MOUNT VERNON – Tucked 80 pages into an 100-page issue of Sports Illustrated, dated October 26, 1959, there is a man named George Izo. He is looking at the reader through squinted eyes in the lower left-hand corner of the page – “An unsmiling Izo” reads the caption – and to his right, a two-paragraph article details his rise to prominence at Notre Dame, where he was emerging as the star senior quarterback after fighting knee and ankle injuries earlier in his career.
The story praised his promise – the 22-year-old was 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, “a powerfully built passer” – but questioned his durability. Would his history of injuries hold him back as his senior season charged ahead?
As fate would have it, he’d turn out just fine.
Izo was named to the Coaches All-American team, finishing his embattled college career with over 2,000 passing yards. He was picked second in the 1960 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals (he became the first pick by default after No. 1 selection Billy Cannon left for the AFL), and he went on to enjoy a seven-year pro career.
By now, most people have forgotten about George Izo. His last NFL game was 52 years ago. He came and went, and now he fades steadily into pigskin lore, his legacy yellowing like the magazine pages he once filled.
But one man hasn’t forgotten.
One man, who lives in a sprawling, two-story white brick house on the north edge of Mount Vernon, sees Izo every day. He keeps him facing outward on a wall in his treasure-trove basement – Izo was the cover athlete in that same SI issue, posing with his same serious stare as he prepares to launch a pass – and he keeps the issue protected with a thin plastic sleeve.
How could he forget?
Izo had changed everything.
On Friday, two days before football’s biggest day, Phil Houbler ambled down the stairs, his navy khakis swishing past each other as he measured each step.
When he reached the back room of his basement, he flicked on the lights.
“These are some of the guys in the National Football League I sold cars to,” he said with a chuckle.
There were well over a hundred. The room’s walls, long and wide enough to surround a full-sized pool table with room to spare, were lined with framed photos. They barely fit, there were so many.
The walls serve as photographic proof of Houbler’s almost unbelievable legacy: for a decade, he was the NFL’s unofficial Cadillac salesman. Pro players from across the country came to him for their cars. And his dealership was located in the heart of his hometown: Mount Vernon, Ohio.
“I had an opportunity,” said Houbler, 87 now and back in Mount Vernon, “and I took advantage of it.”
The opportunity came in 1960, when Houbler was 30 years old. He was three years removed from being the self-proclaimed "youngest Cadillac dealer in the country" at age 27, and one of his customers was the vice president of a boiler manufacturing company called Babcock & Wilcox, based in Barberton, OH.
As was customary, Houbler received an invitation to the company’s annual party. They would “drink, eat, and giggle,” Houbler recalled fondly. But this year, the party was different – there was a football player there.
Houbler had long fancied himself a football fan. No, he was a junkie. He knew the height, weight and collegiate background of seemingly every pro player imaginable. Growing up in Mount Vernon, he cheered on the Browns – but he knew about everybody.
And thus, he most surely knew the football player with whom he’d be drinking, eating and giggling that summer night.
It was George Izo.
The Barberton native had just been selected second (qualifying as first) in the NFL Draft, and he had come back to his hometown for the occasion. Houbler approached the young phenom that day like he did anyone else – with a warm handshake and a pull-you-in smile – and the two hit it off immediately.
By the end of the night, Houbler had made a new best friend. That’s when Izo made an offer.
“He said, ‘Phil, do you sell Cadillacs to regular people besides vice presidents of corporations?’” Houbler recalled before breaking out in laughter. “And I said, ‘Well, occasionally George. What do you have in mind?’ He said, ‘I want to buy one.’”
Sure enough, Houbler had just sold his first Cadillac to an NFL player.
The two stayed in touch as Izo was traded to the Redskins after his rookie season. One day, before the 1961 season, Izo gave Houbler a call from training camp. He had 10 teammates who wanted Cadillacs just like his.
“What you’ve gotta realize is, back in the old days, there was no car like Mercedes-Benz and Lexus,” said Houbler’s second wife, Barbara, in their Mount Vernon home on Friday afternoon. “The Cadillac was it.”
So he drove out to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the site of Redskins training camp that year, and proceeded to sell 12 cars.
What happened next changed Houbler’s life: the Redskins, for all their promise, were awful. They stunk. And they finished the season with a record of 1-12-1, last place in the East Division.
