NORMAN — On the wall of Bob Cornell’s den hangs a black-and-white photo.
One of those great old pictures that remind you that heads once were full of hair, and limbs full of vigor, and life full of possibility.
OU’s 1959 Orange Bowl backfield. Halfback Brewster Hobby. Fullback Prentice Gautt. Quarterback Cornell. Halfback Jakie Sandefer. Teammates in rock-around-the-clock days.
They are teammates still.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, for 13 years, Hobby has come to Cornell’s home and put his old quarterback through a physical therapy workout. A 2000 stroke paralyzed Cornell’s right side. A broken hip in 2002 curtailed Cornell’s recovery. The right hand that so long ago cradled the football in that Orange Bowl photo cannot open wide enough to hold the commemorative footballs that adorn his den.
But Cornell’s right hand can squeeze. It can exercise muscles that once led a football team to victory over Syracuse and sketched plans for massive buildings. It can squeeze the hand of an old friend who is not licensed in physical therapy but seems to be well-trained by Philippians.
Without fail, on Tuesdays and Thursdays for going on a decade and a half, Cornell’s Orange Bowl halfback has arrived to stretch Cornell’s arm in all directions and walk him as many steps as he can take and strap him to an exercise bike for a few minutes of pedaling and bend his knee until it hurts too much and offer a hand to be squeezed. Always that hand, for what Hobby brings Cornell is not so much physical therapy, but emotional support.
You can see it on a football field in the fall or in a summer weight room or in the bedroom of a 75-year-old fighting to stay alive. Encouragement matters. It matters much.
“Things have never changed between those two,” said Cornell’s daughter, Kim Cornell. “I don’t think Brewster’s ever missed a Tuesday or Thursday. He takes care of my dad. They just love each other. We’re just really blessed to have Brewster in our lives.”
Teammates 55 years ago. Teammates forever.
* * *
Bob Cornell first saw Brewster Hobby in the 1955 Midwest City-Ardmore game. Cornell was a junior at Northwest Classen and had read about the great Hobby. So Cornell went to the game. He was duly impressed.
“Brewster was a terror,” Cornell said.
That summer, when the All-State football team worked out at Taft Stadium, Cornell walked from his home near Northwest Classen to every practice. Gautt was an all-stater, too. Both were headed to OU. “Everybody wanted to go to OU,” Cornell said.
Hobby was a two-sport star at both Midwest City and OU. “Brewster probably could have played Major League Baseball if they had let him concentrate on baseball alone,” said Stan Ward, who played with both Hobby and Cornell at OU.
Cornell, a year behind Hobby and Gautt, joined them at OU in 1957. But Cornell wasn’t the player they were. Cornell was a solid quarterback, but some great players were ahead of him. In 1958, David Baker was the OU starter, and Bobby Boyd was the backup. Both went on to the NFL as defensive backs. Baker had 21 interceptions in three seasons. Boyd, one of the best DBs in pro football history, played nine years and had 57 interceptions, third-most in NFL history when he retired.
The ’58 Sooners went 9-1, won the Big Seven Conference and made the Orange Bowl. But Bud Wilkinson suspended Baker from the game because of academics. In those limited-substitution days, Wilkinson didn’t like disrupting his units, so he kept Boyd with the second team and elevated Cornell to first team.
With Cornell doing most of the quarterbacking, the Sooners spanked Syracuse 21-6. Gautt had a 42-yard touchdown run, Hobby threw a halfback pass to Russ Coyle for a 79-yard TD and Hobby returned a punt 40 yards for a score.
Cornell wasn’t the athlete that Hobby was, but Hobby wasn’t the student that Cornell was. Cornell was in the college of architecture, which even in the 1950s wasn’t compatible with the demands of football. Hobby often would try to talk Cornell into skipping a class so they could play golf; Hobby was successful enough that Cornell, 55 years later, still remembers the punishments dealt for such crimes.
After that Orange Bowl, Cornell would start three more games in his OU career, winning them all.
Cornell and Hobby were quality enough men that they impressed their coaches. In 1963, Wilkinson added Cornell to his staff. In 1964, after Gomer Jones was promoted to succeed Wilkinson, Hobby was added to the staff. Hobby recruited Eddie Hinton to the Sooners; Cornell recruited Ron Shotts.
Those days as coaching colleagues sealed their friendship, so it didn’t wane even when Gomer Jones was fired and both Cornell and Hobby got out of coaching. Cornell joined an Oklahoma City architecture firm, and Hobby went into banking.
