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At the Outland Trophy banquet last week in Omaha, Joe Ganz peered down from an elevated head table and looked into the eyes of the late Tom Novak’s family.
“I doubt a player whose nickname was ‘Train Wreck’ would really appreciate a quarterback getting this award,” Ganz said with that mischievous, deadpan look of his.
Everyone, of course, laughed, including Bonnie Novak, the widow of Train Wreck, Nebraska’s All-America center/linebacker, the first Nebraska football player ever to have his jersey retired and the only four-time, first-team, all-conference football player in Husker history.
Bonnie’s oldest son, former Husker basketball player Tom Novak Jr., met Ganz’s quip with a healthy chuckle. So did his brother, Terry Novak, another former Husker basketball letterman.
Shawn Watson, who presented Ganz with his prestigious post-season award, laughed as hard as anyone. But make no mistake. Nebraska’s offensive coordinator can’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Novak Award than a quarterback who waited patiently almost four seasons to show the world how to compete with courage and determination “against all odds” – qualities exemplified 60 years earlier by the fabled #60.
Talk about leaving it all out on the field every play. Train Wreck played on teams that finished 3-6, 2-7, 2-8 and 4-5 in 1946, ’47, ’48 and ’49. Yet he was so dominant against Notre Dame’s George Connor, a two-time consensus All-America and Outland Trophy-winning offensive lineman, that a Lincoln newspaper carried this headline one Sunday morning in 1947: ‘Connor All-American? Give Us Novak!’
Give us Novak indeed. And while you’re at it, never question how a nitty-gritty quarterback can move from the shadows of Memorial Stadium to near folk-hero status and therefore put himself in the same sentence with a legend like Tom “Train Wreck” Novak.
Ganz Greatest Competitor Watson Has Coached in 26 Years
“Joe is the greatest competitor I’ve coached in the 26 years I’ve been doing this,” Watson said. “I’ve never been around one like him. With Joe, you always had a chance because he fights to the very end. The two words that describe him best are competitive and persistent. From where he started his career, and where he ended it, is great testimony to what it really takes to succeed in college football.”
Ganz spent his first 3 ½ seasons behind Joe Dailey, Harrison Beck, Zac Taylor and Sam Keller on the depth charts. But when Keller went down at Texas in 2007, Ganz stepped out of the shadows and into a spotlight that never really left him. In that fourth quarter in Austin, plus the 17 games that followed, Ganz threw 45 touchdown passes, including two in a come-from-behind, 26-21 win over Clemson in the 2009 Gator Bowl.
Who would have guessed a one-time real, nowhere guy like Joe Ganz could become such a bright light on the Husker marquee? Does he really rank second in career touchdown passes at Nebraska? What about his 3,800 yards of total offense, coupled with his nearly 68-percent completion percentage, in 2008-09? A school record, it was simply the most prolific individual offensive season in Nebraska history.
Only Ganz could struggle in the first half against a great defense like Clemson’s and then storm back in the second half to win the Gator Bowl’s MVP Award. How much adrenaline can a gimpy quarterback muster when the deck is stacked and the odds are bleak?
“Joe Ganz did it the old-fashioned way – he earned everything he got,” Terry Novak said. “Old Train Wreck would have been proud watching him get knocked down so many times, and then watching him get back up to lead his team when they needed him most.”
Train Wreck loved to hit a quarterback as a linebacker just as much as he enjoyed leveling a linebacker as a two-time All-America center. So there’s not as much incongruity as Ganz might have imagined when he made fun of himself.
Whatever their teams needed, Novak and Ganz were willing to provide, against all odds.
Tom Novak’s Legend Grew from the Depths of Defeat
The game that established Train Wreck’s national reputation came in his sophomore season when Nebraska played at Notre Dame. The Irish won back-to-back national championships in ‘46 and ’47, but on that Oct. 18, 1947 afternoon in South Bend, Ind., Connor couldn’t neutralize Novak any more than Clemson could block Ndamokong Suh.
That’s one big reason why Novak’s #60 jersey is retired, and how a bona fide legend can grow from the depths of defeat.
According to Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, a group of Nebraska students met and applauded Nebraska’s team and Novak’s efforts when the Huskers returned to Lincoln by train on the Monday morning following a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame (a 40-point favorite that day).
Before joining his teammates in an open-topped convertible for a parade down O Street and back to NU’s campus, Novak addressed the students.
“They weren’t as tough as I thought they’d be,” Novak said of Notre Dame.
Train Wreck was, though – so tough that the unbeaten Irish put Novak on their All-Opponent Team . . . as a center instead of a linebacker where he created the most havoc.
No one enjoys a story like that more than Ganz, who grew up in Illinois watching the Illini and Irish play. “My dad and I enjoyed watching Nebraska more than any other team,” Ganz said. “We weren’t Illinois fans, and I hated Notre Dame. My fondest memory watching college football was when Nebraska destroyed Florida (62-24) in the (1996) Fiesta Bowl. I can still see those incredible runs Tommie Frazier made in that game.”
What Joe Ganz Has – All the Intangibles of a Quarterback
Ganz, of course, is no match for Frazier’s athleticism, but in Ganz, Tommie saw all the intangibles of a starting quarterback at least a year before that became a reality.
Despite his storybook finish, Ganz finds it almost implausible that he’s now woven into the fabric of Nebraska’s tradition.
“Coming in, I knew a little bit about what Nebraska was, is and still stands for,” he said. “I always had a feeling for it, but never really understood everything that goes on here.”
Now that he’s played his last game at Nebraska, “I think I understand that tradition and respect it now more than ever,” Ganz said. “It’s all about playing for the guys who played before you . . . guys like Train Wreck and all the other lettermen over the years. You know what it means to have that ‘N’ on your helmet. You know what an honor it is. Now that I’m done here, I fully understand what Husker Nation is and fully appreciate Husker lore.”
Until the last week or two, Ganz hasn’t been able to reflect like that. “When you’re going through the process to play and to win, you don’t have time to think like that,” he said. “Things fell into place for me here. It ended up happening a little later in my career than I wanted, but it just made all the waiting and all the hard work worth it.”
Ganz has no delusions. “I’ve been around the block, and I understand I’m not the most attractive quarterback out there. I know that,” he said when asked to discuss his chances to play in the NFL. “I’m not 6-4 and 230, and I don’t have a rocket arm. But I’ve been through this whole, doubting thing before. I have a lot of stuff you can’t measure. I like going against all odds.”
Better yet, he likes beating all odds. That’s why he continues to work out faithfully for Nebraska’s mid-March tryout for NFL scouts and executives. “All I want is the opportunity to show them what I really have,” Ganz said.
“Train Wreck would have loved Joe Ganz,” Terry Novak said. “No question about it.”