They buried a legend Tuesday, but the deeds and tales of All-American Joe Palumbo will live forever.
Characterized as bigger than life with his generosity and love, everyone who attended the former University of Virginia gridiron great’s memorial mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, could relate to “Big Joe’s” kindness. A “Who’s Hoo” of UVa athletics and the Charlottesville community was there to pay tribute to one of its greatest ambassadors.
Palumbo, a soft-spoken and overly modest man, wouldn’t have liked all the fuss.
A first-team Associated Press and NEA All-American in 1951, Palumbo was one of six men to have their numbers retired by Virginia football. Four of them, including Palumbo, are in the National Football College Hall of Fame.
He was just as competitive as a businessman as he was on the football field and reached great heights in both. Palumbo’s accomplishments were eulogized in a previous column in this newspaper over the weekend, so let’s focus on his football career at UVa.
The late Art Guepe, who coached Palumbo during some of the Cavaliers’ golden years, called his defensive guard, “The greatest competitor I’ve ever seen. He has that divine spark.”
Former teammates used other adjectives for what made No. 48 so great. Tough, tenacious, relentless, fearless were a few.
“Joe played hellacious football,” the late Rock Weir once said about Palumbo. “I’ve never seen anyone before or after as quick as he was. Other teams didn’t know how to block him. He used to drive them nuts.”
Palumbo used to poke fun at himself, noting that he wasn’t that big (just under 6-foot, and less than 200 pounds), and he was slow.
“As far as being fast, I had to pack a lunch to run 100 yards,” Palumbo used to chuckle. “Nobody ever accused me of being speedy.”
Perhaps not over the length of a field, but all Big Joe had to worry about was patrolling his part of the turf. He owned the line of scrimmage, and it’s a safe bet had college football kept record of quarterback sacks and tackles-for-loss during Palumbo’s day, he would still hold the record.
Guepe built his entire defensive game plan around Palumbo, knowing his star lineman could overpower the opposing center or guard with his quick first few steps, disrupting the entire play, causing fumbles, creating havoc.
In a 46-0 rout of a good William & Mary team in 1951, Palumbo dominated 240-pound center Ted Filer so much that the Indians abandoned its T-formation and switched to a double-wing. W&M’s plan was to use Palumbo’s aggressiveness against him but it backfired because his quickness allowed the Cavalier to beat the trapping guard and he spent the entire afternoon in the opponents’ backfield.
In that game, William & Mary called 36 running plays and finished with minus-37 yards rushing.
"Guepe would play Joe nose-up on the center and by the end of the game the guy'd be hiking the ball into the seats," said the late Barney Gill, a Virginia halfback from that era.
On a rare day, one could get Palumbo, even in his later years, to show off his greatest weapon, “the forearm shiver.” The All-American’s forearm was legend in itself.
“He had one of the best forearm shivers I’ve ever seen,” said former UVa All-America defensive end Tom Scott, also a College Hall of Fame member and a pro football standout. “In those days, you could use your forearms to hit people and Joe took advantage of it.”
Gill saw it in action.
“Joe was a nice guy off the field, but once he crossed that line, buddy, he would lay the wood to his best friend,” Gill said. “Joe used to sharpen the points of his elbows by popping them against the walls in the showers. Bam, bam, bam. Just like that. And when he did situps, he would fall back on the floor so hard that the room would shake.”
Lots of opponents felt the wrath of Palumbo’s mighty forearm, including the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The two squared off prior to Palumbo’s arrival at UVa, when he attended Greenbrier Military Academy in West Virginia along with Carl Smith, Chief Nesbit and Charlie Mott, all of whom would end up Cavaliers and friends for life.
Palumbo’s Greenbrier team took on one of the nation’s prep powers, Culver Academy out of Indiana, in 1947.
Interviewed at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York when Palumbo was inducted into the College Football Hall in 1999, Steinbrenner recalled that his first meeting with Palumbo wasn’t a pleasant one.
“Our coach kept telling us about this guy that we were going to play against,” Steinbrenner told this reporter. “Coach said that Joe Palumbo was the best player we would face all year, a one-man gang. Now, our coach never lied to us but we thought he was exaggerating.
