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Former football player and coach George Terlep

BROOKSVILLE — George Terlep thought he was finished with football. It was a time of war, and the Navy needed him in the South Pacific and not on the gridiron.

Like thousands of other men in 1944, Mr. Terlep was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago and was poised to head overseas for battle. He was in formation with his unit — bound for California and going over last-minute instructions — when he was called out of line.

Lt. Paul Brown, head coach of the station's football team, wanted to meet with him.

"You're not going with your unit," said Brown, not yet one of the seminal figures in the development of the National Football League. "You're going to play for me."

Mr. Terlep, of course, followed orders.

That was a turning point for Mr. Terlep, who went on to enjoy a career in football that took him through the then-fledgling professional ranks and several coaching stops in college and the Canadian Football League.

As his young family expanded, Mr. Terlep traded the transient life of coaching for a career as an executive in the mobile home, recreational vehicle and modular housing industry. He and his wife, Alma, retired to Florida in the late 1980s, to Largo at first and later to Brooksville.

But up until the end, Mr. Terlep remained an avid follower of football. He loved Brett Favre, grew to like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and suffered mightily through alma mater Notre Dame's on-field struggles in recent years.

"That was a big disappoint to him," said his oldest son, Bob Terlep. "But he was always a Notre Dame fan."

Mr. Terlep died Monday after battling cancer — first of the stomach, then of the liver — for the last couple of years. He was 87.

In the 1930s and '40s, boys like George Terlep seemed destined to play for Notre Dame. He was a multisport athlete, Catholic and a native of Elkhart, Ind., a small town only 16 miles from the South Bend campus.

Mr. Terlep was recruited to Notre Dame by new head coach Frank Leahy, a disciple of coaching legend Knute Rockne and his immediate successor. Leahy won four national championships at Notre Dame, his first in 1943 with Terlep as one of his quarterbacks.

His college career was interrupted by World War II. So in 1943, Mr. Terlep left Notre Dame for the Navy.

But Mr. Terlep didn't have to give up the game. He played for Paul Brown on the station's Bluejacket football team, which competed against other service teams and college programs, including Notre Dame.

In December 1945, Mr. Terlep and the Bluejackets pulled off a historic upset of Notre Dame, then one of the nation's top-ranked teams. He later called it one of the highlights of his career.

"Dad always thought that was a big deal," said Bill Terlep, one of his three sons. "They beat the great and powerful Notre Dame."

It was also in the military that Mr. Terlep was reunited with a girl who'd grown up with him in Elkhart and was a classmate all the way through high school. Her name was Alma.

"He didn't like me," she said. "And I didn't like him much, either. He was the teacher's pet."

Despite their reservations, a pair of friends persuaded them to go out when Mr. Terlep came back to Elkhart for a visit. George offered to teach Alma how to play golf on their first date. They went out again. And nine months later, they were married.

After the war, Mr. Terlep played a couple of seasons for the Buffalo Bisons, later renamed the Bills. He played his final season of professional football for the Cleveland Browns, under his old coach Paul Brown, and was a member of the undefeated All-America Football Conference champions.

He finished up his degree from Notre Dame in 1949. He went into coaching when he realized he would need more money to provide for his wife and family. Mr. Terlep worked for a handful of major college programs, including South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Indiana.

Mr. Terlep and his family then headed north, where he spent nearly a decade in the CFL as an assistant coach, head coach and general manager. He came away with two Grey Cup championships, one in Saskatchewan and the other in Ottawa.

Mr. Terlep officially left the game in 1962, moving back to his hometown of Elkhart with his wife and five children. In business, his family said, Mr. Terlep used the leadership skills and competitiveness he learned in football to excel.

But he kept close to the game with season tickets to Notre Dame home games and through his son Bob, who became an all-state quarterback in Indiana.

"My coach would have a game plan," Bob said, "and he had a game plan."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

>> Biography

George Terlep

Born: April 12, 1923.

Died: May 17, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Alma; daughters Marianne Crawford and her husband John, Cynthia Beach and her husband Ned; sons Bob and his wife Karen, Bill and Tim and his wife Shelly; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Former football player and coach George Terlep 05/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 12:04am]

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