HOUGHTON - Peter Bugni saw a lot of athletes come and go in the 40 years he spent as a coach at Houghton High School.
But the late HHS skipper had no doubt about who was the most talented when asked the question at his retirement party in the early 1960s.
"Ron Nettell was the greatest athlete athlete I coached in my time here," Bugni commented. "He was one of those of kind of guys who could do everything well."
That Nettell should have drawn such praise isn't surprising. After all, he established records at Houghton - and later at Michigan Tech - that stand to this day.
Take for example the 10.7 yards per carry mark he set in 1948 for the Tech football team. It's a record that has easily withstood the test of time.
Al Bovard, then the MTU grid coach, said that Nettell had a combination of skills seldom seen in a running back.
"He (Nettell) has tremendous speed, but he's also not afraid to bowl over a tackler," Bovard told the Mining Gazette in the fall of 1948 when the Huskies were in the midst of an unbeaten 7-0 season.
Nettell's speed was never in question. His 10.4 clocking on a cinder track in the 100-yard dash wasn't equaled at Houghton for nearly 35 years. The mark was also a U.P. regional record for 25 years.
He also held the U.P. record in the pole vault for seven years with a vault of nearly 11 feet, 6 inches.
And while he never played high school hockey (that was light years in the future), Nettell impressed observers enough with his play for the Houghton Winter Sports Club to be recruited by Tech coaches.
Putting in two different hitches for the Huskies, he accounted for 26 goals and 15 assists in his career.
Growing up in Houghton in the 1930s, Ron picked up the nickname "Wimpy" in his youth. But there was nothing tame about his performances on the athletic field.
In the 1947 football season, he combined with fullback Pete Noblet to lead the Gremlins to a 7-1 mark. Noblet, a bruising 6-foot, 200-pounder, did the inside running. The 5-10, 180-pound Nettell burned opponents with his sprinter's speed.
The Orange and Black rolled over Wakefield by a 44-0 score in the opener and followed that up with a 64-0 pounding of Crystal Falls.
Nettell was spectacular in a 24-7 win over Hancock. In addition to rushing for 101 yards in 13 carries, he returned a Bulldog punt 82 yards to paydirt.
"That punt return was one of the most spectacular ever seen in a Houghton-Hancock game," recalled future Gazette sportswriter Dick Loranger. "He (Nettell) broke about six or seven tackles on the way to the end zone."
HHS rolled over Lake Linden, L'Anse, Ontonagon and Negaunee to set up a showdown with Iron River in the season finale.
Iron River scored a 14-6 win in that game by holding down both Nettell and Noblet.
But both Gremlins gained All-U.P. honors (Nettell was the top overall vote-getter) and played in the third annual U.P. North-South All-Star game.
Nettell picked up right where left off in helping Tech to its unbeaten record in the fall of 1948.
He piled up 607 yards in just 57 carries on the season, and also returned a kickoff and a punt for scores.
The Huskies dominated most foes that fall, including a 44-13 dismantling of Northern Michigan before a record crowd at Engineer Field. There were also close wins over favored Duluth College and Stout (Wis.) Institute.
A leg injury suffered late in the year slowed down Nettell for the rest of his MTU grid career. He was listed on the 1949 preseason depth chart, but apparently had to sit out the season.
Robert Markham of Stanton was Nettell's teammate at Houghton High and at Tech. Markham remembered him as "an A-1 athlete and a great guy."
"As good an athlete as he was, he was as modest a person as you could meet," Markham said recently. "He was a great teammate."
His last appearance in a Tech sports uniform came during the 1952-53 hockey season when coach Amo Bessone asked him to come out to help with a struggling young team. He tallied 13 goals and four assists for a 5-13 squad.
He later gained his degree at Ferris State and became a self-employed CPA in Marquette.
His exploits were not forgotten in Houghton, according to his son, Frank.
"I remember going into Weber's Sports Store to make a purchase and introducing myself. The counter man was Cliff Weber and he told me 'Young man, you will never understand how great an athlete your father was."
Nettell, who died in a traffic accident in 2005, has been nominated for the U.P. Sports Hall Of Fame.