Oct. 31, 2012
Once Vanderbilt tackle Art Demmas (1952-53, 1955-56) gave up his back and gold football uniform he donned the black and white of a high school, college and NFL official. Demmas would be an official in four Super Bowls, but it all began at Vanderbilt after becoming a highly recruited prep player from St. Louis.
"I may have been the most recruited player out of St. Louis because I had two older brothers that preceded me and they were all-stars and recruited," Demmas said recently from his Nashville home. "I was the third coming when I came along. I made All-American in high school football and I visited everything from Miami, to the West Coast, to Notre Dame and Illinois. I must have had 50 offers."
Demmas was recruited by Vanderbilt head football coach Bill Edwards and said he chose the Commodores due to the charm of the people taking care of him on his visit to Nashville. He said he was at a fraternity party sitting in a corner watching everyone having a good time. He thought Vanderbilt had the spirit of what a college should be and he just fell in love with the campus.
Vanderbilt was coming off records of 7-4 (3-4 SEC) and 6-5 (3-5 SEC) before Demmas attended his first practices as a freshman in 1952. He was 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds.
"Those first few days of practices were hot," said Demmas. "You know when we had that hot spell this past summer? That was the way it was in pads and full equipment. The coaching mentality was if you don't sweat and get exhausted you aren't getting a good workout. We had guys passing out on the practice field. I was recruited as a tackle, and played guard as well. My prime spot was tackle, but back then you were recruited to play offense and defense, which I liked a lot. I liked it that you could be in the game on both sides of the ball."
The Commodores were 3-5-2 (1-4-1 SEC) in Demmas' first collegiate season where he earned his first letter. Victories came over Florida, Washington & Lee and Miami (Fla.). Tied games were recorded with Northwestern and Mississippi.
"I didn't start, but I'd got into some games even though I was a lowly, third-team guard," Demmas said. "But we were playing Tennessee and they had this big All-American named Doug Atkins. I remember sitting way down on the bench thinking I'm safe down here. I don't have to go in, the score is getting out of hand a little bit. The guy sitting next to me said if he got into the game he would know how to handle him. He got called into the game and on the first play Doug Atkins picked him up and threw him down like a wet dishcloth. He came out of the game starry eyed with a limp."
In February, Edwards resigned and joined the staff at North Carolina and Art Guepe arrived to begin a new era of football at Vanderbilt. Guepe was a successful head coach at Virginia.
"Usually you didn't analyze who was the best coach," said Demmas. "We loved Coach Edwards and then we had Coach Guepe coming in from Virginia. The previous year in the 1952 season we got waxed by Virginia in Charlottesville. We thought maybe that change might be a good thing for us. He came in and did a pretty good job."
In 1953, the Commodores were 3-7 (1-5 SEC) with the wins against Virginia, Tulane and MTSU. The season began with four straight losses and the opener was a 13-7 loss at Pennsylvania.
"I was on the kickoff team that day," Demmas said. "Our fullback told me that their tackle, Joe Veraties, was going after me on the opening kickoff. I was already nervous and that didn't help. On the kickoff, we all ran down the field and collided. Veraties was at the bottom of the pile and knocked out. He missed the whole game."
One bright spot for Demmas in 1953 was having his brother Con start on the line with him. This was the only season that his older brother would appear as a Commodore football player.
"That last year Con was at Illinois he was on the Rose Bowl team," said Demmas. "He heard about the Vanderbilt law school and we came down together on the train in 1952 to Vanderbilt. We went through the Vanderbilt years together, but the last few he was in law school. We played at the same time. We started on the line together one season. He was the right guard and I was the right tackle. We are of Greek descendants and when we played Alabama we made up our own signals.
"If there was a defender playing tight or tough to handle, one of us would say in Greek `ton exo' that means I've got him. Or one of us would say `mazee' that means together [for a double team]. We were doing that throughout the game and we loss to them that day. And there was this one guy that played across us. At the end of the game that guy came up to us as we were walking off the field. He said, `I think I should introduce myself. My name is Nick Germanos.' He was Greek. He understood everything we said during the game."
