Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Four Raiders headed to Hall

By Mark Feldman

Former Racine Raiders defensive end Mike Willkomm often said he'd rather be lucky than good and he still believes it.
"I was the recipient of some extraordinary good timing. I got to the Raiders at the exact right time," said Willkomm, who played for the minor league football team from 1988 to 1995. "I always thought about how lucky I was to play on the teams that I did."

Willkomm had luck and talent. As a 270-pound defensive end, he helped the Raiders go 89-5 and win four national minor league football championships in the seven seasons he played.

For his contributions to the Raiders' rich winning tradition, Willkomm will be inducted into the American Football Association Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. Willkomm is one of four former Raiders entering the hall. He'll be joined by: * Terry Converse, a former Raiders player who coach-ed the team from 1991 to 1994. He compiled a mind-boggling record of 49-3 in those four seasons, and won a national title in 1992.

* Gary Kuyken-dall, a wide receiver with the Raiders from 1987 to 1992.

* Ron Anton, a Racine native who played wide receiver, tight end and holder for the Raiders from 1964 to 1973.

The four will be inducted at the AFA's 25th annual Hall of Fame dinner June 4 at the Hilton Suites Hotel in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

"I never dreamed about anything like this while I was playing," said Willkomm, who has served on the Raiders board of directors since 1997. "Defensive ends never get any glory. That usually goes to the running backs and quarterbacks. But I am darn proud of being part of the Raiders family and going into the Hall of Fame as a Raider."

Willkomm was coached by Converse for three of his seasons, (he missed the 1993 season after breaking his leg right before the season started).

"Terry was the most intense coach I have ever played for," Willkomm said. "There were times I thought he was going to grab my helmet, run on to the field and play in my spot. I was very intense, and it worked for him."

Converse graduated from Horlick High School and played at Carthage College. He played for the Racine Gladiators for six seasons, helping that team win national titles in 1981 and 1983.

He took over as Raiders head coach in 1991 and led the team to a 9-2 record while playing an independent schedule. Racine joined the Midwest Football League in 1992 and proved unstoppable. The Raiders went 15-0, outscored their opponents 693-42, and won a national championship.

"I was fortunate enough to have a team and an organization that were very focused," said Converse, who still lives in Racine. "We had some tough games and we had some easier games, but we never backed off. We could have coasted at times, but we tried to find ways to keep the team focused every week."

The team went 13-1 in 1993, losing in the national championship game, and 12-0 in 1994. Converse stepped down after that because of his work schedule.

"This is kind of the frosting on the cake," Converse said. "I played because I loved the game and coached for the same reason. It's nice to be recognized for your accomplishments."

Kuykendall, a Chicago native, was a small, quick receiver who always seemed to come up with a big catch.

"Gary gave the game everything he had," Converse said. "He was always in shape. He had excellent speed and played hurt. Both him and Mike loved to play and they had winning attitudes. You'll pick guys like that any time."

"I considered myself a workhorse," said Kuykendall, who lives in Chicago and works as a firefighter. "I think I worked well with (wide receiver) Ron Daugherty. He was big and could really run. I was small, but I could catch almost anything."

In his last game as a Raider in 1992, Kuykendall caught the go-ahead touchdown pass from quarterback Charlie Bliss as Racine went on to beat the Brooklyn Mariners 17-10 for the national championship.

"The Racine fans are the greatest in the world," Kuykendall said. "They made everything worth it for me."

Anton graduated from Horlick, then earned Little All-America honors as a wide receiver at UW-Whitewater in the early 1960s. He started with the Raiders in 1964 and helped the team win 27 straight games from 1963 to 1966.

During that streak, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver reeled in a 97-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jim May, recalled teammate Bob Milkie, who later coached the Raiders.

"If anyone is qualified to be in any Hall of Fame, Ron is the guy," Milkie said. "He was a great teammate. He never missed practice. He sometimes seemed quiet and subdued, but if you had 11 like him, you'd have a pretty darn good chance of winning."

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