100 years ago, Brickley's performace for ages lifted Harvard past Yale
Harvard Stadium, Nov. 22, 1913. Minutes before the scheduled 2 p.m. kickoff, most of the capacity crowd of 46,483 (who have paid $2 a ticket or considerably more to a scalper), already are in their seats. Another 283 are standing on the Stadium parapets, and 127 reporters have crammed the press box. Many of spectators have stepped right out of the Social Register; they attest to their allegiance by sporting items of crimson or blue. They are gazing at midfield, where a powerfully built, bareheaded player clad in a crimson jersey is methodically traversing the field, alternately drop kicking and booting from placement, almost unfailing sending the roundish ball through the uprights.
As mighty Harvard readies to meet archrival Yale for the 34th time in what is pre-World War I's annual equivalent of the Super Bowl, the attention not only of those at the Stadium but also of fans following along by telegraph nationwide is riveted on Charles Edward Brickley. The Crimson junior from nearby Everett, Mass. is the most devastating all-around weapon in college football. This season, as the prime member of the Harvard backfield, he has scored eight touchdowns. On defense, he has picked off five of the newfangled forward passes attempted by opponents and broken up innumerable others. (Today he would be labeled a shutdown corner.)
But what really makes "Brick" so special is his strong right leg, which gives the Crimson a chance to score from anywhere inside midfield. Clad in a special shoe constructed with a square toe, Brickley's foot in '13 has delivered six field goals. The season before, he had kicked 13, a staggering total in that low-scoring, grind-it-out era. Some, such as the three-pointer he booted at Princeton two weeks before, have come with the game on the line.
Among those standing on the sideline on the Stadium's west (home) side is a tall, wiry man of aristocratic bearing and commanding mien: Percy Duncan Haughton, Harvard '99. Haughton stands astride the college football world. His Crimson is the defending national champion. Harvard had neither been defeated nor tied in 19 games since Nov. 11, 1911, when it was shocked at the Stadium by Jim Thorpe and Carlisle, 18-15. In 1912, it had capped its perfect 9-0 season by beating Yale 20-0, only its sixth victory in the series (against 22 losses and five ties). Brickley had done his part by kicking two field goals and running a fumble in for a touchdown. A victory today over the Bulldogs, perennially potent but this year a puzzling 5-1-3, would not only cap another 9-0 season but also almost certainly give the Crimson another mythical national title. Moreover, a triumph would be the first for Harvard over Yale at the Stadium, the nation's first reinforced concrete structure, which had opened in 1903 and witnessed four Elis triumphs and a scoreless tie.
Along with the rapt crowd, Haughton trains his focus on Brickley. "That Mr. Brickley ... was quite a showman." remembered syndicated columnist Neil O'Hara, Harvard '15, a quarter-century later. "During the practice period of each game, he'd start nudging dropkicks from every angle and every distance up to midfield, moving fanwise around the goal, and making 98 percent of them good -- a performance that stunned the opposition. Many a team was licked, psychologically, by Brickley's toe before the opening kickoff."
Today's feat of the foot is not happenstance. Haughton has ordered 20 Harvard managers to place 100 footballs around the field for Brickley to boot, and he has commanded his star not to miss even one.
The lad from Everett is not fazed. Heck, if he had to, he could nail 'em blindfolded.
As it turns out, he might have to.
It's possible that Charlie Brickley's greatest crime was being born 10 years too early, before newsreels and the newly minted NFL made such college football stars as Red Grange instantly marketable. Brickley's five field goals, all of Harvard's points, in its 15-5 win over Yale on that afternoon in 1913 conferred immortality; writing in 1943, Hall of Fame college and pro coach Clark Shaughnessy (the man who popularized the T formation), considered this game the third greatest in football history to that point, behind only Grange's six-touchdown day against Michigan in 1924 and Michigan's 6-0 victory over Minnesota in 1910. In 1915 Brickley emerged from his amazing college football career with fame but no easy way to make money from it. In the 1920s, he would be imprisoned for stock fraud. Attempting to maintain his status among his privileged peers no doubt amplified certain defects of character that sadly caused him to cut corners, to attempt to gain the same advantages he had achieved with such ease on the football field.
There, at a time when Harvard (and Princeton and Yale) football mattered, Charlie Brickley and six other stalwarts in his Crimson class never knew defeat, going 25-0-2 during the seasons of 1912, '13 and '14. Of this so-called Group of Seven, five -- Brickley, back Fred Bradlee (father of future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee), end Huntington (Tack) Hardwick, guard Stan (Bags) Pennock and tackle Wally Trumbull -- would appear at least once on a Walter Camp All-America team. During their senior year, Bradlee, Brickley, Pennock and Trumbull lived in the same Harvard dorm, giving Mathews Hall more All-Americas than any college in the nation.
From the get-go, Brickley, especially, made an impression. He was one of six children of a small businessman. (In his scholarship application, he listed his father's income as $1,100 a year.) His nickname upon entering Everett High was "Shorty," but four years later Charlie emerged as a splendidly muscled, 5'11", 190-pound all-around athlete -- the most acclaimed Massachusetts prep player of his or any era. In 1999, The Boston Globe named him the state's greatest high school football star of the 20th century, over competition that included Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino (Winchester), Angelo Bertelli (Springfield) and Doug Flutie, and Brickley's Harvard running mate Eddie Mahan (like Flutie, from Natick).
In 1906 Brickley became the first freshman to start for Everett (whose nickname, serendipitously, was the Crimson). In '07 he truly blossomed, scoring 18 touchdowns and 129 points. In '08, he set school records for touchdowns (eight) and points (47) in one game. (A touchdown was worth five points, a field goal four.) His total of 257 points in 15 games would stand as a Bay State single-season record for 87 years. The next season Brickley, hampered by injuries, scored "only" 107 points for Everett, 11-10 losers to Somerville in a state title game that attracted a crowd of 10,000. Nevertheless, his 488 career points would not be topped in Massachusetts schoolboy circles for six decades.
Even while he was racking up those touchdowns, Brickley was refining his unique talent, fashioning such an art form that he became the da Vinci of the dropkick. The play involved snapping the ball to the kicker, who would establish the scoring chance by letting it hit the ground before kicking. When footballs later were made tighter and reshaped, becoming longer, slimmer and better for passing, the dropkick -- which had the advantage of eliminating the holder -- became less practical than the placekick, of which Brickley also was a master.
He began seriously booting at age 13; "many a neighbor's windowpane suffered as a consequence," he wrote later. "I practiced dropkicking every day for 10 years, summer and winter," Brickley told Arthur Daley of The New York Times in 1948. "Nowadays the kids throw the ball. In my day we kicked it." Young Charlie began systematically breaking down the mechanics. In many ways, he was like a golfer trying to perfect his stance, swing and impact, all the while figuring out, through trial and error, how to "work" the ball. In 1915, the year after his Harvard career had ended, Brickley distilled his wisdom into an article for his syndicated newspaper column. The elements:
• Grip and drop. "The best method of holding the ball is to keep one hand on each side of it. The ball should be held as closely as possible to the ground in front of the kicking foot and should be dropped perfectly straight."
• Stride and toe position at impact. "If a right-foot kicker, the left should be back at the start. Then, as the ball is snapped back from the center, the left foot comes forward in a position so that the right foot can meet squarely with the weight of the body behind it. "
• Focus. "The eye should be kept on the ball and not on the goal posts. The time to look at the posts is is just before the ball is passed from the center."
• Receiving the snap. "In the big college games the ball must be kicked within two or two and half seconds from the time it leaves the center's hands or it will be blocked. The best way to practice is to have someone hold a stopwatch. I found that during my junior year at Harvard I averaged slightly less than two seconds for the kick. But form should not be sacrificed for speed. Get the form and accuracy first and the speed will come later on."
• Distance control. "I have always made it a point to practice short distance kicking more than long. I have always claimed that a man could guide the course of a football from 30 yards or nearer just as a [baseball] catcher controls his throw to second. But out beyond the 35-yard line the distance makes this accuracy almost impossible."
• The "Brickley toe." "I discovered I could better control the ball the blunter the toe of the shoe. I was of the opinion that a perfectly square toe would better than a blunt one. So I had an old shoemaker rig me out with a square toe to slip over my regular shoe. ... I was surprised that nobody had realized the possibilities of this before. Within a year at Harvard every one who did any kicking had what they called a Brickley toe."
Those were his precepts. By the time he arrived in Cambridge, Brickley had a veritable Ph.D. in bootery.
Admitted in the autumn of 1911, Brickley played freshman football and also excelled in track and field -- so much so that in the summer of 1912, before suiting up for the Harvard varsity, he traveled to Stockholm for the Olympic Games. A member of the U.S. track and field team (along with decathlon gold medalist Thorpe, who would become a lifelong friend), Brickley finished a creditable ninth in the hop, step and jump. But it was on Soldiers Field that he would make the leap to fame.
