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Oct. 8, 1999

The players wore thin, plastic helmets with no face masks. They played on a field with wide H-shaped goal posts and in a stadium that only held 22,000 spectators. This was Virginia football 50 years ago, and the warriors who competed on the field did it simply because they loved the game. A player who epitomized this style of hard-nosed football was former defensive guard Joe Palumbo. A member of the 1949-1951 football squads, Palumbo is one of the most respected and honored players in school history. During his career at Virginia, the Cavaliers posted an impressive 23-5 record. The success UVa experienced during Palumbo’s career was due in part to a unique situation following World War II. “We had an abundance of talent that had not been used particularly because of the war,” said Palumbo. “A lot of these players were a little bit older and more experienced, and they gave the younger players good advice. Everybody was there to show their best effort and to put their best foot forward. It was a joyful experience to be a part of several really good football teams.”

During Palumbo’s senior year, the Cavaliers finished the season with an 8-1 record and received an invitation to play in the Cotton Bowl. “In those days they just had a few bowl games and to be picked [to a bowl game] was a real honor,” said Palumbo. “It was a real big surprise to all of us, because we had no idea anybody was looking at us.”

The University of Virginia felt its football team should not participate in the Cotton Bowl to avoid earning the reputation of being a “big time athletic” school. When head coach Art Guepe announced the University’s decision, Palumbo remembers the team’s reaction. “We were denied the opportunity to go by our own school. We weren’t really happy campers about it, but we had to understand why they did it,” he said.

Though not being allowed to play in the Cotton Bowl was a minor setback, Palumbo experienced an otherwise near perfect career at Virginia. As captain of the 1951 team, he earned first-team All-America honors and was named the state of Virginia’s Athlete of the Year. Palumbo is considered the best defensive guard to ever wear the orange and blue, yet it’s a distinction he finds very unfitting. “Number one I don’t believe it, and number two there have been players way beyond my caliber before and after me,” he said.

Despite such humility, Palumbo also ranks as one of only six Cavalier football players to have his jersey number (48) retired. He admits his teammates played a big part in his success. “I think a lot of it has to do with the people who play next to you,” said Palumbo. “You win or you lose according to their talent too. I was lucky that I got a few honors, but if there are any honors they should go to the whole team and the coaching staff.

Last spring, Palumbo received one of college football’s highest honors when he was elected to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. He joins former Virginia stand outs Tom Scott and Bill Dudley as the third Cavalier to be distinguished as one of college football’s greatest players. “To be in that group of elite football players is certainly an honor for me,” said Palumbo. “It was a big surprise and I am very humbled that they would choose a person of my caliber, since I am not 6’5 and don’t weigh 275 pounds.”

Even with all his accolades, Palumbo refrains from measuring success in terms of personal accomplishments. Instead, he always sees the big picture and concentrates on how well a person contributes towards the team’s ultimate goal. “You’ve got to be part of the program and you can’t be isolated and do only what you think you should do,” he said. “It’s a football team and everybody must pay attention to the plan and play accordingly.”

Though Palumbo achieved tremendous success on the field, he remains extremely proud of the fact he graduated from the University of Virginia. He never allows his football accomplishments to overshadow the distinction of receiving a Virginia degree. “Coming from a school like Virginia is a very important part of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other school in the country. Virginia graduates are considered special compared to a lot of schools and I feel honored to have gotten my degree and become part of that special category,” he said.

Virginia football has changed a great deal over the past 50 years, yet the respect and admiration for Virginia standout Joe Palumbo remains the same. Though no Cavalier will ever again take the field wearing number 48, the memory of Palumbo as one of Virginia’s greatest players will not soon be forgotten.

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