Let me begin by stating that this isn’t one of those “Sidd Finch” stories. It’s not April 1, either. But the strange tale of a former Elon football player from the 1930s and ’40s named Joe Golombek could very easily be dismissed as myth, hoax or both. His story is a bizarre one that took multiple hairpin curves before ending in tragedy and ultimately mystery.
I first heard about Joe Golombek a few months ago from Walter Boyd, a historian in the Alamance County community in North Carolina who has long family associations with then Elon College, which is today Elon University. We were talking about my longtime friend and one-time newspaper editor / boss Don Bolden. Walter said he and Don had discussed collaborating on a book about Elon athletics. Walter was drifting from one point of school sports history to another when he asked if I had ever heard about an Elon player who was murdered after he left school. “He was apparently a great football player, impossible to tackle and incredibly strong. He was described as a ‘gorilla,'” Walter said. “He arrived at Elon on a bicycle.”
The bicycle part got me. I was more than a little intrigued.
Walter continued by telling me that Joe Golombek rode a bicycle from Portsmouth, Virginia to Elon, enrolled in school and joined the 1937 Elon team coached by Horace Hendrickson. Golombek was an immigrant (originally from Copenhagen), a boxer, a Latin scholar, a violinist, humanitarian, strongman, football star, basketball standout and later a World War II veteran and soldier. Walter later sent me a couple of pages of information he had about Golombek but I had to look him up myself.
I tracked down a story written in the April 1969 issue of Maroon and Gold, the Elon weekly newspaper of that time. The story had multiple headlines, the main one blaring: “Elon athlete was murdered.” The subhead was “Joe Golombek had many and varied interests as student.” And there was also an overline stating, “Christian football immortal died mysterious death on Long Island.” A large photo with the story showed Golombek strapped in a harness purportedly pulling a large machine. He was described in the caption as an “Elon sports immortal” and as the “Fighting Christian superman.”
He was a success as a fullback on the football field at Elon, winning notice as among the best collegiate running backs in the state. He competed in Golden Gloves boxing tournaments and made the regional finals in Charlotte one year and made the national tournament the next. There he lost to Archie Moore who would go on to an outstanding pro boxing career, capped by winning the heavyweight title.
Golombek also found his social niche at Elon. He enjoyed calling Elon “home.” And on Sundays he would go to the Elon Homes for Children next door. There he helped the kids with their farm chores, told them stories or played Mother Goose rhymes using his violin.
While at Elon he enlisted in the Army at the start of World War II and returned to Elon — home — when the war ended to finish his studies as well as wrap his football and basketball careers.
After graduation he re-entered the military, joining the Air Force. In November of 1953, 65 years ago, Golombek simply disappeared while stationed at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. Golombek was listed as absent without leave in November. It was a puzzling turn of events for the always reliable Golombek, who was scheduled to be deployed to Saudi Arabia. Shortly before Christmas the base commander received an anonymous letter.
I regret to report that Sgt. Joe Golombek (was) accidentally fatally injured hunting with me Nov. 13. Sgt. Golombek died suddenly before I could get a doctor. I got very panicked and buried his body in the woods at Mastic Acres, Long Island.”
Oddly, Golombek had never mentioned an interest in hunting.
Authorities found Golombek’s body in a shallow grave in the woods off Montauk Highway. He was wearing hunting clothes, but no shoes. An Elon class ring was on a finger. The initials on the ring were J.G., which helped with identifying the body.
While the killing remains officially unsolved, police in Long Island suspected Golombek’s cousin, who died of a heart attack on the day Golombek’s “battered body” was found, according to newspaper accounts. Investigators found that Golombek and the cousin were to meet on Nov. 9 about a business deal. Golombek wasn’t seen alive again.
Another strange turn in a now all but forgotten story.