September 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green: Appreciation

Michigan great Ron Kramer was unmatched as athlete, person

One of the most coveted athletes in the Midwest, Ron Kramer chose to go to Michigan in 1953 without any convincing from a recruiter. (University of Michigan)

Ron Kramer lugged the wooden brown box into the saloon close to the University of Michigan's campus in Ann Arbor.

"Give me two Scotch-and-waters," Kramer told the bartender.

Kramer placed the brown box atop the bar.

The guy behind the bar looked at Kramer with deep curiosity. Ron was alone, accompanied only by the box.

"What do you want two for?" the bartender asked Kramer.

"Bennie is kind of dry," answered Kramer.

Bennie Oosterbaan was Ron Kramer's football coach at Michigan more than half a century ago. Bennie was an All-America receiver in the 1920s at Michigan, and three decades later Ron Kramer became a three-time All America in football -- and the winner of nine varsity Ms.

They were attached, joined, Bennie and Ron.

And one of Ron Kramer's favorite stories was about Bennie's ashes.

When Bennie died in 1990, Kramer took over. He placed Bennie's ashes into the wooden box and went on tour with it.

The story was typical of Ron Kramer. Piquant, friendly, funny -- reflecting the personality of a huge man, a great college and professional athlete, with a soft pudding of a heart.

"Everywhere," Kramer told me, many times, about scattering Bennie Ooosterbaan's ashes around their university campus and Ann Arbor town.

"Bennie's everywhere.

"He's around Yost Field House. He's around the building that was in his back yard.

"Then he took the walk with me, remember we used to walk from the golf course over to the game to Michigan Stadium and down the tunnel.

"He went with me down the tunnel and around the field, and Bennie was gone."

Kramer scattered Oosterbaan's ashes on the turf of the football field.

Now again, Ron Kramer and Bennie Oosterbaan are attached, joined.

Ronald John Kramer died Saturday. Of course, his death would occur on a college football Saturday, his Michigan guys playing Notre Dame, the team of his close friend, Paul Hornung.

It is a wonder Ron survived 75 years. That pudding of a heart took a pounding.

"I had a stent put in it," he told me several years ago. "I had a heart attack."

He had more attacks, more stents placed into his heart, a balky back, more breaks in that massive aching, paining body.

A friend to all

Ron Kramer made lots and lots of friends -- not only from football (Paul Hornung and Bo Schembechler); he made friends of people who operated restaurants and he made friends of the patrons. He made friends of lawyers and businessmen and the folks around his farmland in Fenton. He made friends of the grocer who supplied the fruit he delivered every autumn to the Michigan football players.

He made friends with the president of the university, Mary Sue Coleman.

And he was hardly particular about his friends. He even made friends with a rookie sportswriter who showed up in Ann Arbor working for the Associated Press in 1956.

Bennie Oosterbaan tutored me in the intricacies of football, and Ron Kramer became my oldest friend, I reckon.

Making friends of the athletes a journalists covers is supposedly verboten.

Kramer was the exception.

"Hey, I beat the average," he told me the last time we talked on the phone.

That was about 10 days ago. We had not talked for a while and I knew he was hurting, so I called. So he told me about his painful ailments, then he started telling his jokes.

We talked many times, at lunch together, at the Roma Café in Detroit's Eastern Market.

Ron was very interested in the mortality of former football players. Their bodies became broken, riddled with deformed bones and torn flesh.

"The average age of death of old NFL players is in the middle fifties," he told me once, smiling at his good fortune.

Then he turned around and told a risqué joke to a lady at the bar.

A Michigan man

Ron enrolled in 1953 at Michigan with considerable fanfare from his high school athletic achievements at East Detroit High School. One of the most coveted athletes in the Midwest, he chose to go to Michigan without any lullaby from a recruiter.

"Bennie didn't recruit anybody," Kramer told me about how he began his three-sport career of stardom at Michigan. "Bennie said if you wanted to go to Michigan, 'It's a privilege.' And if you don't want to go to Michigan, 'Go someplace else.'"

He won his nine varsity letters, was captain of the basketball team and participated in track. He was a football terror on the basketball court, elbowing and muscling opposing centers. One memorable night, he pounded Michigan State All America Johnny Green into submission.

And Kramer did his classwork.

He talked once about his academic major -- not typical of an athlete even back then.

"Psychology," Kramer said. "I beat all the rats through the maze. And I minored in speech and astronomy. And I took a lot of geography courses."

He became a favorite of Hazel Losh, then an internationally prominent astronomer.

"I used to help her keep the telescopes clean in the planetarium and generally hang around with her because she was so smart," he said.

"And she loved football, loved football. She was enamored of the game because of the discipline it took to play football."

He loved Bennie Oosterbaan, who coached him at Michigan, and Vince Lombardi, who coached him in the NFL in Green Bay.

"He was a very strong personality and that's what was needed to handle 50 jokers like me," Kramer said about Lombardi, "and Hornung and Max McGee and Jerry Kramer."

He was a tough man; a kind man; and to his death, a Michigan Man.

That was Ron Kramer. He died Saturday a few hours before a Michigan football game.

Joined again with Bennie Oosterbaan and Vince Lombardi.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his Web-exclusive column Sundays at detnews.com.