That young man resting between acts of violence on the cover of this magazine—the one without a visible chain on him—weighs 235 pounds, stands 6 feet 2, has a size 19½ neck, a bulging physique that gives him the appearance of a man who has swallowed a dozen bowling balls, is quicker than most of the runners he stuffs away like wrinkled suits in hanger bags and, furthermore, according to his keeper, Coach Darrell Royal, "He ain't exactly eat up with a case of the stupid." He is Tommy Nobis of the Texas Longhorns or, actually, the living, breathing, bear-hugging, stick-'em-in-the-gizzle proof that linebackers, not blondes, have more fun.
You know about linebackers, of course. They are the evil-looking guys who stand behind those groveling linemen and stare coldly at the opposing milker—sometimes called a quarterback—then try to milk the ball from him. They are the fun lovers who get just plain gleeful when they show their speed to smother a ballcarrier going wide, when they display their agility by spearing a scrambling passer before he can throw, when they get to meet a barging runner head-on, showing their want-to. They are also the players who occasionally get to drop off and intercept passes, then run in such wild-boar fashion that their coach is always pressed to explain at the Monday boosters' luncheon why they aren't playing offense. That shows, finally, that they are the complete athletes; very often the best ones a team has.
Good linebackers must be. They are the soul and heart of a defense, both physically and spiritually. They can never be tired or look tired in either respect, nor can they think tired, for many of them call defensive signals and hope to outguess the milker. They are such people as Dick Butkus, last season's best, and Leroy Jordan, E. J. Holub, Les Richter and Chuck Bednarik, who were all brilliant in college, and Joe Schmidt, Sam Huff, Bill George and Ray Nitschke, who became brilliant as professionals. And now comes this Tommy Nobis, who is proving for the third straight year that because of his unusual love of the game, his strength, quickness, speed, pride, instinct, coaching and ideal attitude—all of those things—that he may well be the best linebacker in the history of college football.
Granted, that is a statement to rattle several plaques in the corridors of the Hall of Fame at Rutgers and encourage a lot of guys—Doak, the Ghost, Old 98, Bronko, Ernie—to maybe wonder what Tommy Nobis would have done with their hip feints and stiff arms. But Darrell Royal knows.
October 17, 1965
"He'd have stuffed 'em," says Royal as calmly and assuredly as you please. "All he does every week is play a great game, and you can just see joy on his face when he's out there. He's done it from the first game he started, which was as quick as I could get him into a suit as a sophomore. Players keep getting smarter, stronger and faster, and Tommy is only the latest. Aside from his super ability, he's just one of those trained pigs you love. He'll laugh and jump right in the slop for you."
Nobis, who is alert and wide-eyed on the field rather than the snarling prototype football brute, jumped in the slop enough to be judged a bona fide Southwest Conference immortal before the 1965 season even began. A Texas football immortal is usually any letterman who has been out of school a year, but Nobis, apparently, is for real. He was a two-way all-conference guard as a sophomore in 1963 on Texas' unbeaten national championship team. That was a team led by Tackle Scott Appleton, who became Lineman of the Year. "Scott was a great defensive player," Royal says, "but when he went one-on-one against Nobis he got stuffed." In the Cotton Bowl game against Navy and Roger Staubach, concluding that season, Nobis draped himself around the Heisman Trophy winner like a clawing necklace all afternoon as Texas won a laugher, 28-6, and his performance prompted Army Coach Paul Dietzel to call him "the finest linebacker I've ever seen in college." Last year, playing both ways and making All-America, Nobis bulled and quicked his way to more than 20 individual tackles—most of them near the scrimmage line—in each game against Army, Oklahoma, Arkansas, SMU and Baylor, and nearly every Texas writer ran out of exclamation points.
And then in the Orange Bowl in those unbearable moments down on the Texas goal line, as the Longhorns clung to a 21-17 lead over Alabama and Joe Na-math tried to take the Crimson Tide in with three plays from the one, it was Nobis again. Well, it was everybody, really, for as Royal says, "The film shows that not only did Namath not get across, but no Alabama lineman got across." But it was mostly Nobis, securing the ballcarrier. The result of all this is that last spring when 25 leading newspapermen and coaches in the Southwest were polled to name the greatest defender in the history of the conference—a task they did not take frivolously, football being more important down there than elections and border disputes—Tommy Nobis was the winner even though his final season was yet to come.
Now this is the season, and Nobis is still Nobis. He led the defense which allowed poor Tulane just 18 rushing yards in Texas' 31-0 opener. He made the big play, a game-turning fourth-down tackle for minus yardage, and a lot of others in the 33-7 victory over Texas Tech. This was a game in which Nobis and Texas shut out All-America Halfback Donny Anderson for the third straight year (three games: 71 yards), a feat that tickled Royal more than his collection of Roger Miller records. "He ain't drank a drop against us," said Royal, perhaps better than Roger could have. Nobis was equally brilliant in the 27-12 victory over Indiana, stunning the ponderous Big Ten linemen with his speed. But he was even more of himself against Oklahoma last Saturday because a Royal-coached Longhorn in that one is expected to put on his most dedicated game face of all. Texas won 19-0, and Nobis said, "Only thing I know of that'd be more fun would be to play OU twice on one day." Fun is the key word. Football may be work for some, a hostility outlet for others, but for Nobis it's a John Wayne movie, a platter of fried chicken and guitar music all wrapped up in a burnt-orange jersey.
With these four games behind him Nobis is on his way to All-America again, to becoming one of the precious few Southwest players to make all-conference three years, probably to Lineman of the Year honors (since he also happens to be the best blocking guard Royal has ever had and even now plays both ways), certainly to making as strong a bid for the Heisman Award as any linebacker or interior lineman ever has, and obviously to a first-round draft choice of the pros—perhaps No. 1—and quite likely the highest bonus ever paid to a player who does not run, throw or catch.
But more important to Nobis and his teammates, as well as thousands of exes around the vast state of Texas, is the fact that Royal's team is ranked first in the nation again for the 14th time in the past three Nobis spangled seasons. That would include the seven weeks the Long-horns protected the burden in 1963, the first four weeks last year before Arkansas upset them, 14-13, and these past three. "That," says Nobis, "is what you play for—to try to be the best. Losin' is just terrible, and if anybody's got any man in him at all, he'll go 'til he drops tryin' not to."
Nobis may not personally be able to beat Arkansas this Saturday in Fayetteville in a game that could decide the national championship again—it has become a hellacious game, full of folklore heroes like Nobis and more excited, skilled, fundamental hitting than most coaches realize exists. But, barring an injury that could result from Nobis' own hustling endeavors, a nationwide television audience should not have any trouble seeing No. 60 trying not to lose. He will be where the ball is or fanatically on his way, fighting harder and enjoying it more because he is simply playing a game the only way he knows how.
"I'll tell you," says Nobis. "We're a good team and so is Arkansas. Lots of guts and pride. Like Alabama. Boy, they had pride and they laughed and were cool and stayed after you—just like we do. That was fun. That's what it's all about. But I know that whoever loses between us and Arkansas is gonna feel some real shame—I mean shame. That's the way it is. Boy, I'd hate to look at the game film on Monday and find out I was responsible for it. I just worry all the time about those films, even when we win. I just know that I dogged it somewhere and my team will see it. I start worryin' when the game's over, and I don't stop until Monday afternoon. Heck, I get tired in a game. Everybody does. That's why I talk to myself out there. I just keep tellin' myself don't dog it, don't dog it, please don't dog it."
Nobis wouldn't know how to dog it if he had four legs, a wagging tail and a bowl in front of him. Neither the players nor the coaches have to look at a game film to be certain either. For example, Linebacker-End Coach Mike Campbell makes phone calls to an Austin radio station for a five-minute interview after each game. Three weeks ago he was in the midst of the interview after the Texas Tech game, and he naturally said Nobis played "great." "How do you know?" asked the announcer. "You haven't graded the films." Campbell said, "Because he always does."
The assurance that Nobis is going full-out on every play does not exactly blunt the rest of Texas' defenders, among whom there are other good ones—End Pete Lammons, Tackle Diron Talbert, Guard Frank Bedrick, Linebacker Freddy Edwards—who try to play a game called Beat Nobis to the Ball. Defensive Back Jimmy Helms was asked recently how he played the pass, what tips he looked for, what moves and all that. "Aw," he said. "I just watch Nobis. He's where everything is."
Even in the spring it was true. Nobis passed up a midsemester vacation to stay in Austin and get in the proper condition for spring training, a rite that is usually deemed as much fun for proved athletes as a lecture on John Stuart Mill. But Nobis realized that most of Royal's coaching is done in the spring, and there would, after all, be some action. "Tommy is one of those people who is really sort of unhappy unless he's tackling somebody," grins Quarterback Marvin Kristynik, who is Nobis' roommate and co-captain associate.
There sure was some tackling in Texas' spring game in which Kristynik and Nobis divided the squad between them. Most of it was by the linebacker. Once, in a violent, three-play spasm, Nobis slammed ballcarriers out of bounds on opposite sidelines for no gain, and then he intercepted a pass. One of the runners he literally dazed was Kristynik, who finally got up and smiled and turned to Royal, saying, "It's true, Coach. Tommy's an All-America."
Up in the press box that evening where a gaggle of conference newspapermen was covering the game—they do that in Texas; they cover spring games and write for days about them—Longhorn Publicist Jones Ramsey was questioned on why he thought Nobis was putting forth so much effort in so meaningless a contest; why he would risk injury.
"Well," said Ramsey, "it's the only game we got scheduled today."
There are believers everywhere, not the least of whom is Kristynik, who swaggers with a confidence Royal loves despite his so-so arm and lack of speed, and who has somehow directed 14 victories out of the 15 games in which he has been "Darrell's boy." Example:
Texas was leading Tech by only 7-0 in the rain and was deep in its own territory, needing one yard on a third down, when Royal sent in orders for Kristynik to run the option and pitch the ball out to the fine halfback, Phil Harris.
"They were stacked in there in those gaps, just waiting for the keeper," said Royal. "But Marvin kept it, and they stopped him cold, and we had to kick. When he came out I told him we'd have made a bunch if he'd pitched it. But he said, 'Coach, we didn't need a bunch. We already got seven and Tommy's not gonna let them get anything, and I didn't want to risk throwin' it away.' I thought a minute and said, 'Man, you're just as right as Superfox.' Sure enough, we kicked, they fumbled, and we got seven more the easy way."
As a defender. Nobis could not have played for a man more dedicated to the virtues of sharp, fundamental line play than Darrell Royal—or in a system where it is better taught. Royal and his top aides—Jim Pittman, Charley Shira and Mike Campbell—have been together for 10 years, and they are still young (average age: 40) and energetic. Young enough, in fact, to keep changing their methods and organization with the times. "If we coached the way we did five years ago, or even two years ago, I'll guarantee you, they'd have our gunnysacks," says Royal. Change comes in the subtleties—timing, technique—that the spectator seldom can detect. It comes with working on new tricks for old traps, better ways to read plays, simplifying assignments, improved drills to defeat a block and reach the ballcarrier.
The Longhorn defense consists of three vital parts—the down four linemen, coached by Shira, the ends and linebackers, coached by Campbell, and the three-deep secondary, or the hull, coached by Willie Zapalac. "The only time we're ever together as a team is when we work on short-yardage or goal-line defense," Royal says.
Texas devotes spring training and all of the early two-a-day workouts before the season to doing what it does best—its timing and rhythm, its area blocking on offense, and the remarkably simple procedure of meeting and defeating blockers on defense.
"We don't teach stunts," Royal says. "Oh, we know a few to stir some folks up now and then, but on defense we teach 'em to meet the guy and try to whip him and get to that ball. Take Nobis. He doesn't key on anybody. He plays the ball and, man, does he love it when one of our ends turns somebody back into him. I can't think of anything he likes better. Me, too. But these things are taught by Charley and Jim and Mike and the rest. I'm the pride coach."
Exactly what that entails is Royal's secret. One thing a visitor to a Texas practice notes quickly is that a Texas coach would rather turn down an invitation to the LBJ Ranch than holler at a player who has made a mistake and embarrass him in front of the squad. "When you do that he has to swallow his pride," Royal says. "And that's the thing I want him to have more than anything else. He can't afford to lose any of it. We'll take him aside and tell him what he did wrong or show him in a film, not by pointing out what we did wrong but by joking about something the other team did. You can usually pick out a lazy old boy on the other team."
So the practices are simple, if not fun for everybody, once Texas' season begins. Monday is a holiday for the players who got in the game the previous Saturday. Those who did not must scrimmage the freshmen in a brawl called the Flush Bowl. Tuesday the defense is set, and Wednesday the offense. Thursday is all timing and rhythm, and Friday is 30 minutes of laughter plus a private talk from Royal, very often without even the assistants around. "I don't know what he says," sighs Jones Ramsey, "but I say that's where he wins the games." And after Royal talks the captains take over, the coach turning his back and strolling off like an artful matador.
