Throwback Thursday: College Basketball's Most Brutal Brawl, and the Forgiveness That Followed
A 1972 fight between Ohio State and Minnesota left Luke Witte with lasting damage—but also produced a surprising story of interpersonal healing.
It began with a letter. Ten years after Luke Witte was treated with 27 stitches to the face—ten years after the most infamous on-court brawl in college basketball history—he received a note in the mail from Corky Taylor.
Witte had been a star center for Ohio State; Taylor, a center for Minnesota. On January 25, 1972, the schools played at Minnesota's Williams Arena. Late in the game, Taylor landed a left hook square on Witte's ear, touching off a brutal minute-and-a-half-long melee.
A concussion had wiped Witte's memory of the second half of the game. A damaged cornea left him with reduced eyesight, even now. Only here he was, in 1982, looking at an unexpected message from Taylor, the opening gesture in what would become, remarkably, an ongoing story of forgiveness and redemption for three of the players involved—and countless people who never even saw the game.
"Like most humans, we put some things away and we want to pick them back up, and I probably did that for a while, too," Witte says today. "[But] I'd be an angry person the rest of my life, and I choose not to do that."
Witte had every reason to be bitter. Video of the fight is grainy, shot low to the court. It still has the power to shock. The Buckeyes are leading by six, with less than a minute left in the game. On a breakaway, Witte catches a pass on the baseline, begins a layup, and is fouled hard by two Minnesota players, Taylor and Clyde Turner. As Witte gets to his feet, Taylor offers him a hand. Witte accepts. Pulling Witte up, Taylor knees him in the groin.
Both benches clear. Players chase each other around the floor. The camera jerks back to Witte, who is lying on the ground. Ron Behagen, Minnesota's starting center, who had fouled out earlier in the game, stands over Witte, his left leg raised. As Behagen stomps down, he loses his balance, almost as if he expected Witte's face to have a little more give.
When the video cuts out, Witte is still lying in a heap.
The brawl changed his life. Changed his love of the game, too. Witte, a talented seven-footer, went on to play three years for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he relished the intense play at the NBA level and the friendships he made. But the simple joy he once felt? What happened in Minnesota had taken something.
"I loved the people I played with," he says. "I loved the competition. It had all been altered. It wasn't the same anymore. There was some joy gone, and probably some intensity that I played with was gone. It was very disheartening."
A decade after the brawl, journalists were writing retrospective stories. Witte had been reliving the incident, or what he could remember of it, in interview after interview. What he didn't know was that the fight had been on Taylor's mind, too. Taylor had two children who had begun to play basketball, and they were getting a lot of questions about their father.
That's when the letter showed up. It was the first time any Minnesota player had reached out to Witte, and the beginning, he realized, of something bigger. Something he had been waiting for.
"He felt a strong desire to reach out, and I really appreciate him doing that," Witte says. "It led us to a point where we could have conversations and talk through some of the things each of us was feeling."
The initial conversation took place by phone, in what Witte recalls as being a stilted discussion. The two men had competed against each other, hard. One had assaulted the other. But they'd never properly met. With all that baggage, having a get-to-know-you talk was, well, awkward.
They worked through it, though, and in 2000 the two men met in person for the first time. By then, Witte was living in North Carolina. He used some frequent flier miles to visit Taylor in the Twin Cities. At one point, the two men were sitting on Taylor's porch, when Taylor announced that he had a surprise for Witte.
Clyde Turner, the man who had initially fouled Witte way back in 1972, walked out to say hello.
Witte turned and said to Turner, "Gosh, I'd know you anywhere." After catching up for a while, the three men went into Taylor's den and watched film of the 1972 brawl. Witte discovered that Taylor and Turner had different videos of the incident, shot from different angles. As the three watched each one, Witte and Turner sat on the couch, silent. Taylor paced the room, smoking nervously.
After the first round, "nobody said a thing," Witte says. "I said, 'Watch it again.' And so we watched it again." It was only then that all of the emotion, pent up for so long, began to pour out. The three men went down the roster of each team, asking each other what their former teammates and coaches were up to. How have they handled the situation? Are they still healing? Are they still angry?
Witte discovered that many of the players on both teams still struggled with their memories of January 25, 1972. Among the Ohio State players, there remained a great deal of anger. On the Minnesota side, many former players seemed to be in denial, pretending as though the brawl never happened.
Corky Taylor passed away in 2012. Following his death, his wife told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the brawl was "a situation he spent the rest of his life trying to live down." Witte and Turner remain in touch. It's unclear what sort of healing, if any, has since taken place among the other men, now in their 60s, who filled the rosters of the two teams.
"Different people have had different reactions to it," Witte says. "Obviously, they have to figure it out for themselves, but Clyde, Corky, and my prayers were that they would be able to come to a place and to understand how they can be relieved of this binding that's on them."
Witte speaks from deeply felt personal experience. In 1990, he went to seminary. Today, he works for Marketplace Chaplains, an organization offering multi-denominational pastoral care to businesses. Witte directs about 70 chaplains in the Carolina region, and often ministers people on loss, crisis management, forgiveness, and everything else that goes into being a chaplain.
The decision to become a pastor, Witte says, was in no way related to the brawl. But the incident is an obvious teaching tool, a contemporary message of forgiveness. It was a kind of defining moment in his post-basketball life, and it comes up in his pastoral work all the time. He last brought it up just two weeks ago, at a company gathering of about 200 people. He spoke about responsibility, and how we all have a duty to build positive legacies. "I spoke about forgiveness," he says.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.