Monthly Archives: June 2015

A lost record?

There isn’t much in the NFL record book that dates to the 1920s — as far as individual marks go, especially. Ernie Nevers’ six touchdowns (since tied) and 40 points (still unmatched) in a single game survive, but not a whole lot else. It’s just a long time ago, you know? Besides, the league didn’t start keeping official statistics until 1932. Any record before that got grandfathered into the book, so to speak.

So I was happy to receive an email the other day from Gary Selby, who’s come across a potentially intriguing piece of history. Gary mentioned the item in my book, The National Forgotten League, about the Bears’ Joe Zeller possibly intercepting six passes in a game against the Eagles in the ’30s — two more than the current record. I say “possibly” because it happened before the NFL kept track of individual INTs (and before newspapers made much note of them in their game stories). So I wasn’t able to confirm Zeller’s feat; all I could do was throw it out there as a Great Big Maybe.

My source was the 1935 edition of Who’s Who in Major League Football, a kind of media guide published by the league. Zeller’s entry read like this:

Joe Zeller in Who's Who in Major League Football 1935

Selby, however, had this to add to the discussion: “Last summer, while doing some research for the Pro Football Researcher’s Association, I found an interesting article in the Milwaukee Sentinel. It reported that Milton Romney of the Racine Legion intercepted six passes against the Minneapolis Marines on Dec. 2, 1923. It was the last game of the season for both teams.”

Here’s the first paragraph of the article Selby was talking about:Just opening graf of Romney

The two franchises are long gone, of course, but they were indeed members of the NFL in Year 4. As an added bonus, Milton Romney, otherwise known as Mitt, is related to the Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2008. Cousin Milt broke in with Racine before spending the bulk of his six-year pro career as a quarterback for George Halas’ Bears.

Anyway, in this case — unlike Zeller’s — we have at least a bit of corroborating evidence. The thing is, it’s hard to know how reliable that bit is. After all, there often was confusion in the early days about who did what on the field. Jersey numbers weren’t as visible then as they are now, and dirt and mud could make players even harder to identify. Then, too, there was no television coverage . . . and thus, no instant replay to help a sportswriter confirm what he thought he saw. I’ve researched games in which three different players were given credit for a touchdown, depending on which paper you read.

The Milwaukee Journal’s account of the game notes only one Romney pick — and doesn’t say anything about any others. “On the first play after the kickoff,” it reports, “Romney intercepted a forward [pass] on Minneapolis’ 35-yard line and Rollie Williams got away for a touchdown on the next play.” The score increased the Racine lead to 17-0.

So who knows, really? As Selby pointed out, it was the season finale for the two teams, and some strange things have happened in these games over the decades. In 1937, for instance, the Cardinals’ Gus Tinsley caught a pass in the early December darkness and went 97 yards for a touchdown before the crowd — and many of the Bears — realized he had the ball. (It was, at the time, the longest TD catch in NFL history.)

Still, Romney’s “feat” is fun to think about. And let’s face it, if a player was ever going to rack up six picks in a game, it was in the ’20s, when the ball was fatter and harder to throw and INTs were epidemic. Consider: Six interceptions would have been almost enough to lead the league last season. (Lions safety Glover Quin was tops with seven.)

Sources: Google newspapers, pro-football-reference.com.

Quarterback Milton "Mitt" Romney in his Bears days.

Quarterback Milton “Mitt” Romney in his Bears days.

Players behaving badly

It’s a natural question to ask, given the antics of some NFL players in recent years — Prince Shembo’s drop-kicking of a dog, Ray Rice’s slugging of his Significant Other, etc.: Have players always been this out of control? What kinds of things did they get arrested for in the alleged Good Old Days?

Rest assured footballers have always been footballers, though their crimes of choice decades ago tended to be different from today — more typical than terrible. I’ve gathered a bunch of them so you’ll get a feel for the scope of their misbehavior. Remember: This is just a sampling. There’s plenty more where these came from.

● 1926: Jim Thorpe gets drunk in the midst of Prohibition.

This happened during Red Grange’s postseason barnstorming tour with the Bears. As you may have heard, ol’ Bright Path had a weakness for the bottle. His drinking buddy, according to the story below, was C.C. Wiederquist — a great football name. But I’m pretty sure it’s misspelled and that The Associated Press was referring to Chester Carl “Chet” Widerquist, who played six seasons in the NFL (and didn’t, near as I can tell, attend the University of Minnesota).Jim Thorpe intoxication 1-5-26

● 1938: Shipwreck Kelly breaks up a marriage.

