Column: The Legacy of “Raeder’s Raiders”

After 50 years, lessons of Michigan's "secret weapon" still stand
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Fifty years ago, Michigan football looked a lot different from what you see today. Most Saturdays, the stadium was half-empty. Freshmen were not allowed to play, and sophomores rarely did. The starting players on offense also served as the back-ups on defense, and vice versa. So, most of the better players got tuckered out pretty fast.

Michigan started the ‘59 season right where it left off the last one, by losing two games to extend their losing streak to six. The last of those was an embarrassing loss to Michigan State, 34 to 8.

Desperate, head coach Bump Elliott took a chance: he created a “third unit” of young back-up players to give the older guys an occasional rest. Elliott had no idea what he had created.

These third-stringers made their mark not with their experience or expertise but their wild, hellbent style of attacking anyone wearing the wrong color jersey. They called themselves “Raeder’s Raiders,” in honor of their spiritual leader, sophomore Paul Raeder.

Elliott deployed his secret weapon for the first time against Oregon State – and the Wolverines finally won, 18-7. Encouraged, Elliott kept putting them in, and they kept disrupting the other team’s offense.

Raeder’s Raiders didn’t always follow the script the coaches gave them. They blitzed without provocation, knocked off helmets and broke up plays and blocked punts. They created havoc and fumbles and interceptions, and they flipped All-American running backs head over heels to the turf.

They also captured the hearts of the fans. Whenever Bump Elliott pulled Raeder’s Raiders to put the starters back in, the crowd booed.

Led by these also-rans, the 1959 Wolverines won four of their last six games, including a stunner over Ohio State, 21-14.

The next year most of the Raiders were promoted to starters themselves – but they all say they never had more fun than they did being sent in as super subs the year before.

They graduated, then became employees, husbands and fathers. Of the 12 Raiders, three became doctors, and a surprising seven became teachers and coaches. Even one of the doctors won awards for his teaching. They all seemed to remember what a difference it makes when somebody believes in you, and gives you a chance.

Almost all of them are retired now. They spend their time with their wives and their children, and their grandchildren.

Four of them have passed away, including Paul Raeder. Shortly after he died two years ago, his widow, Wendy, received a difficult diagnosis herself. Life is not easy for Wendy these days, but like a true Raeder’s Raider, that didn’t stop her from getting the gang back together this fall for the 50th anniversary of their great season. They served as the honorary captains for the Delaware State game, the first group of Michigan players so honored.

Wendy collected their stories in a binder, and gave me a copy. At the end of it, she wrote, “That’s the story of the Raiders. No big moral or heavy lesson, just Be Prepared, Have a Great Attitude, Have Fun, and Seize Your Moment.”

Fifty years later, nobody can remember the starters on that team, or even their back-ups. No, it’s the third-stringers, Raeder’s Raiders, and their relentless spirit, that we recall today.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.