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Lasting Achievement, History Worth Celebrating

A unanimous All-American in 1975, Chet Moeller finished his Navy football career with 275 tackles.

A unanimous All-American in 1975, Chet Moeller finished his Navy football career with 275 tackles.

July 19, 2011

By Bob Socci

Two weeks after Yogi Berra appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, yet another college football team added a twist to the baseball legend's most famous line.

It ain't over til' its over? Well, even then, it may not be over.

Last Thursday, summer vacating continued when Georgia Tech became the latest to lose what it presumably had won. The Yellow Jackets forfeited their 2009 ACC Championship, after being sentenced to four years of probation by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

Already in early June, USC was stripped of its 2004 B.C.S. title in the fallout from rules infractions centering around ex-Trojan star Reggie Bush. And earlier this month, Ohio State preemptively vacated all 12 victories from last season, surrendering its Big Ten crown in hopes of softening any future sanctions.

Meanwhile, both Auburn and Oregon, who met in last January's B.C.S. finale in Arizona's Valley of the Sun, enter the upcoming autumn under thick clouds of suspicion.

The Tigers reportedly remain under NCAA investigation for their recruitment of Cam Newton, who conceivably could someday join Bush as, truly, former Heisman Trophy winners. As for the Ducks, they're entangled in scandal as well, resulting from reports of payments to recruiting services.

Considering the ever-altering state of the sport, it wouldn't be shocking if someday Auburn's triumph over Oregon is stricken from the record; exactly as similar achievements were symbolically erased for Tech, SC and OSU.

At any rate, the uncertainty to much of college football's recent history borders on absurdity. It's enough to leave one searching for some permanence to the game's past; hoping to celebrate that which can't be corrupted or compromised.

This past weekend, it could be found in South Bend, Ind., where the newest members were enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Among them is Sam "Bam" Cunningham.

Of the 341 times he rushed the football as a USC fullback, none were more important than the first dozen carries of Cunningham's varsity career. They led to more than 130 yards and two touchdowns and helped the 6-foot-3 sophomore cast a shadow across the next four decades.

 

 

Cunningham is African-American. And when he and his Trojan teammates arrived at Legion Field in Birmingham on Sept. 12, 1970, they were the first fully-integrated opponent to visit Alabama. They left only after rolling over the lilly-white Crimson Tide, 42-21.

Contrary to some exaggerated accounts, the events of that evening didn't convert `Bama's legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant from segregationist to integrationist. He was a realist.

Bryant understood that the Tide couldn't regain national glory until ending discrimination against black players. In fact, he had already recruited African-American Wilbur Jackson, a receiver on Alabama's freshman team.

But it's widely believed that Bryant scheduled USC to stir the sea change that could turn the Tide. As soon as `Bama fans opened their eyes to the talent of the diverse Trojans, he correctly surmised, they just might open their minds too.

One look at Cunningham was all the convincing they'd need.

Cunningham helped spur irreversible social change; Hall of Fame classmate Pat Tillman served to inspire with an irrepressible spirit.

As an Arizona State senior, he was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Sun Bowl MVP and second-team All-America. All of which is secondary to what Tillman did upon graduating.

Every American -- if he or she isn't already -- should be made familiar with how Tillman lived and how he died. He was indefatigable as an athlete and uncommonly introspective as an individual, constantly taking inventory of the ideals by which he governed his life.

Tillman graduated Summa Cum Laude in 3 1/2 years, earned an NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship and entered the 1998 NFL Draft. Considered an undersized linebacker by pro standards, he remained unwanted until 225 others were chosen.

At last, the Arizona Cardinals, who shared Sun Devil Stadium with ASU, wagered a 7th-and-final-round pick on Tillman, betting that he could adapt to playing safety. By his third season, Tillman hadn't simply established himself in the Cardinals' secondary; he'd driven himself to become a bonafide NFL star.

But following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Tillman made still another position switch. Giving up safety, most literally, he decided to forgo the comfort a multimillion-dollar contract can provide for the spartan life of an infantry grunt.

In July 2002, Tillman joined his brother, Kevin, by enlisting in the Army and training to become a Ranger. Less than two years later, on April 22, 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan.

Iconic and heroic, the posthumously-inducted Tillman is the most famous of the 20 Hall of Famers formally enshrined over the weekend. Others renown within their ranks include 1991 Heisman winner Desmond Howard, as well as retired Alabama coach Gene Stallings and his contemporary from Wisconsin Barry Alvarez.