Tommy Nobis talks longer on Fridays than most Texas captains have before because he's the unofficial self-appointed pride coach. He had so much pride and took his football so seriously in high school in San Antonio, for example, that he got up at 5:30 every morning, rode a bus, transferred, rode another, then walked, just to attend Thomas Jefferson High (the school that produced Kyle Rote) even though another school was located only a few blocks from his home.
"In San Antone you can attend any high school you want to," Tommy explained last week in Suite 160 of Moore-Hill Hall, an actual captains' suite, fixed up by Royal for Nobis and Kristynik, complete with hi-fi, TV, a living room, bedroom, view of Memorial Stadium and—soon to come—burnt-orange carpet, no less. "Jefferson had the best coach [Pat Shannon] in town, I thought, and the best program, and it was worth it to go there."
A freckled, pink-faced, red-haired, soft-voiced senior studying speech and physical education—he wouldn't cop out by claiming he's anything but a P.E. major—Nobis said honestly, "See, football is my life. It always was. I want to be a coach. You go to college for a lot of reasons, to be an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor, or something like that. And you study hard to become successful. I study and go to classes so I can play football. Football-is my work, what I want to be. Now, if I'm not good enough in school, I can't play football. Shoot, I'm pretty poor in a lot of subjects, but I like history, it's interesting, and it's just that I have to stay after it to make decent grades. It's gettin' harder and harder to get into a good university like Texas, and harder to stay in. I try never to miss classes. It shows I'm interested and tryin'."
Nobis' pride made him an easy recruit for Texas. All it took was one visit to Oklahoma. "I knew," he said, "that either Coach Royal or Bud Wilkinson would be the two best men to play for—if I wanted to become a coach. So I went up to visit OU, but you know what? I got real mad hearin' some of those guys talk bad about Texas. I guess the pride just came out in me."
The pride is a source of worry to Nobis as well as satisfaction. He rarely trusts himself with a date after a game. "I'm just no fun then," he said. "And I don't want to take it out on some poor girl. Mostly, I just visit with my folks [his younger brother, Joe, is a junior end at Thomas Jefferson High] and get something to eat and then try to listen to some good country music and go to sleep. Dad gum it, though, the radio keeps comin' on with football scores, and I get all fired up again."
He is especially fired up at being a co-captain with Kristynik. He feels the responsibility deeply, holds repetitious meetings in Suite 160 with teammates to make sure everyone is "thinking right," and, more than ever before, refuses to appear weary on the field.
"You got to look a man in the eye, whether he's on your side or the other." When Nobis, who is called Rancher by the team, says this he sounds a little like a gunslinger, which is what he resembles in the Stetson hat he occasionally wears and shirts that won't button around his mighty neck. "Look him in the eye and let him know you're ready," he says. "When I call a defense I stare at our guys the best I know how to show 'em I got confidence."
Then he stares at the enemy and girds himself up for a manner of tackling that has become the vogue of college play, and is performed better by Nobis than by anyone else. Players not so long ago were taught to hit a runner low, the lower the better. No more. Royal has taught his Longhorns, and others have followed, to keep their heads high and go after the man from the waist up, driving their helmets into the runner, smothering him and hoping to jar loose the ball. Pass defenders have a simple rule: punish the receiver for every ball he catches. Texas, in four games, has caused 24 fumbles. As Royal says, "Whoever he is, and wherever he's goin', we want 11 of us around him."
"You don't get fooled as much if you go high," said Nobis, whose personal talent for the bear hug and headgear-in-the-chest—"in the gizzle," he says—has become as familiar a sight in the Southwest as Sam Baugh's passes ever were. "You're not tryin' to hurt anybody. Nobody wants to do that. It's just the best way to tackle, the surest way."
Away from the fierceness of football, Tommy Nobis could pass for a biology student who collects butterflies. Quick-smiling, friendly, good-natured and sensitive ("He'd be the last guy in a street fight," says Royal), he even has a sense of humor, which is fairly unusual for someone who goes around sticking people in the gizzle on Saturdays. Last spring Nobis made a luncheon talk to a downtown Austin civic group, and he spoke interestingly for over an hour. A couple of his teammates were present, and they were astounded.
"Hey, Tommy," said one. "I didn't know you were a speaker, man."
Nobis grinned, his neck exploding to size 23, and said, "What'd you think I was—just another pretty face?"