Mebane resident Ted Zeller is providing a most unique gift to one of his former homes.
One of the original Cadets of the United States Air Force Academy, Zeller has a signed football from the historic 1958 Air Force squad that went unbeaten and played in the Cotton Bowl. He is gifting the football to the Air Force Academy, to be displayed in the school’s longtime basketball facility, Clune Arena.
“I called out there and told a Colonel about this ball, and would you be interested (in showcasing it),” Zeller said in a recent interview. “He said yes, we would like it. If you’ve ever been to the Academy, they have a gymnasium that showcases trophies, all the first uniforms. I think it would be a good souvenir for them. He said to send it to this address, and I said I would.”
Although Zeller wound up graduating from N.C. State University before becoming an educator, including multiple years at Eastern Alamance High School, he made his way out to Denver in the mid-1950s as the United States officially began the Air Force Academy. In the beginning the school was housed at Denver’s Lowry Air Force Base, but was eventually relocated to its present-day permanent location in Colorado Springs.
“The Air Force Academy was started in July 1955,” Zeller explained. “One of the interesting things about that was President Dwight Eisenhower was onsite to start the Academy. There were 305 boys in that first class. So with 305 boys, almost every boy could be on a (sports) team. I played on the first basketball team, track teams, football team. Of course, I was proud to be a part of starting something that became a very widely acclaimed military school.”
While a member of the Falcons basketball team, Zeller worked with a young assistant coach who would go on to make quite a name for himself at the University of North Carolina - Hall of Famer Dean Smith.
While Smith was helping Bob Spear, Air Force’s first head basketball coach, build the Cadets’ program on the hardwood, Air Force rapidly developed into a formidable foe on the gridiron.
Air Force began its varsity football program in 1957, posting a 3-6-1 record under Buck Shaw. Shaw was only head varsity football coach at the Academy for one year, as Ben Martin became the head coach in 1958.
“I was on the first (football team), but I left the Academy after the second year because of already being an officer, I decided that a career in the Air Force was not what I wanted particularly cared to do, and the rankings that I was going to receive was something that I already had. So I transferred to N.C. State to finish up my career in education,” Zeller recalled.
Zeller indicated that Air Force was able to build a top-notch football program quickly by luring in highly-recruited athletes who were intrigued not just by a chance to be among the inaugural Cadets and have a career in the Air Force, but also a chance to get to play quickly, as opposed to sitting behind older players at more established schools.
“A lot of these guys were recruited to big schools. Not only was it starting a whole new military school, but it was a chance to get on the field,” Zeller said.
In just their second year of existence, in 1958, the Falcons went 9-0-1 in the regular season, with their only blemish a tie at Iowa in Iowa City in September. Iowa would go on to win the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl, finishing ranked No. 2 in the country that season.
Air Force was led by two-way superstar Brock Strom, who became the program’s first consensus All-American. Strom was eventually inducted into the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Air Force Academy’s inaugural Hall of Fame in 2007.
“Brock Strom, he made it to the Hall of Fame, which for a guard or tackle, is quite an accomplishment,” Zeller recalled. “They go with ends and wide receivers and halfbacks and fullbacks and quarterbacks. But for a lineman to make it, that is quite a feat.”
Air Force earned a berth in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1959, playing Southwest Conference champion TCU to a scoreless 0-0 tie to finish 9-0-2 overall.
“They’ve never had another undefeated season. And back in those days, they didn’t break ties. You’d play 60 minutes and go home,” Zeller said.
Zeller attained the signed 1958 Air Force football through a friend who knew a deceased Air Force Colonel who had received the ball following the Cotton Bowl.
“How I received the football was kind of an interesting story. I was in Annapolis, Maryland, and a friend of mine working up there (at the Academy) found out that a Colonel actually received this football after the Cotton Bowl game, after all the players signed it. He was instrumental in getting the Air Force Academy started,” he said.
“I think it could be the ball that was used in the game. Why else would all the players sign it? I don’t think they did that for a lot of balls,” Zeller continued.
Although Zeller was the first local native to make his way to the Air Force Academy, he indicated that multiple others from the area have gone to Colorado Springs and successfully graduated from the Academy.
In fact, one current Mebanite - Alex Kreider - is a Cadet at the Air Force Academy after becoming the Valedictorian at Eastern High in 2019.
“Several local young men have attended the Academy and graduated. One is currently in the Air Force, and earned his wings in the Academy. He played football at Eastern. We do have a local young man, Alex Kreider, who is attending the Academy now,” Zeller said.
During his time at Eastern High, Zeller coached alongside revered former head football coach Fred Brady, and was also a JV football and wrestling coach during his three years. He also got a chance to coach alongside Tal Jobe.
“Coach Jobe and I have kept our friendship over the years,” Zeller mentioned.
Although he didn’t graduate from Air Force, Zeller kept in touch with numerous classmates, including several members of the legendary 1958 football team.
“Historically, I’ve kept in touch with a lot of these men. Several are deceased - some killed in combat in Vietnam. Of the 305, I think around 110 are still living. And I happened to be the oldest one in that entire class,” he said.
With this gift to the Academy, Zeller will ensure that the legacy of that outstanding 1958 Falcons football squad will not be forgotten among the students, administrators, and spectators of sporting events on the school’s campus for decades to come.