worst hour

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2012 - 12:36 AM

Corky Taylor's death resurrects memories of an infamous brawl 40 years ago with Ohio State. Unknown to many were the friendships that followed in its wake.

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Corky Taylor is most remembered for participating in one of the uglier incidents in college basketball history.

But the player he was involved with that January night in 1972 at Williams Arena was heartbroken Thursday upon hearing that Taylor, a former Gophers center, lost his year-long battle to lung cancer on Wednesday.

"Oh, my gosh, it hurts," Luke Witte said. "I considered him my friend."

Marvin "Corky" Taylor, 60, was a husband, a father of two sons. He spent more than 30 years working for the city of Minneapolis. He was a youth coach, a mentor, still a huge Gophers fan. He was involved in his community.

But he will be forever linked for his part in a brawl that broke out between the Gophers and Ohio State. On Thursday, two of his friends -- Clyde Turner, a teammate then, and Witte, who was the Buckeyes center -- were more interested in talking about the story of redemption Taylor represents.

Turner, in his office at the Sabathani Community Center on Minneapolis' south side, after a sleepless night, talked quietly about his friend.

"Bottom line was, he loved me and I loved him," he said. "From the bottom of my heart."

Half a continent away came a similar, if surprising, sentiment.

"I'm sitting here, outside, on Monterey Bay in California, on vacation with my wife," Witte said. "And I just said, 'Corky passed away.' Both of us, we didn't say anything for a second or two."

The facts of the 1972 meeting are well known. It was a much-hyped game between Big Ten heavyweights. In the last minute of play, a tight game spun out of control. Turner was called for a flagrant foul on Witte, who fell to the floor. Taylor offered a hand to Witte, then lifted a knee in Witte's groin.

In the ensuing brawl, Ron Behagen of the Gophers came off the bench and stomped on Witte's head. Taylor and Behagen were suspended for the rest of the season, one where Bill Musselman's Gophers went on to the Big Ten title. It was a moment Taylor never escaped, but one he managed to resolve.

"Regardless of how ugly a situation may have been or escalated into, we're human," said Witte, now a minister who works near Charlotte, N.C., for Marketplace Chaplains. "On the other side, being human, we have the chance to reconcile."

Years after the event, Witte and Taylor began exchanging letters, then e-mails. Nine years ago, Witte cashed in some frequent flier miles and flew to the Twin Cities. He spent two days in Taylor's Plymouth home, burying the past, building a friendship.

Taylor, Turner and Witte talked. And they went to Taylor's basement and watched tapes of the incident.

"We watched it a few times," Witte said. "I had a video that was different from what [Taylor] had. We were silent the first time through. As we continued to watch, we started our conversation.''

They talked about their feelings, how some friends and perhaps former teammates let the bad feelings fester.

"We all had different ideas of what went on," Witte said. "But it was so neat for the three of us, at least, to have that situation, where there was time to talk it through, to heal, on both sides. ... It's so neat for me to be able to call Clyde and Corky my friend."

Turner wanted people to see that side of Taylor.

"Remember him for a lot more than Ohio State," Turner said. "Even though that will always be a part of our history."

Taylor's wife, Joanne, was well aware of that.

"It was a situation he spent the rest of his life trying to live down," she said. "He's a good person. Not a perfect person, but a good person. People who knew Corky knew he was the antithesis of what you saw in that fight. He was not a mean person. He didn't have a mean bone in his body. ... He spent a lot of time with [sons Chris and Kellen]. He was very proud of his boys. That might have been his best area, fatherhood."

But bringing people together turned out to be a strength, too.

Turner recalled that time spent with Witte almost as a catharsis.

"I remember thinking, 'You really have to give it to Corky for inviting him out, and to Luke, for coming,' " Turner said. "I always felt like the Ohio State team and the Minnesota team should have come together for a day and a night. A gathering. We could have talked about what it meant to be a student-athlete in the '70s. We could have drilled down to what happened between us. We could have walked away feeling better. You know, those guys have grandkids like I have grandkids."

At least something on a smaller scale did happen. When it ended, Witte hugged Taylor and Turner. Decades ago there had been a fight. Now they were friends.

"It was so surreal," Witte said. "I had no hesitation. I felt like, in my heart, 'I am past this, over this.' "

And that's why Witte was so sad on Thursday afternoon.

"We're forever connected," Witte said.

• Funeral services will be held at Plymouth Covenant Church at 1 p.m. Monday, with visitation an hour before the service. There also will be a visitation from 3-6 p.m. Sunday at the Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel in Plymouth.

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