Bob Novogratz

April 3, 2007

Bob Novogratz – Humble on the Hall of Fame

Rob O’Sullivan Publisher

Talk about it in The 12th Knight

Most fans of Army football fit a different mold than your typical college sports fan. Sure, there is the desire for a competitive program, and Army fans can be as spirited as any fans in the country. But beneath the surface, most fans of Army Football are fans of West Point first. The history of the Academy, the representation of our troops overseas and in harms way, and the knowledge that at this place, on these grounds, young men and women make one of the noblest choices one can at a very young age ? the decision to commit to service to country.

It may have been said best by David Labensky, when he titled the book of his four year experience with the cadets of West Point, “Absolutely American”.

So goes the story of former Army football player Bob Novogratz, the 1958 Knute Rockne Award winner as the nation’s top offensive lineman, an All-American, and current candidate for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

The son of Austrian immigrants, Novogratz grew up in Northamton, PA, outside of Allentown. “I wasn’t a great athlete in high school,” starts the former Army standout, “I attended Blair Academy after graduation, and that year I grew quite a bit. I got bigger and stronger.”

The physical growth of Novogratz, coupled with his performance as a wrestler, had a lot of schools looking his way, including Penn and Virginia. But Novogratz had another influence that pushed him in the direction of West Point. “My father was an immigrant, and became a mill worker. He also drove people to the poles on election day. Through that, he got to know the Prison Warden ? who knew our local congressman, Francis Walters,” explains Novogratz. “Before you knew it, I was taking the test and got an appointment.”

At the time, the decision to go to West Point was not necessarily foremost on Novogratz’s mind. “I had other opportunities ? Penn, Virginia. But there was a lot of pressure from my father,” he begins. “When you say something like that, it does not relay what is really underneath it all. You have to remember, he was an immigrant, and that is why it was so important to him. He worked in the mill, and this was an important opportunity for me from his perspective. At the same time, he was not a very communicative guy, but I knew it was a very big thing to him. Not until later in life did it really occur to me why that was.”

Novogratz, though not recruited to play football, would now find himself on the banks of the Hudson, where he began his West Point career as a wrestler. For a guy that would go on to be the top lineman in the country, his first two years would not seem to lead down that path. However, legendary Army coach Red Blaik saw something in Novogratz, and by the spring of his yearling (sophomore) year, Bob was on the football field.

“Went I entered West Point, I was not recruited to play football,” explains Novogratz. “I had two knee operations in my first two years at the Academy. It wasn’t until the spring of my second year that I started playing. When I got to practice, I was on the very bottom of the ladder; there were thirteen of us competing for the top two starting spots, I was dead last. But I worked my way up.”

So how does a cadet with bad knees who was not recruited end up on Army’s football team, playing for Coach Blaik?

“I had been a wrestler and COL Blaik saw me and said something to the effect that ‘we oughta get that guy out to play football.’ I was talking to my brothers and their friends about it, and decided to go out that spring,” explains Novogratz. “I worked my way up the ladder and started by the next fall. My junior year, I was named to the all east team. We were 7-2 that year; we lost to Notre Dame and Navy. The Notre Dame game was the toughest loss; we were leading the entire game, and they came back and won with a field goal late in the game.”

During that era, players played on both sides of the ball. Though the accolades surrounding Novogratz’s play center around his offensive guard play, you can hear the pride he took in his defensive play as well.

“I was a guard and a linebacker. On the defensive side of the ball, I was making a lot of tackles. In the Penn State and the Notre Dame games, I had a total of 48 tackles. I don’t have the cards with the stats, but I had a lot of tackles. We had a very strong season, but I hurt my ankle before the Navy game and was not at 100%”

Novogratz’s first season was successful. The team had a strong season, and he distinguished himself as an all-east talent. However, the best was yet to come for Bob and the team of which he was a part. 1958 was a return to prominence for the Black Knights.

