Self, belonging, confidence
There were no heart-to-heart discussions at the breakfast table the next morning. Instead, Chuck got up, showered and dressed, and did what he’d done most days the previous four years: he walked up to Woodland Avenue to grab the streetcar heading out to Benedictine [High School].
The semester had just begun, and the school was in the early stages of earnest fall activity. Chuck went straight to the athletic department and found who he was looking for — Ab Strosnider [Noll’s line coach at Benedictine and a 1927 Dayton grad].
With his eyes fixed on his shoes, Chuck told Strosnider what had happened. They talked for a few moments, and Strosnider asked him what his plan was now. Chuck didn’t have one.
But very soon, Strosnider did. He told Chuck to give him a few hours.
Strosnider had played, with distinction, at the University of Dayton, about 215 miles downstate, in southwestern Ohio. Soon, he got on the phone with Joe Gavin, the head football coach at Dayton and also, as it happened, a college roommate of Frank Leahy.
It made perfect sense. Leahy and Gavin were still close friends, and at times Leahy would call Gavin on the phone and have him try a new wrinkle with his team that Leahy couldn’t risk trying in practice — because of all the attention on Notre Dame — with his own team. Surely Gavin would take on Chuck Noll.
Gavin called Leahy to find out the story on the Noll kid. There wasn’t much information: Leahy knew the kid had a seizure, and Notre Dame didn’t become Notre Dame by taking on problems. Whatever Leahy said wasn’t enough to convince Gavin to take Chuck. But then, after Gavin called Strosnider back and politely declined, he’d found the old Dayton alum unwavering in his insistence on Chuck’s worthiness. Strosnider wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He was speaking quietly at first, but soon he raised his voice, loudly enough for Father Placid [Pientek, the athletic department business manager], sitting in another corner of the Benedictine athletic department office, to hear one side of the conversation.
“Look,” Strosnider continued, more emphatic. “Joe, I tell you he’s a good kid! You got to take him. If you don’t, you won’t get another guy from Benedictine, I swear to God.”
As threats went, it was not an idle one: Strosnider had been around, and he knew virtually everyone in Cleveland football. After a few more moments on the phone, Gavin relented. Strosnider signed off with a relieved affirmation — “You’ll see” — and then a quick goodbye.
He put the phone back in its cradle and eased back into the chair. The next call was to Chuck, to tell him that he should keep his bags packed; he would be enrolling at the University of Dayton.
So, on Sept. 18, 1949, Chuck Noll went to Terminal Tower and got on a train, bound for Dayton. He was met at the station by Dan Ferrazza [’51] who drove him to campus so he could watch practice. One of the other freshmen recognized him. It was Len Kestner, who was on the Catholic Universe Bulletin’s All-Catholic team with Chuck in ’48.
“Hey, Chuck!,” said Kestner. “What are you doing here? I thought you were at Notre Dame.”
“It’s a long story,” Chuck said.
By 1949, the hometown of Orville and Wilbur Wright was a small-time city with big-time aspirations. National Cash Register, founded in 1884 and thriving in the postwar economy, was right across the street from the campus, and there were several General Motors subsidiaries — Delco and Frigidaire plants among them — that were paying well for manual labor. Against this growing industrial metropolis, the University of Dayton stood out as a redoubt of Catholic learning. …
It lacked the bustle of Cleveland or the mystique of Notre Dame, but it was welcoming, approachable and Catholic. It didn’t take long before Chuck felt at home.
Before they’d even met him, some of his teammates saw Chuck one afternoon, a solitary figure out on the practice field, relentlessly ramming out at a blocking sled. Later that day, [Pat] Maloney [’53] became the first to make his acquaintance. They sat together in the narrow corridor outside the athletic office and struck up a conversation. “We must have talked for about 20-25 minutes before Gavin got there,” said Maloney. “I remember afterwards that I said, ‘Boy, what a nice guy; I really like this guy. I’m glad I came to UD because it is going to be good.”
Out on the practice field, Chuck’s credentials were clear. “Right away, you knew he was a player,” Jim Currin [’53] said. “There was no question he could play the game, and he knew it. He was smarter than all the rest of us, had blocking techniques we didn’t have yet. You could just tell.”
The freshman team was designated cannon fodder. “We just got the shit kicked out of us by the varsity,” said Maloney. “That was it. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Eventually, though, by the end of that first season, something changed. In 1949, many of Dayton’s starters were nearing their mid-20s, Second World War veterans who attended on the GI Bill. … At first, Gavin thought the older, hardened athletes would be the key to Dayton’s rise. But there was something missing in the GI Bill vets — a degree of abandon characteristic of the best players. Gavin found it hard to convince someone who’d survived the Battle of the Bulge to whip themselves into an emotional fervor for the sake of beating St. Bonaventure.
By the end of the season, as the freshmen grew physically and in confidence, the tide turned in their scrimmaging against the varsity. “Some of them were married, so football wasn’t a big thing,” said Currin. “So when we came in, we were all recruits, ready to go, and we would have a scrimmage, and by the end of that year we would just knock the snot out of them.”
As sophomores, Chuck and the Dayton football Class of 1953 moved en masse up to the varsity. … On the field that sophomore year, Chuck found a new influence. He was Ralph McGehee, an All-American under Leahy at Notre Dame, who was rehabbing an injured knee on his way to trying out for the pros. If Russ Alexander [who coached Noll on a youth team in Cleveland] had taught Chuck the principles of leverage, and Strosnider helped him with the nuances of using his arms to shed and control opponents, McGehee gave Chuck a master class in the initial explosion off the line of scrimmage.
