Rex Mirich could tell football stories forever: about playing for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders; about playing a college football game in Mexico City; or about his first season on the San Manuel High School varsity, which played 10 road games because the school hadn't yet built an athletic facility.
He could talk about being the newest member of the College Football Hall of Fame and about being teammates with NFL legends Joe Kapp, Jim Otto and Tombstone Jackson.
But this is his best story: After NAU's 1961 season, Mirich thought about stepping up from NAIA to NCAA so he could play closer to home, for the Arizona Wildcats. Why not? In 1961 the 8-1-1 Wildcats had tied Nebraska, and in 1962 they were scheduled to play Missouri, BYU and Kansas State.
That was the level of football that seemed more suitable for the talented 6-foot-4-inch, 265-pound lineman; it would be the kind of exposure to attract pro scouts, few of whom would watch the Lumberjacks play Cal-Poly Pomona and New Mexico Highlands.
"I drove to Tucson and went to see coach Jim LaRue," Mirich was saying Tuesday. "I asked him if I had a chance to get a scholarship to Arizona."
LaRue's nickname during his eight years at Arizona was "Gentleman Jim," and he was about to introduce Rex Mirich to the old-school values that made college football in the 1960s more of a gentleman's game than it is today.
LaRue asked Mirich if NAU coach Max Spilsbury knew he was in Tucson attempting to leave school.
"No sir," said Mirich.
"You go back to coach Spilsbury and tell him what you're doing," LaRue continued. "If he's OK with it, then come back and see me."
Now 71, Mirich remembers that when he accepted NAU's scholarship offer - after playing in the 1959 Arizona high school All-Star Game - he didn't sign papers binding him to the Lumberjacks.
"All Coach Spilsbury did was shake my hand and say 'a handshake and a man's word should be good enough,'" Mirich says now. "So I knew after talking to Coach LaRue that the right thing to do was honor my commitment to NAU. I stayed, and it's one of the best decisions I made. NAU was good for me."
In 1962, Mirich became a first-team All-America offensive lineman. In '63, he became a first-team All-America defensive lineman. The Lumberjacks remembered. In 1996, when the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame created (a long overdue) shrine for those who had played Division II, Division III and NAIA football, NAU nominated Mirich for the Hall of Fame.
"I didn't know a thing about it," says Mirich, who has lived in Tucson for the last 15 years after retiring from a business in which he helped to construct nuclear waste facilities and hydro-electric power plants. "I got a big box in the mail last week and said, 'This is big enough to be a football.' And you know what, it was. It was a little bit emotional for me."
It was an invitation to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony July 20-21 in South Bend, Ind., where he'll join other small-college players such as Jerry Rice and Walter Payton for posterity.
Mirich might be one of the least likely Hall of Famers. He grew up in Superior, the son of a miner, Nick Mirich, who spent his entire life working underground.
Nick Mirich moved his family to San Manuel for Rex's formative days. Football was so new that the 1956 Miners football team practiced in the town park while the school district was putting together funds to build a football field.
"Until I got to high school, I had never played organized football," Minich says. "I'd play in the street. You had to be pretty tough in that environment. If I learned one thing from growing up in San Manuel it was that I wasn't going to be a miner. When I was playing for the Raiders, I went back to NAU and completed my degree."
At NAU, Mirich became something of a legend; he often played both ways, 60 minutes, including special teams. "I was worn out," he says with a laugh. He was so good that, for his final college game, November 1963, the Lumberjacks agreed to switch the game against Eastern New Mexico from Flagstaff to Globe, where the miners could get an up-close look at Mirich and college football.
"It was quite an event," says Mike Termain, a schoolboy friend of Mirich's who graduated from NAU and returned to Globe where he taught school. "Scouts from the Vikings and Raiders were there. The NFL and AFL were in a bidding war at the time; they both wanted Rex."
It wasn't a tough decision for Mirich; after he spent four winters in Flagstaff, the last thing he was going to do was move to Minnesota to play for the Vikings.
A defensive lineman in the pros, Mirich spent three years with Oakland, was traded to Denver in 1967 and completed his career at New England in 1970, scuttled by chronic hamstring injuries.
He was just 29.
"I didn't want to be all crippled up, so I quit football," he says. "I had a few concussions but nothing lingered. Hey, it's a violent game. If you don't want to get hurt, don't play. It was good to me. It took me places I would have never gone."
And now it is taking him to the Hall of Fame.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org