Robert Lee "Bob" Suffridge
Copyright 2006 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
Robert Lee "Bob" Suffridge
(Courtesy of UT Sports Information)
Who had the quickest wit and who "got off the ball" faster than anyone else in the history of football?
Many say that Robert "Bob" Suffridge, 1937 Central High School graduate, who is acknowledged by many to be the best athlete in the schoolís history, held the championship in both categories.
Robert Lee "Bob" Suffridge was born near Maynardville in Union County on March 17, 1916. His parents were John Brack Suffridge (1888-1953) and Mary J. Suffridge (1891-1979). Mary was the daughter of W.P. "Bud" Monday (1853-1926) and Emma Monday, who owned a 165-acre Union County farm in the Loyston area.
Bob was the third of nine children to be born in Union County. After the family moved to Smithwood, there would be three more. Brack plowed the fields, milked the cows, slopped the hogs, tended the garden and, occasionally, as many would do in those difficult times, he "put some corn in a jar" to supply his share of the local market.
Life on the family farm wasnít easy, but the farm chores, the fox hunting and other outdoor play gave Bob an opportunity to develop stout legs and lungs from an early age. On one fox hunting trip a grizzled hunting companion shouted after five-year old Bob, "Come back here boy, you canít catch those dogs, come back here out of the dark." Bobís father said, "No use talking to Bob, Jess. He thinks he can outrun a deer and he gets closer all the time. All that boy wants to do is run. Give him another year or two and we can keep the dogs in the pen and that Bob can chase Ďem for us."
Years later, opposing SEC and pro players would testify to his ability to chase, catch and demoralize football players. Legendary coach Gen. Robert R. Neyland never wanted to answer when asked, "Who were your greatest players?" But, when pressed, he would reluctantly answer, "Iíll start a team, but will not attempt to complete it. Youíll have to start with Bob Suffridge the greatest lineman I ever saw and thatís as far as I will go with the line. For a backfield, youíll start with Gene McEver, the greatest I ever coached."
The Suffridge family moved to Smithwood about 1927. Whatever happened during the week, Mary Suffridge saw to it that her children were in Sunday School at Smithwood Baptist Church. Bob later observed, "Mother was a God-fearing Christian woman who made us attend Sunday School every Sunday, wash our hands before eating and clean behind our ears at bedtime."
At about age 11, after moving to Smithwood, Bob discovered football. One Sunday afternoon the neighborhood boys, mostly older than him, introduced him to the game. Of course, he wanted to be the running back but they shoved him into guard position. After a few of the three or four hour sessions his peers recognized his exceptional speed and agility.
He soon had his first moneymaking job carrying the Knoxville Journal, the morning paper at the time. Although he had one of the largest Journal routes, he soon signed on to carry the afternoon paper--the News-Sentinelóalso. Often, he would be seen racing down streets, through yards and jumping hedges as he delivered the news and simultaneously built leg strength and speed.
Eighth graders were allowed to practice with the high school team in those days. As a solid 154-pounder Suffridge reported for duty with the Central High School Bobcats. Coach Quinn Decker noticed the lightning-fast 14-year old spilling the tailback almost as soon as he got the ball. He asked the state governing board for a ruling on playing him in the first game of the season at Middlesboro.
They, of course, said no; but only in the week after Suffridge, with his team leading by 6-0 in the fourth quarter, saw the big Middlesboro fullback break into the open bound for a touchdown. Relying on his tremendous speed, Bob chased him down and tackled him on the 20-yard line and saved the game.
Soon thereafter Centralís Principal, Miss Hassie K. Gresham, called Smithwood School principal, Henry T. Seymour, about the situation. Noticing the dejected youth back on the grammar school play ground one day, his pride damaged but still a hero to his fellow students, Mr. Seymour said, "Donít be discouraged Bob. I told you Miss Gresham couldnít be fooled. Now get in here and settle down and get your diploma. You know now that you can be a great football player, but youíve got to go by the rules."
His grades soared to the passing mark and soon he attended Centralís spring practice, knowing that by fall he would be eligible. During his first two years playing for Coach Decker, Bob did well. But he blossomed when Nathan B. "Red" Eubank joined new head coach Harvey Robinson at Central in 1935.
Red Eubank, although he weighed only 140 pounds, was an All-Southern guard on the University of Georgia football team in 1925. He had seen all the tricks lineman use and had developed some of his own to foil them. Suffridge was a good student of the game and he was willing to do the running and other strength building techniques to hone his skills.
Before long, Eubank introduced him to the medicine ball. For a warm-up Bob would grab a 10-pound ball and wear out a couple of disinterested subs by throwing it with them. Then he would start his five-mile run tossing the ball up and down all the way. He claimed it developed his forearms, which would serve as ramrods in his blinding initial charge. Bob later said, "The medicine ball is the greatest thing I ever ran across in training. Ö for a lineman the medicine ball is the thing."
During his four years at CHS (1934-1937), the team won 41 games, lost 2 and tied 1. In his freshman year the team lost only to Knoxville High (2-12). In his senior year they lost to Riverside (Georgia) Military Academy (6-25) and tied Gaffney (0-0). The 1936 team won 12 games, beat archrival Knoxville High School 21-6 and was declared State and Southern Champions. When Massilon (Ohio) refused to play them, Central was declared National Champions by default.