Kelly, the toast (literally) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a legendary Man About Town. Three years later he married heiress Brenda Frazier, who once graced the cover of Life magazine. What I wouldn’t give to follow Shipwreck around for a night and see where it took him. Nowadays, of course, he’d get killed by the social media. The whole world would take a selfie with him and post it on Facebook. But back then you could disappear in the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.Shipwreck Kelly 1-18-38 Eagle● 1946: Double disaster.

I’m not sure the you-know-what ever hit the fan in pro football like it did in December 1946. Before the NFL title game, a fix attempt was uncovered that involved two Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes. Both were banned indefinitely from the league. Before the championship game in the rival All-America Conference, meanwhile, three Browns got a little rowdy and one of them, team captain Jim Daniell, lost his job because of it. How does this compare with, say, the Falcons’ Eugene Robinson getting charged with solicitation the night before the Super Bowl?'46 fix attempt and Danielle head side by side 12-16-46

FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.Daniell and 2 others acquitted 12-23-46● 1959: Another DUI charge for Bobby Layne.

I say “another” because the Hall of Fame quarterback had one two years earlier when he was with the Lions. He managed to escape conviction on both occasions, as I posted about a while back. It’s pretty comical. The first time, his lawyer argued that police had mistaken his Texas drawl for slurred speech, and in this second instance, his lawyer said Bobby’s “extreme hoarseness, which may have led the police to suspect intoxication, was the result of a severe case of laryngitis.” (Then again, maybe he just had a shot glass stuck in his throat.)Layne DUI 8-25-59● 1960: John Henry Johnson falls behind on his child-support payments.

Fortunately for Johnson, who’s also in Canton, the term Deadbeat Dad hadn’t been invented yet. Five kids. Can you imagine how that would play in 2015?JH Johnson alimony 3-10-60● 1972: Karl Sweetan tries to sell his Rams playbook to the Saints, one of his former teams.

Sweetan wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he gained eternal infamy for this pathetic move. Like most of his passes — 54.4 percent, to be exact — it was incomplete.Sweetan 7-8-72

So there you have it, a sampling of off-field trouble from pro football’s first 50-odd years. Moral: These guys have always acted up. In the 2000s, it isn’t necessarily the magnitude of their misconduct that’s bigger; sometimes it’s just the microscope they’re under.

Postscript: NFL players haven’t always been on the wrong side of the law. I leave you with this story about John Kreamcheck, a Bears defensive tackle in the ’50s, who became a detective:Kreamcheck arrests suspect 7-6-67Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.

The NFL’s artistic gift to the NHL

The NFL and NHL don’t have much overlap. There have been pro football players, for instance, who played major-league baseball, and even a few who played pro basketball, but I’m not aware of any who played pro hockey. (The closest anyone came was probably in the Ice Bowl between the Packers and Cowboys.)

There is one interesting intersection between the two leagues, though, and it’s worth bringing up now that the Stanley Cup Finals are upon us. Did you know the guy responsible for this cover art of Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau . . .Coulter Beliveau cover March 1957

. . . and this rendering of Habs Hall of Famer Henri Richard . . .Coulter cover art of Henri Richard Oct '58

. . . and this drawing of Canadiens legend Jacques Plante stretching out to make an acrobatic save . . .Coulter Cover of 1963 offical hockey annual

. . . and many other hockey-themed works was an an-pro tackle for the Giants in the ’40s and ’50s?

DeWitt “Tex” Coulter was his name. In fact, “TEX” was how he signed his creations (as you can see). You wouldn’t expect a 6-foot-4, 250-pound, down-in-the-dirt footballer to have much of an artistic bent, but Coulter was an unusual guy. For one thing, he came out of the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth, Texas, an orphanage that became famed for its football teams. One of his buddies there, Hardy Brown, went on to be a killer (not literally, but almost) linebacker for the 49ers. I’ve posted about Brown before. He had a way of delivering a blow with his shoulder — The Humper, he called it — that left a trail of broken noses, jaws and cheekbones.

