Has a game changed more in the last several years than the game of football? It’s the only of the five major team sports that has changed so dramatically from its start, so much so that it barely resembles its former self. All sports change, but none as radically as football. Think about it. A great hitter from the early days of baseball could stand in against today’s great pitchers, a great shooter from the days of yore could still score in a modern basketball game, a great free kick taker from 40 years ago could score on today’s goalkeeper in soccer, a speedy skater could score some goals in a hockey game, but could a football player from the 1950’s compete in today’s game? It seems unlikely, but one thing is not in question: the toughness of those players. They were as rugged as they come.
Maybe you’ve never heard of George Mrkonic. Maybe you’ve seen his name on the Ring of Honor at Memorial Stadium, but know nothing about him. Well, if you know one thing, know this: Mrkonic is the kind of player your grandfather would call a football player. He played when football presumably made you healthier, when it was an athletic endeavor that the toughest guys around played. I have no remaining living grandfathers, but I’m pretty sure they would have enjoyed watching a guy like Mrkonic play. George Mrkonic played football before specialization. He played football before there were well-known health risks. He played on both sides of the ball.
George Mrkonic came to Kansas from McKeesport, Pennsylvania and started his KU career in the fall of 1950. He played on both the offensive line (guard) and the defensive line (tackle) for his entire career at Kansas. He was a first team All-Big Seven selection in 1950 and 1951. Those Kansas teams were 6-4 and 8-2. In that wonderful 1951 season, Mrkonic also picked up the punting duties for KU. He rounded off his fine season as an All-American selection.
The versatile Mrkonic helped lead KU to another fine season in 1952 (the team went 7-3) and was then eligible to play professional football. Mrkonic was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 45th overall pick (that was in the 4th round back in the 1950’s) but only played one season in Philly. He then tried to catch on with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, but only lasted a season there as well.
After his career was over, Mrkonic enlisted in the Air Force (yep, the grandfathers would have loved this guy) and worked as a representative with Phillips Petroleum. Mrkonic stayed in Kansas for the rest of his life, living in suburban Kansas City and visiting Lawrence often. The Mrkonic family have been long time season ticket holders with KU football, and he was involved with the program up until his death in 2011.