Tag Archives: violence

Football fights

This Redskins season has become so utterly devoid of meaning that a practice-field slapfest between an offensive guy and a defensive guy got turned into The Thrilla in Ashburn this week. I won’t even bother you with the video. (Put it this way: I’ve seen disputes over parking spaces that were more spirited.)

Most Fridays, just for fun, I post a boxing or wrestling match featuring a former NFL player. But today I’m going to talk about some real football fights that took place in Actual Games, just to put Bashaud Breeland-Andre Roberts I in perspective.

Granted, there were some blows landed in the Breeland-Roberts bout, but did either of them pick up a goal-line marker and hit the other over the head with it? That’s what the Steelers’ John Henry Johnson did to the Rams’ Bill Jobko during their late-game square-off in 1961.

Pittsburgh, down 24-17, was trying to salvage a tie when the Rams’ Eddie Meador picked off a Bobby Layne pass and started heading for the end zone. Pat Livingston of the Pittsburgh Press described what happened next:

The brawling started when [running back] John Henry Johnson knocked Meador out of bounds on the Steeler[s] 7. Johnson was hit from behind and knocked down by linebacker Bill Jobko and got up swinging the goal-line marker.

The marker hit Jobko on the head but, luckily, the Ram was protected by the helmet he wore. It was enough to empty both benches, though.

Johnson emerged from the scrap with “a deep cut” on his nose, Jack Sell of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Naturally, he was none too pleased about it.

“They were roughing me up all day,” he said. “They were dirty as hell. I don’t have to take it, and I won’t.”

(Years later, a story in the Post-Gazette revealed: “The Rams punished Johnson with a series of late hits in retaliation for Johnson having broken the jaw of Ram[s] linebacker Les Richter earlier in the game.”)

Speaking of Richter — a Hall of Famer like Johnson — he was involved in another memorable fight, seven years earlier, on the same Los Angeles Coliseum field. It was the first quarter of a game between the Rams and Colts, and he and Baltimore defensive end Don Joyce got into it over something or other. It depends on your source.

Joyce said Richter started it by kneeing him on a kickoff return. Richter’s version: “I blocked Joyce on the kickoff. He grabbed me by the head. My helmet came off in his hands, and the next thing I knew he hit me across the face with my helmet.”

Here are a couple of visuals for you. The first is a photo of the aftermath — Richter lying on the ground, grabbing his face, while Joyce looks on unsympathetically. (Note the helmet at Don’s feet. He was ejected from the game, by the way.)

Joyce Richter photo from Chronicle

The second is a shot of Richter taken later in the week, after he’d needed 15 stitches to close the cut over his right eye.

12-7-54 Sun Richter photo(In an era in which few holds were barred, Joyce was one of the tougher customers. As Carl Brettschneider, a roughhousing linebacker for the Cardinals and Lions, put it: “Every team had a guy the other team was always aware of – guys like Hardy Brown, John Henry Johnson, Bucko Kilroy, Don Joyce. You didn’t turn your back on Don Joyce.”)

Commissioner Bert Bell looked into the situation and — you’ll love this — decided not to suspend Joyce. The Colts had one game left, against the 49ers in San Francisco, and Don was in the lineup. There may have been a fine, but I’m not even sure of that. Bell wasn’t exactly a disciplinarian when it came to such matters.

“We cannot condone this short of thing,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “But there is no sense flying off the handle and condemning the boy too harshly. I have already talked to the boy, and he and I will work it out. . . .

“Four or five years ago I fined two players heavily. After the season was over we got together and talked over the situation, and since that time neither has been put out of a game. They also got their fines back.

“If people would just let the players and myself thrash out the difficulties, we would be able to do it without all the fuss and bother.”

They also got their fines back. That kinda says it all for 1950s justice — and for how the commissioner dealt with the violence issue. Bell, I’m convinced, low-keyed it because he figured if he did, sportswriters wouldn’t make as big a deal of it. And for the most part, they didn’t.

Finally, there’s this from the Sun story: “Word from San Francisco says Joyce probably will get a big hand when he takes the field against the 49ers Saturday. The folks from the Golden Gate didn’t care for the way Les Richter played against their team.”

Now tell me again about this bloodless practice-bubble battle at Redskins Park.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, The Pro Football Chronicle.

Putting the “foot” in football

The ’50s were a nasty time to be a pro football player, the early part of the decade in particular. Until 1955 a ball carrier could get up after he was knocked down and try to gain more yardage — as long as his forward progress hadn’t been stopped, that is. This, predictably, this led to plenty of late hits, piling on and assorted other crimes and misdemeanors.

