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Mike Downey

THE ALOHA BOWL : The Farr Family Is a Close-Knit Bunch in Hawaii

December 25, 1987|Mike Downey

HONOLULU — It is Christmas in Hawaii--macadamia nuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Lord nipping at your nose--and the Farr family is present and accounted for.

Mel Farr Sr., the former UCLA star and Detroit Lion, played tennis all morning in the hot sun, then zonked out for a long sleep, and now he is sitting on a sideline bench at Aloha Stadium, wielding a small camera, making home movies of UCLA's football practice.

His wife is alongside him. So is one son, Mel Jr., watching the workout in a "Hong Kong" souvenir T-shirt and a Panama hat, unable to practice because of an injury, and exasperated that his college football career is about to end this way.

Another son, sophomore wide receiver Mike Farr, who caught 22 passes this season, is out there doing Coach Terry Donahue's drills, preparing for today's Aloha Bowl game against Florida. Freshman defensive tackle Andre Farr, a cousin to the two players, would be out there, also, but he is being redshirted and saved for a rainy day.

About the only Farr not on the island is the family patriarch, 74-year-old Miller Farr, who is far, far away. He is the man most responsible for UCLA's good fortune, the man who allowed his family tree to blossom and bear fruit in Westwood.

"He's back in Michigan," said his loving grandson, 21-year-old Mel Jr. "We're all thinking of him for Christmas."

Holidays have always inspired such thoughts among the Farrs. Mel Jr. remembers the way he always worried about his grandfather when he wasn't nearby, because word had gotten back that he was feeling poorly. Then Christmas would come around, and the family would be reunited, and young Mel never failed to notice that this would always make Miller Farr feel better, that "he'd get cured when we'd show up."

Family can have that effect on people. It can bring out the best in them, which is one of the reasons the head of the Farr family went so far out of his way to keep his kin together.

He was a Texan whose own childhood had not been a Disney movie. His mother died when he was 9. His father immediately took a powder. At that young age, Miller Farr already had to quit school and find work to support himself and his baby sister.

When it was his turn to be a parent, he wanted to be a good one. Two of his sons, Miller Jr. and Mel, turned out to be good enough high school football players to rate college scholarships. Wichita State accepted Miller, and wanted Mel as well. But when UCLA came calling, this seemed to a small-town Texas truck driver to be opportunity knocking, and he convinced his son to check it out.

A month later, Mel Jr. was homesick and begging to come back. His father listened to his plea, and came to a decision. It was important to keep the family unit together, but leaving UCLA was something his son might live to regret. So, Miller Farr ran an option. He took a risk. He quit his job, and moved to California to be near Mel.

That was the start of a beautiful scholarship. Mel Farr led the 1965 and 1966 UCLA squads in rushing. He and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gary Beban led the Bruins to a 14-12 upset over Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl. Then he was drafted by the Lions, made Rookie of the Year, and spent seven productive seasons in the National Football League.

Once the football was behind him, Mel decided to make a life for himself in the Detroit area. He settled down in Birmingham, a lovely suburb where the U.S. Open golf tournament has been played. He opened a Ford dealership, and eventually became the king of late-night TV, the Cal Worthington of Detroit.

In one of his commercials, Mel Farr and Lion running back Billy Sims donned Superman capes, discussed the super trade-ins customers could get, then flew up, up and away into the Michigan sky, through the miracle of special effects. Accompanying them was the company's familiar jingle:

"Mel Farr . . . Superstar . . . for a Farr better deal!"

Mel's sons, little Mel and Mike, used to play catch in the showroom, running pass patterns behind the Mustangs and Thunderbirds. Sometimes their father would catch one of them sitting in the chair behind his desk, and he would affectionately scold them: "Get out of there! You have to earn the right to sit in that chair!"

Mel Jr. and Mike spent part of every summer with their grandparents, who would stuff them with good food and take them to Disneyland. California had great appeal to the two boys. Mel made up his mind to go to UCLA, after thinking long and hard about Michigan State. Mike was determined to enroll at Stanford, but got sold on UCLA, with no small amount of encouragement from his grandparents.

And now, another Farr's football career at UCLA ends. Today's game is the last for Mel Jr., who has been a starting fullback and a fill-in tight end. The only action he probably will see in the Aloha Bowl is on specialty teams like the "boomerooski" squad, which specializes in faked punts.

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