That offseason, everyone was traded.
Soon, Houbler began receiving calls from Minnesota, Chicago and Philadelphia. The former Redskins told their new teammates where they got their shiny, new Cadillac – a man named Phil Houbler in a town of 16,000 – and soon, some of America’s finest football players began showing up to the dealership, located at 503 W. High St., beside the old B&O Depot and the railroad tracks that cut through downtown.
Houbler was off and running.
He had the players come to Mount Vernon on Saturdays so they could be a guest on his radio show and sign autographs for local children. He always offered the players and their wives the opportunity to stay with him and his at their farmhouse property between Centerburg and Sparta, where Houbler had a lake and a putting green and plenty to talk about – and many took him up on the offer.
Houbler would take pictures with all of his NFL customers, and each week he would write a column in the newspaper about who visited the weekend prior.
On Friday, with the sun streaming through his basement windows, it all came rushing back to him.
“See, this was Bobby Brown,” he said, shuffling over to a black-and-white picture on his basement’s far wall of him and a hulking, 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman, shaking hands in front of a new Cadillac.
At 87, Houbler still remembers everything.
He remembers that Brown was an Ohio boy – born in Cleveland – and that he played college football for Nebraska, and that he was picked second by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964. When Brown came up to buy his car, he stayed the weekend with Houbler and the two ended up playing pool one night.
Houbler remembers Brown, an eventual Hall of Fame inductee, craning over the pool table with his oak-tree frame to set up a shot. By the time he reached the cue ball, Houbler remembers, he was three-quarters of the way across the table. And he was barely bending over.
“You’re doing good, Phil, for 87,” Barbara cracks from the next room over, referencing Phil’s memory.
“No,” Phil responds shyly, “memory’s going…”
Houbler could talk for days about the people who fill his basement walls – not because he once sold them a car, which is altogether remarkable, but because he has remained friends with most of them for life.
Some of his best friends, to this day, are guys like Izo, Brown (who sells antique Cadillacs now) and Dale Hackbart, who enjoyed a 12-year NFL career as a defensive back, and who still visits Houbler in Mount Vernon during the summertime.
He had connected with local legends, such as Centerburg’s Doug Davis, who played seven years in the NFL as a right tackle for the Vikings (Houbler still remembers the first-round pick he beat out for the job in the early 70s). He was extremely close with Jim Stillwagon, the Mount Vernon native and Ohio State legend who passed away at 68 last year.
The list goes on and on. As he goes from wall to wall, it becomes clear his scope had expanded well beyond the NFL. There’s him with the Julius Erving-led 76ers; there’s him with race car drivers, astronauts, authors, Army generals and musicians. There’s him with O.J. Simpson…
“We won’t talk about him much,” Houbler said.
Not all of these customers were from his beginning years in Mount Vernon. Many were from later in life, when he’d moved on to bigger dealerships with faster cars in warmer states. Many were from after he retired the first time, at the age of 42, after a decade of unimaginable success in his hometown.
He was ready to hang it up – he could have hung it up – but he didn’t. There was something about “the game,” as he called it, that he would have missed.
There was something inside of him, driven by fear, that told him to keep going. He was far removed from his humble upbringing, but the mindset he’d developed during that time was very much alive.
At age 27, Houbler sat in a big room with a hundred other guys his age, all vying for the same position: to be the next Cadillac/Oldsmobile dealer in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
The establishment’s former dealer was on his way out after a history of personal struggles, and General Motors was holding interviews in Cleveland for its ‘Motors Holding’ program, where it selects a qualified young person to be the open dealership’s next owner.
The starling owner pays for half of the dealership (which Houbler estimated cost about $40,000 at the time) and GM would pay for the rest. If the dealer was successful after a certain period of time, the company would turn it over to him or her for good.
Houbler showed up to Cleveland that day and sat down in the big room next to a young man, about his age, who had just graduated from college. Happy to have a neighbor, he soon showed Houbler a thesis he’d typed out about why he should be Mount Vernon’s next Cadillac/Oldsmobile dealer. His father owned a dealership in Delaware, he said, and he believed he was ready for the job.
When Houbler was called into the interview room, he sat across from three company representatives – one from Cadillac, one from Oldsmobile and one from General Motors. They asked him one question: Why should we hire you to be the next Cadillac dealership owner?