“The following year (1958) Blaik came out with the “Lonely End” offense. The “Lonely End” was (College Hall of Famer) Bill Carpenter. (College Football Hall of Famer) Bob Anderson had a great season as well. It was the year of (Heisman Trophy Winner, Pete) Dawkins, Anderson, and Carpenter,” Novogratz reflects. “I was the leading tackler that year as linebacker, and I also played offensive guard. The week against Navy, I was the (Sports Illustrated) National Player of the Week. We were undefeated; our record was 8-0-1, and we finished the season ranked third in the country. We were also third in the country for defense. Our other guys were great as well; we had a very well balanced team. In some games, like Notre Dame, I played 56 minutes. Statistics for that type of thing were not kept, but we all played both ways, and we would be on the field for over 50 minutes per game.”

The experience of being on such a talented team brought with it a great sense of camaraderie between Bob and his fellow teammates. “We were very close, especially the linemen, we always hung out and still get together even now, at least every few years. Though I don’t see them a lot, we are in touch.”

The most recent reunion for the 1958 team was in South Bend this past season, when Army visited Notre Dame. The 1958 team was the last Army team to beat Notre Dame at their home stadium.

“The 1958 team all got together at the Notre Dame game. We had the opportunity to tour the College Football Hall of Fame together, and to see the statue of Colonel Blaik. It really looked perfect, and we all enjoyed seeing it together,” explains Novogatz. “At the game itself, I was amazed by how many Army fans were there from all over the country. Pete Dawkins was at the event, and over the years Pete kept in touch with the Fathers and past Presidents of Notre Dame. Father Hesberg, former President of Notre Dame invited Pete up to his box at the game, and Pete brought along a few of his teammates. Father Monk Malloy was also there. Notre Dame has a ton of respect for Army, and that has carried through the years.”

Though he only played football at West Point for two seasons, Novogratz made his mark and became one of the most valuable members of a very talented team. He played some very good foes in those two years, but his two favorite opponents were Navy and Notre Dame.

“My favorite games were against Notre Dame and Navy. When we went to South Bend, in 1958, Notre Dame was one of the top teams in the nation. We went out and beat them on their home turf. The other big thing for me in this game was the following I had watching me. My hometown is a football town, and they all were big Notre Dame Fans; I had 40 people go out to Notre Dame to see the game. In addition, that game was such a big win, and seeing the cadets and Army Fans run onto the field was very exciting,” reflects Novogratz”. “The Navy game was just such a big game. Back in my day, we had a full week of hype. We had a bonfire, and there was stuff going on every night in the mess hall. When the team got ready to go, the Corps would line up, and we would all get on the bus. As the busses left, the whole corps would run after us all the way down to Thayer Gate. After that experience, you are flying high. Nobody has to say more than that, you are ready. In addition to that, I always knew that I had at least 50 sets of eyeballs from my hometown looking at every play; they would come down to see me in Philadelphia.

The 1958 game, Novogratz’s last playing for Army (he would play one more game, the East-West post-season all star game), was a memorable one for him. “It was an intense game. It didn’t start well; we never put the game out of sight. I recovered 3 fumbles in that one, and the hometown folks were happy.”

The 1958 team was Army’s last undefeated team, and it was also the last season legendary head Coach Earl “Red” Blaik would mentor the Black Knights. “Blaik was a serious guy, he didn’t establish a personal relationship with individual players for the most part,” explains Novogratz. “He had a flare for the dramatic. He had the same routine for every away game. One year, he had a problem with the team getting sick, there must have been some bad water on the trip. So from that point forward, we brought our own water to the games – he was somewhat superstitious. He always wore the same hat; before a game we would always go out for a movie and it would always be a shoot ’em up type of movie. Then we would take a walk as a team, and for the big game, he would pull out a telegram from MacArthur or Eisenhower. Like I said, he had a flare for the dramatic. I did not have a close personal relationship with him. In fact, I could remember every word he ever said to me, but we liked him. What made him great was that he brought out the best in us. He was a guy of high moral fiber. He was not a bag of laughs, but it worked. We loved the guy.”

The game in 1958 was different than it is now. In Novogratz’s mind, yesterday’s game seems like it would be more enjoyable than what he sees out there today. “I think the game was a lot more fun to play when I did. You are on the field all the time. Offense, defense, kickoffs, kick returns – you played the whole game. The idea of playing a limited role doesn’t seem as interesting. But the game has changed, things are more specialized now. People are bigger and much more physically capable.”