If you want a glimpse of what the environment was like, check out this photo from 1952. It shows Hugh McElhenny, the 49ers’ Hall of Fame back, lying (facemaskless) on the ground and Redskins middle guard Jim Ricca giving him a boot — or something — to discourage him from any further frolicking.

The cutline reads: “After San Francisco’s Hugh McElhenny fell, following his catch of Y.A. Tittle’s pass, Washington’s Jim Ricca (55) demonstrated one version of the ‘foot part’ in football. Ricca got a placekick squarely in McElhenny’s shoulder and made sure of stopping the play, good for eight yards. Watching with mixed emotions are 49ers Bill Johnson (53) and Billy Wilson (84).”

(That’s the same Bill Johnson, by the way, who later coached the Bengals — Tiger Johnson.)McElhenny kicked

I interviewed Johnson once after he’d retired and asked him about the time he was ejected from a game against the Bears. He pleaded guilty to taking a cheap shot at Chicago linebacker George Connor, another guy who’s in Canton.

“He were down on the goal line,” Johnson said, “and I didn’t even wait for the snap. I just fired out and drove him against the goal post [which was situated at the front of the end zone then]. I can still see the post swaying back and forth [from the impact].”

And what exactly provoked this outburst?

“Just didn’t like the way he carried himself.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 1950s. Rugged, man, rugged.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The most dangerous player who ever buckled a chinstrap

There’ll never be another player like Hardy Brown, the linebacker-anesthesiologist for the 49ers in the ’50s. Compared to Hardy, Jack “They Call Me Assassin” Tatum sold Girl Scout cookies.

If you need further proof of the man’s menace, read this fabulous piece by Bob O’Donnell (taken from our 1990 book, The Pro Football Chronicle). To get you started, here’s a visual: Brown — aiming high, as always — about to reduce Browns quarterback Otto Graham to cracker crumbs.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever. Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

— former Giants lineman Tex Coulter

Bob’s preface:

I saw my first Hardy Brown hit while watching films of the 1951 Browns-49ers game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A San Francisco defensive back intercepted a pass by Otto Graham and was weaving his way upfield when a sudden movement at the bottom of the screen caught my eye. It was like the flash a fisherman might see in a stream before his line grows taut. I reversed the film and watched again.

As a Browns receiver turned to pursue the play, he was struck so violently in the face that his helmet popped up on his head and his back hit the ground before his feet. Standing over him was Hardy Brown. You could almost hear him chuckling.

There isn’t much left of Hardy Brown. He’s been institutionalized in northern California with dementia, the result of years of hard drinking. He also has emphysema, and the arthritis in his right shoulder is so bad he can’t lift his arm to scratch his head.

Let’s start with The Shoulder. That’s where the legend begins. Hardy Brown played linebacker in the NFL at 6 feet, 190 pounds, and hit harder than any player before or since. His right shoulder was his weapon. He usually aimed it at an opponent’s head, and the results often were concussions and facial fractures – noses, cheeks, jaws . . . you name it, Brown broke it.

“It was early in the game,” former Eagles running back Toy Ledbetter recalls of his 1953 run-in with Brown, “and I was carrying on a sweep to the right. I knew about Brown because I’d been at Oklahoma State when he was at Tulsa. I usually kept my eye on him, but this time I cut inside a block and never saw him. He caught me with the shoulder and the next thing I knew I was on the ground looking for my head.”

The hit broke Ledbetter’s cheek. Dr. Tom Dow, Eagles team physician, said it was the worst facial fracture he’d seen. In Brown’s 10 pro seasons, spent in four different leagues, he laid low dozens in the same brutal fashion. Backs, ends, linemen, it didn’t matter. Brown was an indiscriminate maimer.

And what a mystery. No one could figure out how he hit with the force he did. In 1951, Bears coach George Halas had officials check Brown’s shoulder pads before a game. They found nothing. Nor could anyone figure Brown’s fury. He lived for the big hits. Relished them. They were his one marketable skill. Away from the game, he was reserved but friendly. On the field, he was a killer.

“I came out of the huddle at the beginning of the game and figured I’d say hello,” says ex-Giants lineman Tex Coulter, who grew up with Brown in a Fort Worth, Texas, orphanage. “I came up to the line and looked across at his linebacker spot, and his eyes looked like they belonged to some cave animal. They were fiery, unfocused. You don’t know if he could see anything or everything. I kept my mouth shut.”

Y.A. Tittle claims in his book, I Pass, that Brown knocked out 21 opponents as a 49er in ’51 – including, in the preseason, the Washington Redskins’ entire starting backfield. That might be an exaggeration; who kept an accurate count of such things? But Brown inspired exaggeration. Ex-players speak of him the way fight people speak of Sonny Liston.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever,” Coulter says. “Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

Coulter knows Brown as well as anyone. They are about the same age and arrived at the Masonic Home orphanage at about the same time in 1929. Coulter is working on a book about their lives. To understand Hardy Brown, he says, you have to understand his past. That isn’t easy.

