Updated 5 p.m. 8/18
Paul Naumoff, one of the legendary hitters in Tennessee football history, has died at age 73.
The all-American linebacker, longtime resident of Lenoir City, was famous for an under-the-chin tackle of Syracuse’s Larry Czonka in the 1966 Gator Bowl and for 142 consecutive games in a rugged 12-year National Football League career.
A message from the Naumoff family, posted at his old high school, Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Ohio, said Paul was afflicted with Alzheimer’s and cancer. It took a lot to stop this tough son of Macedonian immigrants.
Naumoff came to UT in 1963, a Jim McDonald recruit for Bowden Wyatt’s final class. Paul thought he was a wide receiver for a time but had only two catches in his sophomore season, one mean lick in the back from Auburn safety Tucker Frederickson resulted in broken ribs.
LSU mascot Mike the tiger was another undesirable in Naumoff’s time as a split end. With the help of a creative sound system, tiger growls swept through the Baton Rouge arena when the visiting team came out to play. It was somewhat unsettling.
“We came charging out of the dressing room and there was that damned tiger, climbing the cage to get at us,” was Naumoff’s recollection.
Paul didn’t like that tiger stationed along the sideline. He kept wondering what would happen if it got loose. Can tigers run faster than split ends? Is Mike trained to just eat visitors?
Quarterback Art Galiffa helped finish the tale.
“Doug Dickey sent in a pass play. The route was going to take Naumoff toward that tiger. In the huddle, he said he wasn’t going, to call something else. I checked off. Coach was livid, but Paul became my friend for life.”
Tennessee teammates on defense convinced Naumoff that it was better to be the hitter than the catcher. As a junior he became a defensive end of considerable renown and then switched to linebacker after the auto accident death of his friend Tom Fisher.
The story of what Naumoff did to Czonka near the bowl goal has been handed down to two younger generations.
“Paul stood him up and spit and sweat came up like a water balloon,” was the late Nick Showalter’s description.
Dickey said it was an all-American hit. The coach awarded Naumoff the ceremonial game ball.
“Paul was a very explosive hitter, much like Steve Kiner,” said Dick Williams, a standout defensive tackle. “He had powerful leg drive and remarkable timing.”
Mack Gentry remembers the same Naumoff.
“I had the good fortune to play next to him in 1965 when he was a defensive end. Played in front of him in ’66 when he was an all-American linebacker. Great athlete, great speed and a BIG hitter.”
In 1967, Naumoff was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions. He was the defensive player of the year in 1975. He had 21 tackles in a game against the Cleveland Browns.
There was one historical incident involving Joe Namath.
Shortly after signing the richest contract in the NFL, Broadway Joe fell trying to make a tackle after a Jets fumble. Naumoff landed on the quarterback’s left knee. That led to surgery and a famous quip.
“I guess I’m not tough enough to be playing defense.”
For a few minutes, Naumoff was a semi-star on the screen. He played himself in the George Plimpton movie Paper Lion. Ex-vols John Gordy, Mike Lucci and Darris McCord were in the show. So was another fairly famous football name – Vince Lombardi.
Ex-Vol Harold Stancell has a yarn from the good old days.
“After the spring game our freshman year, Paul, Johnny Mills, Rod Harkleroad and I decided to go fishing and drink some beer. Paul had never been fishing. On his first cast, the lure, rod and reel went into Melton Hill Lake.
“All we had left was the six pack.”
Naumoff memorial Aug. 24
A celebration of Paul Naumoff’s life is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24, at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, 9132 Kingston Pike, Knoxville.
The Naumoff family will receive friends at the church from noon until 1:45.
The all-American linebacker of 1966 died at his home in Lenoir City in the early hours of August 17 after an extended fight with cancer.
“I am saddened to hear of his passing,” said his old coach, Doug Dickey. “Paul was one of my favorite players because he was so good at play recognition and would really hit with authority. He had a great work pattern. All of these things were proven by his pro career.”
Bill Young, sophomore safety when Naumoff was a senior captain, said he remembers Paul as “a great leader and football player. He led by example in the effort he gave on the field.”
Fifty-two years later, Young remains impressed that Naumoff could switch from defensive end to linebacker between his junior and senior seasons and become a consensus all-American.
“Making that transition with so much success is really unbelievable. Learning the techniques of the position and the checks to be made during a game is extremely difficult. Obviously Paul adjusted quickly and very well.”
Young said that in addition to intelligence, “Paul was gifted with great speed and toughness.”
Young recalled chasing Syracuse running back Floyd Little in the Gator Bowl.
“Paul passed me, caught Little from behind and made the tackle … I say with great pride that I was a teammate of the great Paul Naumoff with the 1966 Tennessee Volunteers.”
Naumoff is survived by his wife of 52 years, Melva Naumoff; son Chris, daughters Nicole Naumoff Dousis and Celeste Naumoff and brother Bob Naumoff.
Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org