“You have a lot of nice, qualified guys. I just read one that did a thesis on it. Very impressive,” Houbler told the panel. “The only thing is, he’s never sold any cars.”
By that point, Houbler had already become a known name in Knox County. After a brief stint in his early 20s working in insurance, he began working at the local Ford dealership. In his first year, at age 23, he sold 85 percent of the cars in the lot.
Eventually, he and his wife, Kay (who worked as a superintendent’s secretary at Pittsburgh Plate Glass) saved up enough money to buy six used cars and a used car lot. He quit his job with Ford to take a professional risk.
“I knew by looking at the books, dealers were all asleep on used cars,” Houbler said. “They maybe sold seven or eight a month.”
Houbler believed he could corner the local used car market. So he went down to the Ohio River, bought six used cars from a friend and hauled them back to Mount Vernon.
“That month, I sold 30 used cars,” he says now, slapping his knee in laughter. “The next month I sold 33. At the end of the year, (Kay) and I owned 50 cars outright.”
Standing in front of the dealership panel three years later, he made his message short and to-the-point.
“In Knox County, I am the leading dealer of used cars. I sell up to 60 a month and new car dealers sell about 10 to 15. I dominate the market,” Houbler told the men. “I’m the only one here qualified to be the dealer. The money I’d be putting into this, I made doing the business that you need to be done.
“I’m the only choice.”
After a moment of stunned silence, the Oldsmobile representative collected himself.
“Who is this kid?” he cracked.
“I’m going to be the next Cadillac dealer in Knox County,” Houbler cracked back.
The man looked around, then looked Houbler in the eyes and fired back.
It was that confidence that carried Houbler through his professional life, but not by mistake. He was raised that way.
Houbler grew up in a middle-class home in Mount Vernon; his father died when he was 8 and his mother got a job at Timken Roller Bearing Company to provide for the family. Houbler remembers his mother coming home after long days at work, pulling the steel off her fingers as she sat, exhausted.
They didn’t have much, but they made it work. And eventually, Houbler’s mother had found her own calling: salesmanship. He tells the story of how his mother tricked a sweeper salesman into selling the sweeper for him. He remembers how one time, when her dad was at work, she sold the stove.
“She loved to buy stuff and sell stuff,” Houbler recalls. “She was a character, oh my god.”
When Houbler’s mother passed the state insurance salesmanship test, she found a job at Bankers Life and Casualty.
As it turns out, young Phil shared many of his mother’s salesmanship genes. But they also shared something deeper, and it came from their experience together during his youth. It came from the long hours, and the sweat and the grind that it took to get this far.
“I had this hatred of being poor, and I didn’t want to be poor,” Houbler said. “I wanted to be a success financially.”
And Houbler was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
Houbler’s Mount Vernon Cadillac dealership was open from sunrise to sunset, six days a week. He remembers staying open until 9 p.m., when the parking lot lights would burn against the dark summer sky, as he tried to squeeze every minute out of the business day.
He wasn’t even a car guy, he said. “It was merchandise to me.”
Instead, it was "the game" that he enjoyed. He fell in love with the chase.
But his passion for business was only part of the equation. First and foremost, Houbler had – and still has – a passion for people.
Despite his reputation for selling to NFL players, Houbler said he didn’t care how much money a customer spent on a car. He valued relationships, and the money was merely a byproduct.
“My office was on the showroom floor and the door was open. And I said, ‘Bring me everybody over that buys a car. I don’t care if it’s a $500 car or a new Cadillac, I want to meet them,’” Houbler said. “So they’d bring them over and I’d say, ‘There’s 12 other dealers here in town and you chose me, and I want to thank you for it.’”
Houbler did right by his people, too. He pushed his salesmen hard, but he also acted as a father figure to many. He took his employees on yearly vacations to destinations of their choice. Those were some of his best times in the business, he said.
“We were like a family, you know,” Houbler says proudly now. “I wasn’t a big-deal Cadillac dealer.”
Houbler’s people skills and hunger to succeed took him to great heights, both in his hometown and elsewhere. After he retired for the first time in 1973, he rejoined the industry to own a bigger dealership in Florida. By the end of his career, he was running a Porsche, BMW and Rolls Royce dealership in West Palm Beach.