Not that Coulter, with his size, couldn’t take care of himself. How good was he? Answer: Good enough for teams to fight over. After starring on the Glenn Davis-Doc Blanchard Army powerhouses in 1944 and ’45, he got booted out of school because of a “deficiency in mathematics,” according to The New York Times. Since the ’46 draft had already been held, the Giants were allowed to sign him for that season, even though his class hadn’t graduated. (The NFL figured it was better than having him wind up in the All-America Conference, the rival league that had just launched.)

Coulter 1952 cardBut here’s the thing: At the end of the year, Coulter had to go in the ’47 draft pool — the one he would have been in — and any club could select him. The Eagles wanted him badly, but the Cardinals, picking one spot ahead of them, took him seventh overall and then, as a courtesy, traded him back to New York for the Giants’ own No. 1 (10th). So it went in the chummy NFL of the 1940s.

When he left West Point, Coulter had no intention of playing pro ball. Indeed, he’d told the Giants — and any other team that contacted him — “that he would go to Georgia Tech to study commercial art,” the Times reported. But there was a bidding war going on between the two leagues, and the money, a reported $21,500 for one year, was too good to turn down, especially since he was getting married soon to his high school sweetheart. Besides, the Giants had promised “to help me go on with my education,” he said after signing, “and I plan to go to art school in New York.”

Coulter played four seasons with the Giants, established himself as one of the top tackles in pro football, and then, at 25, did a Totally Tex thing: He walked away from the game and took a job as a cartoonist and football analyst with the Dallas Times Herald. (Believe it or not, he’d always thought it would be cool to be a newspaperman.) This is from a 1984 Dallas Morning News story by Sam Blair:

[Coulter] was a familiar figure in Southwest Conference press boxes, frequently turning to his typewriter to write a story when his artwork was finished.

“I really enjoyed that,” he said. “If I had been older, I probably would still be doing it. But I didn’t have football out of my system. When the Giants came to Dallas in the summer of ’51 to play an exhibition game with the Detroit Lions, I decided I wanted to play again. I suited up and played most of the game in the Cotton Bowl.”

If there was any rust on him, it wasn’t visible. He made the Pro Bowl the next two years and, under different circumstances, might have been a candidate for Canton. There weren’t many positions – on either side of the ball – Tex couldn’t play. He even caught eight passes for the ’47 Giants as an occasional end. (I, personally, would have loved to see him as a Nagurski-esque fullback.)

“I played end, tackle and center on offense and end, tackle and linebacker on defense,” he once said. “They used me as insurance for guys getting hurt. It was easier to shift me around than to get other people for various positions.”

There was only one problem: By then the All-America Conference — or part of it, at least — had merged with the NFL, and the absence of competition had caused salaries to drop. So, like a number of other well-known players in those days, Tex negotiated a better deal with a Canadian team, in his case the Montreal Alouettes. (Not only did he never set foot in the NFL again, he made the country his home for the next two decades. When he died in 2007, his two sons, Jeff and David, still lived in British Columbia.)

Tex portrait of Eddie ShoreIt was in Canada that Coulter really arrived as an artist. In addition to his hockey portraits and other puck-related stuff, he got a job with the Montreal Star that was much like the one he had with Dallas Times Herald. His work, meanwhile, graced magazine covers, calendars, you name it. Canadiens blogger Dennis Kane calls him “the Norman Rockwell of hockey artists.”

One last (funny) story: In 1966, 33 University of Montreal students broke into the visitors’ dressing room at the Forum and stole 44 Red Wings sweaters. They also made off with three of Coulter’s hockey paintings that were hanging in the lobby. (Which raises the question: Which were worth more on the black market, the 44 sweaters or the three paintings?)

It was all “part of the hijinks associated with the U of M’s annual winter carnival,” the Montreal Gazette reported. “. . . The students — including three females — . . . were arrested [the next night] when they appeared in the Forum following a Detroit-Canadiens game. A number of them jumped on the ice wearing the stolen Detroit sweaters, and this led to the 33 arrests.”

The newspaper didn’t mention the fate of Coulter’s artwork. Let’s hope it was returned intact. After all, we’re talking about “the Norman Rockwell of hockey artists” here — and one fabulous, if forgotten, NFL player.

Sources: pro-football-reference, Google newspapers.

From the Giants' 1952 media guide.

From the Giants’ 1952 media guide.