Since it was announced on Monday that WWE Hall of Famer “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff had passed away at the age of 71, there have been a number of stories written about his legendary career. After all, he played a big part in arguably the greatest era in professional wrestling history and was featured in the main event of the first-ever WrestleMania as he and Rowdy Roddy Piper took on Hulk Hogan and Mr. T with Muhammad Ali as the special guest referee.
But we’re going to venture a guess that of all the stories you’ve seen on Orndorff, you haven’t come across this one, perhaps because it doesn’t involve his professional wrestling career.
You see, in the late 1960s into the early 70s, years before Orndorff ever stepped foot inside the squared circle, he was a talented football player who played both fullback and tight end at the University of Tampa. And in the final game of his career for the Spartans, the future “Mr. Wonderful” was the star of the 1972 Tangerine Bowl in which Tampa took on Kent State, a game that featured two head coaches who would later be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, multiple future Super Bowl champions, one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, the guy who played Sloth in The Goonies, and a 21-year-old defensive back by the name of Nick Saban.
Paul Orndorff gained more than 2,000 all-purpose yards for the University of Tampa and scored 21 touchdowns
A multi-sport star in high school in his hometown of Brandon, Florida, Orndorff stayed close to home to play college football for the University of Tampa.
Over the course of his career with the Spartans, Orndorff scored 21 touchdowns and amassed more than 2,000 all-purpose yards playing both fullback and tight end. In his final season with the team in 1972, he helped the independent team to a 9-2 record in the regular season (including a win over Miami), which earned Tampa a berth in the Tangerine Bowl (which later became the Citrus Bowl).
It was only the third-ever bowl appearance for the Spartans and would turn out to be their last as the school discontinued the football program ahead of the 1975 college football season, one year before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their first season in the NFL.
The 1972 Tangerine Bowl between Tampa and Kent State featured a number of future Hall of Famers, Super Bowl champions, and an Olympic gold medalist
Waiting for Orndorff and Tampa in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl were the Kent State Golden Flashes, who had just won their first-ever MAC title, going 4-1 in conference play and 6-4-1 overall leading into the matchup with the Spartans. Kent State was coached by future College Football Hall of Famer Don James, who just a few years later would become the head coach at the University of Washington, where he won a national title following the 1991 season.
On the Kent State roster was tight end Gary Pinkel, who later served as a graduate assistant to James with the Golden Flashes and later followed him to Washington, serving as an assistant with the Huskies for 13 years. Pinkel then served as the head coach at Toledo from 1991 to 2000 and then at Missouri from 2001 to 2015, winning 118 games with the Tigers, the most in school history.
Pinkel’s roommate at Kent State was Jack Lambert, who became a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he was a four-time Super Bowl champion and an eight-time All-Pro. Also on the Golden Flashes roster was 21-year-old defensive back Nick Saban, who, of course, went on to become one of the greatest coaches in college football history. And we certainly can’t forget about wideout Gerald Tinker, who was a gold medalist in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and later played for the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers. He’s the third leg in the video below.
As for Paul Orndorff’s Spartans, they were coached by future College Football Hall of Famer Earle Bruce, who left Tampa after just one season to become the head coach at Iowa State and then succeeded the legendary Woody Hayes at Ohio State in 1979, winning four Big Ten titles with the Buckeyes.
One of Orndorff’s teammates was defensive end John Matuszak, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NFL draft, won two Super Bowl titles with the Raiders, and famously played the role of Sloth in Richard Donner’s 1985 cult classic, The Goonies. Also on the Spartans’ roster was quarterback/running back Freddie Solomon, who transitioned to wide receiver in the NFL and won two Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers.
So, yeah, the 1972 Tangerine Bowl had some star power, even if nobody really knew it at the time.
Orndorff scored two touchdowns to help Tampa to a 21-18 victory
Tampa came into the 1972 Tangerine Bowl as the favorite and certainly played like one early on. Early in the first quarter, following a Tinker fumble for Kent State, Tampa quarterback Buddy Carter hit Orndorff with a 15-yard touchdown pass to give the Spartans a quick 7-0 lead.
Just over five minutes later, following another Golden Flashes turnover, Carter and Orndorff again hooked up, this time for a 35-yard score to give Tampa a 14-0 lead. With just under seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Spartans went up 21-0 on a three-yard touchdown run from Solomon, who ran for 60 yards on just five carries on the drive.
The Kent State defense finally decided to show up in the second half, holding Tampa scoreless, and the Golden Flashes scored three touchdowns of their own in the second half. However, two missed extra points and a failed two-point conversion kept them from coming all the way back and the Spartans held on for a 21-18 victory. Despite his two touchdown receptions, Orndorff was not named MVP as that honor went to Solomon, who rushed for 103 yards on 14 carries. Lambert was named outstanding lineman of the game in a losing effort.
Paul Orndorff was taken in the 12th round of the 1973 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints but failed to pass the physical, also failing one with the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent one year with the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League but then decided to try his hand at professional wrestling.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Stats courtesy of Sports Reference