Nalley perfected punt returns, shattered records

Oct. 23, 2013

From left to right: Bill Wade, Lee Nalley, Preacher Franklin and Buford (Baby) Ray

Commodore History Corner Archive

Lee Nalley (1947-49) was such an awesome punt returner for Vanderbilt that he was given the nickname "Long Gone" Nalley. After leaving the Commodores, Nalley held these SEC records:

Most Yards Returned in a Game--203 (6 returns) vs. Kentucky 1948 (also NCAA record)
Most Yards Returned in a Season: 791 in 1948 (also NCAA record)
Most Yards Returned in a Career: 1,708 in 1947-49
Most Touchdown Returns in a Season: 3 in 1948
Most Touchdown Returns in a Career: 5 in 1947-49

In a November 1983 interview with Tony Neely of the Vanderbilt Sports Information Department, the legend of "Long Gone" Nalley is revealed with this interview and story.

Time has turned the blond hair to gray.

The legs, which once ran 100 yards in less than 10 seconds now walk at a slower pace.

The march of time, however, can not diminish the accomplishments of Lee "Long Gone" Nalley, the most prolific punt return artist in college history.

It was 35 autumns ago, in 1948, that the Vanderbilt flash returned 43 punts for 791 yards, the highest single season yardage total in the NCAA record books. His three-year total of 1,695 yards is also the most in collegiate annals.

And it was also 35 years ago that Nalley enjoyed the greatest game of his career. In one afternoon against Kentucky, the man also known as 'Lightning Lee' returned six punts for 203 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown gallop.

Now 58 years old, and the manager of a Spartanburg, S.C., man-made fiber company, Nalley still remembers that golden day clearly.

"The Kentucky game was a great day for us," he recalls. "There was a big rivalry between Coach (Red) Sanders and (Kentucky coach) Bear Bryant, so we wanted to win very badly.

"George Blanda was punting for Kentucky that day. He was booting them far downfield, which allowed me to get started."

Early in the second quarter, Nalley took a Blanda punt on the 12-yard line and ran it 88 yards to break a scoreless tie. The return sparked the Commodores to a 26-7 win and the team rallied from that point to win its last eight games of the season after starting the campaign with two losses and a tie.

Nalley was "long gone" three times that season and had five punt return touchdowns in his career, both of which are still Southeastern Conference records. He also returned a kickoff and an interception for touchdowns while at Vanderbilt.

It is somewhat amazing that Nalley ever played college football. After graduating from Nashville's Central High School in 1943, he spent two years in the Navy and returned to Vanderbilt in 1946. At a mere 5-9 and 161 pounds, he had to make the team as a walk-on. Nalley compensated for his lack of size with speed, guile, and determination.

"I ran the 100 (yard dash) in 9.9 seconds, which was pretty fair for that time, and I had a good change of pace," Nalley says. "We did an awful lot of work (in practice) on punt returns. Once we found out we could make good yardage with it everybody worked hard to make it go. The linemen always hustled back to help block.

"The main object was to start up the middle and run at them as long as you could, then cut outside behind the wall."

Elmore "Scoop" Hudgins, longtime Vanderbilt publicist who now works in the same capacity for the Hall of Fame Bowl, remembers Nalley well.

"Lee was the best punter returner I ever saw," Scoop says. "He used to trick people into kicking it away from him. He'd stand by the sideline and when they punt to the other sideline he would already be over there to catch the ball and the blocking would be set up.

"Something that nobody ever remembers is what a great safety he was. They didn't throw so many passes back then but he was a great pass defender and his speed gave his tackling extra strength."

Neither Hudgins nor Nalley remembers where the nickname "Long Gone" originated, but the safety was quite popular and was given much credit for an increased average attendance of 5,000 fans per game during his years.

"The fans used to chant `long gone, long gone' when the other team had to punt. That always got me hopped up," Nalley remembers with a chuckle.

Nalley considered a professional offer from the Chicago Bears, but declined after breaking his jaw and losing several teeth in an injury sustained in the North-South Shrine Bowl. Ironically, Nalley returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown in that game but it was his swan song as a football player.

He graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in physics, then spent two more years in the Navy during the Korean War. After the war, he coached high school football for three years, worked 10 years for Tennessee Eastman, and has worked since 1965 for Phillips Fibers.

As a plant manager, he directs production of man-made fibers that have diversified uses in the automotive, industrial, and geo-textile industries.

Nalley is settled in Spartanburg, S.C., with his wife Ann. They have three grown children.

"I think I've slowed down considerably since my college days," Nalley laughs. "I play golf but I don't watch a lot of football. I'd rather be a participant than a spectator. I'm 58 years old. It's hard to believe the years tick by. It's been eight or nine years since I've been to Nashville. I still follow Vanderbilt very closely."

It is, indeed hard to believe how time slips away. The years many be "Long Gone" but Lee Nalley will always be etched in our memories and the record books.

Nalley currently holds the Vanderbilt record for punt returns in a single-season for average (18.4); career punt return yards (1,708); most punt returns in a single season (43); most punt returns in a career (112); most punt returns in a single game (8, tied); most return yards in a single season (791); most return yards in a single game (203); most punt returns for TDs in a season (3) and a career (5).

Nalley continues to hold the SEC and NCAA single-season record for most punt return yards in a season (791). After college, he coached and taught at Nashville's Duncan prep school and then at Gallatin High School. In the summer at 1951, Nalley was called back to the Navy and spent 24 months in Officers Candidate School in Rhode Island. Nalley worked in the Atlanta school system and coached and was athletic director at The Westminster School in Atlanta and after completing his Navy duties. Nalley died in 2003 in Rocky Mount, N.C.

Traughber's Tidbit: Former SMU all-American and 11-year NFL player Kyle Rote almost was a Commodore. In the summer of 1947, the Texas-born Rote attended classes at Vanderbilt for two weeks. Then Rote went "missing" for a short period and was located on the campus of SMU. Vanderbilt football players reported taking telephone calls for Rote on the one payphone in Kissam Hall the men's dormitory. One of those calls was from the office of the Texas governor.

Also missing was Vanderbilt Head Coach Red Sanders' automobile that Rote borrowed supposedly for a date. Sanders did receive this message from Rote, "I'm sorry things didn't work out at Vanderbilt. Everybody there was very nice to me, but I've decided to come home to school. Your car is at Union Station." Rote was homesick as he acknowledged that his Texas friends and family, including the governor of Texas, did persuade him to move home. Rote was enshrined into the National College Hall of Fame in 1964.

If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber at



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