While sports fans continue to debate, with no little fervor, whether the Redskins should change their name, I thought I’d post this piece about the Native American chief who played for them in the early years — and holds an interesting place in football history. There’s a tendency to lump the Redskins’ refusal to integrate until the ’60s with the whole Name Thing and say, “It’s all of a piece. From the very beginning, this has been a racist organization.” But it’s not that neat and tidy, as you shall see.
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In the NFL’s early decades, there were two main sources of Native American football talent: Carlisle (in the Pennsylvania town of the same name) and Haskell (in Lawrence, Kan.). They weren’t really colleges, though they played many of their games against college teams. They were more like vocational high schools, the U.S. government’s attempt to assimilate the young tribal population into the American mainstream.
Along with farmers, carpenters and mechanics, the schools turned out some really good football players. Carlisle is more famous, thanks to the exploits of Jim Thorpe, one of the country’s greatest athletes, and Joe Guyon, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But according to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Haskell sent as many players to the NFL as Carlisle did (19 each, with some attending both schools).
One of the Haskell alums was Larry Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound rock of a center. (Sportswriters often called him “Chief Johnson” because he was a leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.) Johnson was the last player from either school to play in the NFL; in fact, he was the last player by a mile. The next to last, Haskell teammate Orien Crow, suited up for the final time in 1934. Larry’s farewell came a decade later, when he returned to the league after a four-year absence — along with a number of other retirees (e.g. the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski) — because of the manpower shortage during World War II.
The club that brought him back for five games at the age of 35? The Redskins.
Not that this surprised anybody. Johnson, after all, had begun his pro career with them in 1933, when they were still in Boston. That was the year the team changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins. It also happened to be the year Larry’s coach at Haskell, Lone Star Dietz, left the school to take the Redskins job. Dietz brought four players with him (the others being Crow, end David Ward and wingback Rabbit Weller).
The Redskins weren’t any better than average those first few seasons. It wasn’t until Ray Flaherty became the coach (1936) and Sammy Baugh the quarterback (’37) that they began going to title games. But owner George Preston Marshall had a flair for promotion — and was always coming up with some kind of stunt to draw attention to his team. When Johnson was a rookie, Marshall had the players put on war paint for a game against the Bears so they’d look like “ferocious Indians,” end Steve Hokuf once recalled. There was only one problem. On the train afterward, “we found out that 10 of our players weren’t able to remove their war paint and had to leave it on until the next morning. That was the last time the Redskins used war paint.”
There was much fascination in that era about Native Americans. Thorpe’s feats as a football star, decathlete and major-league baseball player were part of it, of course. But another part was the culture he sprang from. To whites, it was just so was darn mysterious.
In 1922, the season Thorpe organized the NFL’s Oorang Indians — an all-Native American team sponsored by a Marion, Ohio, dog kennel — newspapers ran a story about the death, at 130, of a Chippewa named Wrinkle Meat. It contained this passage:
Several years ago, when he was struck by a railroad engine, he was taken to a hospital but refused a bed, seeking instead a “comfortable place” on the floor. He rolled into a blanket and remained on the floor for three weeks until he recovered. . . . For 109 years of his life he had been married, having had eight wives.
Indian customs, closely followed, he considered the big factor in extending his life so long. His oldest acquaintances never recall having seen him sit in a chair or lie in a bed. He was just as much opposed to many other customs of whites, for he contended they were contrary to the laws of nature.
This is the world Larry Johnson grew up in. Native American athletes simply weren’t like other athletes, newspapers were always reminding their readers. In September 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported: “The [Oorang] Indians begin training today, and besides their daily football practice will take long runs nightly behind packs of hounds.”
How long, you ask? Well, another source tells us, “It means nothing to the Indians to make a jaunt on foot into Marion [from their clubhouse at the kennel], a distance of 28 miles. The warriors eat but twice a day. Practice begins at noon and continues until evening, and it’s then that the redskins have their second meal.”
(Note: These “packs of hounds” aren’t to be confused with the Indians’ mascot – a pet coyote that belonged lineman Nick Lassa, otherwise known as Long Time Sleep.)
Pop Warner, the coach who put Carlisle on the map, was convinced Native American players were easily discouraged. That’s why, it’s said, he tried to score first in every game (not that this isn’t advisable under any circumstances).
“As long as an Indian is winning,” he told Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manager, “he is the greatest player on earth. When he begins to lose, he is among the worst. It is this trait which let the whites win all of the territory of the Western Continent.”
Thorpe, Warner found, was “sulky and hard to handle, and that may ruin him.” Whether Jim was any sulkier or harder to handle than other superstars is an open question, but this was sometimes how Native American players were portrayed — and perceived.
(Decades later, there was a quarterback for the Packers, a Creek nicknamed “Indian Jack” Jacobs, who routinely ignored plays sent in from the sideline. Jacobs was such a freelancer, the tale goes, that he wound up in the CFL, where he twice led Winnipeg to the Grey Cup game. But he doesn’t appear to have gotten any better at following instructions. One day his Canadian coach got so frustrated that he put in two QBs, one to call the desired play and the other — Jacobs — to execute it.)
