Football paradise is, to put it tepidly, getting extremely crowded. Already there are 203 coaches, players, officials and camp followers who have made their way through the rapidly swinging gates of the Hall of Fame, and the queue is getting longer and longer. Perhaps the Hall of Fame should nail up one of those signs placed in restaurants by fire departments and rephrase it to read: OCCUPANCY BY RUN-OF-THE MILL PLAYERS IS DETRIMENTAL AND CONFUSING. Anyhow, to keep the business of football immortality in perspective, the time is ripe to thin out the ranks and select the very best college football player of all time.
It may seem unfair to a lot of dedicated and selfless linemen of the past, but it is nonetheless true that the most versatile and thus the ablest all-round football players were all backfield men, as will become clear shortly. Hence, to reduce the list of candidates to a manageable maximum, one has to start with the following: Jim Thorpe of Carlisle, Red Grange of Illinois, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, Bronko Nagurski of Minnesota, Jay Berwanger of Chicago, Byron White of Colorado, Kenny Washington of UCLA, Tom Harmon of Michigan, Nile Kinnick of Iowa, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of Army, Dick Kazmaier of Princeton, Doak Walker and Kyle Rote of SMU, Frank Gifford of USC and Jimmy Brown of Syracuse.
Although this list is slightly weighted in favor of prewar athletes, the reason is not merely that distance lends enchantment. The quality of college football is, if anything, far higher today than it was 40 or even 20 years ago. High school and college coaching is superior, and just about any competent player in a given position would make the counterpart of his father's generation look ridiculous. But, as we all know, this is a specialist's age. The modern player has to confine his skills to his one or two specialties at the expense of versatility.
None of us has ever seen a better straight-ahead runner than Jimmy Brown, who lifted a fairly prosaic Syracuse team of the middle 1950s to the top rank and then went on to confirm his ability by becoming the best running back in pro football. Yet we haven't the faintest notion whether Brown knows how to pass or punt or tackle. Even if he can he didn't, and we can hardly call him the greatest player of all time, despite his performance against TCU in the 1957 Cotton Bowl when he was almost singly responsible for Syracuse's 27 points.
September 23, 1962
It is this same lack of versatility that forces us to eliminate linemen from consideration. There are always a lot of people who want to tell you that So-and-so, a guard, or Somebody Else, a tackle, was the best ever. Don Hutson, the superb Alabama end, is a case in point. Hutson was undeniably one of the supreme pass receivers of all the years, both as a collegian and later with the Green Bay Packers and, with all his lack of size (185 pounds), he was a strong defensive player. What he did to Stanford's Vow Boys in the 1935 Rose Bowl must be listed as cruel and inhuman punishment, catching six passes for 164 yards and two backbreaking touchdowns. But what other accomplishments did he have besides tackling, blocking and catching passes? Could he plunge through the line? Run the ends? Punt? Pass? We'll never know, but it is a safe assumption that if he could have done all these things he would have been used in the backfield, where such talents are most needed.
The same reasoning applies to the case of Don Coleman, a 175-pound Michigan State tackle during the 1949-51 period. Around Lansing they still claim that Coleman was the most impressive player ever to wear a Spartan uniform, which is saying plenty when you think of some of the block-busting Michigan State teams of the last 15 years. Not only Biggie Munn, Coleman's coach, but also most of his opponents rated him as good a lineman as they had ever seen, but had he been a complete all-round player Munn would certainly have used him in the backfield, where he could have done more than just block and tackle.
Keeping in mind how the era of specialization has limited our view of some wonderful football players, how can any postwar player be ranked as the finest of all time?
One thinks immediately of Doak Walker and Kyle Rote, whose careers overlapped at SMU from 1947 to 1950. During a period when SMU had little other football talent to speak of, they lifted their college to the peak of southwestern football and twice took it to the Cotton Bowl. Each could perform all the offensive chores and will be remembered for years by football-proud Texans, but the beginnings of two-platoon football deprived them of the chance to display much defensive form.
The example of Frank Gifford is almost the exact opposite. A strong case could be made that Gifford was the most ill-used college player of all. Jeff Cravath, who coached USC in Gifford's time, put Gifford on the defensive unit throughout most of his college career, although he was probably the best all-round offensive player on the squad. He was its best runner and passer, he punted and he place-kicked, and yet Cravath rarely gave him a chance to do these things. It wasn't until well into Gifford's pro career with the New York Giants that he was able to prove his full potential on offense. It might be argued that if Gifford had played before the free-substitution rule and under a coach who knew how to utilize the full measure of his ability, he would have to be named the finest player the West ever produced, the maybe the best anywhere.
