How J.J. Watt made WWII veteran and Chicago Cardinals star Marshall Goldberg relevant again

TEMPE, Ariz. — Ellen Tullos was asleep in her bed at home in Killeen, Texas, on this past March when her phone rang.

It was TMZ.

Tullos, 73, knew instantly who they were calling about — her father, former Chicago Cardinals two-way star Marshall Goldberg — she just didn’t know why.

Turns out, TMZ was wondering if Tullos would be willing to give new Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt, who had signed with Arizona the day before, permission to wear her father’s number — No. 99. It was the number Watt had worn during his 10 years with the Houston Texans but one that had been retired by the Cardinals. Tullos didn’t hesitate.

“I thought it was fine,” Tullos told ESPN. “I understood that it was a number that was important to J.J. while he was playing sports, and it didn’t seem like an unreasonable request.

“As it was, Dad got all the honors that he really deserved and needed to have his number retired and he’s gone and J.J. is here, and he’s dying to play and why not?”

For the next two hours, Tullos said she took five different phone calls, with about five minutes between each.

Once the TMZ story posted, Goldberg went from a mostly forgotten star of professional football’s early days to the forefront of the NFL landscape. The day before the TMZ story, “Marshall Goldberg” ranked as a two on Google’s 1-100 scale of search interest. On March 2, that number skyrocketed to 87. A day later, it was at 100, which Google equates to “peak popularity.”

Goldberg is a College Football Hall of Famer out of Pitt who played eight seasons with the Cardinals — a tenure split up because of his stint in a special Navy unit from 1944 to ’46 — and was part of the Cardinals’ only championship in 1947. And now, 15 years after his death following an eight-year struggle with dementia he was remembered again, all because of Watt.

A Navy man, a family man

Goldberg’s granddaughters got a kick out of their aunt being quoted on a tabloid entertainment site.

“Oh, my god,” said Diane Elliston, Goldberg’s oldest granddaughter. “I thought it was hilarious. So funny.”

Elliston hasn’t talked much about her grandfather recently, busy with four kids and a life in Colorado.

He’s been gone a decade and a half, but the more she started talking about him, the more wistful she became. Her memories quickly came flooding back. She looked at photos and told stories.

She remembered a quiet man, even long before dementia took his memory and ability to communicate. He was efficient with his words and never sought the spotlight for his football accolades. Others did that for him.

As he got older, Goldberg began to watch football with his granddaughters and also opened up a bit about his time in the Navy.

Goldberg hit pause on his football career after the 1943 season to be a lieutenant in the South Pacific for two years during World War II. He joined the scouts and raiders, a special unit of the Navy that was a precursor to the SEALs. He rarely talked about his service, no matter how much Tullos asked; however, she remembered him being a “hell of a swimmer.” He had given a Japanese rifle to his son, Marshall Jr., but never explained why he had it or where he got it.

“He would not speak of the war at all,” Tullos said.

That started to change as he got older.

Goldberg took his other granddaughter, Laura Aranda, to a luncheon with about 10 of his Navy friends when she got a little older, peeling back some of the layers of mystery around his service. He used to show her a piece of pottery with a pebble that he picked up in Hiroshima that sat on a bookshelf in his den. That was all he’d talk about, though.

However, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said Goldberg was part of a group that walked through Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 that essentially ended World War II.

“He still felt like it was important for the policymakers to see what he saw because he was really taken aback by the devastation,” Bidwill said.

Goldberg preferred to stay private yet positive.

The man from Elkins, West Virginia, loved to sing, from John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to Sinatra’s “Chicago.” If someone around Goldberg said something that was part of lyric, he’d pick up the song where they left off. Sometimes he’d be singing as early as 5 a.m.

Goldberg also had a versatile sense of humor that “was a big part of who he was,” Aranda said. “He just was so jovial.”

For as long as anyone could remember, Goldberg had a contagious positivity about him. He always tried to find a silver lining, his daughter remembered, and had a “don’t give up” outlook on life.

It’s how he lived life and it helped him become a star football player.

A force on the football field

One memory that’s seared in Elliston’s memory are her grandfather’s hands.

“He had great hands, just beautiful hands,” she said. “… They were just strong.”

Elliston remembered noticing his hands because he would always hold a football on the laces while sitting on his Herman Miller lounge chair.

