By Andy Nesbitt, Globe Correspondent, 10/15/99
He has caught touchdown passes from Joe Montana, played for a national championship team at Notre Dame, been a finalist in the Heisman Trophy voting, and a two-time All-American at Brockton High School. Ken MacAfee has done it all on the football field.
But MacAfee, who was a first-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers, never was concerned about making a name for himself in football. He had something else in mind.
"He always used to tell me in high school that he was going to be a dentist and an oral surgeon,'' said Brockton coach Armond Colombo, who, some 30 years later, still roams the sidelines at Marciano Stadium. "I always thought to myself two things: No. 1, that he would probably play pro football, and No. 2, his hands were so big, how could he fit them in somebody's mouth.''
MacAfee has attained his lifelong goal of becoming an oral surgeon. He also teaches part-time at Harvard Medical School. He is as humble now as he was at the age of 14 when everyone, except MacAfee, had the 6-foot-3-inch 185-pound split end penciled in as a starter on the varsity.
His career was kick-started one August afternoon in 1970. MacAfee was at home, preparing for the school year and his first practices with the freshman football team. He started playing football in the seventh grade and a broken ankle kept him out most of the following year, so the freshman squad was, in his eyes, his expected destination.
But then the phone rang and his father, Ken Sr., who played tight end in the NFL for six years and was a member of the 1956 and 1958 New York Giants' championship teams, answered.
"My dad handed the phone to me and whispered, `It's Armond Colombo,''' and I thought, `Geez, what could he possibly want with me?''' said MacAfee. "So I got on the phone and Armond invited me to try out for the football team, which was the biggest honor to me at that point in my life.''
To be granted a tryout for the varsity was considered a privilege in Brockton, no matter which class you were in. As a freshman, it was almost unheard of.
"I remember vomiting all over the field because I did not know then what it took to get your body in shape,'' said MacAfee. "I didn't think I was going to be able to play with those guys but I just did what I normally did and I was able to succeed.''
What he normally did was put a few guys on their backs and let his play do the talking.
"He was an easy-to-predict kid who you knew was going to be special,'' said Colombo. "He was an excellent athlete and had a great work ethic. He didn't need to be prodded in any way.''
"Right before the start of the first game, coach Colombo told me I was going to start,'' MacAfee said, "and I thought, `You're kidding me. I am starting as a freshman.' I couldn't believe it.''
It was not only the first game of the year, but the first game in the new Marciano Stadium. There were 8,000 people packed into the stands. MacAfee had found his niche.
"The first play of the game went the other way and there was no one for me to hit,'' said MacAfee. "When the whistle blew, I was upset because I didn't get to hit anybody. I didn't care where the next play went, I told myself, I was going to hit somebody. Even if the play was away from me, I just turned around and if there was a guy there, I would deck him.''
It was not until late in his sophomore year that Brockton would discover the gem it possessed in MacAfee.
"We had lost a couple of games and our quarterback had gotten hurt,'' said MacAfee. "We got a little desperate and began throwing the ball more and Armond realized I could catch it. I caught a bunch of passes in crowds and outjumped guys and I think Armond realized perhaps we had something a lot of other high schools didn't have at that time.''
What Brockton had was a 6-5, 225-pound monster who had the speed of a tailback and the hands of a wideout. He was not only an offensive standout. MacAfee anchored the defense at tackle, punted, kicked off, and did everything and anything Colombo and the coaching staff asked.
"Sometimes we would put him over center when the other team was punting and his guy would end up 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage,'' said Colombo.
Brockton instituted the wishbone offense in the beginning of MacAfee's junior year, with Peter Colombo at quarterback and MacAfee split out wide. The run set up big plays for MacAfee, who dwarfed all defensive backs that tried to mark him.
"The whole basis of our offense was one half wishbone and the other half was Kenny MacAfee,'' said coach Colombo. "It was either defend him with two people and we were going to run the ball that way, or we would throw it to him.''
In passing situations, all Peter Colombo had to do was drop back and look for No.81.
"I remember him getting triple-teamed against Newton,'' said the younger Colombo. "It was third and long and he made an unbelievable catch. I threw it into a crowd and got it close and he came down with it.'' MacAfee rumbled downfield for a 37-yard gain before he was dragged down by four defenders.
In his junior season he had three touchdowns against Springfield Cathedral, two in a game against White Plains (N.Y.), the top-ranked team in New York, and the game-winning touchdown against Brookline in a battle of unbeatens.
"Kenny had his stick-out games,'' said Colombo. "He never had a bad game.''
