'Trainwreck' Tom Novak

Monday, October 3, 2011

Each year, at the Outland Trophy Dinner, a Nebraska Cornhusker football player is presented with the "Tom Novak Award," an honor which best exemplifies the courage and determination despite all odds in the manner of NU's great All-American Fullback, Linebacker, Center (or as one sportswriter described it, "The Toughest Son of a Gun on the team").

In 1946, the Cornhuskers, with a tradition of fine football teams, dating back to the 1890s, were going through the bleakest time in the school's football history. Probably the high point of the Cornhusker football program up to that date had been the school's appearance in the 1941 Rose Bowl game. The Huskers had played well in that game (described as the greatest ever) before bowing to a fine Stanford team (using the brand new T-Formation), 21-13.

After that game, able-bodied football players went into the service in World War II. From 1941 through 1945 Nebraska was forced to play its football schedule with teams made up of Draft 4-Fs and 17 year olds. That combination kept the NU football program alive, but just barely, with a dismal 11-24-0 record. Bright spots during those war years were few and far between.

Beginning with the 1946 season things began to change with the NU football program, though for a while the win/loss ratio did not change that much. In that spring veterans began to return to the NU campus, including a new coach, Bernie Masterson (a former NU great), and a number of talented football players, such as Eddie Schwartskoph, Carl Samuelson, Cletus Fischer, and most of all, Tom Novak.

Novak was a 21 year old veteran from Omaha, who had played his high school football at Omaha South High. At South High Novak had been a hard working football enthusiast, on both offense and defense, earning a glowing reputation for his legal, but vicious hits on opposing ball carriers. It was South's coach, Corny Collin who had given him his nickname of "Train Wreck."

Off the field Novak was a nice fellow and congenial companion, always ready with a quip, or funny story -- a fun guy to pal around with. On the football field it was another story. Novak was not that big, but he played every down, in practice or in a game as if it were the championship game and his ball carry, or tackle or block was the deciding play of the game. Lining up across the line of scrimmage from Tom Novak tended to take all the fun out of the game of football. Novak was responsible for more than one of the team's 17-year olds to decide that playing in the band might be preferable (and safer) than any possible football glories.

In the early years NU and Notre Dame had a heated rivalry, beginning with NU Coach Jumbo Stiehm's 20-19 victory in Lincoln in 1915. The rivalry ended after a Nebraska 17-0 victory (against the Irish Four Horsemen) in 1925. The game was played at NU's Memorial Stadium. It was a hard fought contest, and Notre Dame dropped the series after that game because of what they referred to as "rude treatment of its players and fans" by Nebraskans.

In 1947 and again in 1948 the NU-Notre Dame rivalry was resumed. The '47 game was played in South Bend, and Notre Dame (at the time No. 2 in the nation) came out on top 31-0. Despite the loss, a crowd of more than 1,000 Cornhusker fans greeted the team at the Burlington Station on its arrival back in Lincoln, then proceeded to drive Coach Masterson and the team, in open convertibles, down O St. and back to campus. At the impromptu Pep Rally Tom Novak addressed the crowd, "They weren't as tough as I thought they'd be" -- referring to the Mighty Irish. Novak's statement might have sounded like the "sour grapes talk of a loser," but he was sincere, and his play in that game backed up his words.

Novak was truly a player for the ages. He played for three head coaches in his four years at N U. The team's overall record for that period was only 11-26, yet Tom was named first team All-Conference Fullback in 1946, first team All-Conference Center in 1947 and '48, and first team All-Conference Center and Linebacker in 1949 -- as well as consensus All-America Center and Linebacker in his senior year, on a team that finished 4-5 (the best record of his four year career.)

The Notre Dame game in 1947, pitting the Cornhuskers against eventual National Champion Notre Dame, was the first real showcase for Novak's prowess. According to Norris Anderson, the Lincoln Star sports editor, Novak was "everywhere." He was a demon on defense, making most of his team's tackles, and repeatedly thwarting Irish drives. At one time in the game he made 17 tackles on 21 plays. He more than held his own against the consensus two-time All American, George Connor. The next day the Lincoln Star carried this headline, "Connor All-American? Give Us Novak!"

In the first quarter Novak intercepted one of All-American Johnny Lujack's passes and returned it to the Irish 37 yard line, but, as happened all through the game, Nebraska could not capitalize on that opportunity. However, Novak made Lujack's life miserable from the opening play to the final gun, with his relentless pressure. Said Lujack, "He's the toughest linebacker I've ever seen. We seldom could block him out of a play" -- this from the fellow who would win the Heisman Trophy at the end of the 1947 season. In an interview after the game, Irish Coach Frank Leahy said of Novak, " He's easily the best linebacker we've faced this year." As the Nebraska team dejectedly left the field after the game the partisan Notre Dame crowd of some 56,000 rose to give Novak a standing ovation. A Chicago newspaper reported, "tough and stubborn bunch of roughnecks ... big, brutal ... they performed with murder in their hearts."

The Notre Dame-Nebraska game was played at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium in 1948. Coach Leahy's team was rated No. 2 in the country, with such stars as Leon Hart and Frank Tripuka. McCook's Leo McKillip, an MHS standout, was playing for the Irish. The Cornhuskers played well and Tom Novak had another fine game, but the team was completely outmanned and the result was a repeat of the '47 game, with Notre Dame winning 44-13.

Following Novak's career at Nebraska at the end of the 1949 season, he had a number of offers to play professional football, all of which he turned down, saying that the money offered was not enough for the abuse his body would have to absorb. He did, however, have one more chance to show off his amazing football skills.

In those days, at the end of the season, a team of college All-Stars was chosen to play against the Champions of the Professional NFL league. The game was played at Soldiers Field in Chicago. The college boys rarely won that game. But attendance was always good as the proceeds went to charity, and win or lose, everyone had a good feeling about the game.

For the 1950 game, Novak was chosen to the College All-Star team, and played almost the entire game. At the end of the game the surprising All-Stars had bested the Pro Champion Philadelphia Eagles, 17-7, thanks in no small part to Novak's ferocious play.

Novak's football career ended with that All-Star game, but he remained a football fan for the rest of his life, rarely missing a Cornhusker game. He had also forged a warm friendship with McCook's Howard Fletcher, a teammate on the 1948 team. He was invited, and attended the banquet honoring the MHS State Champion 1947 Football Team in Lincoln, in 1997.

Novak's number 60 was retired by the team after the 1949 season. He was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1972 (He also was a member of Nebraska Championship Baseball teams in 1948 and '50. His five interceptions in 1948 is still a record for NU Linebackers.

In the 1980s, Tom Novak, on the way to an NU-Iowa State game, fell down stairs in his sister's home and broke his back. He spent his remaining years in a wheel chair, which drastically curtailed his physical movements, but did not diminish his fierce competitive spirit.

Perhaps Lyle Bremser, the long-time voice of the Cornhuskers, said it best, "My eyes have never seen the equal of Tom Novak, at any position. As football players go, the Good Lord made Tom Novak, then threw away the mold." Tom Novak passed away Nov. 1, 1998.

Source: Cornhusker Football Guide; NU Football Legacy, by Mike Babcock.

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