By Tom Mattingly
When Buddy Cruze, a University of Tennessee All-American wide receiver in 1956, died on March 10, 2018, many long-time fans could recall great moments from his time at Tennessee.
Buddy was 84 when he died, but the memories of his days on Shields-Watkins Field and other venues across the Southeastern Conference (SEC) have not dimmed in the slightest. He played at 6-3, 184 pounds, not only at wide receiver, but at defensive back as well, wearing No. 86.
He was a Knoxville native, playing at Knox High in that school’s final year, but also in the early days of the city’s East High School. He was a talented prep athlete, earning All-State and All-American honors in both football and basketball.
Cruze set numerous state high school records during his prep career. His records included most points scored in the tournament (106), most free throws made in a game (10), most points scored in one game (47), and most rebounds in one game (25). His record for most points in a single game stood for 41 years before being broken.
After a season at SMU, he returned to Tennessee, where he was a starting wide receiver under head coach Bowden Wyatt in 1955 and 1956. He and teammates John Gordy and John Majors were featured in Sports Illustrated Sept. 10, 1956, pre-season football issue.
Cruze led the team in receptions in 1955 and 1956, with 12 catches for 232 yards and four scores his junior season and 20 catches for 357 yards and two scores in his senior season. He was the school’s all-time record holder for both receptions and yardage after his senior season was etched in the record books. His record for single-season catches lasted until being broken by Hal Wantland (21) in 1964 and his mark for single-season yardage until 1966, topped by Johnny Mills (725).
“He was my No. 1 receiver and a great friend, one of the greatest athletes ever developed in the state of Tennessee,” said Majors. “When Buddy and I got together, it was hard for either one of us to get a word in edgewise. My ego never got out of control when Buddy was around.”
Cruze recalled that Majors threw the ball “end over end, and I had the option to catch either end.”
Cruze had his finest moments as a Vol in the 1955 Vanderbilt game, a 20-14 Vol victory over the No. 19-ranked Commodores, and the 1956 contest against Georgia Tech, a 6-0 Tennessee win. The Vols were 6-3-1 in 1955 and 10-1 in 1956.
In the Nov. 27, 1955, edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the day after the Vanderbilt game, sports editor Bob Wilson called Cruze the “greatest all-around football player on the field that afternoon.” Cruze played all 60 minutes, caught two touchdown passes from Majors, and had a leaping 39-yard catch that led to the first Vol score. He also recovered a fumble.
“Out-of-this-world catches by Buddy Cruze and Bill Anderson on passes thrown by Tailbacks Johnny Majors and Al Carter turned the tide of an old-time blood battle between the two ancient rivals,” Wilson wrote.
The 1956 Georgia Tech game was played on Nov. 10 at Grant Field in Atlanta and attracted national media attention. As No. 3 Tennessee battled the No. 2 Yellow Jackets, Cruze was involved in the game’s two pivotal plays.
The game was scoreless just after halftime when the Vols struck quickly.
Majors and Cruze connected twice for 61 yards on the game’s pivotal drive. “It was the great passing combination of Majors to Buddy Cruze that broke the game open in the third quarter,” wrote Harold Harris in the next morning’s News-Sentinel. “Majors hit Cruze with a pass, and the Knoxville youth raced 24 yards to the one-foot line from where Tommy Bronson ran over on the next play for the only score of the game.”
The game was featured in the Nov. 19, 1956, issue of Life magazine (“Unbeaten Giants—Something Had to Crack”), with a picture of Majors unloading the pass to Cruze that set up Bronson’s touchdown run.
Cruze was a 1988 selection into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame and a 2007 inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into Knoxville‘s East High School Alumni Association Hall of Fame in 2012.
“He was my hero. I wanted to be like Buddy Cruze,” said Knoxville’s Jim Smelcher, a Tennessee teammate in 1955 and 1956. “He had more character than any man I’d ever seen. He was a strong Christian, a tremendous person.”