Running Back, 1957-1958
As Iowa kicked off the 1957 season against Utah State, Hawkeye fans were still buzzing about Iowa’s Rose Bowl victory the season before.
Enter Geno Sessi (No. 12 in photo) — an unknown halfback from Ohio who would keep that excitement permeating throughout the state of Iowa.
He touched the ball just three times in his college football debut, but in doing so, etched his name into Hawkeye football lore.
Three touches. Three touchdowns.
Iowa won the game 70-14, and Sessi became then just the fourth Hawkeye to score three touchdowns in a single game — joining Nile Kinnick, George “Dusty” Rice, and Emren Tunnell.
The Hawkeyes’ 70-point performance still remains the highest single-game offensive output in Black and Gold history.
Then, like a flash of lightning, his football days were over. Like many players who came before and after, a knee injury cut short what could have been a promising career.
The fans in Iowa Stadium on Sept. 28, 1957 haven’t forgotten the almost mythical performance of an unknown running back that — for one day — captured the interest and delight of Hawkeye nation.
From Buckeye to Hawkeye
Iowa wasn’t on Sessi’s radar at first. The standout prep running back from St. Clairsville, Ohio had his sights set on the Buckeyes.
A miscommunication relayed to legendary coach Woody Hayes kept Sessi from wearing the Buckeye uniform.
“I was signed, sealed, and delivered to go to Ohio Sate,” Sessi said. “When Woody introduced the incoming freshmen to the alumni, he got to me and said, ‘Here’s a boy who’s coming on his own.’”
Someone from Sessi’s hometown had told Hayes he didn’t need the money. Scrambling to fix the mistake, Ohio State offered a scholarship for the second half of the year, but Sessi declined.
A day didn’t go by that Sessi wasn’t with his teammates around town, often at The Airliner or Joe’s Place, he said. All-American and future Hall of Famer Alex Karras took the sophomore halfback under his wing, and later in life, Sessi would be the best man at Karras’ first wedding.
On the field, he worked hard to make a good impression on head coach Forest Evashevski. Despite having great quickness, standing out was a challenge with 16 halfbacks on the roster.
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Longtime Iowa sports broadcaster Bob Brooks recalls the 5-8, 174 pound halfback having a lot of “get-up and go,” and Iowa’s 1957 media guide described Sessi as having “excellent speed and power for his size.”
The chance to put that speed on display would come right away in the 1957 season opener, and Sessi didn’t disappoint.
September 28, 1957
Rex Brandstatter was eight years old when his father took him to Iowa’s 1957 season opener.
The fifth generation resident of Johnson County had been attending games since 1954. At the time, “knothole” tickets cost 50 cents apiece. Similar to the Wrigley Field bleacher seats, these general admission tickets were for the wood bleachers in the south end zone of Iowa Stadium.
The Hawkeyes jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead, scoring at will against an overmatched Utah State squad.
Brandstatter, now a real estate agent in Coralville and an Iowa season ticket holder for the better part of four decades, remembered hearing the distinctive voice of public address announcer Fred Winter blaring over the loudspeakers, “Entering the game, number 12, Geno Sessi.”
Halfway through the second quarter, Sessi bolted 36-yards for a touchdown on his first collegiate carry. Near the end of the third quarter, he caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Gene Veit.
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After his second score, the crowd was buzzing.
“No one had ever heard of him,” Brandstatter said. “The people around me started looking around and asking, ‘Who is this guy?’
Sessi saved his best for last, capping off his historic day with an 80-yard touchdown reception. At the time, the catch was the longest pass play in Hawkeye football history.
Trying his best to yell over the 40,125 screaming fans in the stands, Iowa broadcaster Jim Zabel described Sessi’s dash to the end zone as “one of the finest plays you’ll ever see in football.” The audio of Zabel’s call was preserved on a vinyl record titled “Hooray for the Hawkeyes.”
“His third touchdown was full of twists and turns,” Brandstatter said. “It seemed as if he ran five miles to reach the end zone.”
The performance garnered attention from both the national and local media.
The United Press named him “Midwest Back of the Week.” Cedar Rapids Gazette writer Gus Schrader described Sessi as “two quarts of nitroglycerin in a half-pint bottle.”
“The recognition meant a hell of a lot to me,” Sessi said. “Here I am, a small town boy at a big time college. It’s something I’ll hold with me the rest the rest of my life. I was so damn happy it was unreal.”
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Sessi’s highlights were sparse beyond the season opener. In the remaining eight games of the 1957 campaign, he only gained an additional 33 rushing yards and returned one kickoff for 17 yards. The expectation was for players to compete on both offense and defense, and unfortunately, Sessi wasn’t as strong on the defensive side of the ball.
A knee injury in spring practice the following season kept him out during the 1958 campaign and ultimately ended his collegiate football career.
Although he couldn’t play, the halfback did make the trip to Pasadena for Iowa’s appearance in the 1959 Rose Bowl. Iowa handily defeated California, 38-12, earning their second Rose Bowl title in three seasons.
“Everything about the Rose Bowl was true to form,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even though I didn’t get to play, it’s something I still cherish.”
Life after football
With his playing days over, Sessi opted to return to Ohio, get married, and start a family.
He worked for the highway department, was president of an automotive store, and spent 17 years checking 18-wheelers for safety with the highway patrol until retiring in 2001.
Still living in his hometown of St. Clairsville, he remains active as a funeral attendant at a local funeral home.
Sessi had his hip and both knees replaced, but insists he feels great.
“As long as I can put my feet on the ground in the morning, then I’m just fine,” he said.
He’s been married for more than 50 years, and has two daughters.
Still an avid follower of the Hawkeyes, he’s only been back to Iowa City three times —the last time about 10 years ago. The plan was to return to Iowa City in 2012 for a reunion honoring the 1959 Rose Bowl team, but the untimely death of his youngest daughter kept him from making the trip.
His scrapbook and much of the other memorabilia from his playing days were ruined by a broken hot water tank in 2010, but it would take more than a faulty appliance to take away the memories of what he accomplished on that warm September day in 1957.
“I’ll tell you what, I’d do it all over again. I have no qualms,” Sessi said. “I’m a Hawkeye. You never forget those days. We all have our bad moments, but what the hell — sit back and grin and bear it.”