The school annual observed, "Suffridge played the greatest game of his (high school) career in this game (CHS vs. Johnson City). He caught reverses and strong-side plays going wide around end. He was virtually a fifth man in the Johnson City backfield." Central won 13-0.
At the end of his high school career, Suff had blocked 29 punts--a record that still stands--and made the All State team three years in a row. Named most valuable player in the state two years running, he was All Tennessee in 1934, was team captain and made All Tennessee in 1935 and was both All Tennessee and All Southern in 1936.
Coach Eubank commented on his star player, "Very few individuals have possessed the coiled action as Bob had. This was one of the great traits which he used well, especially as a defensive weapon. (This was in the days when many played both offense and defense.) His forward movement was balanced and he literally exploded in the direction of the ball carrier and on the ball carrier. His movement forward and timing to the right and left to the path of the ball was well coordinated with the use of his hands and forearm after his fast start from a low crouching position."
After his last high school game there were a lot of recruiters waiting around when sixth period ended. He visited a few schools but nobody was intensely interested in the 180-pounder. They thought he was too light. UTís Coach Neyland, a major at the time, had sized him up and decided Suffridge would tire of the roast-beef and mashed potato circuit and come home to stay. He did.
(Courtesy of UT Sports Information)
With the likes of George Cafego, Bob Foxx, Ed Cifers, Johnny Butler, Ed Molinsky and Babe Wood on the team, Suffridge rounded out a promising group of players. The 1939 Vol team went undefeated, untied and unscored on. They beat Alabama 21-0 with Johnny Butler scoring from the Vol 44 by slashing off tackle then zigging, zagging, dodging and weaving for a touchdown. They were selected to play in the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, Suffridge was banged up, George Cafego was injured, Southern California stopped Butler and won 14-0. It was only the third time Suffridge had played on a losing team back to his first year in high school.
In 1940 the Flaming Sophomores were now seniors and the Vols shut out Mercer, Duke and Chattanooga. Then they belted Alabama 27-12 and hung shutouts on Florida, LSU and Southwestern. Virginia lost 41-14 and they blanked Kentucky and Vanderbilt for a 10-0 season. They had stretched their regular season wins to 32 straight games. But, Boston College won the Sugar Bowl 19-13 on the strength of Charlie OíRourkeís 24-yard run that began as a fake passóironically one of Neylandís favorite plays for 15 years. For only the fourth time in his career, Suffridge had played on the losing team.
Suffridge played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 and made the All National Football League team. In one game, Suffridge blocked three straight punts. In competition with all the star opposing linemen in professional football at quite another level of play, Suff had proved that his blazing fast charge could again stifle defenses and win games.
Then he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a First Lieutenant. He also played on a Navy football team and made the All Service Team. He later served as commander of a landing craft during the campaign in the Marshall Islands.
Upon his return from service in 1945, he played one more year with the Philadelphia Eagles, then accepted the position of line coach for the immortal UT running back, Beatty Feathers, head coach at North Carolina State. In 1948 his old high school coach, Quinn Decker, asked him to coach the line at The Citadel.
Bob Suffridge receiving a plaque honoring his selection to the
All TimeAll-American Team (1969)
(Courtesy of UT Sports Information)
After a couple of years, Suffridge ended his football career. He had made All-SEC and All-American teams in 1938, 1939 and 1940 and won the Knute Rockne Award as Most Valuable Lineman in America in 1940. He was All National Football League in 1941. The Football Writers Association of America chose him for their All Time Team in 1969. This team, made up of the best players at their position over the previous 50 years, included such legends as Sammy Baugh, Red Grange, Don Huston and Bronko Nagurski. In 1972 he was elected into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame.
When his coaching career ended, Suffridge returned to Knoxville, but life after football was never easy for him. He tried working for the Roddy Manufacturing Company, established a general insurance agency on Main near the Court House and tried an automobile sales job in Nashville.
Late in life, he found his niche in retirement. The football great lived in an apartment complex largely occupied by senior citizens. There Bob became an unpaid volunteer chauffeur and deliveryman, the kind of friend his neighbors needed.
Robert Lee Suffridge passed away suddenly at his home on March 3, 1974 at 57 years of age. He was survived by his mother, his wife, Alice Elizabeth (McEwen) Suffridge, his son, Robert L. Jr. and three daughters, Martha, Sarah and Jeanne. After services at Stevens Mortuary he was interred in the family plot at Lynnhurst Cemetery.
Marvin West outlined the prescription for gridiron success in his book, Legends of the Tennessee Vols (2005), "The proven formula for football fame is one part talent, one part toughness, at least a pinch of smarts, and a burning desire to succeed. ... Bob Suffridge was richly blessed. He had more than enough of everything. From a humble beginning, he fought and scratched every step of the way to the very tip of the mountaintop. He became one of the greatest linemen in the proud history of Tennessee football. The multitudes cheered."
Sportswriter Ben Byrd summed up the football heroís life when he wrote (Knoxville Journal, March 4, 1974), "It was often said that, in later years, he never quite lived up to the glories of his triumphant football career. When one considers the heights he reached, the question arises: how many of us could have?"