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The Yankee who was a hero in a college football New Year’s bowl game

Future Yankee Jake Gibbs was named an MVP on the college football field before stepping into the batter’s box in the Bronx.

New York Yankees

Several holidays have a sport that can act as something to watch or background noise as you spend time with family and friends. Baseball can be that for the Fourth of July. The NFL’s Thanksgiving games are a decades-long tradition. The NBA always puts out a marquee schedule for Christmas day. For New Year’s Day, college football has traditionally been the main sports offering.

While the changing of college football’s postseason structure has altered things somewhat, playing in a bowl game on New Year’s Day is still seen as a marquee accomplishment for a season. The most notable bowls, most famously the Rose Bowl, are typically played on the first day of the year to much fanfare (the overlap of New Year’s Day on an NFL Sunday has bumped college football to January 2nd this year).

Beyond that, there are several standout baseball names who have played in such bowls games. Due to the fairly small overlap in baseball and football seasons, there’s plenty of people who’ve played both, and some of that number even make it in both at the college and professional ranks. One such player who did so was Yankee catcher Jake Gibbs.

A dual-sport athlete at Ole Miss, Gibbs spurned football to play baseball and signed with the Yankees after his college career. He played in New York from 1962-71 and was the catcher in the bridge era between Elston Howard and Thurman Munson. However before any of that happened, he was a hero on the football field in a notable bowl game.

Gibbs was the quarterback for the 1960 Ole Miss Rebels football team as they started the season ranked No. 2 in the country. He helped them to a 6-0 start to the season which saw them bounce back and forth between the Nos. 1 and 2 spots. Then on October 29th, they battled LSU to a 6-6 tie. While it wasn’t a loss, the result put them behind the eight ball in the rankings and in the race for the national championship.

The tie dropped them to No. 6 in the rankings and left them playing catchup over the rest of the season. Ole Miss did win out the rest of the way, finishing up a 9-0-1 season with a victory over Mississippi State and earning a spot in the 1961 Sugar Bowl on January 2nd.

The issue was that it they couldn’t get back up to the No. 1 spot, as they were stuck behind Minnesota, who had just completed an 8-1 season. That was an issue in 1960, as at that time, the rankings from both the AP and the Coaches, the two main organizations that decided the national champion, released their final rankings after the last week of the regular season as opposed to the bowl games. That policy would be changed in the years after, almost certainly in part because of what happened in 1960.

Ole Miss fans were understandably not happy with the AP and Coaches’ Polls giving Minnesota the title despite the Rebels’ better record. On campus, they made dummies with the words “AP” and “UPI” — who was in charge of the Coaches’ Poll — and burned them while chanting “We’re No. 1, to hell with AP and UPI.” That also meant Ole Miss was also almost certainly motivated as they went into the 1961 Sugar Bowl, where they were matched up with the Rice Owls.

Gibbs and Ole Miss were the favorites and showed why, scoring early on a drive that was capped up by a Gibbs’ rushing touchdown. However, the Owls then fought back and played the Rebels close for the first of the first half, keeping them off the board. In the third quarter, Rice got on the board with a touchdown of their own, but missed the extra point, making the score 7-6. While Ole Miss still led, they needed some sort of spark, as they were in very real danger of losing their undefeated season.

Early in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss took over on a drive that started near midfield. Gibbs guided them all the way to Rice’s one-yard line. The Owls managed to stuff Ole Miss on the first three plays, setting up fourth down, and possibly a game-deciding play.

Gibbs took the snap and fumbled with it a bit before regaining his composure and racing out wide towards the goal line. He was met there by a pair of Rice defenders, who helped knock the ball loose. However, before that happened, it was ruled that Gibbs has crossed the goal line for a crucial touchdown. That plus the ensuing extra point put Ole Miss up 14-6, a lead which they would hang on to for a win. For scoring his team’s two touchdowns for the game, the future Yankee catcher was named the Sugar Bowl MVP. Meanwhile for his whole efforts on the season, Gibbs finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, coming close to being named the best player in the country.

Elsewhere, Minnesota lost their bowl game, finishing with two losses to Ole Miss’ one. Taking into account the bowl results, the Football Writers Association of America voted the Rebels No. 1, a championship with Ole Miss claims as one of three national titles.

While Gibbs would be selected in both the NFL and AFL drafts after his success, he decided to choose baseball, and considering his 10-year career, it seems like the right choice. However, he did make quite an impact on the football field before going down that route.