Mills remembers Naumoff

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Friday is the celebration day of Paul Naumoff’s life (2 p.m., Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, 9132 Kingston Pike, Knoxville).

Family, friends, Tennessee football fans and old Vols will gather to share memories of the main man who died a few days ago. Johnny Mills is warming up.

“In the fall of 1963, Paul Naumoff reported as a freshman wide receiver at Tennessee. He and Ron Jarvis were the strongest on the team. Naumoff also had exceptional speed.”

Naumoff was a prominent prep star from Columbus, Ohio, who skipped over an Ohio State scholarship offer to attend Tennessee. Mills, from suburban Elizabethton, was somewhat less prominent.

Mills was taken aback when he realized he and Naumoff were ticketed for the same position. Mills was not exactly a speedster.

“My 40 time was 5.0. My first thought was ‘I ain’t going to get to play much.’”

Things changed.

“Things changed big time during our first scrimmage,” recalled Mills. “Paul could really run. He beat his man twice and raced toward the end zone. Twice the ball was perfectly thrown. He dropped both of ‘em.”

Freshman coach Dale Haupt exclaimed “Naumoff, it doesn’t matter if you get to the end zone first if you don’t have the ball.”

Mills became “assistant” coach.

“I told Paul he was not tough enough to play offense. He scoffed. He didn’t believe a word I said. I explained it to him.

“Paul, you start on this hash mark, look back at the quarterback and run at a 45-degree angle toward the other hash mark. Standing just out of your view is a strong safety, looking right at you.

“The ball is thrown a little high. You are going to have to raise your arms to catch it. That safety I was telling you about has zeroed in on you but you can’t look at him. The ball is in the air. When you raise your arms to catch it, your ribs are exposed to that safety coming at full speed. He doesn’t care about the football. He wants you.

“If you can make that catch time after time, you can play wide receiver. If you don’t think you can do that, time after time, go play something a little easier, like linebacker or defensive end.”

As Mills tells it, Naumoff laughed heartily. He continued as a wide receiver for a time. He caught two passes as a Volunteer. He became a defensive end. He became an all-American linebacker. He became an NFL linebacker. He played 12 years in the pros.

With some of the competition out of his UT way, Mills caught 76 passes and set some school records. Naumoff bumped into Mills a few times in practice but they remained the best of friends.

“It could have gone the other way. Paul and I roomed together for one year. He was always messing with me. He would move my clothes from my closet to his. He would come in late and turn on all the lights and the music. I told him that it wasn’t a good thing to keep bothering a Tennessee country boy. That didn’t bother Paul at all.”

Mills spent 10 days gathering every type of bug he could catch – caterpillars, roaches, ants and maybe a worm or two. He collected them in a jar with holes punched in the lid.

“Paul came in again one night after I had been asleep for two hours. He turned on all the lights, made his normal amount of noise and went to take a shower.

“I dumped the bugs into his bed and pulled up the covers. Paul came in, toweled off, talked loud, eventually turned off the lights and crawled into bed.

“I have never heard a man scream that loud. I ran out of the room. I didn’t want Naumoff charged with murder.”

Eventually, the two agreed to a truce. Paul became a more considerate roommate.

“He was a big part of our team and one of the main reasons we turned Tennessee football around. He was my friend. I’ll miss him.”

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is

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