Demmas was forced to watch the 1954 season from the sidelines as a preseason practice injury resulted in torn knee ligaments, which kept him from playing. The Commodores dropped their first seven games that season to record a 2-7 (1-5 SEC) season. The only two victories ended the season with Villanova and heavily favored Tennessee at home.
"It was a practice injury, but I wanted to play," said Demmas. "I missed all of 1954, but I really didn't miss it since I was on the practice field everyday. I could have played, but they kept me out until they needed me. I was limping around pretty good, and they didn't use me. I had a torn ligament that came back okay. I never had surgery. They knew I was ready to play. I was scrimmaging with the first team and I was probably playing my best football because I wanted to prove to them I could play."
The 1955 season would prove historic leading to Vanderbilt's first bowl invitation. The Commodores were 8-3 (4-3 SEC) with a heartbreaking loss to Georgia in Athens in the first game, 14-13. Vanderbilt was leading 13-0 in the second half. Could Demmas and his teammates predict that successful season?
"Yes we did," said Demmas. "We lost some close games in the previous year. We came in together as a group and recruited as a group. In 1952, when they recruited us to Vanderbilt, they just picked up anybody they could to come in. They had something like 70 or 80 freshmen. It was survival of the fittest. From that group only 11 of us stayed, played and graduated.
"We went down to play Georgia where it was incredibly hot. I lost 22 pounds from that game. Of course, it was all water weight. We beat them in every way, but on the scoreboard. We had a missed extra that cost us the ball game. We lost 14-13. We missed an easy field goal that would have won the game. One of our assistant coaches, Bob Cummings, called us in when we came to practice on Monday. Of course, everybody was disappointed. He told us we lost a close game. He said, `do you feel like you gave 100 percent?' I said, `coach, I lost 22 pounds. I gave 22 pounds that's all I had.'"
After beginning that season 1-2, the Commodores won seven of the final eight games on the schedule. Victories came over Alabama, Chattanooga, MTSU, Virginia, No. 17 Kentucky, Tulane and Florida. The season ended with a loss to No. 19 Tennessee in Knoxville.
"I think it was the individuals and team gaining spirit together," Demmas said. "We just felt good together. I remember the Kentucky game; they had a right halfback named Dick Moloney. One of our coaches picked up in scouting that Moloney adjusted his feet in such a way you could tell if the play was going to the right or to the left. If he dropped his right foot back, that meant the play was going that way. If he dropped his left foot, the play was going to other way. During the game you could hear yelling from our sideline, `don't hurt Moloney.'
"Of course, we would call our slant on defense and we stifled them. We beat them 34-0. Afterwards they interviewed him since they were ranked nationally. He said, `all I can tell you is I had nothing to do with the 34 points that Vanderbilt scored. I was on offense.' I got to know him later at a function and told him about tipping to us, which way the play was going. He said he heard something about that, but insisted he had nothing to do with the 34 points we scored."
In the Virginia game, a 34-0 win at Dudley Field, Demmas recorded his only offensive point as a kicker.
"That was the Virginia game and we were riding high," Demmas said. "We lost our kicker Tommy Woodroof who hurt his foot. Now we start arguing in the huddle who is going to kick the extra points. When we scored that last touchdown to make it 33-0, we said, `who's going to kick the extra point?' I told them I had first dibs on that. I got to kick and made it. As I told everybody the impact of us winning 34-0 was terrific versus 33-0."
In the loss to the rival Vols, Vandy quarterback Don Orr dislocated his elbow in the fourth quarter with the Commodores leading, 14-7. UT rallied for a 20-14 win. Heading into the Tennessee game, the Sugar and Cotton Bowls expressed interest in having Vanderbilt in their games. The Vols loss ended those bowl options, but the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville did want the Commodores against No. 8 Auburn.
"We were coming back from that heartbreaking loss at Tennessee," Demmas said. "We beat them every way, but the scoreboard. They had a big tight end that made some circus catches. We knew we were bowl bound and thought we were definitely going to the Sugar Bowl. We were on the bus coming home from Knoxville when Coach Guepe came down the aisle and spoke to some of the seniors. He said if we get a bowl invitation are you guys ready for it? We said, `heck yes, wherever it is.' He believed we had a bid. The next day he told us in a meeting we were invited to play Auburn in the Gator Bowl.
