Otto Schnellbacher, who turned a winning blend of athletic instincts and a fierce competitive streak into two-sport stardom at Kansas University, died Monday at the age of 84 after a battle with cancer.
Schnellbacher grew up in the southwest Kansas farming town of Sublette and lived most of his life in Topeka, where he sold insurance until he retired. He never stopped working for his alma mater, according to friends.
"This is a tough one," said former KU football coach and player Don Fambrough, a teammate of Schnellbacher's. "Otto was from the little old town of Sublette and he used to tell me stories of the dust storms out there. His mother would stay up all night long and put wet towels over their faces so they could breathe. I've always been partial to Kansas kids. They're tough kids who've had to work hard for everything they've gotten. That was Otto."
Schnellbacher is one of 15 former KU football players whose name is displayed at the top of the north bowl of Memorial Stadium in the Ring of Honor. He was captain of the football and basketball teams at KU, which inspired the nickname "Double Threat from Sublette." He played both sports professionally.
"He was very, very, very competitive," said former KU football teammate Cliff McDonald of Lawrence. "He always helped the officials. Whenever we would punt the ball out of bounds - the coffin corner kick nobody ever does anymore - he would run down and tell the official where it went out of bounds, which was always 10 yards in our favor. He was all gung-ho to win, never played around. When we played a ballgame, it was win or know why. He would be on the officials two or three times a game."
That particular manifestation of his competitive streak didn't stop when his playing days did. His booming echoed through the Fieldhouse on its way to the court, according to those who sat near him at Kansas basketball games.
"My daughter happened to sit behind him and on several occasions she would come back and say, 'Good gosh, he yells at the officials and swears at them, but you know what, he was right,' '' McDonald said. "He was so competitive he didn't care what he said, when he said it, or who he said it to."
Jerry Waugh of Lawrence, a former basketball teammate of Schnellbacher's at Kansas, visited his friend Friday at his home in Topeka, knowing it would be the last time he saw him.
"I suppose none of us in those days had the skill we watch today, but we competed hard, and certainly that's what Otto did," Waugh said. "The thing that stood out about him was his leadership. You better give 100 percent on every single play or you had to answer to him. He would be on you hard if you didn't compete."
Schnellbacher competed in two sports for Kansas during the 1942-43 school year, left to serve in the military during World War II, and then resumed his career in 1946, playing two more football and three more basketball seasons.
A two-way end and a two-time All-Big Six selection in football, Schnellbacher set school records that stood for 22 seasons with 58 receptions and 1,069 receiving yards, an average of 18.4 yards per catch. He was a captain on the 1947 team that went to the Orange Bowl. He and teammate Ray Evans became KU's first All-America selections in football that season. Schnellbacher was a four-time all-conference selection in basketball, joining Charlie Black and Darnell Valentine as the only Jayhawks to achieve that feat.
Professionally, Schnellbacher played four seasons of football, for the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference in 1948 and 1949 and the New York Giants of the NFL in 1950 and 1951, as a 6-foot-4, 180-pound defensive back. He was named All-Pro twice with the Giants, for whom he intercepted 19 passes in two seasons.
"I don't know what the salaries were for football players then, probably not much," Waugh said. "Otto probably had all the fun he could stand as an athlete and just felt like he needed to get on with his life and got into the insurance business in Topeka."
All the while, he remained an active supporter of KU sports. He served as the first president of the K-Club, according to Waugh, and kept the Quarterback Club strong in Topeka through the years.
"Anything he got involved in he made sure it was first-rate," Fambrough said. "He was the best athlete, the best student, the best friend. If I had a problem I couldn't solve, I'd turn to him."
Fambrough and Schnellbacher served together on the Gold Medal Club for the KU Alumni Association. It was there, Fambrough said, the two men agreed last month on what would be their next cause.
"When I found out Missouri had more band members than we have, I just about went to pieces," Fambrough said. "Otto and I both loved the marching band and talked about how important it is, about how as far as KU athletics, the marching band is really our 12th man. We talked about raising funds for more band scholarships. Well, anytime I wanted anything like that done, I'd turn it over to Otto because I knew he would get it done. A lot of people talk about how they are going to do this and do that, and they don't do a darn thing. Otto got things done. No doubt in my mind if he had lived, the project with the band would have been first class. He didn't settle for anything less. It didn't matter if it was in business or in athletics, if Otto Schnellbacher was involved, it was first class."
Schnellbacher's health prevented him from attending the school's third Orange Bowl appearance this past January, but he was honored on the Allen Fieldhouse court along with generations of other KU basketball players Feb. 16, during halftime of a 69-45 victory against Colorado.