Hardy Brown’s father was murdered. Shot dead in a neighbor’s home in rural Kirkland, Texas, Nov. 7, 1928. Two men pumped four bullets into him. Hardy was in the room when it happened. He was four. Four months later, Brown was present again when a family friend murdered one of his father’s killers at point-blank range.

After the second incident, Brown’s mother sent her four youngest children to the Masonic Home in Fort Worth. Hardy was five. He claimed it was 12 years before he heard from his mother again, and then only to get her permission to enlist in the Marines.

The Masonic Home orphanage sits on over 200 acres of land southeast of downtown Fort Worth. It has its own dairy farm and school, with grades one through 12. In the ’30s, there was a matron for every 12 to 15 children. Discipline was rigid. Those who didn’t do their chores or got caught slipping off to Sycamore Creek after hours could expect to be cuffed.

Football was the great escape. It was rough, wild and (almost) without rules. Unless you were a sissy boy, you played. That was the last thing Hardy Brown was.

“Football gave us self-worth,” Coulter says. “We were orphans, but you couldn’t call us orphans. When the newspapers came out and wrote stories, they’d refer to us as ragtag kids, and that made us angry. That was pity from above, and we hated it. Football was a way to alleviate that.”

The Shoulder was born at the Masonic Home. It was the brainchild of Hardy’s older brother Jeff. Jeff reasoned correctly that human beings, like fence posts, were easier to knock down if you hit them high. So when an opponent approached, he’d crouch slightly and then spring into the player’s chin with his shoulder. In no time, everyone at the home was using “the humper,” as it came to be called.

“The city boys were frightened as hell of us,” Coulter says. “I don’t blame ’em, the way Hardy Brown was and I was, too, to some extent. The goddamn guys would be bleeding all over the place. You know, in high school ball, you just aren’t used to that. We speared, we leg-whipped, we used the humper, and I’m almost positive the man who invented the crackback block was our coach, Rusty Russell. We did all them things and didn’t think anything of it. We thought we were good, clean, rough boys.

Brown got out of the Masonic Home in 1941, enrolled at SMU and then went into the Marines, where he became the problem of the Japanese. He saw action in the Pacific as a paratrooper and, according to his sister Cathlyn, was on his way to Iwo Jima when a call came from West Point, of all places. It seems Army had pulled Coulter out of the enlisted ranks to play on its football team, and Coulter had put the coaches on to his Masonic Home teammate.

But Brown washed out of the Academy’s prep school after failing the math requirement (though a night of drunken revelry at a nearby girl’s school didn’t help). None too disappointed, he landed at Tulsa University in the fall of 1945. For the next three years, he terrorized the Missouri Valley Conference as a blocking back and linebacker.

New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks was Brown’s roommate at Tulsa and says he may have been at his destructive peak during those years.

“We’d put Brown at fullback if we wanted him to block one defensive end and put him at halfback if we wanted him to block the other,” Finks says. “There were many games when he literally knocked out both defensive ends. I think it was a game against Baylor that he put out the two ends on consecutive plays.

“He broke my nose and gave me four stitches at a goddamned practice!”

Brown got poor Toy Ledbetter in college, too. It came on a kickoff return, and Finks says it’s the hardest hit he’s ever seen. “Ledbetter lay there quivering,” he says. “Snot came out of his nose. He was bloody. He was down five minutes before they finally carried him off.”

Off the field, Brown occasionally got wild when he was drinking. He and his future wife, Betty, woke up Finks one night and shot up the dorm room with a .22 rifle. But for the most part, Finks says, Brown was “intelligent, warm and shy,” nothing like his on-field persona.

It took Brown a while to find permanent employment in pro ball. He broke in with the All-America Conference’s Brooklyn Dodgers in ’48 and went to the Chicago Rockets the next year. When the AAC folded, he wound up with the Washington Redskins, who waived him eight games into the ’50 season. Small, slow linebackers weren’t in demand.

But the word on Brown was getting around. He’d begun to leave a trail of bodies. Harry Buffington, head of the National scouting combine, was a guard for Brooklyn in ’48 and says one AAC team assigned a player to shadow Brown on the field and act as a “protector” for the other players. Tittle was with the Colts in ’50 and says running back Rip Collins told him before a game with Washington that he didn’t want to run pass routes in Brown’s area.

It was the Colts who signed Brown after the Redskins waived him, and in his first game with them he broke Giants running back Joe Scott’s nose with The Shoulder. The hit infuriated the Giants, and they tried to take their revenge.