McGehee “had the most powerful lunge out of the three-point stance that I had ever seen or have seen since,” said Currin. “And he watched Chuck, because Chuck had a good lunge from three-point stance, and worked with Chuck. Between the two of them, they would break those sliding machines.” The facility Chuck had exhibited in the classroom — hear or read something once and he retained much of it — translated to the football field as well, and by his sophomore year, Chuck was already coaching his teammates.
By the time he returned for training camp in the late summer of 1951, Chuck might have felt he was coming home to his second family. The connections between those Dayton players ran deeper than mere teammates. They lived together, studied together (those that studied), went out together, and drank together. …
They had spent much of the previous two years giving each other nicknames. … Chuck’s nickname was definitely bestowed during the spring intrasquad game in 1951. … Before one play, Chuck made a line audible that would send him wide to block the end and have Currin moving inside to catch the linebacker coming through the vacated hole. The call was made but the play broke down from the start, Chuck not getting a good shot on the end and Currin missing the linebacker entirely.
Walking back to the huddle, both Chuck and Currin were adamant that the other man had failed.
“That’s your fault!” Chuck said.
“You called it!” said Currin. “He was too far over!” Then, perturbed, he added, “You think you’re always right — you think you’re the Pope!”
Teammate Joe Molloy [’54], walking back to the huddle with them, overheard and echoed the sentiment, “Yeah, you’re the Pope!” …
The nickname poked fun at Chuck’s certitude, but there was also a sense in which it was a descriptive of the authority of his opinions. “If there was ever a discussion, whatever his conclusion was, end of discussion,” said Don Donoher [’54]. “Chuck’s was the last word, so it just became; he is infallible.”
In the locker room [after the 1951 season-ending 34-13 win over Marshall], Gavin gathered his players and announced that they had received an invitation from the Salad Bowl, played in Glendale, Arizona.
There were real questions within the administration over the cost. … Dayton finally accepted.
It would be the greatest moment in Dayton’s major-college football history. They took a chartered train from Dayton, with 11 newspapermen and two train cars full of boosters along for the ride. …
The game itself, played on Jan. 1, 1952, drew a crowd estimated at 17,000. … Dayton fell, 26-21.
[In 1952] on Thanksgiving, they went down to Chattanooga for their last game and were blown out, 40-7, to end a disappointing 6-5 season.
As they took off their sweaty football gear in the Chattanooga locker room, they each knew, to a man, it was probably the last time they’d play the sport. Though Chuck was named all-Ohio, he was undersized for a lineman and was already focused on looking for teaching jobs after graduation. … Only Currin, who’d earned national attention with his receptions, was given a chance. For everyone else, it seemed, the ride was over.
So when a man called the dorm one day in January 1953 to inform Chuck he’d been drafted, he at first assumed it was the Army and was perplexed; he’d already been declared 4-F due to his epilepsy.
“No, the Browns — the Cleveland Browns,” said the reporter. … The Browns kept close tabs on Ohio schools, and Gavin had recommended Noll as the sort of brainy football player that Paul Brown loved; Cleveland drafted him in the 20th round. …
The standard contract for rookies was $5,000. Among the teaching opportunities that had been offered Chuck, one was at Holy Name High School in Cleveland, for a pay of $2,700.
Of course, the odds were stacked against Chuck making the team. NFL rosters had 33 players. From one year to the next, there might be 28 or 29 holdovers, even more on a perennial contender like the Browns. But Brown had been told about Chuck’s technical skills.
“Well, you’re big enough,” said Brown to Chuck when he visited that spring. “Let’s see if you’re brave enough.”
The summer of 1953, Chuck, Currin, Maloney and [Tom] Carroll [’53], along with basketball player Chris Harris [’55], wound up renting space in the attic of an apartment on Grafton Avenue, behind the Dayton Art Institute, within easy walking distance of McKinley Park. They each paid the owner $5 a week for a mattress in the attic. …
They'd found work … laying tar and working nearly dawn to dusk every weekday. It was hot, dirty work, and only the money and the friendship made it worthwhile. …
When they returned to the apartment, most of them would collapse. Not Chuck. Each day, he would change into his Dayton athletic shorts, grab his stopwatch and implore Maloney or Carroll to join him at McKinley Park a few blocks away.
“Chuck, I’m tired — you go,” Carroll would protest.
“You don’t have to do anything!” Chuck said. “Just come along and sit down and time me.”
There, in the gathering dusk, Chuck would run 40-yard sprints, and then have Carroll time the intervals — first 60 seconds, then 50 seconds, then 40 seconds, down to 10-second breaks. Chuck would run until he collapsed from exhaustion. Carroll, stopwatch in hand, would sit with his back against a tree and time his friend.
The sight of the other tired young men sprawled in the stifling heat of their threadbare apartment while Chuck changed into sweatpants and tennis shoes became one of the recurring motifs of that summer.
“Pius [the name of the pope at the time], slow down, man,” said Chris Harris one hot evening.
“Gotta do it,” Chuck replied. “Gotta make this team.”
Noll made the team, playing six years for Paul Brown in Cleveland before going into coaching himself. In 1975 he coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, his first Super Bowl win of four. Nobody has won more. He lost none.
Chuck Noll: His Life and Work is widely available at booksellers including the University of Dayton Bookstore, www.udayton.edu/bookstore.