published Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Wiedmer: Is Steffy Chattanooga's best football player ever?

Joe Steffy knows the routine by heart. Late in the second quarter of Saturday's Army-Ball State football game, the 1947 Outland Trophy winner will ease his 83-year-old body into a golf cart and be driven to the 50-yard-line of the U.S. Military Academy's Mishie Stadium.

"Then they're going to drive me right onto the field at halftime," said the Baylor School great from his Newburgh, N.Y., home earlier this week. "I'll hold up my hand and hope that somebody will cheer. But I don't know that they will."

Oh, they'll cheer. They'll cheer Army retiring Steffy's No. 61 jersey. They'll cheer the 5,000 bobblehead dolls crafted in Steffy's likeness that the school is giving out before the game.

They'll cheer because, as Army director of athletics Kevin Anderson says, "Holding a day in his honor is long overdue, and we are looking forward to providing a proper tribute to his tremendous accomplishments."

You could argue that Steffy's West Point career alone -- the second Outland Trophy winner ever, two-time All-American, starter on two national championship teams, College Football Hall of Fame member, holder of the Plebe shot put record for 33 years -- might make him the best college football player to ever come out of Chattanooga.

But that would be selling Steffy's accomplishments short. That would ignore the year he helped Tennessee to the 1944 Rose Bowl before he went to West Point as part of his military obligation.

It would leave out the rather important Bronze Star and Purple Heart he earned serving his country in Korea. Or the years he later spent as an Army assistant coach. And the 45 years he ran his father-in-law's Buick dealership in Newburgh after the war was over.

"But you'd never know about any of that just talking to him," said Signal Mountain resident Louis Brooks, one of Steffy's oldest friends. "He's just always been a plain ol' Joe. Nothing pretentious or anything."

Steffy and Brooks grew up sharing backyards in North Chattanooga. The Brooks home on Barton Avenue backed up to the Steffy home on Young Avenue.

"We played football in a vacant lot across from my house," said Steffy, who went to Normal Park Elementary and Northside Junior High. "We had some pretty good games."

Pretty good? At one time or another at least three future All-Americans played in those games, including Steffy, Eddie Prokop (Georgia Tech) and Bill Healy (Georgia Tech).

They also lost only a single game at Baylor playing for Humpy Heywood.

"I grew up wanting to go to Tennessee," said Steffy. "But I never thought they'd have me. They recruited me pretty aggressively, though. And I loved my time there. I still watch them every chance I get. I'll make every effort to see them Saturday against Florida. Army plays at noon. UT's not on until almost 4, so I should be able to watch most of it."

But World War II needed him more than the Vols in 1945.

"They drafted everybody that was physically capable," Steffy said. "But (former Baylor and UT great) Herman Hickman knew that Colonel (Red) Blaik was looking for linemen at West Point. I could either go to the Army or West Point, so I chose West Point."

Once there, he used his 5-11, 190-pound frame -- "I wasn't considered small back then" -- to open gaping holes for "Touchdown Twins" Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, arguably the greatest one-two backfield punch in college football history.

Then came the rest of his life. The Korean War. Marriage to Ann and the arrival of son Benton. Managing his in-laws' Buick dealership in Newburgh, which is roughly 12 miles north of West Point.

"I always wanted to move back to Chattanooga," said Steffy, who visited twice a year until a few years ago. "But I had a business to run."

Finally, West Point called a few weeks ago. They wanted to retire his jersey and honor him at midfield, despite knees gone so bad that, "I can't walk up one step."

Befitting a plain, ol' Joe, "I told them I didn't want to do it, that I didn't deserve it. But they insisted and I'm so honored."

So come Saturday they'll honor him the way he deserves. His sister Ellen Waggoner will fly in from Huntsville, Ala. His sister Florence Digozaldi will travel from Maine. Benton and his three sons will also be there -- Kyle, Ryan and JB all cheering their dear "Papa."

Louis Brooks won't be there. But he happily shared a story about his friend of more than 75 years.

"It probably wasn't more than a year ago that Joe told me he had won the Outland Trophy," Brooks said. "That's Joe."

And that's just plain, ol' wonderful.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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BuddyFisher said...

Mark, thank you for your warm and wonderful article about my friend Joe Steffy. Joe graduated frm Baylor two years before I did. While I was playing for Baylor in 1944 and 1945 I kept up with Joe through the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writers, i.e., Wirt Gammon, Dexter Van Zant, Wolf Lebovitz, E.T. Bales, etc. I still have a scrapbook with pictures of Joe and stories from the papers about him when he was a player at Baylor, UT, and West Point. As you pointed out, what a guy he was. As you probably know, in addition to football and the shot put, Joe also excelled in many other track and field events, wrestling, and weight lifting. He was also the highest officer in the military his senior year at Baylor. There are many Baylor "Steffy stories" which are indicative of how daunting and fearless he was. There were some of his teammates who were itimidated, to say the least, by his intensity during football practices and scrimmages.

Barry Heywood and I are excited about our plans to be with Joe at the Army Tailgate brunch before the Army/Vanderbilt game at West Point on Oct. 10th. We had considered going to see him when he was honored at the Ball State game, but decided to wait until the Vanderbilt game since both of us are Vanderbilt alumni.

Thank you again for your article - Buddy Fisher

September 28, 2009 at 3:28 p.m.
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