Helmetless in 1927

The clip below should be seen in its entirety. First because precious little game footage survives from the ’20s, and second because it’s only 2 minutes long. You got something better to do?

The teams are the Providence Steam Roller (dark jerseys) and the semipro Framingham (Mass.) Lion Tamers (light jerseys with stripes on the arms). The year is 1927 — the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title and five years before they dropped out of the league, a victim of the Depression. It looks like the game is being played in Framingham, because Providence’s stadium, the Cycledrome, was built for bicycle racing and had a banked track running around the field.

One of the first things you notice (:03) is that the left end and right guard for Providence are bareheaded. I’m guessing the end, No. 12, is Ed Lynch. Not sure about the right guard, but it could be Jim Laird. Later on (:53) you’ll see Nos. 12 and 26, both helmetless, in the same frame, and later still (1:29), if you look hard, you’ll see three Steam Roller linemen without headgear — the left end, right guard and right end. The right end might be John Spellman, who was renowned as a wrestler and won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Games — the Chariots of Fire Olympics — in the light-heavyweight class.

Also worthy of note:

● The officials are wearing white — like hospital attendants, which was probably fitting. It was a rough game back then, what with minimal padding, no facemasks (except to protect an injury) and, for some guys, no helmets.

● On the extra point (:26), the kicker uses a holder. It’s a good reminder that not everybody dropkicked in 1927. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the practice was becoming obsolete.

The Steam Roller’s coach was Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, who also played quarterback for them. (The QB was essentially the blocking back in the single wing, though he often called the plays and, in Conzelman’s case, contributed as a receiver.) Jimmy was a legendary storyteller, and one of his best tales was about Lynch. It went something like this:

You hear a lot about Cal Hubbard and George Trafton from those early years, but you never hear about a lad named Ed Lynch. Lynch was a bricklayer before he went to college, and from what I’ve been able to learn, he was a very good man on the corners. Now, there are bricklayers and there are bricklayers. Some are good on a straightaway wall, but only a master craftsman can handle the delicate job of laying the corners. As I said, Lynch was very good on the corners.

When he’d gathered together enough money, he matriculated at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He’s a legend down there now. He was a grand basketball player and a magnificent man on a football field. Six feet tall, about 205 pounds, wide shoulders, tremendous arms – an eye-filling sight from head to toe.

He played end for me in Detroit and Providence, and he was one of the finest ends I ever saw. He thought that only sissies wore pads, so he played without any protective equipment except the muscles he was born with. Brother, that was plenty.

One day we were playing the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and we returned the opening kickoff to about our 20. The Yellow Jackets had just signed a hotshot college tackle, and Lynch looked him over as we lined up for the first play.

“What’s your name, sonny?” asked Lynch, calm as you please.

The kid was taken aback by such a question at such a time. “Weir,” he said. “Ed Weir.”

“Oh,” answered Lynch, “you’re that All-America tackle from Nebraska. Gosh, it must be great to be famous. Take me, for instance. Nobody ever heard of me. I went to a little school, Catholic U., but I’m just as big as you and just as tough. I probably know more about football than you do, too. Give me a minute and I’ll show you.”

He turned back to me and said, “Jimmy, run a play around my end. I want to demonstrate something to this young fellow.” Nobody ever said that Conzelman was anything but obliging. So I carried the ball myself, and Lynch practically drove Weir into the next lot. A defensive back made the tackle about 20 yards downfield. As I walked back, there was Lynch helping Weir to his feet.

He was very nice about it, too. “See what I mean, sonny?” he remarked in kindly fashion. “Now let me show you again. Jimmy, run one this way once more.” And he pinned Weir in that same deadly fashion. What I wouldn’t have given to have a Lynch or two on my Chicago Cardinals teams in the ’40s. A great player. And a great bricklayer. Very good on the corners.