Rupert Pate realized every lineman’s dream when he returned a fumble for a touchdown, and did it at the highest level of the game.
Pate, a long-time Burlington resident, was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1942 during the fledging days of the NFL. If you’re wondering, yes, that’s same franchise that won this year’s Super Bowl.
Philadelphia was at the Washington Redskins when Pate scooped up the third-quarter fumble and rumbled 53 yards to tie the game at 20-20. Washington eventually won the Nov. 1, 1942, contest 30-27, per pro-football-reference.com.
Pate’s touchdown tied him for the NFL lead in fumbles returned for a touchdown that season with 11 other players.
We’ll never know Pate’s reaction to his former team’s victory in this year’s Super Bowl, a 41-33 victory against the New England Patriots.
Pate died May 20, 2014. He was 96. Until his passing, he was one of the oldest living professional football players, according to his Times-News obituary.
Sherrie Pate was Rupert’s only daughter. She said she thinks Philadelphia’s Super Bowl victory would have had her dad “floating because he was part of when the Eagles first started out. I wish Daddy had been here to watch it. Good gracious, he would have been ecstatic.”
Sherrie Pate said her dad, a shy, private man, didn’t talk a great deal about his time with the Eagles, but once mentioned he was paid $100 per game.
“That was a lot of money back then,” she said. “He played for the love of the game.”
Rupert Pate was born in Goldsboro on Sept. 6, 1917. After a high school football career that would eventually lead to his induction into the Goldsboro High School Hall of Fame in 1989, Pate attended Wake Forest College where he excelled in football. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound lineman was chosen team captain in 1939, selected All-State and All-Southern Conference and played in the 1939 Blue-Gray Classic all-star game.
The Chicago Cardinals drafted Pate in the 20th round (181st overall) of the 1940 NFL Draft. He played one season in Chicago before joining Philadelphia for the 1941 and 1942 seasons. It was in Philadelphia that Pate met nursing student Florence “Skip” Pate, who would later become his wife. They were married 71 years.
Rupert Pate and Jimmy Nickelston became friends when they met during Nickelston’s early days as pastor of Hocutt Memorial Baptist Church. They worked together on church issues and projects (Pate served as a Deacon for more than 55 years) and played golf together. Rarely did Pate talk about playing professional football.
Despite that reticence, Nickelston was aware of his friend’s football background. He was fascinated by the local athlete’s connection to the Eagles in light of their Super Bowl victory.
“He hardly said much about his professional career playing football,” Nickelston said. “It’s unusual knowing someone of that caliber living in your neighborhood so to speak.”
But not out of character.
“He was a humble, quiet, giant-of-a-man both physically and character-wise,” Nickelston said. “He was a good role model for anyone, especially in sports.”
Rupert Pate and his brothers helped their father start a Burlington branch of the Goldsboro-based Pate-Dawson Produce Company. Pate later sold cars in Burlington and worked for LabCorp.
Rupert had two sons, Pete and Carlyle. Pete remembers his dad as a humble man who would talk more about his teammates than himself — up to a point.
“If you were a stranger, within 10 minutes he would let you know he played for the Eagles,” Pete Pate said with a chuckle.
Pete had just returned from the dentist when asked about his dad’s link to the Eagles.
“I tell everyone I run into that he played for the Eagles. I just told my dentist and nurses and I’ve told my golfer friends,” Pete said. “I’m as proud as I can be of my dad and what he accomplished.”