Tall, silver-haired, straight as a goalpost, Alfred Earle (Greasy) Neale stood out in the group that had gathered around him at one of the cocktail parties arranged to enliven the annual meeting of the National Football League. His rugged face, normally wearing a deceptive half scowl, was relaxed in a delighted smile as he greeted old friends and some of the men who had played under him when he was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles.
Greasy put a paternal arm around the shoulder of Allie Sherman, coach of the New York Giants, drafted by the Eagles from Brooklyn College back in 1943. Allie was too small to get much attention as a quarterback, but he says now that it was what he learned from Greasy that made him decide he might have a chance as a coach.
"This boy used to get discouraged during his first season with the Eagles," said Greasy, patting Sherman on the back. "He came to me one time and said, "I'll never make it as a player, I'm not big enough," he says, 'and I can't take much more of you yelling at me.' Now what did I say to that, Allie?"
Allie smiled and said, "I believe you said that when you stopped yelling at me it would mean that you had lost interest."
August 23, 1964
Greasy slapped Sherman's shoulder. "Exactly right," he said. "I recognized that you were a serious student of the game and that you had real possibilities as a coach. You got your chance to show what you could do when we sent you to take over as coach of the team in Paterson, N.J. We didn't own that club, but we were interested in it. Do you recall, Allie, what I told you when you left for Paterson?"
"You gave me a lot of good advice, Greasy," said Sherman. "I often think that you were ahead of your time in many ways. We're still using some of your ideas—with a few modifications, of course—in the pro game. You were an original thinker, and you had a concept and an understanding of the game that went a lot deeper than formations and plays that might change from time to time."
"I told this boy," said Greasy, looking around the circle, "I told this boy that if he could come up to Saturday night and could feel in his heart and bones that he had done everything within his power to make every man understand clearly what the game plan was and what each player's assignment was, if he had gone over this time and time again until he was absolutely certain about every detail, why then, I told this boy, he could put his head on that pillow and banish worry from his mind."
"You said something else, Greasy," said Allie.
Greasy grinned and rubbed his chin. "Yes," he said, "I told you to put a pad and pencil on the table next to your bed, because you probably wouldn't sleep a wink and might get some good ideas while you were tossing around all night. Well, whatever you did, Allie, it was right, because you won your league championship that year. And that was just the start of a great career for you."
"Allie," said a fat man, elbowing his way to the center of the group, "I was reading your book Allie Sherman's Book of Football where you explain about Greasy's theory on not wasting downs. Greasy put it to you—correct me if I'm wrong here, Greasy—what would you do, he says, if you gain nine yards on first down about midfield, I believe. You said you'd call a running play to get the yard and first down. Greasy said...."
"I said," interrupted Greasy, " 'No, Allie. In a case like that, you try a long pass. The rules give you four tries to make 10 yards. If you go for that one yard on second down, you're wasting a couple of downs and you'll never get them back.' "
The fat man stroked his bald head as if it had hair on it. "What I was going to ask you, Allie, had you ever heard that theory put just that way before?"
"It was new to me at the time," said Allie.
"I'll tell you," said Greasy, "how new it was to me. I was playing with the Canton Bulldogs against Youngstown in 1917. Jim Thorpe was coaching the team, but he wasn't playing that day. We came up to Youngstown's 22-yard line on a third down with one to go. In the huddle our quarterback, Milt Ghee, an All-America from Dartmouth, said, 'Greasy, what will we do?' I said to pass. Frank Mount Pleasant, our left halfback, an Indian from Carlisle, said, 'No, let's buck the line for the one yard and the first down.' I told him what I told Allie, 'We'll get that yard on the next down if the pass fails,' I said. Frank grunted O.K. Well, sir, Ghee throws me a pass into the flat, and I get away with only Tommy Hughitt of Michigan, then safety man, between me and the goal line. At the five-yard line Hughitt leaves his feet for the tackle, and I leave my feet at the same time. Hughitt goes under me. I land on my shoulder in the old baseball roll and come up and I walk the few yards for a touchdown. We win the game from Youngstown 13 and nothing. That was without Thorpe, mind you. But getting back to that idea about not wasting downs. I spoke on that subject at the coaches' convention in New Orleans in 1938. I told the coaches, 'Any able-bodied boy who can count up to 10 can learn to be quarterback.' "
"Greasy," a man asked, "was Jim Thorpe as great as they claim?"
