As the oldest child among several sisters growing up in Philadelphia, George Nock was responsible for keeping them occupied while their mother worked. So every Sunday afternoon, he shepherded his sisters down to the Philadelphia Zoo to watch zookeepers feed the big cats.
“That was our normal Sundays after church,” younger sister Linda Lowe recalled Monday. “When a lot of people would go to the movies, our best place to go with George was the zoo. I’ll never forget the times when we would always get there in time for the feeding of the lions. At that time, there were benches when folks could sit on the bleachers, and you would sit there and the animal handlers would open the gates up and start throwing meat to the tigers and lions, and George would just sit there mesmerized. He would tell us, ‘Just watch, just watch.’ ”
Mr. Nock, who starred as a running back at Morgan State University and later played four seasons in the NFL before becoming an acclaimed artist and sculptor, died Nov. 22 of complications associated with the coronavirus at Eastside Medical Center in Snellville, Georgia. He was 74.
Mr. Nock was instrumental in the creation of the university’s Legends Plaza and 6-foot bronze statues of the late Bears coaches Edward P. “Eddie” Hurt and Earl C. “Papa Bear” Banks. Mr. Nock charged the school for only the cost of the materials for the statues, according to Morgan State’s president, Dr. David Wilson.
“George was a man of so many talents, and he loved Morgan unconditionally,” Dr. Wilson said. “He was affable and always saw the humor in many things. I never saw him where he exuded stress or even worry. I liked to think that his second passion beyond football — art — played a role in that. … Morgan has lost an incredible son.”
Mr. Nock was the first of nine children born and raised in Philadelphia by Georgia Nock, an activist and homemaker. Mr. Nock’s passion for art developed at an early age, catching the attention of nuns who worked at the Catholic day care where he was enrolled as a child. When he turned 7, his mother bought him some clay.
“She noticed that he always liked to do things with his hands,” Ms. Lowe said from her home in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. “So she gave him the clay, and from that point on, his career in sculpting got started. He was self-taught. So everything he made was a natural gift.”
Mr. Nock didn’t pick up football until high school. Before then, he ran sprints and threw the javelin in track and field, played basketball, and even considered dabbling in boxing.
“George just had the perfect body at 15 that people used to think that he was our father,” Ms. Lowe said with a laugh. “He was just that strong.”
Mr. Nock began attending Morgan State in 1964, and after redshirting as a freshman, he started playing in 1965. That year, he returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown in a win against Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic for the mythical Black college national championship. In his senior year in 1969, Mr. Nock rushed for 87 yards to help the Bears edge Grambling, 9-7, in the first game played at Yankee Stadium between two historically Black schools.
When he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Mr. Nock was an All-America honorable mention and a two-time Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association first-team selection.
“He was very good because he was small and had a low center of gravity,” recalled George Johnson, another Morgan State running back who is two years older than Mr. Nock. “He was like a tank and was very hard to get down.”
Mr. Johnson said that although Mr. Nock was especially close with former Pittsburgh Steelers running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua, former New England Patriots defensive back Clarence Scott and fullback Wade Johnson (no relation), Mr. Nock was a favorite among all of his teammates.
“Nock was a very low-key person,” Mr. Johnson said. “He wasn’t boisterous. He was very quiet.”
Mr. Nock was a member of the 1966 squad that beat the West Chester (Pennsylvania) State Rams, 14-6, at the 1966 Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida, and became the first historically Black college team to win an integrated bowl game and do so on network television.
In December 2015, players from that team were invited by the Orange Bowl to commemorate their achievement.
Dr. Wilson, who accompanied the players on that trip, said he was stunned when all talk ceased after the bus carrying the team turned onto a street leading to the stadium. The players recounted their memories of scores of white fans lining the street and screaming racial epithets at their bus.
“It was an education for me just to be in the company of these legends who had to revisit some very painful moments in their lives where people didn’t want them to play that game,” Dr. Wilson said. “And then when they won, they had to get police escorts in order to leave Orlando.”
Dr. Wilson said Mr. Nock and Willie Lanier, who played middle linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, informed him that when the organizers of the Orange Bowl invited the Bears to return the following year, Mr. Banks refused.
“George and the others said, ‘We so thank him for not putting us through that kind of hurt, that kind of pain,’” Dr. Wilson said. “It was not about the football, but the vitriol and the hate that they received from the audience. So my respect for him and all of the members of that team is off the chart.”
Selected by the New York Jets in the 16th round of the 1969 NFL draft, Mr. Nock spent three seasons there and then one with Washington. After a foray with the World Football League, Mr. Nock retired from professional football and concentrated on sculpting.
Mr. Nock created statues of athletes, ballerinas and musicians in his studio on Tannery Row, an artist colony in Buford, Georgia. Some of his works sold for as much as $30,000 and earned him acclaim as an artist.
Mr. Nock enjoyed fishing and skiing, but his life revolved around art, according to his only brother, Lorde Nock. “His art just took up so much of his time and his thoughts,” the younger Mr. Nock said from his home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Ms. Lowe said Mr. Nock — affectionately known as “Gentle Bear” — was always willing to listen to others who wanted to talk about their triumphs or struggles.
“He had this sensitivity,” she said. “I guess growing up with seven sisters, he had that side. He was macho, but the heart was just so sincere and caring.”
Funeral arrangements for Mr. Nock are yet to be determined.
In addition to his sister and brother, Mr. Nock is survived by his wife, the former Mary Rozier; three children, Jazmin Cryor of Baltimore, Dorient Brown of Alexandria, Virginia, and Imani Pendleton of Washington, D.C.; six sisters, Nana Korantemaa of Philadelphia, Lenora Richbow of Las Vegas, and Regina Lowe, Marlene Harley, Darlene Nock and Ericka Lowe of Philadelphia; and four grandsons.