Teams went after Brown as a matter of routine. He was a menace and could influence a game if he put a star player out. In a notorious incident in 1954, Lions defensive tackle Gil Mains jumped feet first into Brown on a kickoff return and opened a 20-stitch cut on his thigh. Brown was sewn up and returned to the game.

“I remember Hardy came up to me before a kickoff once and said, ‘How about an onsides kick?’” says CBS broadcaster Pat Summerall, a teammate of Brown’s in ’56. “It was a close game with the Giants, and I told him I couldn’t do that on my own without hearing from the coaches. He said he thought it would be a good idea. . . . Anyway, I kicked off as far as I could kick it, and here comes the whole Giant team after Hardy. They never even looked at the ball.”

The Colts went belly up after the 1950 season, and Brown found a home in San Francisco. He was the 49ers’ starting left linebacker for five seasons. It’s difficult even to estimate how many players he KO’d with The Shoulder. One a game? That’s probably too many. But you just don’t know, because newspapers didn’t devote much space to defensive play.

Game stories on a 49ers-Cardinals exhibition in ’51, for instance, state that as many as six Chicago players were put out of the game, three with broken noses. The San Francisco Chronicle added the line: “Against the Cards, Hardy Brown . . . played as vicious a line backing game as the 49ers ever had.” How many of those broken noses were Hardy’s doing is anyone’s guess.

Brown may have been most dangerous on special teams, where it was easier to freelance and there was a field full of targets. Lions linebacker Carl Brettschneider said one of Brown’s favorite tactics on punts was to line up behind an official so the opposing center couldn’t see him, then catch him with The Shoulder as soon as he raised his head after the snap.

“He broke more jaws than any guy going,” Brettschneider said.

Brown loved to talk about those bone-rattling blows. He apparently didn’t lose any sleep over the injuries he caused, either. He also missed a lot of tackles because he aimed for the head.

“I don’t think he ever went out to hurt anyone,” Coulter says. “I think Hardy was shaped a certain way. One thing about a hard hitter is that you don’t realize what it feels like to be hit. When you’re doing the hitting, when you stick someone with that shoulder, it’s a beautiful feeling. By God, it gives you a sense of power that reaches right to the back of your head. I think Hardy enjoyed that feeling.”

Age and size caught up to Brown in ’56. The 49ers waived him in training camp. He played briefly with Hamilton in the CFL and then signed with the Cardinals. At the end of the ’56 season, the Cards released him.

In 1960, Toy Ledbetter had stopped by the locker room of the newly formed Denver Broncos to visit two former Eagles teammates when he heard a high-pitched cackle behind him. Ledbetter turned to see, of all people, his old nemesis Hardy Brown sitting in front of a locker.

“How’s the cheekbone, Toy Boy?” Brown said.

Ledbetter laughed and shook hands with Brown. “No hard feelings,” Ledbetter told him.

“You asshole.”

After being released by the Broncos, Brown fell on hard times. He and his wife, Betty, broke up for a while. He held a number of construction jobs in the Southwest. And he continued to drink heavily. In 1986 he had to be institutionalized.

Family members say Brown never lost his desire to play football. At some point after he retired, he became involved with a semipro team.

The story is some young punk was giving him lip one day, and Brown decked him. Put him in the hospital.

The “Savagery on Sunday” trial

In October 1955 Life magazine tackled the issue of NFL violence head-on with an exposé titled:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 4.08.34 PM


Not surprisingly, two of the players the magazine identified as “bad boys,” middle guard Bucko Kilroy and linebacker Wayne Robinson of the Eagles, brought $250,000 libel suits against the publisher, Time, Inc. This led to one of the more entertaining — and educational — trials in league history.

The case wasn’t tried until 1958, by which time Kilroy and Robinson were retired. Here’s an excerpt from Kilroy’s testimony that deals with an episode during the ’48 preseason, when he kicked Bears guard Ray Bray in the groin. Keep in mind this is the future general manager of the Patriots talking:

In the end, Life‘s “evidence” was too shaky to hold up. Kilroy and Robinson didn’t walk away with $250,000 for having their characters impugned, but they were awarded $11,600 each, which is more than either ever made in a season. More important, as far as the NFL is concerned: no publication since has gone after it so aggressively on the problem of dirty play. It’s just a hard accusation to prove, given the nature of the sport.

Down the road, I’ll post more testimony from the trial, which lasted eight days and saw Commissioner Bert Bell and fellow Hall of Famers Otto Graham, Doak Walker and Em Tunnell called to the stand. You haven’t lived until you’ve read the following words, straight from the commish’s lips:

I don’t read the rules too thoroughly. . . . I couldn’t study those rules in a hundred years. They are technical in every way else.