Considered big and clumsy in his youth, Ernie Nevers (1903-1976) was the tackling dummy for his high school football team. However, the experience gave him strength and taught him fortitude. He played professional football, baseball, and basketball, and his heroics on the football field would later bring him national fame and enduring admiration.
Ernie Nevers, born on June 11, 1903, in Willow River, Minnesota, was the youngest of eight children. His innkeeper parents raised their family in several northeastern Minnesota towns. Nevers attended high school in Superior, Wisconsin. He was overweight and clumsy, and could not run very well, but was on the Central High School football team. During practice, his teammates used him as the tackling dummy, repeatedly knocking him down into a pile of sawdust. The punishment toughened him and prepared him for playing the aggressive game then popular. He did, however, excel at basketball at Central, and his football skills soon improved. After his family moved to Santa Rosa, California, Nevers became a star player for his new high school, lettering in baseball, basketball, and football.
Nevers continued his remarkable sports career at Stanford University, where he earned 11 letters in four sports. However, it was his prowess on the football field that brought the 6-foot, 205-pound "Blond Block Buster" the most attention. Nicholas White wrote in Great Athletes that "people described him as a fury in football shoes because he was such an untiring, tough machine of a player." Primarily a fullback, he also blocked, tackled, passed, and punted, and did them all well. In two years of college football, including a Rose Bowl appearance, he was never thrown for a loss. He averaged more than five yards per rush and 42 yards punting. In his final game for Stanford, in 1925, he handled the ball on every offensive play except three and participated in every defensive play. With Nevers, Stanford teams went 21-5-1 from 1923 to 1925.
Coach Glenn "Pop" Warner gave his star Stanford player high praise. Warner, who had coached Jim Thorpe, another outstanding football player, called Nevers the superior player. As noted by the New York Times, Warner commented, "Nevers could do everything Thorpe could do. And Ernie always tried harder. Ernie gave 60 minutes of himself in every game." Others agreed with the assessment. He was called the greatest college football player of all time by Sports Illustrated in 1962 and named to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) All-Time All-America team in 1969. Stanford University retired his number when he graduated.
Nevers performance in the 1925 Rose Bowl earned him national recognition. The game was a classic match pitting Pop Warner's Stanford team against Knute Rockne and the "Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame. Nevers had missed much of the 1924 season with two broken ankles; the casts were removed just ten days before the Rose Bowl. For the game, his legs were bandaged so tightly that the circulation was nearly cut off and he could barely walk. But that did not stop him from playing one of the most remarkable games in Rose Bowl history. He played the entire 60 minutes, carrying the ball 34 times and rushing for 114 yards—more yardage than all of the Four Horsemen combined.
In College Football U.S.A., it was described how Nevers kept working his team down the field. With Nevers close to the goal line, the Fighting Irish were relieved to see Rockne send in a player who they thought would have the answer on how to stop the fullback. When he got to the huddle, though, the message was not too helpful. He said, "Boys, R-R-Rock s-s-says the t-trouble is you're not s-stopping that N-Nevers." Despite Nevers' outstanding day, Notre Dame won the game 27-10 by scoring three touchdowns on Stanford turnovers.
In December 1925, Nevers began his professional football career when he received $25,000 to play in a series of all-star exhibition games. The games pitted Nevers and a group of college stars against the great running back Red Grange and the Chicago Bears. Later that winter, he played professional basketball in Chicago. The next summer, he became a rookie pitcher for the St. Louis Browns. Playing the three sports in 1926, Nevers earned $60,000.
Ole Haugsrud, who had been a high school classmate of Nevers in Superior, visited the rookie in St. Louis, and asked him to sign with his National Football League (NFL) franchise, the Duluth Eskimos. The owners had given Haugsrud, their volunteer secretary-treasurer, the failing franchise. Though he had been approached by another owner, Nevers agreed to sign with Haugsrud for $15,000 plus a percentage of the gate receipts.
With Nevers on the team, Haugsrud had no trouble scheduling games for the 1926 season. Over 117 days, the team traveled 17,000 miles and played 13 regular-season games and 16 non-league games in all sorts of weather; they played at home only one time. Ralph J. Hickok marveled in Sports Illustrated, "In one eight-day period they played in five different cities, from St. Louis to New York. And they did it all with a roster of just 16 players." Hickok also wrote: "Nevers recalled that the Eskimos usually took two showers after a game, the first with their uniforms on. Then we'd beat them like rugs to get some of the water out, throw them into our bags, get dressed and catch a train." The team's endurance led sportswriter Grantland Rice to dub them "The Iron Men from the North." The Eskimos ended with a 6-5-2 NFL season record, and a 17-9-3 overall record. More importantly, they helped popularize professional football nationally.
As in college, Nevers gave his all in his rookie football season. Described as a one-man team, he rushed, passed, kicked, tackled, blocked, and played 1714 of 1740 minutes. (Sidelined by an attack of appendicitis for 26 minutes, he put himself back in the game against doctor's orders.) Not surprisingly, he handled the ball on every offensive play. Coach Dewey Scanlon used the double wing offense that Warner had developed when Nevers played for him at Stanford. In the formation, the fullback usually received the snap. When Nevers joined the Chicago Cardinals, they used it too. He once completed a then unheard-of 17 passes for the Eskimos. Because of his exploits, the team was soon known as the Ernie Nevers' Eskimos.
The Duluth Eskimos spent the entire 1927 season on the road, with Nevers again their key player. Despite his best efforts, the team won only one of nine NFL games. Nevers sat out the 1928 season because of a back injury; instead he was an assistant coach under Warner at Stanford University. In 1929 he signed with the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL as a player-coach. On November 6, 1929, Nevers played in the NFL's first night game, at Kinsley Park in Providence. Floodlights 20 feet above the ground illuminated the field and the game ball was painted white. Nevers ran for one touchdown, passed for another, and kicked a field goal in the game.
A few weeks after the night game, Nevers scored every point for the Cardinals in a 19-0 win over Dayton. Four days later, on November 28, he did it again against the Chicago Bears. In that Thanksgiving Day game, he made six touchdowns and kicked four extra points, scoring all 40 points in his team's 40-6 victory over the Bears and setting an NFL record for points scored in a game.
Nevers starred for the Cardinals again in 1930 and 1931, but was forced to retire in 1932 after breaking his wrist in the All-Star game after the 1931 season. During his five NFL seasons, he made All-Pro at fullback five times and scored 301 points. In 1963, he was honored for his remarkable career as a charter inductee into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Nevers pitched for the St. Louis Browns in the American League from 1926 to 1928. A right-hander, he won six games and lost 12. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit two of his 60 home runs off him.
Nevers was the first player-coach in big league history, serving as such for the Duluth Eskimos for one year and for the Chicago Cardinals for two. He was an assistant coach at Stanford University in 1928 and a backfield coach there from 1932 to 1935. He was head coach at Lafayette College in 1936 and coached at the University of Iowa in 1937 and 1938. In 1939 he returned to the NFL, coaching the Cardinals, but the team won only one game.
Nevers served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II (1942-45). After his discharge, he worked in public relations for a wholesale liquor company. Nevers died of a kidney disorder on May 3, 1976 in San Rafael, California.
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Biographical Dictionary of American Sports. Football, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1987.
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Great Athletes, vol. 13, Salem Press, 1992.
Peterson, Robert W., Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, Oxford University Press, 1997.
New York Times, May 4, 1976.
Sports Illustrated, September 9, 1987.
"Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinees: Ernie Nevers," Pro Football Hall of Fame, http://www.profootballhof.com/famers/nevers.html (October 26, 1999).
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