"Greater," said Greasy. "Jim Thorpe could do anything. He could kick a ball 80 yards. That was the old pumpkin ball. He could have kicked today's ball 100 yards. There was only one man I saw who could stop Thorpe consistently. Nasty Nash from Rutgers. Played end on the Massillon Tigers. Nasty Nash owned Thorpe, as they say. Wore a mustache. I guess that's why they called him Nasty. Looked like a villain in western movies. Weighed 202."
Somebody drew Allie Sherman away, and another onetime member of the Philadelphia Eagles backfield replaced him in the cocktail-party huddle.
"Hello, Coach," the new man said.
Greasy looked and beamed. "Bosh Pritchard," he cried. He turned to the others. "One of our great backs when we won the NFL championship in '48 and '49. Got Bosh on waivers from Cleveland. Only cost us $500. Weighed 162. Virginia Military Institute boy."
"Greasy," said Pritchard, "you've got the memory of an IBM computer."
"I never forget anything," said Greasy. "Bosh, I was just recalling my days as a player. Now, the last game I played was in 1930. I was 39 years old and I hadn't played for 12 years. It was in Ironton, Ohio, and I was coaching the Tanks there. I decided to put myself in at end against Portsmouth—they were in the NFL then, later took over the Detroit franchise. I weighed 161. The backfield that was opposing us included Lumpkin, formerly of Georgia, who weighed 224. Then there was McClain from Iowa at 245, Glassgow, an All-America at Iowa, at 190, and Bennett from Indiana."
"How much did Bennett weigh?" said Pritchard.
"Bennett," said Greasy, "weighed 193. Well, these were the kind of fellows who were coming around my end. Now, I had bet that I would play 60 minutes, and I had also bet that we would win. I took a terrible beating, but all I got that showed was a black eye. But I decided that game would be the grand finale of my playing career."
"Who won?" asked Pritchard.
"What was the score?"
"The score was 16-15," said Greasy. "And we also beat two other NFL clubs in exhibitions, the Chicago Bears by a score of 27 to 13 and the New York Giants—with Benny Friedman at quarterback—13 to 12.
"Of course, professional football had not caught on with the fans in those days. Baseball was the big thing. Baseball was a much faster game at that time. Why, Christy Mathewson, pitching for the New York Giants, once pitched a game in 54 minutes. He would rarely take as much as an hour and a half. He wouldn't fuss around with the rosin bag, hitch up his pants, scratch himself and keep mopping his face with his sleeve. He would get the ball from the catcher and in a matter of seconds he would pitch. Of course, in those days when I was playing—I was in organized baseball eight years—a pitcher could do a lot of things he can't do today. He had a big assortment of pitches. The spit ball, the shine ball, so on and so forth. Now the pitcher can't use any of those pitches. But the umpires give him all the time he wants to get set. The game that Mathewson pitched in 54 minutes might run to three hours today. Doubleheaders can go on far into the night. I will tell you something. Despite the fact that I played the game myself, I find some midseason games downright boresome. I don't go out to see them. Oh, I'll watch them on the TV, but it has to be something special like Willie Mays being in town or Old Timers' Day to get me to the stadium. But, on the other hand, I wouldn't miss a pro football game here in New York. I've got a box for the Giants' home games. I take my physician and my dentist along as my guests. We enjoy those games. You can't get bored with pro football—it's an open game, fast, action every minute, spectacular plays. People love the pro game. Why, the Giants are sold out solid all the time."
Greasy declined a drink. "I used to drink nothing but rye whiskey," he said. "Here some years back I went to three football banquets in three nights. I drank rye whiskey all night long three nights running. Fourth day I had a hangover that must have registered on the seismographs. I swore off."
"Tell them how you got the films of the Chicago Bears' T formation when you were coaching the Eagles," Pritchard said.
"Oh, yes," said Greasy. "I had seen George Halas beat the Washington Redskins 73-0 with the T in the title playoff in 1940. I decided that I would scrap the single and double wing I had used in my collegiate and professional coaching if I could just get the full details of how Halas was using the T. Well, sir, I was having lunch with some old friends one day and—"
"Where did you eat, Greasy?" interrupted Pritchard.
"Parisien Restaurant, on 56th Street west of Eighth Avenue, New York City. At the table there was a fellow from the Fox Movietone News, and after we had ordered—I took the chicken pot pie—I got talking to this newsreel man and I said, 'I marvel at the way you fellows seem to catch the outstanding plays of every game in the few minutes you show on the screen. How are you able to do that?' The fellow said, 'Oh, we film the entire game and select the important plays from the complete footage.' I almost choked on my rye whiskey—this was before I swore off—and I said after a minute, 'Would you by any chance have the entire footage of that Bears-Redskins game?' The fellow said, yes certainly he did. I said, 'Could I buy it?' I was beginning to shake all over. You must remember this was before the days when teams began exchanging the game films. Well, to cut it short, I bought that film for $156, and I believe I ran it three, four, five hours a day for three months in the apartment of Lex Thompson, the Eagles' owner, until I had it down pat. I made some alterations, of course, gave it some outside running strength. It was the T, adapted to our horses, that won us three divisional titles and our two NFL championships."
"Say, Greasy," said a man, pushing a young man through the group, "I'd like you to meet my son."
Greasy put out his hand. "Glad to know you, young fellow."
"Son," said the father, "you're shaking hands with the only man in history who did these three things—played in a World Series, took a team to the Rose Bowl and coached the Philadelphia Eagles to two national championships."
"What World Series, sir?" asked the young man.
"Why," said Greasy, "it was the famous Black Sox Series. I played right field for the Reds. That was the year of 1919. Long before you were born."
"Gee," exclaimed the young man, "that was before my father was born."
The father shushed him. "You led the Reds in hitting, Greasy. Right?"
"Right," said Greasy, "I hit .357. Got a triple off little Dick Kerr, the honest pitcher. Matter of fact, I think they were all honest after that first game. The ones in on the deal didn't get the payoff they were promised. The rest of the games were straight, I am convinced. Series went eight games, you know."
"What team did you take to the Rose Bowl, sir?" asked the young man.
"Washington and Jefferson," said Greasy. "We went through the season undefeated and were invited to go out and play the University of California. We weren't supposed to have a chance. Some experts predicted we'd lose by 28 points. I recall I was in the men's lounge of the hotel the morning of the game. I was incognito. I heard a loudmouthed fellow somewhere in the room yell out, 'I'm giving 14 points on California. Any takers?' I hollered back, 'California could start playing right now and play until sundown and they wouldn't score 14 points on us!' Well, the outcome was that we played a scoreless tie, held the California team to two first downs. It was a moral victory for W and J. Everybody, even the California sportswriters, agreed on that."
"Get that, son?" asked the father of the young man. "Played in a World Series, took a team out to the Rose Bowl and won two pro football championships."
The young man nodded. "Mr. Neale," he said, "how did you get the nickname of Greasy?"
