Even as his health declined in recent years and Alzheimer's disease robbed him of his quick wit, iconic college football coach Darrell Royal remained a towering figure to former Texas Longhorns All-American Tommy Nobis.
Nobis, a 1962 Jefferson High School graduate who settled in Atlanta after his NFL playing career with the Falcons ended in 1976, never missed an opportunity to visit Royal whenever he was in Austin.
"I saw him just about a year ago," Nobis said Monday. "Even though I saw him laid up in bed, I still felt like I was talking to Coach Darrell Royal. The way he answered things and his mannerisms were the same. I still saw that spirit in him and he still had that presence about him. I certainly didn't think that was the last time I would ever see him."
Royal died of complications from cardiovascular disease at age 88 last Wednesday in Austin, where he had lived since his first season at UT in 1957. Royal's health had deteriorated quickly after a recent fall at an assisted living center, where he lived with his wife, Edith.
Nobis flew to San Antonio with his wife, Lynn, on Monday and planned to drive to Austin for Royal's memorial service, scheduled for noon Tuesday at UT's Erwin Center. Royal, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in a private service Mondy.
Nobis, 69, received word of Royal's death in a phone call from former UT teammate Ron Landry.
"It certainly was very similar to when my father died," Nobis said. "When somebody has been so special in your life and you've had such a meaningful relationship with that person, you just never want to lose something like that. I'm going to miss Coach Royal very much.
"We communicated often and saw each other three or four times a year. He sometimes reminded me of the times he had to pick me up off the ground and point me in the right direction. He was a father away from home for me. I had one of the best dads ever, but when it came those years when I was away in college, those years that make or break people, he was the boss."
Nobis starred on 1963 UT team that won national title
Long after his career at UT ended, Nobis never stopped addressing Royal as "Coach."
"I felt awkward to call him by his first name because of the overall respect I had for the man," Nobis said. "He was always the coach. That's what he was to me. He ended up being a big part of my life."
Royal coached the Longhorns for 20 seasons, leading them to two national championships, a share of a third and 11 Southwest Conference titles.
He went 167-47-5 at UT from 1957-76, the best record in the nation during that span, and never had a losing season. Royal was only 32 when he succeeded Ed Price, who resigned after the Longhorns finished 1-9 in 1956.
Nobis starred as a linebacker and offensive guard on the 1963 UT team that won the national championship and capped an 11-0 season with a 28-6 victory against Navy in the Cotton Bowl. The Midshipmen were led by junior quarterback Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963.
Nobis was picked by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the 1966 NFL draft, and went on to a stellar 11-year career with the team. Born and raised in San Antonio, Nobis continued working for the Falcons after he hung up his cleats and still lives in Atlanta.
Coincidentally, Nobis retired as a player the same year Royal left coaching in 1976.
"After leaving the University of Texas and going to the pros, most of times I saw Coach was when we were invited to the same banquet or some other event," Nobis said. "Coach never changed. He was alway a very consistent person.
"When you saw him, you knew he wasn't going to be wearing the most expensive suit on the market, but he was going to be dressed neatly. His personality was such that he didn't have to be the star of every gathering, but he just had a way about him that naturally drew people to him."
Nobis: 'He got on me as much as he did anybody'
Burned out by the rigors of his job, Royal was only 52 when he walked away from coaching.
"He put everything he had into coaching," Nobis said. "His life was football. He was a very, very committed man. I really believe that when he retired, he just knew that was the best thing for him and for Edith (his wife)."
Nobis said that Royal's honesty earned him respect far beyond the football field.
"It's important that you practice what you preach," Nobis said. "Coach Royal wasn't perfect. None of us is. But people respected him because they knew he had a lot of integrity. The man just had a lot of class."
Nobis chuckled when he recalled Royal's consistency as a disciplinarian.
"He got on me as much as he did anybody," he said. "He treated everybody the same. When you missed a class, you had to fill out a form and give a reason why you missed it. I skipped a class one time and just put on the form that I had overslept and just missed it.
"When Coach Royal talked to me about it, he said, 'Tommy, I respect your honesty but you're still going to have to be punished.' I don't even know if he used the word 'punished' but I knew there were going to be consequences."
Nobis, one of the greatest players in UT history, had to carry a blocking dummy up the steps at Memorial Stadium several times.
"I remember there were 70 steps," he said. "Coach Royal never showed favoritism as a coach."
Years later, coach and player would laugh when recalling that day almost 50 years ago.
"I think along the way, we were good for each other," Nobis said.
Yes, they were.