Houbler’s first wife, Kay, passed away in 2004. It was shortly thereafter when he met Barbara, a successful realtor out of Fort Lauderdale, and the two have been together ever since.
Phil and Barbara sat in their basement Friday and talked like they’d spent their whole lives together.
They laughed about old stories, and Barbara told many of Phil’s – with as many connections as both of them have, she’d surely heard them more than once.
The two moved back to Ohio four years ago after spending the past 40 in the Sunshine State. Barbara is an Ashtabula native, and by the time both of them had retired, they’d grown to miss the changing of the seasons.
After a career that came about partially by chance – but was prolonged by the drive to become not good, but great – the Mount Vernon boy is back in the town that raised him.
It has been nearly 60 years since Phil Houbler met George Izo.
And to be fair, much has happened since then. He’s sold to bigger clients – Donald Trump and Bob Cousy come to mind – and his network has expanded tenfold. He’s moved around the country doing what he loves – selling cars and making connections – but when asked about the decade or so that launched his career, he’s still in awe.
“More people bought their car from me in the National Football League than anywhere else,” he said Friday, sitting on his basement couch, shaking his head. “And for no special reason…”
Well, that’s not true, Barbara interjects. Not only was Phil a skilled salesman, but he was also the players’ age and build (he still stands at a lean 6-foot-2). He was relatable, Barbara said, and he cared.
Phil could agree to that. He did care.
He cared about everyone. He cared about the defensive back out of Wisconsin and the third-round fullback out of Pittsburgh. He knew about them, and they respected that.
He cared about the black man in a white man’s world. He thought nothing of color, creed or backstory – he could always find common ground. And as he did at his countryside lake house, he made people feel at-home.
“A Cadillac dealer, those days, was a guy in his 60s with a blue suit. He didn’t care about a black defensive back,” Houbler said. “I did. I knew who he was, how much he weighed, where he went to college. So it was a different story.”
His whole time in Mount Vernon, Houbler tried to balance his public perception.
At one point, several NFL players wanted him to change his dealership’s name from “Houbler’s Cadillac” to “Houbler’s Cadillac: Where the Stars Buy Their Cars.” He thought the idea was humorous and well-natured, but he brushed it off.
He didn’t want there to be any misconceptions. While he loved to invite NFL players to Mount Vernon for autographs and friendship, he also wanted to make sure his community knew that they came first. Houbler’s closest relationships were with his neighbors, he said, and the Knox County native kept it that way.
Despite his brush with fame, Houbler is remarkably down-to-earth. He remains adamant that, at our core, we all have more in common than we think.
“The thing is, in my view, everybody’s the same. We’re all the same,” Houbler explained. “Some of us are driving $300,000 cars and some of us are driving a $200 car. It goes from point A to point B, and that’s what you do.”
After a two-hour talk about life, cars, and the people he’s met along the way, Phil Houbler trudged back upstairs on Friday afternoon. His navy khakis swished back and forth as he made the trek, still incredibly nimble after all those years on the sales floor. Barbara followed close behind.
What are you guys up to this weekend?
“You know what?” Phil answers, turning around to flash a toothy grin. “The Super Bowl.”
After all these years, Houbler is still a pigskin fanatic.
But he’s not having a party this Super Bowl Sunday – he never does, he says. Too distracting. Houbler prefers to consume his favorite game in peace, and he’s built just the place to do it.
“I’ll show you where I watch football,” he says.
From the main floor, Houbler conquers another set of steep, carpeted stairs past the kitchen. He opens the door to a dark room with wrap-around couches and a giant flat-screen TV.
“I like to be isolated and really watch the game. So I sit right here, all alone,” he says as he plops down in a recliner at one end of the room.
Houbler realizes that football is unmistakably intertwined with his career path – a passion that led to relationships, which led to bigger opportunities down the road. He has a lot of time to think about these things now; he’s been retired (for good) for a while, and he likes spends his days catching up with old friends or traveling.
At his heart, he’s still the kid from Mount Vernon. The kid who fought for what he had. The kid who didn’t go to college, or write a thesis, but got the job anyways. The kid who made a living off of relationships, and who made lifelong friends as a result.
If he can make it, he believes anyone can.
“How many successful guys have you met?” he asked. “There’s no pattern.”
He paused, then pointed to his heart.
“It’s in here.”