The Real 1925 NFL Champions: The Pottsville Maroons

Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship by David Fleming
ESPN Books 2007
ISBN-13:  978-1-933060-35-4

If you love good writing, football history and the meaning of football to society, look no further than this account of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons.  This is sports history and sports writing at its very best.

The Pottsville Maroons were a team located in a small, hard scrabble coal mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania, the kind of small town that would never be able to successfully host a professional team in 2010.  But 1925 was a different era when professional football was a more quixotic endeavor and college football reigned supreme.

The team featured some great players that came from the coal mines, like the tough running back Tony Latone, who the author convincingly argues should be in the NFL Hall of Fame.  The author tells the stories of many of the key players on this team, including the player/coach Dick Rauch and the colorful owner Dr. John G. Striegel.  It was a very fascinating era and group of men.

This book also does an outstanding job of placing the team in its era and locale.  He renders up what it must have been like to live in a tough coal mining town in the 1920’s, as well as what professional football was like at a time when many of the professional teams were located in smaller markets.

He also relates the importance of the team to the town.  It was the one common element between the poorest of the poor, the hard working coal miners, and the wealthy owners of the mines and other establishments.  This team was the one thing the entire town could rally around.  It gave the very hard working denizens of Pottsville something to look forward to.

And of course the team itself is just absolutely fascinating.  It was a motley group of men with some great players and a dedicated coach who had a year that should have crowned them in perpetuity as champions of the football world.

This book walks us through the entire 1925 seasons with the context of previous seasons mixed in so we understand just where the Pottsville Maroons stood.  They only lost two games that year but they avenged each close loss later in the season with convincing blow out wins over the Providence Steam Roller and the Frankford Yellow Jackets.  The 1925 Pottsville Maroons went 14-2 including a 9-7 win over the Notre Dame All Stars.  At that point in history, college teams were superior to professional football teams and no professional team had ever won this exhibition game.  This win over the storied Notre Dame players and the Four Horsemen put the NFL on the map and legitimized professional football.

At the end of the season the Pottsville Maroons were the rightful owners of the NFL title.  But then a travesty occurred.  At that time in professional football they had “territories” where no other professional team could play an exhibition game in another teams “territory.”  Being cash strapped and wanting to prove to the world how great they were, the Pottsville Maroons played the exhibition game against the Notre Dame All Stars in Philadelphia, the territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets (a suburb of Philadelphia).  The jealous general manger of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, Shep Royle, protested and in a convoluted turn of events the Pottsville Maroons had their title striped from them by then NFL commissioner Joseph Carr.

The championship was given to the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) who are officially listed at the NFL Champion of 1225, despite that the Pottsville Maroons beat them convincingly 21-7 in the lat game of their season.  The controversy of the Pottsville Maroons continues today.

creativeASIN=1933060352″>Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship

Solid Primer on the Evolution of Modern Football Strategies

Blood, Sweat and Chalk, The Ultimate Football Playbook: How The Great Coaches Built Today’s Game by Tim Layden
Time Home Entertainment, 2010
ISBN 13: 978-1-60320-061-5

This is a book for professional football fans who love the history and evolution of the game, and the X’s and O’s that keep coaches up until the wee hours of the morning.

Author Tim Layden, Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, has laid out a reasonably well organized set of chapters that goes into the innovations in football strategy that have made the game what it is today.

He starts out back in days of Pop Warner and the Single Wing formation. Back in the rough and tumble days when football was about big men smashing into each other and running the ball, Pop Warner came up with a formation that maximized deception and utilized the full talents of three running backs (with the quarterback essentially handling ball and either handing off or running). He then walks through all the variations of this basic attack in both college and professional football that defined the game for decades.

