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Throwback Thursday: Tom “Train Wreck” Novak Makes an Impression

October 19, 2017

A large crowd was on-hand at the train station in Lincoln Monday morning to welcome the Nebraska football team back from its trip to Notre Dame. It included fans, university students, the pep band and cheerleaders, as well as “flashy convertibles,” according to a Lincoln newspaper account.

Husker sophomore center-linebacker Tom Novak was among those who addressed the crowd before being transported to campus in the convertibles, the Lincoln Evening Journal reported.

“They weren’t as tough as I thought they would be,” Novak was quoted.

You might think Nebraska had won the game two days before. If so, you would be wrong. You can look it up, Oct. 18, 1947. Final score: Notre Dame 31, Huskers 0.

Granted, Coach Frank Leahy’s Fighting Irish (Leahy was born in O’Neill, Nebraska, by the way) were No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and would finish 9-0 and national champions. Their roster included quarterback Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner; tackle George Connor, the 1946 Outland Trophy winner; and end Leon Hart, the 1949 Heisman Trophy winner. Still . . .

 “It could have been much worse,” a Nebraska fan was quoted by the Omaha World-Herald afterward. “Lots of teams are losing by more than 31-0.”

Notre Dame had opened with victories at Pittsburgh (40-6) and at Purdue (22-7).

Novak’s nickname, given to him at Omaha South High by Coach “Cornie” Collin, was “Train Wreck,” of course, and he showed why that afternoon in South Bend. He had visited Notre Dame, in fact, following military service before deciding to attend Nebraska so family could watch him play.

Novak played center on offense, moving from fullback after an All-Big Six freshman season, and linebacker on defense, which is where he excelled.

In the 1947 Illustrated Football Annual, the World-Herald’s Floyd Olds wrote: “To add further muscle to the line, Tom Novak was moved from fullback to center. His powerful plunges will be missed, but he’ll continue his bone-crushing line-backing. Here’s a sophomore with a great future.”

“I doubt if we run into any other line-backer as good as Novak the rest of the season,” Leahy was quoted by Olds, the World-Herald sports editor, after the game.

Bernie Masterson, Nebraska’s third-year head coach, used a 4-4-2-1 defensive alignment to try to stop the Fighting Irish, who would shut out their next two opponents as well, Iowa and Navy. They allowed more than one touchdown in only one of their final four games, at Northwestern.

Norrie Anderson, sports editor of the Lincoln Star, quoted Lujack: “He’s the toughest line-backer I’ve ever seen. We seldom could block him out of a play.”

According to Anderson, during back-to-back Fighting Irish series Novak made 17-of-21 tackles.

Walt Dobbins, sports editor of the Evening Journal, wrote that Novak “was everywhere. He made most of the tackles and more than once set the Irish back on their heels.”

Novak was “the line-backer unanimously named by Notre Dame players as the top opposing center of ‘47,” Olds would write in the 1948 Illustrated Football Annual.

John Hoffman of the Chicago Sun described Novak and his teammates, among them all-conference tackle Carl Samuelson, as a “tough and stubborn bunch of roughnecks.” They were “big, brutal and at times they performed with murder in their hearts . . .,” Hoffman wrote.

Novak earned All-Big Six honors again in 1947, as well as in 1948 and 1949, when he also earned All-America recognition. He remains the Huskers’ only four-time, first-team all-conference honoree.

“If our boys play the rest of the way as they did against Notre Dame, we’ll be tough to beat in the Big Six,” Masterson was quoted in the next Monday’s World-Herald.

Nebraska, which had opened conference play with a 14-7 victory at Iowa State the week before, won its next game at Kansas State, also by 14-7, but lost its final four games, three of them against conference opponents, to finish 2-7 and fourth in the Big Six. And Masterson was fired.

That’s how it was on one-more-than-this-day in history 70 years ago.

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