LEXINGTON, Ky. – Steve Meilinger, a two-year first-team All-American who excelled at several positions on offense and defense for the Kentucky Wildcats, has been named to the College Football Hall of Fame as announced Tuesday by the National Football Foundation.
The event was held in New York City at the NASDAQ MarketSite. The ceremony was announced by Rece Davis of ESPN.
“I thank the National Football Foundation for naming me to the Hall of Fame,” Meilinger said. “There are so many great players across the nation every year that don’t get honored, so I really appreciate it.”
Meilinger played at Kentucky from 1951-53 under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Meilinger helped the Wildcats to a record of 20-10-3, including an 8-4 mark in 1951 that was capped by a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Christian. UK was ranked in the nation’s top 20 all three seasons in the final Associated Press and United Press International rankings. He was a freshman (ineligible to play at that time because of NCAA rules regarding first-year players) on the 1950 Kentucky squad that went 11-1 and is the national champion according to the Sagarin Computer Ratings.
Known as “Mr. Anywhere” for the Wildcats, he split time between end, halfback and quarterback on offense; on defense, he played end, linebacker and defensive back – basically, every position on the field except the interior offensive and defensive lines, a remarkable combination. On special teams, he was a two-year starting punter and also returned punts and returned kickoffs.
Meilinger set Kentucky’s career records for pass receptions, receiving yardage and touchdowns with 75 catches for 1,210 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also rushed 134 times for 714 yards and five TDs and passed for 127 yards and a TD. On defense, no tackle stats were kept during that era but he made six pass interceptions.
Meilinger was a first-team All-American as a junior by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and the All-Players team. He was first-team All-America as a senior according to the NEA, American Football Coaches Association/Colliers Magazine and the All-America Board.
Ironically, the versatility that made him so valuable also hindered his bid for even more national recognition. As was noted in the 1953 Kentucky media guide before his senior season:
“One national magazine cited the Kentucky star as ‘Offensive Player of the Year.’ He missed some of the major selections apparently due to a lack of a clear majority of nominating ballots at any one position.”
On the league level, he was named first-team All-Southeastern Conference all three of his varsity seasons, the first of only five Wildcats in school history to be a three-time first-team All-SEC selection.
Meilinger played under Bryant, a College Football Hall of Famer, and was teammates with two Hall of Famers in quarterback Vito “Babe” Parilli and tackle Bob Gain.
“Coach Bryant was one of the finest persons I ever met,” Meilinger said. “He helped me in many ways and, helped me understand the importance of all the positions I played.
“When I came to Kentucky, he also told me that even though I was a hotshot freshman that he was in charge,” Meilinger joked.
Gain was a senior when Meilinger was a freshman, so they did not get to play in games together because of the freshman ineligibility rule. But Meilinger got on the field as a sophomore when Parilli was a senior, quickly becoming the Babe’s primary receiver. He caught a then-school-record 41 passes for 576 yards and eight TDs that season in taking the Cats to the Cotton Bowl.
“Babe helped make me an All-American,” Meilinger said. “I guess I was his favorite target and every time I see him I tell him how grateful I was for him to do that.”
Meilinger had a wonderful ride during his four years with the Wildcats – a freshman on the Sugar Bowl champion team, a sophomore on the Cotton Bowl squad, then earning first-team All-America honors as a junior and senior.
“I’d always dreamed of going to a bowl game, so my biggest thrill was playing in the Cotton Bowl and defeating TCU,” Meilinger said. “It was also a thrill to be named All-American two years in succession. There are so many great players, to receive that honor two years was something special.”
Following his senior season, he played in four postseason contests, the Coaches All-America Game, College All-Star Game, East-West Shrine Game and Hula Bowl.
Meilinger was selected in the first round (eighth overall pick) of the 1954 National Football League draft. However, he went into the United States Army and spent two years as a Tank Commander in the 100th Tank Battalion of the 1st Armored Division.
After missing two years of football because of military service, he returned to the gridiron in 1956 and spent six years in the NFL – 1956 and ’57 with Washington, 1958-60 for the Green Bay Packers and 1961 with the Pittsburgh Steelers – before injuries ended his career. In 1960, he played in the NFL Championship Game under Coach Vince Lombardi. His career stats include 60 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns.
Honors continued to roll in for Meilinger following his playing career. He was named to the SEC All-Quarter Century Team (1950-74) by the Birmingham Quarterback Club. He was chosen for the UK All-Time Teams for the 100th Year of Kentucky Football (1990) by the Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville Courier-Journal. His jersey has been retired by the University of Kentucky and he was named a Living Legend of the SEC in 1999.
In addition to his newest honor, Meilinger belongs to five other Halls of Fame:
• (State of) Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame
• University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame
• Fork Union Military Academy Hall of Fame
• Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Hall of Fame
• Liberty High School Hall of Fame
Upon completion of his football days, Meilinger became a United States Marshal. He was one of the original six marshals who founded the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program and eventually became Chief Deputy of the Eastern District of Kentucky. After retiring as a marshal, he became a Property Valuation Officer for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Originally from Bethlehem, Pa., Meilinger resides in Lexington with his wife Eileen and continues to support his alma mater.
Additional Wildcats in the College Football Hall of Fame include Gain (1947-50), Parilli (1949-51), Coach Bryant (1946-53), tackle Lou Michaels (1955-57) and Jerry Claiborne, who played at UK in 1946, ’48-49 and was head coach of the Cats from 1982-89. Bernie Shively, who was athletic director at UK from 1938-67 and head coach of the Cats in 1945, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in recognition of his playing days at Illinois.
Meilinger will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame on Dec. 10 in New York City during the National Football Foundation Annual Awards Dinner. He also will honored during an enshrinement festival at the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2014.