|Sports||Football, Track & Field|
Howard Debus was making a name for himself during his sophomore year at Lincoln High.
He had starred on the football team in the fall and had played basketball in the winter.
In the spring, Debus was practicing for track season at Memorial Stadium when Henry Schulte approached. The Nebraska track coach handed him a discus and told him to “get to work.”
It was good advice.
Debus went on twice to set national high school records in the event and later won an NCAA championship.
He first made a splash playing football. He led Lincoln High teams to a 23-1-1 record during his three seasons with varsity, excelling as a passer while playing fullback in a single-wing formation.
He threw 20 touchdown passes, ran for 15, kicked extra points and field goals and averaged nearly 40 yards on punts. Fritz Daly of The World-Herald in 1939 called him “as able a passer as Nebraska high school ranks have ever seen.”
Debus also played basketball and was all-state in American Legion baseball, with his team advancing as far as the Western sectional of the national Legion tournament.
But his best sport was track and field.
He broke the state record in the javelin his junior year with a toss of 190 feet, surpassing the previous mark by more than 6 feet. And he was winning meets in the pole vault and shot put as well.
As a senior, he won four gold medals at the state track meet (discus, shot, javelin and pole vault) and single-handedly nearly doubled the point total of the second-place team in the World-Herald’s all-class championship totals.
“To some extent, it was difficult from the point of rest,” he said years later. “I didn’t have much time between events, but I didn’t think about it.”
His marks in the discus and pole vault were state-meet records, with the discus mark standing for 24 years.
Legendary Lincoln High coach Ralph Beechner called Debus “the greatest all-around athlete I ever saw.”
Debus was able to continue competing at the University of Nebraska during World War II while he completed officers training for the U.S. Navy.
He played football and was later selected in the NFL draft, but again he made bigger headlines in track and field.
In the spring of 1943, he was struggling with the discus at meets. World-Herald sports editor Floyd Olds speculated that it was because he was hurrying after hearing his name called for the pole vault.
He didn’t qualify for the pole vault for the NCAA meet in Chicago in June, however. No longer rushed, he went on to win the discus and finish second in the javelin and sixth in the shot put. His total of 19 points was enough to earn a sixth-place finish for Nebraska, which qualified no other team members for the meet.
A knee injury resulted in him being discharged from service in 1944 and kept him from competing in his senior year.
Debus had no regrets in looking back on his athletic career.
“We were very poor and it seemed athletics were about the only way of getting some kind of recognition,” he said.
Played for: Lincoln High and Nebraska Cornhuskers
Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: Played high school football at Lincoln High with Eddie Schwartzkopf and Vic Schleich, who also played on the Huskers' 1941 Rose Bowl team
Best moment as an athlete: Winning four gold medals at the 1940 state track meet
Debus was No. 52 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »