Bill Little commentary: One last train ride for Noble
Feb. 17, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The phone call was inevitable, the end result of the years and the aging, which robs a person of their memory -- but not their memories -- a process defied only by the heart and the spirit.
Noble Doss passed away Sunday. In a way, he was one of the last surviving legends of one of the greatest eras of Texas Longhorns football. Finally, for him, "the train" had stopped.
When the book "What It Means To Be a Longhorn" was published, I had dropped by the assisted living facility where Noble was staying. His blue-gray eyes brightened, and he seemed to recognize who I was as he greeted me.
"I'm looking for a defensive back," I said, jokingly.
"Well, I can do that!" he exclaimed.
We talked some more, and I talked to him about his chapter in the book, where he recalled his beloved coach "Mr. Bible," and the pool cue he used as a pointer during Doss's days at Texas from 1939 through 1941.
He laughed as if he remembered, and, now comfortable with our moment in the present, I started to leave.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
I told him I was just going down the hall to visit with Rooster Andrews and then I was going to football practice.
"No," he asked again, this time more emphatically, "where are you going?"
Again I said, "To practice."
"I mean," he said, "where are you going on this train?"
I looked around the small room which he shared with another person, checked out the wheelchair in which he sat and the well-dressed man in it.
"Noble," I said, "are we on a train?"
"Yes," he said. "I don't know where we are going, but we stop, and get off and practice, and then we get back on again."
In the fall of 1939, Noble's first year on the Texas varsity, the Longhorns took a train to Madison, Wis., to play the Badgers. The train stopped in Kansas City, and the team got off and practiced, and then headed on north.
Now, just three months shy of what would have been his 89th birthday, the train ride has come to an end for Noble Doss.
If you are person of faith -- and Noble certainly was -- you can imagine that Mr. Bible will be there to greet him, all dressed up in his suit, pool cue in hand, waiting for Noble to join the others who etched the legend of Texas football as no other team had ever done in the first 50 years of Longhorn football.
Dana X. Bible had come to Texas after great success at Texas A&M and Nebraska, and when he took the Texas job in 1937, the nation was struggling to come out of the Great Depression, and so was Texas football. The freshman team of 1938 had over 125 players on it, and it would include Doss, Jack Crain, Pete Layden, Mal Kutner -- men who would carve the image of Texas football.
In 1940, when Texas upset defending National Champion Texas A&M, 7-0, Noble Doss would make a remarkable catch to set up the only touchdown of the game. The picture, of Doss bending backward like the backside of a parenthesis, has become one of the most famous in school history.
His football prowess was considerable: not only was he a star at Texas, he came back after World War II to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in two NFL championship games, earning a World Championship ring with a victory over the Chicago Cardinals in 1948.
In 1940, he set a Texas school record with seven pass interceptions in a season. Our colleague, John Bianco, still remembers the twinkle in Noble's eyes when we shot a picture of him with Nathan Vasher as Nathan was closing in on Doss's career interception of 17 in 2003. Nathan tied the record. Both marks, which Noble set almost 70 years ago, are shared -- but still stand.
But as good as he was on the field, it was the portrait of the person -- and not the picture on the football field -- that will stay with us as we remember Noble.
The football scholarship which brought him from his home in Temple, Texas, allowed him to use football as a learning tool, and with Bible as the teacher, Doss and his teammates had little choice but to learn.
"The biggest factor in my life was playing for a great coach and a great man like Mr. Bible," Noble once told a reporter. "He was of the highest morals and integrity. I cherish my four years under Mr. Bible. Back then a man's word was his contract. Character was stressed, and Mr. Bible was of impeccable character. Before practice every day we'd suit up and go into a lecture room. Mr. Bible lectured to us for an average of one hour a day. He talked to us about the values of life, what to do and what not to do. And he made sure there was no misunderstanding as to who was in control."
That is why, when you think of Noble Doss, you don't think of "the impossible catch," or the days on the gridiron. They are, instead, part of an "impeccable" (to borrow his word) mosaic of a life well lived.
After two years in the NFL following his tour of duty in the U.S. Armed Services, Noble returned to Austin, where he would start his own business, becoming a highly successful insurance agent, and one of the city's leading citizens. He also maintained an abiding love for The University of Texas, and for the Longhorn football team. He served briefly as the letterman representative to the Athletics Council, and was a charter member of the board of directors of the Greater Austin Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
He would transfer his superb athletic ability from the football field to the golf course, where he would become an amateur champion of note, and in his later years, nothing was finer than finishing a round of golf at Austin Country Club with dinner and a fine glass of wine.
He would dress "impeccably" (there's that word again), and he would forever epitomize the word "gentleman." Before the aging process sidelined him, Noble would call at least once a month inviting you to lunch -- and you seldom won an arm wrestle for the check. When, for safety reasons, his son, Dr. Noble Doss Jr., took his car keys away from him, Noble went out and rented a car and went about his daily routine.
He was, as his parents and Mr. Bible had taught him, a man of character and integrity. His spirit and his determination were overshadowed only by his kindness, and his heart.
That, more than anything, is what we will remember about Noble Doss. The famous cover of Life magazine that came out during the Longhorns' storybook season of 1941 featured the mug shots of 14 players. Only one, tackle Julian Garrett, now survives.
To understand who they were, it important to remember the principles which drove Noble, and those like him. They came from a time when all a man had was his character. Their parents had fought a Great War and survived a terrible economic Depression. The day after Noble and his teammates played their last game on December 6, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the world was forever changed.
What remained was a person's integrity, their determination and their will.
And with those, you could ride the train a long, long way.
Note: Visitation for Noble Doss will be Thursday, Feb. 19, from 6-7:30 p.m. at Weed-Corley Fish Funeral Home on Lamar Blvd in Austin. A public memorial service will be held Friday, Feb. 20, at 1 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Austin.