In terms of the overall experience for Bob at West Point, Football was only a part of it, though an important part. “In those days, you would go from football, to wrestling season, to graduation, then go on leave, then into the military. It all went by so fast. It was a fantastic experience, far beyond anything I had ever imagined. There were so many different parts to it ? the relationships with your fellow cadets, family coming to the games, and then afterwards – getting the honors, the Knute Rockne award.”

For Novogratz, the accolades at the end of the season seemed to have a greater impact on him by what it gave his father, rather than the notoriety it provided him. “My father was working in the mill, and he came down to Washington for the day when the (Knute Rockne) award was presented. At the event reception, I looked over and saw that my father was in a full conversation with (Speaker of the House) Sam Rayburn and (Vice President) Richard Nixon. They spoke for twenty minutes. It was just so exciting. We went to the East-West game in California and met a host of celebrities – Mel Allen, Casey Stengal, Babe Ruth’s wife. It was big stuff for a kid out of a small town in PA.”

Today, Novogratz still has the arms of his teammates around him as they have kicked off a campaign for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He shard the process his supporters have gone through.

“Getting here has really been a combination of things. My teammates started it. After Bob Anderson was inducted, then the team said they would get behind my nomination. At the same time, Dick Stephenson (Class of ’57) talked to the president of the NFFCHOF (National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame), and asked if he could start a Hall of Fame Chapter in the Northern Virginia region. It is not something that was my idea, but it is very flattering. That is where the emphasis came from.”

The support Novogratz has received from a whole host of supporters is something that quite obviously has impacted him, and something he is very appreciative of. “The first year around, we had not done this and we did not know the process. Jack Morrison (Army ’59) pulled together letters from players and coaches from our team and players from other teams and compiled my story. Dick Stephenson sent it out to all of the presidents of the local Hall of Fame chapters. They review the potential candidates and bring in a total of about 75 candidates that are put on the ballot. I made the ballot in 2006. Then there is a vote by all of the members of the Hall of Fame. After the ballot, there is an additional review, and they make a selection of 11-12 guys. The ballot closes this year on April 4th, and they announce the inductees on May 9th.”

Novogratz is humbled by the support and notoriety in the process, and is most appreciative of the support of his peers. “My oldest daughter said it best ? you know, you don’t know how this comes out, but to get all of your friends, teammates, coaches, guys from other schools, other coaches, to come out for you in such a way, that makes it as special. She is absolutely right.”

Though it has been almost 50 years since Novogratz last suited up in an Army uniform, he still follows the team and takes great interest in Army’s success on the gridiron. “I follow the team closely. Every year, I get together with all of the former players for a golf tournament. I go to a game or two each season, and I go to the Football Awards banquet each January,” explains Novogratz. “You have to be disappointed in the progress of the team, even Coach Ross was disappointed. I think he was looking at this past year as the big win. I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Coach Brock at a local sports banquet recently. I think he is the type of guy people that people respond to. There are folks that don’t think we can compete with a pro style offense, but these are professional guys and if it doesn’t work they’ll adjust and do something else. I think Tim Walsh has a great reputation. I guess I am eternally optimistic, but you have to be as an Army Fan. I am still hopeful for the current team – we brought in a lot of good kids that give us a chance to compete. That is what Coach Ross did, he put the infrastructure in place. He filled the Prep School pipeline; he did a very good job recruiting. I think this could be the year that the offense really takes a step. We are going to be better.”

The story of Bob Novogratz does not end with his playing days at West Point. Though drafted by Baltimore in 1958, he decided to maintain his commitment to service to country. He went on to serve in the Army for 30 years, in between earning a Masters degree from the Wharton school. He and his wife have seven successful children who have taken all life has to give. He is what West Point stands for, ensuring that opportunity is available for any individual who wants to work at it and take it.

“My story is of two things,” starts a pensive Novogratz. “It is of encouragement, at prep school and each step along the way; and it is about this country. My father was an immigrant who worked at a mill. I am then given an opportunity and ended up a Colonel with 30 years of service, and now my kids are doing great things. My father, me and my kids, to me it is a great American Story.”

It absolutely is. wishes Bob Novogratz all the best as he is considered for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.


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