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Hansen's Hundred, No. 42: Art Luppino's incandescent career made national headlines
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NO. 42: ART LUPPINO

Hansen's Hundred, No. 42: Art Luppino's incandescent career made national headlines

Art Luppino is hoisted onto the shoulders of his Arizona team after a victory. Luppino became a national star with the Wildcats, only to suffer a concussion and serious knee injury that hurt his chances of playing professionally.

Parade Magazine was a popular Sunday supplement in almost every United States newspaper in 1955, and for decades to come. It featured America’s top celebrities from Debbie Reynolds to Elvis Presley.

When editors of the magazine were choosing a cover profile for their Sept. 4, 1955, issue, they decided on a sports theme. They could have picked World Series-bound Mickey Mantle or Notre Dame’s soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung, or one of the NFL’s leading faces, such as Frank Gifford.

The editors chose Arizona running back Art Luppino.

Art Luppino

A year earlier, the sophomore from La Jolla, California, led the NCAA in rushing with 1,359 yards and became an instant celebrity when he rushed for 228 yards in just six carries in a win at New Mexico State. At the time, only five college football players had ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.

Before Luppino completed his first year as a full-time starter, he was given one of the most endearing nicknames in UA sports history: “The Cactus Comet.”

Yet choosing a football player from Arizona to grace the cover of one of America’s leading magazines was almost stupefying. The Wildcats played in the low-level Border Conference. They had never spent a day in the Top 20. They had never beaten a ranked team.

Luppino, who is No. 42 on our list of Tucson’s Top 100 Sports Figures of the last 100 years, had the looks of a cover boy — a movie star in shoulder pads. He was a former surfer and lifeguard who had scored more points in a season, 166, than anyone in college football history.

The magazine’s cover photo pictured Luppino leaping over a stack of linemen.

Art Luppino made the Sept. 4, 1955, cover of Parade magazine.

Forty years later, after moving back to Tucson, Luppino was walking his dog near his home at Tucson Country Club. A passerby recognized him.

“You’re not the real ‘Cactus Comet,’ are you?” he asked.

Luppino told me he just laughed. “I used to be,” he told the man.

In the mid-1990s, Luppino retired from a career as a school teacher in San Diego and subsequently as the successful operator of a West Coast martial arts studio and a gun shop. When he moved back to Tucson, he had not been forgotten.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know Luppino, play golf with him, have a beer or two with him, and sit with a group of prominent Wildcat football players such as John Black, Don Bowerman and Ev Nicholson as they talked about Luppino’s incandescent seasons of 1954 and 1955.

Ever modest, Luppino never failed to credit his linemen: Ed Brown, Paul Hatcher, John Mellekas and Buddy Lewis.

Art Luppino led the NCAA in rushing in back-to-back seasons of 1,359 and 1,313 yards, then unprecedented in college football.

“It’s a game; it’s not putting a man on the moon,” Luppino said in a lengthy interview in 1994. “I never wanted to be a hero. I never carried a big stick.”

Yet the son of a Navy man led the NCAA in rushing in back-to-back seasons of 1,359 and 1,313 yards, then unprecedented in college football. He set a UA career record of 7.6 yards per carry that still stands.

But all did not end well.

In a November 1955 game at Texas Tech, a Red Raiders lineman sucker-punched Luppino in the face — he was not wearing a facemask — and the Wildcats star was never the same. He continued to play but told me he never played another game without a concussion.

Medical treatment of that era was such that Luppino was told to “gut it out” rather than avoid more contact.

To make it worse, Luppino injured a knee in the UA’s 1956 training camp, one that would require surgery today and possibly require him to take a redshirt season. Instead, UA coaches urged Luppino to “man up.” He didn’t miss a game but was so limited that he didn’t start and gained less than 500 yards.

The Washington Redskins flew Luppino to training camp in 1957, but he failed a pre-camp physical. His knee was seriously damaged. His football career was over.

It wasn’t just a minor injury. About 10 years ago as I played golf with Luppino at Tucson Country Club, he suddenly stopped, fell to the ground and, in obvious pain, began stretching his leg.

“It’s an old football thing,” he said. “You just have to learn how to deal with it.”

Art Luppino runs away from a group of defenders while at the UA. Luppino returned to California after college, where he was a schoolteacher and business owner, before returning to Tucson and eventually moving to Texas.

Now retired and living in Kerrville, Texas, Luppino finally reached a peace with his alma mater. The school placed his name in the elite tier of the football Ring of Honor at Arizona Stadium. For a few years, his jersey number, 22, was on display in the south end zone.

Art Luppino’s Parade magazine photoshoot was big news in Tucson, which was not used to national attention when it came to football.

“Looking back now, I should not have played again the night I got mauled at Texas Tech. I shouldn’t have played again that season,” he said. “I took a hell of a beating that year and the next season. But that’s all in the past. I’ve chosen not to be bitter.”

The last time I exchanged emails with Luppino, he signed “The Comet” to his note.

The legend lives.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711


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