And football was always on TV in his 42nd-floor apartment in Chicago. He’d sit on the chair with his granddaughters on the couch next to it. They’d snack on mixed nuts and a bowl of berries, and he’d teach them the game.

“I used to say all the time that football was my dad’s first love, despite my mother or me or my brother or anybody else,” she said. “Football was his first love. So, you don’t give that up. He wasn’t extreme about staying involved but he always knew what was going on.”

Like so many of his teammates in the 1930s and ’40s, Goldberg played two ways.

And he was a force on both sides of the ball.

He began his pro career as a fullback, halfback and returner, and in 1941 he led the NFL in five statistical categories, but solidified his name as a safety late in his career, becoming one of the first defensive backs to blitz, said Joe Ziemba, a Cardinals’ historian who wrote the book “When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL.”

“He could do it all and even despite some injuries he had throughout his career,” Ziemba said.

At Pitt, Goldberg was a two-time All-American and two-time national champion. He held Pitt’s rushing record from 1938 until 1974, when Tony Dorsett broke it. He was, perhaps, the most popular player in college football at the time, Ziemba said.

Goldberg was part of two “Dream Backfields” — one at Pitt with John Chickerneo, Dick Cassiano and Harold Stebbins and one with the Cardinals alongside Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman.

He spent his entire pro career with the Cardinals, beginning in 1939 and ending in 1948, with a stint in the Navy between. When Goldberg returned from his service in 1946, Ziemba said he had lost a step offensively but was dominant as a defender, which manifested itself in the 1947 NFL championship game. Goldberg sealed the Cardinals’ only title in 123 years with a late-game interception against the Philadelphia Eagles.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1958 and is also in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel.

One accolade missing, however, is induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Goldberg has been a finalist twice — in 1979 and 2008.

His family spent more time thinking about the Hall of Fame than he did, Aranda said.

“I don’t think he ever cared about that,” she said. “It was something that I cared about for him, but I think that he was just fine with how he lived and proud of what he did, but never boasted about it.”

Reaching the heights he did on the field, however, came with a cost he discovered later in life.

Dealing with dementia

Elliston started writing her grandfather letters in middle school.

Goldberg wasn’t one for deep conversations, so writing back and forth to each other became their way of staying in touch beyond occasional phone calls and visits. Toward the end of high school, though, Elliston noticed he wasn’t replying as often as he once had.

Unbeknownst to her, Goldberg was in the beginning of a cognitive decline, the early signs of dementia. Looking back, Tullos started seeing signs about five to 10 years before he went into a Chicago nursing home when he was 80. He would look off into space or get angry.

“We weren’t sure what we were seeing,” Tullos said. “It’s hard to identify.”

It was the NFL that started putting the pieces together for Goldberg’s family. It sent him a questionnaire about head injuries. One question asked how many concussions he had. Goldberg remembered 18.

“It was the most chilling thing,” Tullos said. “And that’s 18 with a leather helmet. It’s just inconceivable what he went through.”

While Tullos worked as an interior designer in Chicago, she remembered clients telling stories about her dad getting knocked unconscious during games and being carried off the field on a stretcher to lay on the sideline until he came to, only to put on his leather helmet and run back on the field.

He used to talk about his concussions like they were badges of honor, Elliston said. He never talked about them with Tullos, though. It was too negative, she said.

Tullos said Goldberg wasn’t one who wanted help.

“He certainly wouldn’t have wanted somebody to take him to the hospital,” she said. “That was the last thing he would ever want.”

The brutality of the early days of the NFL led to Goldberg spending the final eight years of his life in a nursing home in downtown Chicago, where his third wife, Rita, kept him out of the public — and private — eye.

Yet as his memory waned, moments of lucidity would flicker, toggling Goldberg back to the father or grandfather his family knew and loved. He’d watch football games on TV intently and perk up and sing along whenever he heard the Pitt fight song.

Eventually the disease took over, though.

“It was shocking to see him in that way, and I always saw my father as a rather strong, commanding figure,” Tullos said. “And the person I saw toward the end was pretty near helpless.”

The one time Aranda visited the nursing home, in 2004, she couldn’t hold it back. Seeing him in a state of silence led to tears. His only words to her that day: “Chin up.”

