Heffelfinger, William Walter ("Pudge")

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HEFFELFINGER, William Walter ("Pudge")

(b. 20 December 1867 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 2 April 1954 in Blessing, Texas), football player who was the first significant star of the collegiate game and the first professional football player.

Heffelfinger was the son of Christopher B. Heffelfinger, a shoe manufacturer, and Mary Ellen Totton, a homemaker, in a family with three sons and four daughters. Nicknamed "Pudge" for his size, which was huge by the standards of the day, he played four years of baseball at Minneapolis Central High. He helped organize and served as captain (when captains served as coaches) for the school's first football team. After graduating from Central, Heffelfinger entered Yale University in the fall of 1888, a time when the teams coached by Walter Camp dominated intercollegiate football. At Yale he weighed 188 pounds his freshman year and 205 pounds by the time he was a senior. At six feet, three inches he towered over his teammates.

In his four years as a college player Heffelfinger, called "Heff" by his teammates, helped lead Yale to its apogee of football glory. The 1888 team went 13–0 and outscored the opposition 698 points to 0. Yale's 1889 record was 15–1, with a loss to Princeton. The 1890 record was 13–1, with a loss to Harvard. The 1891 team is considered one of Yale's greatest. Heffelfinger teamed with the famed wiry tackler Frank Hinkey to produce a 13–0 record, piling up 478 points to 0 for the opposition. Walter Camp named Heffelfinger to his inaugural All-American team in 1889 and included him twice more, in 1890 and 1891. Thereafter Heffelfinger was routinely named to all-time American teams.

Dominant as both an offensive and a defensive player, Heffelfinger was the most formidable player of his era, when his size, speed, and ferocity of attack were highly valued. Typically players were drawn up into tightly held formations, and they violently crashed their unprotected bodies into one another to grind out small increments of yardage. Against Princeton's infamous wedge, whereby blockers tightly formed into a V formation around the advancing ball carrier, Heffelfinger devised a new tactic. He doubled up his knees and leaped into the lead blocker, causing "the wedge to shiver and collapse," he said in his book of reminiscences.

Heffelfinger developed an offensive blocking maneuver called the "pulling guard" play. Starting from left guard, he pulled out of the offensive line and led interference for the ball carrier, making him the first guard to run interference. Said Heffelfinger: "I've never claimed to be the greatest guard of my generation, let alone of all time. But when it comes to running interference, I won't take a back seat to anybody."

Football was not Heffelfinger's only athletic endeavor. He also made time at Yale for baseball, boxing, crew, and weight throwing. He only felt truly passionate about football, however. Heffelfinger received a bachelor's degree from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in 1891.

While pursuing a career after graduation, Heffelfinger continued his participation in football. He reportedly played on a few semiprofessional teams in the fall of 1891 while studying law and railroad economics at Yale. Heffelfinger is generally credited by football historians with giving birth to pro football when he became the first professional player by signing a contract for $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association football team in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club team on 12 November 1892. Prior to that game Heffelfinger contended he had been paid only in silver pocket watches. In 1892 he also played for the Chicago Athletic Club, appearing in six games in twelve days.

In 1893 Heffelfinger found a job with the Great Northern Railroad, but he quickly gave that up when he was hired as head coach by the University of California to teach "Yale football" to the school's team. This was followed by head coaching stints at Lehigh University (1894) and the University of Minnesota (1895). From 1896 through 1910 he served as the volunteer line coach for the Minnesota team.

Upon his return to Minnesota in 1894, Heffelfinger entered his father's shoe business, and in 1904 he became the company's vice president and general manager. Heffelfinger married Grace Harriet Pierce in 1901; they had one son and two daughters. When the shoe company went out of business in 1907, Heffelfinger found success as a building contractor. Entering politics, he served as a Hennepin County commissioner from 1924 to 1948.

Heffelfinger helped fuel the growing legends that portrayed him as a larger than life figure. In 1916, helping Coach Tad Jones work with the Yale team, Heffelfinger scrimmaged against the varsity and supposedly roughed up three of his star players so badly that Jones had to pull the 48-year-old veteran out of the contest. In 1922, at the age of fifty-four, Heffelfinger played in a charity game pitting veteran players against a team of recent Ohio State graduates and held his own for fifty-five minutes. In 1933, at the age of sixty-nine, the old veteran was talked into participating in a charity game, but he was injured within nine minutes and had to leave.

In 1933 Heffelfinger founded Heffelfinger Publications, which put out guides and promotional booklets on football and baseball. His Football Facts guide became a standard resource in the sport after he established the publication in the 1930s. Heffelfinger was a founding member of the New York Touchdown Club in 1933, an organization of former football players dedicated to the promotion of the game and to honoring players of the past. In 1937 his fellow members named Heffelfinger the greatest player of all time. In 1951 he was elected in the inaugural class of fifty-one notables to the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame. He also was named a member of the Helms Athletic Hall of Fame. He died at the family home at the age of eighty-six in Blessing, Texas.

Heffelfinger was a large man by the standards of early football, but he only became bigger as football prospered and grew from its infant days. He eventually became an icon of college football's rough and tumble era, representing the almost superhuman toughness and ferocity of the players who played the game out zest for competition and for the glory of their schools. His lifelong advocacy of a game he dearly loved helped connect Americans to the rich heritage of collegiate football and its traditions. He was America's first football hero.

Heffelfinger's years at Yale are detailed in the Walter Camp papers at Yale University. His reminiscences are W. W. (Pudge) Heffelfinger with George Trevor, "Nobody Put Me on My Back," Saturday Evening Post (15 Oct. 1938), and "Football's Golden Era," Saturday Evening Post (29 Oct. 1938). W. W. "Pudge" Heffelfinger, This Was Football (1954), is a collaboration with John McCallum that derives a good part of its material from the Saturday Evening Post articles. An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Apr. 1954).

Robert Pruter