The issue of their quarterback's injury would have an effect on the competitiveness of Vanderbilt's first bowl game against a nationally ranked team and fellow member of the SEC.
"Don moved his books down to the training room to work with Joe Worden our trainer," said Demmas. "Don was the only one that knew he was going to play. We all thought he was too hurt. He had his right elbow dislocated and that arm was hanging down pretty good. For him to be ready to play would be at that time out of the question.
"He took his books down there, slept down there, did whirlpool treatments and of course went with us to Jacksonville for the game. Somehow he was able to play. Guepe announced the starting lineup and said if we win the toss and receive, Don Orr will be in at quarterback. That just blew us away. We couldn't believe it. Boy did he ever have a great day against Auburn."
Vanderbilt won the game, 25-13 and Orr was the game's MVP. Running back Joe Stephenson ran for seven yards and a TD after receiving a pass from Orr. In the second quarter, Orr rushed four yards into the end zone while the PAT failed. Orr added a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the third quarter and Charley Horton's six-pointer came from a yard out in the final period. The two extra points failed.
"I remember getting down to the goal line early in the game," Demmas said. "They had a tough guy named Earnest Dangjean and then another guy that was an All-American Frank D 'Agonsino. We decided to hit [Vandy running back] Phil King right up the middle and over me. When I fired off the line at this guy it was like hitting a brick wall. I just pulled on him and created a gap. I should have gotten called for holding. King went in for the touchdown.
"Everybody would put up a dollar and whoever made the tackle on the kickoff got the eleven dollars. On the opening kickoff everybody flew down the field, and we all could see eleven dollars on that receiver. I mean Larry Hayes came down like a bolt of lightening and nailed that receiver down deep. The problem was there was a flag and somebody was offside.
"As we lined up for the re-kick Hayes says, `hey, I still get my eleven bucks. I made the tackle.' We said it was a no play penalty so we have to do it over. That's what we were arguing about on the field was the eleven dollars. Sure enough we kicked off again and sure enough there go Hayes flying down the field and he does it again. He nailed the guy again deep. He got his eleven bucks."
The following season, expectations were high as the Commodores prepared for the season with Demmas and Orr selected as co-captains. They started the season with three wins over Georgia, (No. 15) Chattanooga and (No. 18) Alabama. A pair of losses followed with Ole Miss and Florida, then two victories over MTSU and Virginia. Losses to Kentucky, Tulane and Tennessee ended the season at 5-5.
"Alabama wasn't the Alabama that they later developed into," said Demmas. "Orr injured his knee and missed some games that season. Our group came together and that was when Don Orr came back on the field. Then we could play. Losing your quarterback who is a key player slowed us down that season."
Demmas graduated from Vanderbilt and went through the ROTC program. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the U.S. Army Intelligence detail. Demmas opted for an eight-year term, which was six months active duty and seven-and-a-half years active reserve.
Demmas said that Green Bay and Chicago contacted him about playing in the NFL, but he said playing professional football was, "not in the cards for me." He continued his passion for football by becoming a high school official in 1958 in Nashville.
"Dave Scobey [former Vanderbilt athlete] who used to be our vice-mayor, invited Don Orr and me to a state meeting of officials. We just fell into it. They gave us a freshman schedule. My first game was a Montgomery Bell Academy freshman game. We worked high school for a couple of years and then we went into the SEC. Coach Guepe strongly recommended us to the SEC. Having played four years gave us a good name recognition. They knew who Orr and Demmas were. I think it helped that we played in the SEC. The coaches in the conference voted on whom to bring in as new officials."
Demmas was an official in the SEC for eight years that had a policy you couldn't officiate your alma mater. But Demmas did officiate Vanderbilt football scrimmages. Demmas also was active in football related organizations in Nashville. He recalls one special guest at one of these functions.