But let’s get back to Larry Johnson, the last product of The Two Big Native American Schools to play in the NFL. From all accounts, the guy was a physical specimen. One sportswriter wrote that Johnson had “the physique of a heavyweight boxing champion. [But] . . . his early ambitions in fistic work were halted at Haskell when he was flattened by another Indian.”
Still, Larry could take care of himself. In 1938, when he was with the Giants, he “got in a fistfight” with Pittsburgh tackle Armand Niccolai, according to The New York Times. “Unlike most gridiron battles,” the paper said, “this one produced some punching. Niccolai was knocked colder than the weather — which was pretty cold itself. So the Indian was chased from the game and the Giants penalized half the distance to the goal line [the punishment for slugging in those days], some 20 yards.”
The Giants won the title that year (which also makes Johnson the last product of the Two Big Native American schools to win the championship). He’d joined the team in 1936 after three seasons with the Redskins and a stint with the minor-league New York Yankees. Injuries had left New York thin at center, and coach Steve Owen signed him as a backup for Hall of Famer Mel Hein.
“If the experiment of bringing in an Indian turns out to be . . . successful,” Times columnist John Kieran wrote, “Owen may come up with a Chinaman or an Eskimo the next time danger threatens.”
Johnson wasn’t a great player by any means. Indeed, he was a second-stringer for most of his NFL career. But he did have one special skill: He was the best snapper for field goals and extra points Owen had ever seen. As the Hall of Fame coach put it in 1947 piece for Football Digest:
Our captain, Mel Hein, was an artist at it. But once we had a center even better than Mel for the placement try. I know some of you won’t believe this, but I vouch for it on my word of honor. When Chief Johnson, a big Indian from Haskell, was our reserve snapper-back, he had the pass for placements down to such an art that the ball always came back to the holder so that it was caught with the laces uppermost.
(Coming from Owen, who placed a huge importance on the kicking game, this was high praise. The Giants in those days spent most of the first hour of practice on special teams stuff, primarily field goals and PATs.)
After winning the ’38 title, Johnson spent some time in his native Wisconsin — and was a big enough deal to have his visit noted by the Shawano County Journal. He was in town, the paper said, to attend “the tribal council of the Menominees held in Keshena on Monday” and planned to “vacation in and around this section until August 10, when he will report [to] Superior [Wis.] for practice with the Giants until the [College] All-Star Game on September 1. Johnson is an enrolled member of the tribe and came down from Powell, where his mother lives, to attend the council with his brother, Joe Walkechon, of Keshena.”
The Giants went back to the title game in ’39, facing Green Bay for the second straight year. As the club prepared to leave for Milwaukee — where the game was held because the city had a bigger stadium — Johnson was filled with “fear and trepidation,” the Times reported. It wasn’t the Packers he was worried about, though. What concerned him was that “‘Every Indian in Wisconsin will be after me to get him tickets,’ he declared with a wry grin.”
It might have been the last time he smiled for a while. The Giants got crushed, 27-0.
Other than that, details of Johnson’s life are sketchy. In January 1939 the Nevada State Journal said he was living in Fallon Nev., and had returned home briefly to see his wife and children “at the Indian sub-agency” before heading to Los Angeles to play in the Pro Bowl (a game that pitted the champion Giants against the league all-stars). “Mrs. Johnson is the teacher at the Fallon Indian day school near Stillwater.”
The following year found him in Ogden, Utah, working for the U.S. Postal Service. And in 1944, according to the State Journal, he was “in the market for a western Nevada high school [coaching] job — football, basketball or baseball. Two seasons ago he turned out a championship grid club [in] Ogden . . . and has since moved to Reno.”
But then the Redskins, desperate for players in the late stages of the war, came calling, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the last half of the ’44 season for them. The NFL wasn’t much to look at that year. The talent level was almost semipro quality, and a few recent high school graduates even got into games. Washington was in contention, though, until the final two weeks, when the Giants beat them back-to-back.
After that, Johnson fell off the grid — so completely that none of the football encyclopedias list a death date for him. (Good luck finding an obituary. Lord knows I’ve tried.) That’s pretty much the end of the story except for one last nugget: It seems Larry had a sense of humor.
We know this because of something Owen said years later, at the weekly Football Writers’ brunch in New York. The conversation had turned, as it often did, to officials — in this case, an official who’d thrown his hat to the ground to mark where a Steelers receiver had gone out of bounds . . . and hadn’t bothered to notice the player had dropped the pass.
“Don’t get me started on officials,” said Owen, whose Giants were on the wrong end of the call — initially, at least. “When the other official straightened him out, I hollered, ‘And don’t forget your hat!’”
That sparked a memory in Stout Steve’s mind. “Remember Larry (Chief) Johnson, our Indian center?” he said. “He used to take great delight in moving an official’s hat a couple of yards.”