“I’ve thought about that game many, many times and I’ve had a chance to see Joe one time since then, but I was elated to learn he had been elected to the Hall of Fame because he represents not only what football and competitiveness is all about, but also a university that is very special,” Steinbrenner said. “I understand what the University of Virginia is all about and you could not have a better representative of that university than Joe Palumbo.
“I’m sure Joe will recognize me when he sees me because I still walk from a slight limp on the right side and I have a paralyzed right shoulder, which makes it difficult to shake hands,” Steinbrenner laughed. “I can even remember [Palumbo’s hits in that game], but I have no resentment.”
The Boss wasn’t alone when it came to receiving punishment from Palumbo’s forearm. Charlie Mott, who along with Nesbit, are the only remaining members of “The Greenbrier Guys,” were both in attendance Tuesday. Mott once told a story about the first time he played in a game with Palumbo at Virginia.
“I was returning to the huddle and I heard Joe talking to the guy across from him, saying, ‘You’re not supposed to hold me … that’s not fair,’” Mott recalled. “Well, the guy said some ugly words to Joe and Joe warned him, ‘Don’t hold me again.’
“Next play, when I was getting back to the huddle from a downfield block, the whistle blew and time out was called,” Mott said. “I look and this guy was laid out cold, blood all over the place. I shook my head and said, ‘Wow, that guy really got hurt. How did that happen?”
Mott said he took a knee, looked around behind him and heard Big Joe say, “I told him he shouldn’t have held me …”
“That was quite an introduction to Joe Palumbo,” said Mott, who along with Smith and Nesbit, and Palumbo, all built careers in Charlottesville.
One guy who was smart enough to avoid Palumbo’s forearm was also smart enough to marry into the family, Duane Bickers, who married one of Joe’s sisters, Mary Elaine.
Bickers told how he was a little nervous when he came to pick up Mary Elaine for their first date because Joe answered the door.
“Joe said, ‘Son, I understand you play football?’” Bicker said. “I answered yes and Joe said, ‘Look, when you’re hitting, it’s all in the forearm. Let me show you.”
Palumbo proceeded to hammer his forearm against the brick wall over and over, leaving a lasting impression on the high schooler, who would eventually play football at UVa like Big Joe.
“I thought he was going to knock the house down,” Bickers laughed. “Joe looked at me and winked and said, ‘Take care of my sister.’”
The late Carl Smith, who joined Palumbo in supporting Virginia’s football program, used to laugh about his former teammate’s ferocity.
“Joe was a good friend of the dentists because he was always sending them customers,” Smith would say. “The first thing Joe would do would be to take care of the guy in front of him. He didn’t just go for the gap.”
Palumbo wasn’t just a star player. He was a team leader. It wasn’t unusual for Palumbo to have a closed door meeting with teammates on Friday nights (no coaches allowed) if he wasn’t satisfied by the team’s effort, probably one reason the Cavaliers went 23-5 during his three varsity seasons (1949-51).
“He wouldn’t call anybody by name,” Scott said. “But he’d look you in the eye. You got the message.”
During the summer between his junior and senior seasons, captain Palumbo personally wrote each teammate. His message was short and to the point: “Report in shape or answer to me.”
Former UVa coach Al Groh said he used to put in extra time when deciding on which Cavalier player would receive the Joe Palumbo Award, given to the player who exhibited self-sacrifice and enthusiasm.
“I wanted to make sure that the person who received the award was the kind of person who would exemplify what Joe Palumbo was all about,” Groh said.
Groh’s son, Mike, now an assistant with the Chicago Bears, and a former UVa quarterback under George Welsh, sent word to Tuesday’s service that he was proud to still have a trophy on his shelf bearing Palumbo’s name.
“He was one of the nicest, most thoughtful people you’d ever meet,” said the late Smith. “But when he got on the football field, he never took any prisoners. He was vicious. We had great linemen but there was nobody we played against who was comparable to Joe.”
Joe Palumbo, All-American, Hall-of-Famer, was one of a kind, and Wahoo Nation mourns his loss.