As we get into the modern era there is an excellent chapter on the late Don “Air” Coryell and his passing attack that really is the progenitor of many of the pass happy offenses in today’s NFL. Of course Coryell’s strategy was attacking deep with his platoon of great receivers and Hall of Fame Quarterback Dan Fouts. Coryell’s offense was the origin of some utterly failed and passé schemes like the run and shoot offense. But it’s also the foundation for very successful offenses such as Sam Wyche’s no huddle offense that took the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, the K-Gun Offense with Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills riding their pass oriented offense to four consecutive trips to the big dance, and The Greatest Show on Turf highlighting the offense of Mike Martz and quarterback Kurt Warner, culminating in a Super Bowl win.

Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense” featuring the short passing game and receivers that can run after the catch is, of course, the other great offensive scheme that dominates the NFL’s passing schemes today. Layden has a very nice chapter on how Walsh’s scheme evolved and its importance in today’s NFL.

Thankfully, Layden doesn’t forget the defense. From the zone blitz, the cover two (made famous by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay), and Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense that focuses on attacking the quarterback, to the late Jim Johnson’s Double A Gap blitz, he lays it all out with clear prose. He tells how and why the schemes came about, and gives us a glimpse into the personalities of the coaches who created them.

There are several excellent aspects to this book. First the author describes the X’s and O’s and why various formations or schemes evolved the way they did in a prose that is easily understandable to the avid football fan. He also places each scheme within the context of the history and rules of the game that made the formations or schemes more than passing fads but foundations that can be seen in today’s game. And finally, he allows the personalities of some of the great football minds to come forth in the book, so it’s not just dry chalk talk.

The only drawback to the book is it does not fully explain how changes in the rules are really what have made offensive football today more about the pass than the run by limiting what defenses are allowed to do to stop it. While rule changes are mentioned, and certainly rule changes often spur innovation in the game, these changes are not given enough “credit” for how the game has evolved.

Despite these drawbacks this is a great football book for football fans. It is not a book for the very casual fan, but it clearly is not intended to be. It’s impossible to go into all the chapters in one review, suffice it to say there is much more here for the football fan to absorb.

Sports Illustrated Blood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game

A Look Back and the NFL’s 1943 Steagles

Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles – “The Steagles” – Saved Pro Football During World War II by Matthew Algeo
Da Capo Press, September 30, 2006
ISBN 10: 0931250358

World War II was a devastating time in American history and the drain of manpower had significantly dire consequences for professional sports.  The fact professional sports even survived the war is a testament to the gutsiness of the well off owners of sports teams, and the “luck” of those not able to serve for one reason or another.

The National Football League was still not a very established professional sport as World War II hit but it survived by some deft moves by many owners.  One of those moves was the combining of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles into the “Steagles” since neither team, especially the Steelers, were likely to be able to field a full compliment of players.

This book is about that year, 1943, when owners like Art Rooney and Bert Bell of the Steelers and wealthy Lex Thompson, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, set aside egos for the survival and betterment of the game.  It tells the story of the colorful cast of misfits that made up the team, who for one reason or another were not inducted into the military.  Some were old veterans, some newcomers, but all merged into a single team with two coequal head coaches that didn’t get along.

The book is beyond just about football, however.  It is also a bit of social history of the time told through the eyes of sports.  And it also brings to light the importance sports had to take people’s mind off the war and sacrifices at home.  And finally, it’s about the survival and perpetuation of the National Football League through one of the most trying times in the nation’s history.

This is mostly a well written account of the Steagles, who for what it’s worth posted a winning record in 1943.  While not as scintillatingly told as some accounts of professional sports in that era, it does give a glimpse into pro football of during the war and introduces us to a quirky and usual team in the most unusual of times for professional sports.

Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles–

Happy to Be Alive: The Story of Darryl Stingley

5eea228348a08f7134b12110_l__aa240_Happy to Be Alive by Darryl Stingley with Mark Mulvoy

Review by C. Douglas Baker

 

On August 12, 1978, Darryl Stingley’s life changed forever.  On that date, in a meaningless preseason professional football game, after a vicious, unnecessary hit by Jack Tatum, Darryl became a quadriplegic.  This book is his story about his struggle to survive and live a meaningful life after going from a young, promising professional athlete to a wheelchair in single terrible moment.