Brickley began to wow the Stadium crowds with his artistry. He had become so proficient that he could could stand on the sideline and nonchalantly curve the ball through the uprights. "Bend 'Em Like Brickley" preceded "Bend 'Em Like Beckham" by eight decades. Apparently, as time went on, some teammates came to resent Brickley's showstopping displays; there was grumbling that he was showboating, that "Brickley didn't play for Harvard; he played only for himself." It's possible that there was a class-based aspect to the complaints from Harvard's upper-crust WASP element against the Irish-American. But no one could argue with the results, or the aesthetics. Many accounts speak of Brickley's "pretty" field goals, the way today we speak of certain passers, such as Joe Namath, throwing a "beautiful" or "sweet" ball.
Like an artillery siege gun that could shell the enemy from well behind the lines, Brickley was a threat to produce three points any time the Crimson got beyond midfield. His 13 field goals as a sophomore are still tied for most in a season at Harvard. (Amazingly enough, he kicked only two extra points in his entire Harvard career because Haughton, in a rare coaching faux pas, thought the PAT would ruin him for field goal work.) Brick capped that season by booting a mud-soddened ball through the uprights for game's only points against Dartmouth, and then helping vanquish Yale. Had there been a Heisman Trophy that year, the choice would have come down to Brickley and his Olympic teammate Thorpe, who had performed brilliantly for Carlisle. As it was, Brickley was named to Walter Camp's All-America first team.
Yale had not seen the last of Brickley during that academic year. In June, he delivered a clutch ninth-inning double to help the Crimson win the deciding game of the annual baseball series. The Olympics, the gridiron and the diamond had furnished what for anyone else would have been a year that could not be topped. But Brick was just getting a hop, step and jump on fame.
The 1913 season would contain two games that resonate a century later. The first occurred on Nov. 1 at West Point: Notre Dame's 35-13 shocker over Army, during which quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne convincingly demonstrated the potential of the forward pass. Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns, including a 40-yarder to Rockne, to that point thought to have been the longest successful pass. The performance was so game-changing that it crashed the front page of The New York Times. The second came three weeks later, in the biggest game of the year, at Harvard Stadium, with the headlines written by the right toe of Charlie Brickley.
With its second consecutive unblemished season on the line, Harvard girded for Yale. The Elis, coached by Howard Jones (later to make Southern Cal a power), were finishing a down year. In addition to a draw with Princeton, the Elis had played scoreless ties with Maine and with Washington and Jefferson. Most ignobly, they had been beaten by Colgate 16-6. This mind-boggling defeat would be akin today to Michigan's 2007 loss to Appalachian State. The Yale malaise was treated by the press they way today's media discuss losing streaks of the Cowboys, the Yankees or the Lakers. The conclusion: Yale was still Yale. They had an All-America in tackle Nelson (Bud) Talbot, anchor of a rugged line that Haughton wasn't sure his offense could penetrate. Besides, this rivalry was perhaps the first in which one could apply thephrase "you can throw out the record books." After all, Harvard still had not beaten the Elis at the Stadium.
On Nov. 22, 1913, on a warm, sunny afternoon, these thoughts swirled around Soldiers Field as the kickoff approached. Brickley entertained with his virtuoso kicking exhibition, which was meant to shock and awe the Elis, much in the manner of Babe Ruth or Mark McGwire taking batting practice. He was wearing his square toe. During the game he could slip it on as needed. The cynosure of all eyes was characteristically cool. "I have often been asked what my sensations are just before attempting a dropkick in a big game," he wrote two years later in a series on kicking published in The Globe. "My sensations are nil. I feel no more nervousness or concern than if I were eating dinner."
Early on, the Crimson was in disarray. Depending on accounts, either a cleat or a fingernail scraped Brickley in the eye. Wrote Bill Cunningham in the Boston Herald in 1947 (he ascribed to the cleat theory), "His vision was clouded and it kept getting worse, until he could scarcely see as far as the goal posts." Under the rules of the day, if Brickley left the game, he would be unable to return until the next quarter. So he persevered as a punting duel began between Harvard's Eddie Mahan and Yale's Otis Guernsey.
