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Book Report: Big heart for a big 'horse' of a guy

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I was in high school when Heisman Trophy winner Alan Ameche was making big news on Big Ten gridirons.

The University of Wisconsin sent films of the games to every little high school football team that wanted them. On Monday nights we gathered at the gym to watch silent films of "The Horse" plow through what looked to us like very big linemen from around the conference.

A friend tells of going to his first state high school basketball tournament and staring at a display case at the university with Ameche's uniform, photos and the Heisman trophy.

"Was I impressed!" he recently recalled.

Now, finally, years after Ameche's premature death there's a carefully researched and fascinating biography of the kid from Kenosha. It's called "Alan Ameche: The Story of 'The Horse,'" by Dan Manoyan (Terrace Books, $26.95).

Ameche grew up in a dysfunctional family in the Italian section of Kenosha -- so dysfunctional that at one point his mother took Alan and his older brother back to Italy.

They eventually returned and Alan excelled in sports and school and was off to the University of Wisconsin. There his gridiron feats coached by Ivy Williamson put the Badgers back on the Big Ten map after years in the basement. He eventually won the Heisman.

Back then, college football stars weren't treated as they are today. While still an undergraduate, he married his high school sweetheart Yvonne.

Flat broke they rented a Madison apartment, so small that the kitchen was no bigger than a closet, there was a shared bathroom down the hall and if Ameche wanted a snack, he had to go down a flight of stairs to a refrigerator shared by several couples.

Then it was on to the Baltimore Colts, where he was named NFL Rookie of the Year and where his six-year career was cut short by an injured tendon.

There's an interesting back story here.

Ameche's friends recall that one day in the off-season they remembered that Ameche was talking with coach Weeb Ewbank and said, "Coach, maybe I should retire," probably thinking Ewbank would encourage him to stay with the team.

Instead, his teammate Gino Marchetti remembered Ewbank saying, "Maybe that's a good idea."

Distraught, Ameche never returned.

But with Marchetti he founded a wildly successful restaurant chain, called Gino's, which featured 15-cent burgers in an era before MacDonald's caught on. Eventually they operated more than 500 Gino's around the country.

Finally Marriott bought them out and they were fabulously wealthy, after which Ameche's generosity became legendary.

Ameche involved himself in philanthropy and started another restaurant with his high-school buddy Mario Bonofiglio.

Located in Kenosha, between UW-Parkside and Carthage College, it was called Pub and Grub and designed to take advantage of Wisconsin's new law that lowered the drinking age to 18.

When that law was repealed the restaurant failed. Ameche blamed Bonofiglio and a longtime friendship became strained.

After his heart gave out his wife Yvonne met another Heisman Trophy winner at a reunion. He was considerably older, but lots of fun, so they were married.

The new groom was Glen "Mr. Outside" Davis, who played for Army in the 1940s with a fullback named Doc "Mr. Inside" Blanchard.

They led a happy life, but Yvonne never forgot the big guy from Kenosha. At the end of the book she tells author Manoyan that she never really cared much for football, but "If I had to do it all over again, I would have followed more closely. I was Alan's number one fan, but not because of football."