Dick Kazmaier was a halfback of such enormous potential that it is sad to realize one will never know what he might have been. He was another who could do everything offensively, breaking virtually every Ivy League and eastern total offense record and leading his team to its first Lambert Trophy in his junior year. But he played for Princeton in the years 1949-51, and that era of Ivy League football was hardly the severest test of a man's mettle.
We now come to the 60-minute players, who were, after all, the only ones with a fair chance to show the full spectrum of their talent. Fortunately for the purposes of this consideration, they fall rather neatly into three groups.
The first would contain Jay Berwanger and Byron White, two athletes who were as conspicuous for their character as their performances, plus Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the two outstanding headliners in Army's long pageant of football success. That Berwanger was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy—in 1935—shows how he was regarded by his contemporaries, although he played for a team that was not even a contender in its own conference, the Big Ten. Indeed, Berwanger was nearly the only real football player Chicago had at the time. He not only could do everything that had to be done on the field; he had to. One regrets never having seen him in the company of a truly first-class team.
When White was at Colorado, the Rocky Mountain area was to college football about what Florida is to ice hockey, yet White was able to lead his teammates to the Cotton Bowl, where they put up a surprisingly good showing against Rice until worn down by obviously overwhelming manpower. Like Kazmaier, White never had the opportunity to test his skills among his peers. True, he went on to become one of the very good running backs in pro football during the three years he played there, but after college Berwanger abandoned football entirely. As for Blanchard and Davis, their reputations were also limited by their environment, for they played during the closing chapters of World War II, when so many superb athletes of college age were in the services. Each won the Heisman Trophy and together they helped give Army a three-year record of superiority unmatched by any other college team in the country at the time, but the opposition was far from formidable. Among all these exceptional players, Berwanger, White, Blanchard and Davis left the largest question marks at the end of their careers.
The next group contains Red Grange, Tom Harmon and Nile Kinnick, the three most spectacular offensive players in football history. Of these, Kinnick was the most versatile in every department—running, passing, kicking and blocking. No one could do all these things any better. Grange and Harmon were the most dangerous and breathtaking runners—in their own time or ever. To be sure, they played on good teams under good coaches, and each had a superlative blocker to help clear the way—Grange's Earl Britton and Harmon's Forest Evashevski—but in the open there was nobody like them. Just consider Grange's performance against Michigan in his junior year. In the first 10 minutes of the game he made touchdown runs of 95, 66, 55 and 40 yards, even though he had his hands on the ball just six times. He left the game before the first quarter ended but returned in the second half to run 15 yards for his fifth touchdown and throw a pass for his team's sixth score. Playing only 41 minutes, he gained 402 yards in 21 attempts—an average of nearly 20 yards a carry—and completed six passes for another 64 yards. And this against a fine Michigan team that lost but one other game.
Harmon is the only other broken-field runner who can be spoken of in the same breath with Grange. Although both of them could pass and kick and play defense well, their primary skill was running. A backfield of four Granges or four Harmons would leave something to be desired.
You could, on the other hand, have an entire team made up of 11 Jim Thorpes or 11 Ernie Neverses or 11 Bronko Nagurskis or 11 Kenny Washingtons, and it would be pretty hard for anyone else to break into the lineup. These truly were men who could do everything required of a football player in any situation. How, then, would you choose among them?
You would have to eliminate Nagurski first on the ground that he never reached full football maturity in college, and his awesome reputation as a pro fullback with the Chicago Bears has tended to overcolor his performance as a collegian. A provincial farm boy, he did not play football until he reached Minnesota, where he served his first two varsity years as an end and tackle and, great as he was as a fullback in his senior year, he was still learning the trade.
Washington, too, matured rather late and only reached his full stature in his senior year, particularly in his final game, a 0-0 tie with USC. It was a performance that no one who saw it will ever forget, for it was against one of the last and best of Coach Howard Jones's Thundering Herds, the team that beat Tennessee in the Rose Bowl 14-0. Of course, Kenny had the speedy young Jackie Robinson at wingback to help spread the defense a bit, yet he himself was really the team—tackling, knocking down passes, blocking, punting, passing, running the ends or off tackle or carrying three or four USC tacklers with him through the center of the line. If Washington had not waited until his senior year to develop into such a player, it would be almost impossible to avoid ranking him above all others, but we can at least say there was never a more thrilling performance on a football field than he gave in his final collegiate appearance.