Gradually, the exchanges of punts helped Harvard advance deep into Yale territory. "When the ... attack stalled on the 14," wrote Arthur Daley in The Times in 1948, "Brickley, the mechanical man, faded back to the 26 for a drop-kick. His eyes were constantly welling with tears as nature fought against the scratches. He stood there, poised and unconcerned, only his blinking eyes betraying him. The ball spun back. The ball spun forward -- as gracefully easy as a pitcher whipping over a strike. Harvard led, 3 to 0."
Yale then got a break. When its ensuing kickoff struck the goalposts, Harvard's Frank O'Brien carried the ball back into the end zone, thinking it was a touchback. Instead, it was a safety and the score was 3-2.
Later in the half, as Daley recounted, "a 75-yard punt by Mahan rocked the Elis back on their heels and the feeble return boot brought Brickley into range from the 42." Because quarterback Mal Logan (another of the Group of Seven) had made a fair catch, Brickley was allowed a free kick from that spot. "As blinded as he was, he still needed only the direction pointed out to him. This time, however, the peerless kicker switched tactics. From beyond the 40-yard line he always preferred a placement to a drop-kick. He made it, of course.
"Stubbornly," continued Daley, "Yale fought back. ... A beautiful return of one of those towering Mahan punts plunged the Blue into scoring territory, and Guernsey was true as a die from the 36 to make the score a fantastic 6 to 5. They had to lead Brickley into the dressing room between halves, rubbing impatiently at his eyes and fighting to see."
Wrote Cunningham: "Harvard's team physician, Dr. Nichols, spotted the trouble, examined Brickley ... and told Haughton he ought to be out of the game."
Haughton, said Daley's account, "asked the doctor only one question: '[Playing] won't make him blind, will it?' The team physician shook his head. 'There's no fear of permanent injury,' he said. 'His vision will get increasingly blurred today, but his eyesight will be perfect again in a few days.' Haughton grunted. 'He doesn't have to see,' responded this hard-bitten realist who coached the Harvard football team. 'Charley Brickley can kick field goals with his eyes shut.' "
So braced, Brickley trundled back onto the field. His own 30-yard run set up his third field goal, a drop-kick from the 30. Later, Mahan galloped down to the 20. Brickley hammered another one home from the 30. "It was Brickley still later," wrote Cunningham. "He started it by intercepting a Yale forward pass ... on the Harvard 30. He and ... Mahan ran [the ball] down to the Yale 11." One of the Blue tacklers was a future Librarian of Congress and Pulitzer Prize winner, Archibald MacLeish, who had been inserted at end. "Then Brickley went back for his final drop-kick. This one went over from the 21." On the day, Brickley was 5-for-7 on field-goal attempts.
Wrote Daley, "Oddly enough, his blind kicking was perfect. Every shot split the posts cleanly and at dead center. Not one wavered in its flight." How did Brickley do it? Summed up Cunningham, "His answer was, 'Mostly by instinct.' He knew the distance and the angle, and such was his precision, and such had been his ceaseless practice that he knew just how much power to apply."
At last, the timekeeper blew his whistle. Harvard 15, Yale 5. More precisely: Brickley 15, Yale 5.
Fair Harvard went fairly bonkers. "Harvard had defeated Yale ... for the first time in the Stadium and Brickley's right toe had scored every point," wrote Cunningham. "There has never been such a scene in all Stadium history. The crowd hoisted Haughton and all the Harvard players they could reach to their shoulders and snake-danced entirely around the Stadium. Brickley's uniform was practically torn off him by people trying to shake his hand or slap his back."
As telegraphed accounts from the Stadium spread bulletins of Brickley's big day, the reaction was no less giddy. "We today can hardly comprehend the impact of that feat around the nation," wrote Clark Shaughnessy in 1943. "In small mid-western towns schoolboys to whom Brickley was a hero, gloated over it and practiced dropkicks -- pretending they were Brickleys. Garrulous farmers passing on the dirt roads, having heard of it from far away like the presidential election returns, checked their teams to comment on the hardy muscular feat reminiscent of the sporting contests of the old pioneer days. Strangers in city crowds used it as an introduction, and friends employed it in passing the time of day instead of remarking on the weather. Everyone gloried in it; everyone felt the vicariously the thrill of it. Everyone had a part in it, shared in it, grew close to Brickley; became a friend of his."
That night, the Crimson squad was the toast of the town. BRICKLEY AND HARVARD TEAM THEATRE IDOLS headlined the Boston Herald the next day. Again, Harvard was acclaimed national champion.
In early December, The Times did a feature on the flat-toe attachment. For a few weeks, Charlie Brickley arguably was the most famous athlete in America and maybe the most famous man.