Jerry Nuzum and his wife, Mary, embrace after a Las Cruces judge declared the Pittsburgh Steelers halfback innocent of murder charges in 1951. This photo appeared on Page 1 of the Clovis News-Journal on July 2, 1951.
By David Stevens: CNJ Editor
Hank Baskett is Clovis’ only pro football player these days. He’s heading into his third regular-season game as a Philadelphia Eagles rookie receiver today at San Francisco.
But Baskett wasn’t the first Clovis Wildcat to play in the National Football League. That distinction belongs to halfback Jerry Nuzum whose four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers was overshadowed by false allegations of murder.
Nuzum, a 1941 CHS graduate, played college football at New Mexico A&M in Las Cruces and in December of 1947 was the 20th player drafted by the NFL. He spent four years with the Steelers, retiring in 1951, the same year a Las Cruces judge declared him innocent of murder charges.
David Atwell, a high school classmate and teammate of Nuzum, said he never doubted his friend’s innocence.
“My first thought was, ‘He couldn’t do that.’ There was never a doubt in my mind,” Atwell said.
Jerry Nuzum spent at least a large part of his childhood in Clovis. The 1932 City Directory lists W. N. and Eva Nuzum and their five children living at 1011 Connelly Street. Jerry was 8 that year, the second youngest among the siblings.
Atwell, now 83 and living in Roswell, said he first became friends with Nuzum when both were in junior high school.
Atwell said Nuzum always “had a lot of pride about him” and was an outstanding football player.
“He was a good guy to be around and a lot of fun to the team,” said Atwell, who played right guard when he and Nuzum were CHS seniors during the 1940 season.
“He was sorta like super glue to a team, because he could hold us together.”
Atwell said he can still remember the team’s favorite play: “The guards would pull out and take off and here come Jerry Nuzum running up our back. … I admired him when he played.”
The 1941 Clovis High School yearbook reported Coach R. K. “Rock” Staubus’ 1940 Wildcats won six games, lost four and tied one. Nuzum and quarterback Max Marks were listed as co-captains. The squad produced one all-stater — end Howard Sharp.
While Marks sometimes passed to Sharp, Atwell said the team’s strength was in running the football. “In my book, Jerry was the best runner and one of the best men on defense too,” Atwell said.
Atwell said he was surprised when he learned Nuzum was playing pro football. “We didn’t think about the pros then,” he said. The Clovis News Journal had few reports on its native son or his team, the Steelers. Major League Baseball and Wildcat football usually led the sports pages in those days.
But the 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound halfback was among the NFL’s best, at least for one season.
In 1949, Nuzum rushed for 611 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He led his team in both statistical categories and was fifth among the league’s rushers that year.
But 1949 was memorable for Nuzum in another way — that was the year he was accused of killing an 18-year-old Las Cruces waitress.
A witness alleged Nuzum was seen arguing with Ovida “Cricket” Coogler about 3 a.m. on March 30, 1949, in front of a bar. Seventeen days later, Coogler’s body was found in the desert by three teenage boys. An autopsy showed her skull had been fractured and she’d been run over by a car.
Nuzum was arrested, but denied any involvement in the death. The case ultimately received a national spotlight after a woman said she saw two state police officers throw Coogler into a police car and drive away after slugging her unconscious.
Nuzum faced trial in the case, but a district judge declared him innocent.
“The judge said the prosecution failed entirely to connect Nuzum in any way with the death of the waitress,” The Associated Press reported.
“It does not solve or dispose of the crime itself,” Judge Charles Fowler told the courtroom, “but only brings a verdict of innocent for the defendant in this case. …
Assuming that every bit of evidence submitted by the state is true, there is nothing but conjecture pure and simple to connect the defendant with her death.
“It would be an insult to your intelligence as reasonable men to ask you to speculate or to guess,” Fowler told the jury in announcing the directed verdict.
Nuzum told reporters the day was the second happiest in his life. The first, AP reported, was when he was wed to his 25-year-old wife Mary.
“I was always pretty confident,” he said, “but naturally I worried. I didn’t see how anyone could say I had done it. But you never can tell.”
Following the trial, Nuzum visited his parents in Clovis before returning to his home in Pittsburgh.
Coogler’s killer was never identified. A documentary, “The Silence of Cricket Coogler: A Political Murder and Cover-up,” was released in 2002.
After his football career ended, Nuzum sold cars for a living. He retired in the early 1990s after running Jerry Nuzum Chevrolet for about 10 years in Uniontown, Pa., friends said. He died in 1997, at age 73, and was survived by two daughters.