Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dutch & The Cosmic Punch

Well, I'll be damned.

Even when I was among the youngest members of the UC Davis athletics staff, I had become something of an unofficial historian for this department. Other than the late Jim Doan, I've probably spent more time digging through the athletics archives than anyone else, whether from researching potential Hall of Famers or filling out records sections in media guides.

As much as I thought I knew, I've learned of two former Aggie football players within the last week or so.

The first is Kermit Schmidt, nicknamed "Dutch," who played for coaches Bill Driver and Crip Toomey back in the late 1920s. He was the first player to earn first-team All-Far Western Conference honors more than once (1928 and 1929). Furthermore, Schmidt was a member of the first UC Davis football team to win a FWC title: in his senior year, the old Cal Aggies went 5-0 in league play and outscored opponents by a 116-25 margin. This much is easy to find in any edition of our football media guide.

It turns out, Dutch owns another UC Davis first. He played for the Boston Braves (now known as the Washington Redskins) and the Cincinnati Reds (now defunct) in 1933 and 1934, respectively, making him the first Aggie to play in the NFL. We're talking 36 years and six U.S. Presidents before San Diego made Tom Williams the 42nd pick of the 1970 NFL draft. (Williams, however, remains the first UC Davis player to be drafted -- at least that much hasn't changed.)

The second player is less noted in Aggie lore but more decorated in his postcollegiate achievements. Lou Nova had been a star football/track athlete at Alameda High School. He enrolled at UC Davis and played tailback for one year, 1932. Nova left the University Farm for nearby Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College), where he competed in track & field, football and boxing. He won the national and world amateur titles as a heavyweight fighter in 1935 then turned pro the following year.

Known as the Alameda Assassin and possessing what was dubbed as "The Cosmic Punch," Nova held a career record of 49-9-5, with 31 victories by knockout. Two of these victories came against Max Baer, the former heavyweight champion who had suffered an upset at the hands of James J. Braddock (a.k.a. Cinderella Man) in 1935. Nova beat Baer in 1939, then again by TKO in 1941 (Baer's final bout).

Footage of the 1939 bout can be seen here:

Nova, five months removed from his TKO of Baer and three months after a three-round knockout against Jim Robinson in Minneapolis, took part in perhaps his biggest opportunity on September 29, 1941: a heavyweight title bout against Joe Louis at the Polo Grounds.

Like most opponents, Nova was no match for the Brown Bomber, falling in the sixth round. A wire photo from the fight, shown above, remains one of the more popular pieces of memorabilia from the event. Nova continued to box professionally for four more years, retiring after a KO loss to another heavyweight title contender, Tami Mauriello, held at Fenway Park in May of 1945.

Though no longer in the ring, Nova never left the spotlight. He enjoyed a career as an actor for more than a quarter-century, ranging from a reunion with Baer in the "Killer's Wife" episode of The Abbott And Costello Show to a role in the all-star cast of the 1964 comedy What A Way To Go! He also appeared on Broadway in the casts of Guys And Dolls and The Happiest Millionaire during the mid-1950s.

It was only when researching a completely unrelated bit of information that I stumbled upon a late 1960s Sacramento Bee clipping buried in our storage room in Hickey Gym. Nova and Buddy Baer (Max's brother and another Joe Louis victim turned actor) were supposed to greet the Bomber at the Sacramento airport. Ever the showman, Nova wore a fruit-covered, Carmen Miranda-style hat for the meeting. He was listed as an actor, a one-time heavyweight contender and a former UC Davis footballer. Nova passed away in 1991, the year he entered the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

As I've said before, I've probably spent more time digging through the UC Davis athletics archives than anyone else alive.

This stuff is why.

Mark Honbo, athletics communications assistant director, cites and the ubiquitous for much of the information in this entry. He can almost see his grandfather, who worked as a gardener for Buddy Baer, giving him an earnest smile for only now discovering a name so well-known to the greatest generation.

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