Cornell would stop by the First National Bank in Norman and they’d go outside for a smoke. They’d chat about the Orange Bowl and those old golf games and working for Gomer Jones. And then in 2000, everything changed.
* * *
The stroke didn’t get Cornell down. Stan Ward came to the hospital and wrote “CAN DO” on the whiteboard in Cornell’s room. When Medicare’s rehab payments expired, Cornell’s teammates stepped in. David Baker, whose suspension gave Cornell his Orange Bowl chance, came three days a week to work out Cornell, though Baker soon fell ill himself and died in 2002. Hobby came twice a week and had Cornell walking a quarter of a block or so.
Cornell’s speech was returning. The old teammates were optimistic that Cornell would get better and better.
Then in 2002, Cornell suffered a broken hip and had to have hip replacement surgery. “Ruined me,” Cornell said.
The progress stopped. Hobby’s visits didn’t. In fact, for awhile, Hobby came three times a week to work out his quarterback. They found that such a regimen was too grueling, so they cut back to twice weekly.
Twelve years later, Hobby still is coming.
Hobby retired in 2002 and has dedicated his retirement to helping people. Norman’s Meals on Wheels program. Bethel Baptist Church’s nursing home ministry. Driving people to doctor’s visits. Helping out an old golfing partner who could use a hand to squeeze.
“A saint,” Cornell says of Hobby. “He does so many things for people.”
Hobby bristled at the saint reference.
“He impresses me,” Hobby said of Cornell. “He works out but he really hurts. If you ever get to feeling sorry for yourself, look at how he hangs in there. Makes you feel ashamed of yourself. His work ethic, his toughness, he deserves to get better.”
Indeed, Cornell has shown fortitude.
He has written two books and would like to get them published. One is an inspirational story of his battle since the stroke. Cornell has entitled it “CAN DO,” after the words Stan Ward wrote on that whiteboard so long ago.
And Cornell took up painting. He had painted a little before the stroke. He knew colors and shadows. “I had to have something to do,” Cornell said. “I was laying in bed all the time. My daughter said, ‘Get up and do something.’ Cornell’s wife got him a canvas.
The first picture Cornell painted was of Quentin Griffin scoring the game’s only touchdown against Florida State in the national championship Orange Bowl. And today, in OU’s Prentice Gautt Academic Center, hangs a portrait of the namesake, painted by the left hand of Gautt’s right-handed Orange Bowl quarterback.
“Prays for his friends, makes calls, he’s a very encouraging, positive person,” Ward said of Cornell. “He’s in a lot worse shape than they are, but he’s always concerned about them. Tells you a lot about his resolve.”
Cornell doesn’t get out much. His mobility is limited, and he’s susceptible to disease. Cornell’s wife still works to ease the money burden, but old Sooners haven’t forgotten the ’59 Orange Bowl quarterback. Ward comes by. So does Ronnie Fletcher, a quarterback at OU when Cornell coached. Oil man Jakie Sandefer, the other halfback in that glorious photo, has helped Cornell financially.
And every Tuesday and Thursday, and other days when something else is needed, comes that halfback who Cornell first saw at Midwest City’s Rose Field in 1955.
Cornell shakes his head and fights back the tears when he talks about Hobby coming to stretch that arm and lift that leg and squeeze that hand.
“You can’t lay there,” Cornell said. “If you do, you’ll die.”
Cornell’s daughter has watched Hobby with her father all these years.
“It’s like they’re on the football field,” Kim Cornell said. “‘You gotta do this.’ It’s really, really special. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve never changed. It’s a beautiful relationship. They always end with kind of a huddle … always pray together.”
What has made Hobby so faithful? What has made Hobby so committed? What has made Hobby determined to remain a teammate, 55 years later?
“There’s a relationship that goes with guys you play with at the University of Oklahoma,” Hobby said. “There’s a natural love and mutual respect for all the guys you went through that stuff with.
“A lot of guys today, you may not see for a year or two. But you get together, it’s like yesterday. It stays with you.”
The old friends share a story. Back in school days, about 10 p.m. one night, Hobby banged on Cornell’s door. “I’m in bad trouble,” Hobby told him. “Will you help me?” Seems as if 30 mechanical drawings were due in an industrial arts class the next day. Hobby didn’t have the first clue what to do.
Cornell, the architectural student, knew he could figure it out. “Well, give me the book,” Cornell said. “I’ll do ’em.” He stayed up until 4 a.m., completing the drawings. Hobby passed the class.
“He’s paid me back, believe me,” said the quarterback who no longer can grip a football but can squeeze a helping hand.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.