"I was part of the Quarterback Club that started in the 1950s and once we had [Paul] Bear Bryant as a speaker," said Demmas. "We had a dinner at the University Club at Vanderbilt. Bryant was knocking down a couple of drinks and I kept bringing him some refreshments. I told some others that we were going to have a problem. Coach Bryant had a couple of heavy drinks.
"I said, `Coach, we need to go in to the head table.' He said before I go get me a double. I got him a drink and thought we were about to lose our speaker. I told him I'd take his drink in for him, but he said no and knocked it down. I didn't know what was going to happen. We introduced him. He got up and made a terrific talk when I thought it was going to be a disaster."
Demmas began officiating in 1968 for the American Football League. When the AFL officially merged with the NFL in 1970, Demmas was included as an official. Demmas recalls an incident with a flamboyant New York Jets quarterback famous for his white cleats.
"The Jets were playing Denver and Joe Namath was upset when they didn't call interference downfield," Demmas said. "Of course, I wasn't involved with the play since I was an umpire. I was the closest to him wearing a striped shirt. He started hollering at me saying it was interference. I told him it wasn't my call. Namath said to me, `I hate you.' I told him I couldn't fault his opinion, but I liked him. He didn't curse me, but he knew what he was saying."
Demmas would officiate in three conference championship games and four Super Bowls all as an umpire. He will never forget Super Bowl XIII his first. The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Miami. Demmas threw a "block" that helped the Steelers to a victory.
"That's what they joked," said Demmas. "Franco Harris went up the middle and Dallas' safety Charlie Waters came up for the tackle. And there I am. He ran into me and Franco went off on that contact and ran for a touchdown. The officials are part of the playing field and sometimes that's the way it goes. It was Terry Bradshaw against Roger Staubach and what a show those two put on. That was one of the best Super Bowls ever.
The Steelers won the contest, 35-31. The Demmas-Waters collision freed Harris for a 22-yard touchdown sprint and a 28-17 Pittsburgh lead. Demmas also officiated Super Bowl's XVII (Washington 27, Minnesota 17), XXV (Giants 20, Buffalo 19) and XXVIII (Dallas 52, Buffalo 17).
Demmas was close by when Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds against New York that would have won the game.
"The ball went right over my head," said Demmas. "As the umpire, I'm three to five yards back from the line of scrimmage. My job on the field goal was to make sure there was no holding. There was a snap; kick and I didn't know if it was a good or bad kick until I heard the crowd. It was wide right forever."
Demmas has seen some great plays in his NFL officiating career. He was asked to recall one of those plays.
"I do recall Marcus Allen of the Raiders," said Demmas. "He was incredible. He kept his balance on a run up the middle. The play started on about the 10-yard line going in. He burst up through there and was so low guys trying to hit him were going over the top. He just kept his balance for 10 yards and made it in the end zone for a touchdown. That always stuck in my mind how he stayed so low to the ground."
Being on the field as an official during a professional football game might be difficult to hold your concentration. Watching these great athletes performing all around you could change your focus.
"I've been asked many times how do you maintain your concentration," said Demmas. "I say how can you not maintain your concentration? I thought I was born to officiate. I just loved being in those situations. I'd say bring it on, whatever it is I'd be ready for it. That was my mental outlook. I didn't have any trouble focusing as a player or as an official. I loved being out there doing my job and calling the game."
During most of Demmas' career he was in the insurance business when he was not wearing the zebra stripes. Demmas has been involved with the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. Thirty years ago Demmas started the South Region Chapter of the NFF. Demmas has always been involved in football promoting the game and spreading the growth of his foundation throughout the southeast. He retired as an NFL official in 1996 after 28 years. In 1997, Demmas was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
So when was it time for Demmas to retire as an NFL official?
"For some reason it was easy," said Demmas. "I told the supervisor of officials at that time Art McNally. I worked a playoff game in Denver and told him, `I'm hanging them up.' He said no I've got you down for next year. I said I was through. He said in that case I want to talk to you about working in the league office, which I did. I commuted to New York for a year after I retired. I did the work supervisors did in grading the film, going to games as an observer and turning in reports on the officiating. I've seen it from both ends."
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Now available in Nashville bookstores is Traughber's book on Vanderbilt Basketball History. The book is "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History."