Sharing the stage with them was someone somewhat overshadowed, though no less respected or deserving of induction. As anyone who ever saw him play, either in the moment or decades later on tape, could attest, Chet Moeller belonged in South Bend. Especially this year, with this class.

Bred in Ohio, he eventually adopted Alabama as his home state, settling where Cunningham left such a lasting social impact. And like Tillman, he was a relentless defender and a distinguished scholar who resolved to serve his country.

A self-admitted straight-laced kid from the Dayton area, Moeller was drawn to Annapolis by what he often describes as the "clean" environment of the Naval Academy. But while he avoided hard living, Moeller couldn't resist hard hitting.

From 1973-75, he made 275 tackles, including a school-record 25 for loss as a junior. The following fall, Moeller was voted the East Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year and became just the sixth Midshipman to be unanimously elected All-America. There was even a national-TV appearance with Bob Hope.

He was instrumental in Navy's 7-6 victory at Penn State in 1974, when the Mids ended the Nittany Lions' 13-game winning streak, and in a 17-0 triumph at Pittsburgh in '75, a year before the Panthers were declared national champs.

Moeller was also Academic All-American and, as Battalion Commander, earned the Naval Academy Athletic Association Sword for excellence. He graduated in 1976 and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer.

Last fall, Moeller was honored in Annapolis, commencing a near year-long celebration that culminated late Saturday when, fittingly, former Naval Academy athletic director Jack Lengyel presided over the H.O.F. ring ceremony.

The evening also featured a question-and-answer session, as Moeller and Hall classmates were briefly interviewed by hosts Charles Davis and Jon Gruden, the ex-NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst.

As means of introducing Moeller, Gruden shared a childhood memory. The son of Notre Dame's running backs coach at the time, Gruden recalled watching Sunday morning replays of the Fighting Irish with broadcasting legend Lindsey Nelson.

"We move ahead to further action," Gruden chuckled, mimicking Nelson's narration of those condensed classics, before segueing into play-by-play from a rebroadcast of Navy-Notre Dame. "Tackle by Moeller...tackle by Moeller..."

Quickly, the audience laughed along with Gruden; clearly getting the picture that, all joking aside, Moeller making a tackle got redundant. Against the Irish, or anyone else.

Davis credited Moeller for reinventing his position and referred to a film produced by former Navy assistant Len Fontes. It demonstrates how a safety should support against the run, and its star is the Midshipman in No. 48.

Thanks to YouTube and Google, Moeller can still be seen closing on ball carriers in all the glory of Fontes's grainy black-and-white masterpiece.

"I grew up wanting to play college football," Moeller told the audience. "I was not very big, I wasn't very tall, I wasn't very fast. But I believed I could play."

He also spoke of meeting Academy challenges, beginning with that first early rising at 6 a.m. and the 18-credit course load of his initial college semester.

"It taught me what I could do," Moeller said. "The Naval Academy instilled that discipline in me and gave me the desire to do my best every time I was on the field or in the classroom."

Soft-spoken and humble, Moeller chose to discuss the shutout of Pitt in collective terms more than as the individual who had an interception and fumble recovery despite playing with a broken thumb.

"Our defense, we were such a close-knit group," Moeller explained, crediting Fontes and another assistant, Rick Lantz, for scheming to slow down the Panthers' Tony Dorsett. "They forced everything outside to me and I was fortunate enough to make those tackles."

Dorsett mustered only 36 yards through three quarters and, though he finished with 122 yards rushing overall, lost a pair of fumbles. Three weeks later he gained 303 yards and scored three touchdowns vs. Notre Dame.

Before letting Moeller go, Davis left the audience with one more anecdote. He cited the reaction of another former safety Chris Lepore upon learning in 2009 that he was selected for the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium all-time team.

"That means you get to meet Roger Staubach," Lepore's wife excitedly said.

"No," Lepore corrected her, "that means I get to meet Chet Moeller!"

Surely, Lepore had seen that old coach's film of Moeller who knows how many times; perhaps enough to commit it to memory.

True greatness, even when witnessed through a scratchy lens, can't be forgotten. It doesn't get erased. It will never be vacated.

10/25/14 San Jose State 1:00 PM
11/01/14 vs Notre Dame 8:00 PM
11/15/14 Georgia Southern 3:30 PM
11/28/14 at South Alabama TBA
12/13/14 vs Army 3:00 PM