As a junior he led Brockton to the first Massachusetts scholastic Super Bowl in which it defeated Suburban League rival Newton, 16-14. MacAfee didn't score in the game, but his pancake block gave running back John Ingram a clear route to the end zone. And in the final minute, he put down Newton quarterback Cal Moffie for a 15-yard loss.
MacAfee was selected a Globe All-Scholastic in 1972 and was a first team All-American. Colleges across the country began taking notice.
He received a petition signed by 30,000 students at the University of Tennessee pleading with him to come to Knoxville. The University's president and the governer of Tennessee also wrote letters.
"At that time, college coaches weren't allowed to take recruits out to dinner, but you could meet at the coach's house,'' said Peter Colombo. "So Kenny and I came back to my house one time and the Tennessee coach was there. He must have stayed at my house for a month.
Bear Bryant of Alabama, Ken MacAfee Sr.'s alma mater, made a trip to Brockton and was followed by Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno.
The Colombo-to-MacAfee combination lit up the scoreboard throughout his senior campaign. Of the 12 touchdown passes Colombo threw in 1973, 10 landed in the hands of MacAfee.Brockton rolled through its second straight undefeated season, outscoring its opponents, 360-21. The Boxers played undefeated Revere in the Super Bowl.
"As the captain, I led the team out on the field that day at Boston College,'' said MacAfee, who was named an All-American for a second time. "There was a line of 25 college coaches along the ropes as we entered the stadium and they all wanted to shake my hand. All I wanted to do was beat Revere. I felt that was my last time to show everybody my talents.''
And what a show it was.
In the 41-0 thrashing of Revere, MacAfee caught four passes for 111 yards. He had another big block to free a running back for a touchdown. He punted three times for an average of 46 yards. He scored on a conversion and then, fittingly, ended his career at Brockton with the Boxers' final score on an 8-yard pass from Colombo.
MacAfee finished his career with 23 touchdown receptions. In his four years at Brockton, the Boxers were 33-3-1.
All that was left for him to do was select a college. Because he wanted to be an oral surgeon, he wrote off any school that had athletic dorms because, "academics weren't taken so seriously at those schools,'' he said.
NCAA regulations were different then and MacAfee was able to sign up for 26 college visits. He knew he probably would end up at Notre Dame but that didn't stop him from having a little fun looking.
"I took a trip to the University of Colorado to see my sister and ski for two days,'' he said. "Then I did the whole West Coast thing, visiting UCLA and USC. But after a while I got tired of traveling each weekend. It was not fair to the schools and it was not fair to myself.''
When he finally made his decision in the early spring of 1974, a press conference was held at Brockton High School. All the Boston TV news stations were there, as well as the Boston papers.
"I was shocked,'' said MacAfee. "I thought there were going to be only five or six people there.''
MacAfee did not expect to see much playing time with the Irish right away. After the first half of the season, however, he earned the starting job at tight end. It was a job he would not relinquish until graduation.
He was named a first team All-American in each of his last three seasons and was an integral member of the 1977 national championship team that defeated top-ranked and undefeated Texas, 38-10. MacAfee finished third in the Heisman voting behind Earl Campbell and Oklahoma's State's Terry Miller.
"I thought it was a joke that I was even considered,'' he said. He was the first lineman to win the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, the second most important individual award in college football. In 1997 he was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
He was drafted by the 49ers early in the first round but he said with a laugh, "I don't have too many fond memories of the NFL ... the fondest one I have is being drafted in the first round.''
He caught 46 balls in two years and scored five touchdowns. But in his three seasons in San Francisco, the 49ers won just 10 games. He lived with O.J. Simpson for two months in San Francisco and said, as "I was moving out ... Nicole was moving in.''
In the 1980 offseason, second-year coach Bill Walsh asked MacAfee to move over on the offensive line and play guard. MacAfee declined the request and headed to the University of Pennsylvania to dental school.
San Francisco went on to win the Super Bowl the following year, yet MacAfee has no regrets.
"There is more than money involved,'' he said about his decision to leave football. "How many people hate their jobs but go do it just to make some money? It's the same thing with professional football. You have to be happy to go to your job everyday and it's not just about the money, regardless of what other people think, and that is the way I felt. I had another career waiting for me, so I went to dental school.''
Ken MacAfee has lived his life by his own rules: He lifted weights in high school at a time when no one else did; he spent his summer breaks in college catching up on his studies.
Recently, he leaned back in his chair in his Waltham office and thought about all of his football experiences as he looked over newspaper clips of his high school heroics. A well deserved smile stretched across his face.