Elliston brought her son, and Goldberg’s great-grandson, Jack, then 10 months old, to visit Goldberg the year before he died. She put the infant on his lap and the two sat there, still, watching a football game on TV.

“They definitely had, maybe, like some unknown, unconscious or subconscious connection,” Elliston said. “It was sweet. It was very, very sweet.”

Goldberg died on April 3, 2006. He was 88.

A decade after his death, Goldberg was included in the $1 billion concussion settlement from the NFL. Goldberg’s share of the settlement was five figures, Tullos said.

In the wake of his passing, the family established the Marshall Goldberg Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury at the University of Illinois Chicago, which Watt donated to shortly after talking to Tullos.

Just another way Goldberg’s legacy was revived and continued.

“It was extremely important [to establish the fund] because it validated a situation that we knew was real,” Elliston said. “To help protect young people from having that happen to them is really the goal. … The consequences of getting hit … are so dire.”

Always a star

Watching Goldberg’s legacy become prominent again 15 years after his death and 73 years after he played his last game has been an unexpected surprise for his family. But they’ve experienced his fame before.

Post-football, Marshall Goldberg went from working for a machine tool company to buying it and then crisscrossing the world for his second career. He dabbled in the stock market, was a “very serious, cosmopolitan, big-city businessman” but a “country boy” at heart, his daughter said.

Tullos and her nieces only knew about his playing days from what they watched and read or what he and others told them. But Goldberg’s daughter and granddaughters all saw, firsthand, just how big of a star he was through what he meant to fans.

Elliston, 54, and Aranda, 51, remember dinners out with Goldberg in Palm Springs being interrupted because fans wanted to shake his hand or to ask if he watched the game the other night. Aranda remembered being introduced to some of Goldberg’s friends who made sure to point out that “your grandpa’s a big deal.”

It seemed like any place Tullos went with her father growing up, all she heard was: “Marshall Goldberg, the football player.”

She remembers fans stopping her dad on the streets of Chicago to say hello, and going to the movies as a child and seeing old-fashioned newsreels showing highlights of her dad’s career on the big screen. When she’d tell the people sitting around her that the football player on the screen was her dad, she’d usually get the same response: “Sure, it is.”

Watching others fawn over Goldberg became a way of life for Tullos and her family. Tullos still can’t get over watching young boys, she guessed around 5 years old, recognizing Goldberg at Pitt games.

“It just floors me that it’s gone on for so long,” Tullos said.

When Aranda was a young girl, one of her friends asked for her grandfather’s autograph. He obliged but she still remembers how awkward it was to ask him.

“He’s just my grandpa,” Aranda said. “So, I don’t really know that I understood at the time the scope of his greatness. As I got older, I started understanding the stats and stuff, but we would enjoy games together, just sitting in his apartment in Chicago, and he’d do the play-by-play, and we’d just have a good old time.”

The recognition waned over the years outside of certain pockets, like Chicago, where he lived, worked and raised a family after football; Palm Springs, where he had a second home; and Pittsburgh, where he went to school and finished in the top three of Heisman Trophy voting twice.

And to see it return has been “a little bit surreal,” Aranda said.

Watt’s call

The day the story hit TMZ, Tullos’ phone didn’t stop ringing. She talked to Bidwill, who thanked her for letting Watt wear Goldberg’s number, did multiple media interviews and heard from most of her family.

“My cousins, everybody was calling me,” she said.

“My head was spinning. It was wild.”

Then Watt called. He had seen the TMZ report when he woke up in Arizona that morning and wanted to ask Tullos for the number himself. Their conversation was “very casual, very comfortable,” making Tullos feel like they had talked before.

“He was charming, he was very kind and very low-key,” Tullos said.

Watt had thought No. 99 was available when he initially looked at the Cardinals’ roster. A high school friend explained it was retired — after being the third of three numbers Goldberg wore for the Cardinals. Watt considered picking a different number but then read what Tullos had told TMZ.

“I wanted to have a conversation with her to make sure and confirm that,” Watt said in March. “Not that I don’t trust sources, but I just wanted to make sure and hear it for myself. We had a great conversation. She was super sweet.

“She said that she believes her father would be honored, and she believes that her father, he was all about the players. So, she thought he would want me to wear it. I’m very honored and touched that they thought of me in that way, and that I can do that. I told her that I would do everything in my power to honor him and to make him proud and make his legacy proud.”

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