It boils down, then, to either Thorpe or Nevers, and some of the most eloquent barside oratory of the last 35 years has been spent on this subject. Pop Warner, who coached them both in their college days, finally picked Nevers. Warner claimed that Nevers could do everything that Thorpe could do and do it more often. Big Jim, he said, occasionally dogged it on the field, but Nevers refused to let up.
There is no question in my own mind where I stood—and stand. Nevers was to me the greatest college football player of all time, including those I had seen and those I had only read about. I saw Nevers in what I am sure was the most awesome and impressive one-man performance of all time—an opinion confirmed by Knute Rockne himself. That was when Nevers, as a junior, played against Rockne's Four Horsemen in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Although Nevers' 117 yards outgained the total of all four of the Horsemen on the ground; although he must have made at least half of his team's tackles against them; although he wore down two Notre Dame lines with his crunching, knee-high running, although he handled the ball on almost every play; still he didn't have quite what was needed to win the game for his team, for he was playing on two recently broken ankles, which Warner had bound tightly with inner tubing. The difference between victory and defeat was two flat passes thrown by Nevers (who tried to overrule the calls in the huddle) and intercepted by Elmer Layden for touchdown runbacks of 78 and 70 yards (which Nevers, an exceptionally fast man, would have cut off if his legs had been sound) and a touchdown plunge by Nevers that the referee ruled was short, but which everyone else knew was successful. So the score was Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10.
As captain of the Stanford team in his senior year, Nevers continued to play just as heroically, but his team lost a heartbreaker (and the Pacific Coast championship) to Washington after the Huskies belted Nevers early in the game and put him on the sidelines. Otherwise he would have taken Stanford to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year.
There are those, nevertheless, who would pick Thorpe over Nevers, and among them is Harry Stuhldreher, who quarterbacked the Four Horsemen and played against both Nevers (in the Rose Bowl) and Thorpe (as a pro). "Nevers was an alltime master," Stuhldreher said recently, "but I can't rate him as high as Thorpe. Thorpe was so fast he could run around the ends and so powerful he could drive through the center of the line dragging half a dozen tacklers with him. He was one of the best kickers there ever was both as a punter and a drop-kicker. On defense he was everywhere, tackling behind the line or knocking down passes in the secondary.
"I always told Warner it was his fault if Thorpe was lazy now and then. Pop used to pay off his Carlisle Indians by giving them swigs of whisky on their way home on the train after a game. If they played well they got an extra shot or two. If they didn't, they might not get a drink at all. So I blamed Pop for Thorpe's laziness, telling him he was shortchanging Jim on the whisky.
"Actually, I never saw Thorpe until many years after he left college. That was in 1926, when I was playing on the Brooklyn Horsemen and we met the Canton Bulldogs, Thorpe's team. Remember, this was almost 20 years after he first started wearing a Carlisle uniform. He had held up well through the years, and even then he was a bull through the line and would run right over you. In fact, he could still do just about everything when he wanted to.
"But I'll never forget the last time I saw Thorpe," Stuhldreher mused, looking off into the distance. "It was in the spring of 1931, and a lot of us former Notre Dame players were out in Hollywood making The Spirit of Notre Dame. That was when Rockne was killed, flying out for the picture. We were having a punting contest on the Universal lot and making bets on whether Elmer Layden, who kicked those tremendous long spirals, was a better punter than Frank Carideo, an exponent of the LeRoy Mills school of kicking for accuracy.
"The thud of the football must have attracted Thorpe, because he wandered over, all dressed up in an Indian costume. We tried to persuade Jim to kick, and for a while he said no, claiming he wasn't in condition, but eventually he began to limber up. He took off his big Indian headdress, and pretty soon he was punting the ball along with Layden and Carideo, and even though he was only wearing moccasins and must have been almost 45 years old he could still kick the ball as far as Layden and as accurately as Carideo. We were all so fascinated we never did find out which of the other two was better.
"I don't want to tear down Ernie," Stuhldreher concluded, "but Jim was a lot faster and a little better all around."
The only reply to such firsthand testimony is, respectfully, that Stuhldreher didn't have as good a seat as mine—up in the grandstand. The years have perhaps dimmed his recollections of Nevers, the blond giant of over 200 pounds, who threw his helmet to the sidelines and played bareheaded in a fury of determination when the going got tough; Nevers, who could run like a sprinter through a sliver of an opening or plow like a battleship through a mass of men; Nevers, whose punts always seemed on the verge of sailing out of the stadium (and often did out of the ball parks in which he played as a pro); Nevers, the shy and humble man who never admitted defeat. He was the greatest football player.