Greasy put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "I'll tell you how that came about. There was a boy I grew up with in Parkersburg, W. Va., and he was a kind of Huckleberry Finn. His parents didn't pay him much mind or discipline him in any way. He wasn't too particular about his appearance, and one day I called him 'Dirty Face' or 'Dirty Neck' or some such thing, and he got even by calling me 'Greasy,' because I had worked for a time as a grease boy in a rolling mill. The other kids picked it up, and it stayed with me for life. Of course, some sportswriters wrote that the nickname referred to my elusiveness as a ballcarrier in football and a base runner in baseball. But it was that boy back home who gave me the name."
A big man who was walking around as if he owned the place stopped and slapped Greasy on the back. "The old .200 hitter," he told the group. "Only time he ever hit .300 was in a crooked World Series." He hurried on as Greasy called after him, "Got a triple off Dick Kerr, didn't I?"
Greasy pointed to the big man who was handshaking his way around the room. "That fellow," he said, "cracks that same joke every time I come in his place."
"Greasy," said the man who wasn't born when the Black Sox World Series was played, "let me ask you something else here. Allie Sherman said you were a great influence on him when he was with the Eagles. Now, before you went into pro ball, you coached at several colleges, I believe, and—"
Greasy held up a hand.
"Seven," he said, "Muskingum, West Virginia Wesleyan, Marietta, Washington and Jefferson, University of Virginia, West Virginia and Yale."
"What I was going to ask, Greasy, was—well, almost every successful coach had a mentor, so to speak. Allie Sherman had you, Fritz Crisler had Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago and—"
Greasy broke in: "I never had any mentor. Why, I coached the high school team I was playing on in Parkersburg, W. Va. We did have a real coach one season, though. Fellow named Bob Cooley who had played at Purdue. I don't think you could call him a mentor. But he asked me one day if I had ever done any kicking. I said I hadn't. He said, 'Well, just hold the ball out in front, keep your leg stiff and turn your toe in and down and go on and kick.' I followed instructions and punted the ball 45 yards in a perfect spiral. Did the team's kicking from then on. That was in the year of 1911. I guess that was about as close as I ever came to having a mentor. You couldn't call Jim Thorpe a mentor. Why, we wouldn't see Thorpe when he was coaching the Canton Bulldogs until the day of the game. We didn't practice between games. Jim would give us three or four plays and then ask each man how long he thought he could play. Some would say 30 minutes, some 40 or 45. John Kellison, my line coach for more than 20 years, and I would always say, 'Put us down for 60 minutes, Jim.' "
Greasy pondered. "No," he said, "I can't think of any one man who was my mentor. Harry Stansbury, who was my teammate at West Virginia Wesleyan and later athletic director at West Virginia University when I was coaching there, always said I didn't have a mentor, that I was self-taught. He knew me as well or better than anyone else."
Suddenly Greasy raised an arm and waved to somebody across the room. "There's Art Rooney [owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers] over there. Art and I have a date for dinner tomorrow night and I've got to find out where we'll meet. Excuse me, gentlemen."
He moved easily through the crowd, clasping an outstretched hand now and again. He had the look of a man enjoying the kind of company he likes best, a man who had nothing to prove, nothing to ask.
He is independent, thanks to a lifelong policy of saving half of every dollar he earned. His way of living is more than merely comfortable: he has a Park Avenue apartment in New York and he takes a house in Florida every season. He plays golf in the low 80s (every day in Florida, twice a week up North) and a lot of first-rate bridge. He is devoted to Bianco, a toy-size white poodle that accompanies him to practice sessions of the New York Giants in Fairfield, Conn. and games at Yankee Stadium and goes along on Greasy's frequent visits with Allie Sherman at the Giants' offices.
When Greasy had reached the far side of the room, his friend Art Rooney had something of interest to tell him. An official of one of the NFL clubs had just asked him, Rooney said, if he thought Greasy would be interested in returning to coaching. Rooney surmised correctly that, at 72, Greasy would not. "But," Art Rooney had said, "Greasy could. If he isn't up to the minute on the pro game, he would be in a week."
Which, Greasy himself said later, was the nicest thing he had heard at the cocktail party.