 

Stingley’s book is fascinating on several fronts and he’s brutally honest about himself and those around him.  As a boy growing up in an inner city neighborhood, despite being a little better off than many, he was little hooligan—stealing, fighting, looting. 

 

Not that he did this constantly as a way of life, but he was involved in these activities despite his parents trying to keep him out of trouble.  As a big man on campus in high school he knocked up his girlfriend Tina, and then knocked her up again when he went to Purdue to play football on a scholarship. 

 

He was clearly very immature.  Even when he made it to the NFL, his lack of maturity showed and he freely admits it in his book.  To his credit he stayed with Tina pretty much his entire life, and she with him, despite some separation long after his injury.  She clearly was a solid person, nursing him back to health and dealing with an overbearing mother-in-law.  They eventually married.

 

Darryl gives a great deal of detail about his recovery process and the pain and depression that went along with it.  The people who stood by him and come out looking the best in all his travails were his partner Tina, John Madden who visited him frequently in the hospital and may have saved his life when a breathing apparatus malfunctioned and he yelled for the nurses, his therapists that put up with him, and the New England Patriots organization, at that time owned by the Sullivan family, who took care of all his medical bills and made sure he had everything he needed to recover.  His Patriots teammates were also an important part of his life before and after the injury. 

 

Needless to say Jack Tatum comes off looking very bad, not only never apologizing or reaching out to Darryl, but making overtures of a public meeting that turned out to be to promote his book, showing a lack of sincerity.  He comes off as classless and crass.

 

This is an interesting, introspective, personal story of one man’s life.  Darryl did recover and lived a productive life.  This book was published in 1983, five years after the injury.  Darryl went on to work with youth and charities in his native Chicago and died in April 2007 of heart disease and pneumonia complicated by quadriplegia.

Review Of All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe

5156ge54fal__ss500_All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe by Bill Crawford

Review by C. Douglas Baker

All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe is an interesting biography of the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, albeit with some flaws. Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, grew up on a reservation with a tough father and mother.

He was placed in a number of boarding schools and kept running away, but did finally wind up in his early teens at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boarding school, dedicated to the education and acculturation of Indian youth into white society, is where Thorpe came under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner, who helped coach and guide him in track and football.

Thorpe’s biggest claim to fame was the infamous gold medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon of the 1912 Olympics, thereafter being proclaimed the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a football star for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, helping the team beat such notable gridiron institutions as Harvard, Penn, and Army.

While at Carlisle, Jim Thorpe played “summer baseball” being paid to play on semi-professional baseball teams in North Carolina. Thorpe had a limited source of income from his holdings in Oklahoma so made a little spending money playing baseball in the summer. This was a very common practice for college athletes at the time.

Given the choice of making money doing hard labor on a farm or playing ball, it wasn’t a tough choice. Unfortunately, this created a huge scandal because of the odious Olympic definition of “amateur athlete” and Thorpe was stripped of his medals after being sold out (according to Crawford) by Pop Warner and James Sullivan, the head of the Amateur Athletic Union that controlled the Olympics in America. These medals were later reinstated long after Thorpe’s death.

In addition to being a biography of Thorpe and telling us a bit about his early life and his athletic career at Carlisle, the book has a theme, the exploitation of amateur athletes, like Thorpe.

Amateur athletics bring in large amounts of money for coaches, schools, and hangers on, money that is made on the athletic prowess of these “amateur athletes.” Meanwhile the athletes themselves get nothing (or maybe a little under the table) and in fact their lives are carefully controlled by those profiting from their efforts.

The last chapter is an indictment, somewhat, of the Olympics and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the exploitation of college and amateur athletes.

Overall this is a fine book providing a clear picture of Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, and the real situation around Thorpe being unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals. The primary flaw of the book is it covers very little of Thorpe’s professional athletic career in football and baseball, which was disappointing. It is also a bit stilted in writing style. These are minor flaws as the entire work is definitely worth reading.

 

All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe