Nevers, Ernest Alonzo ("Ernie")

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NEVERS, Ernest Alonzo ("Ernie")

(b. 11 June 1903 in Willow River, Minnesota; d. 3 May 1976 in San Rafael, California), talented and versatile athlete and a durable football player who in 1929 scored 40 points in a single game, a National Football League (NFL) record that still stands.

Nevers's parents, George Nevers and Mary Nevers, who emigrated from Nova Scotia, Canada, to northern Minnesota, owned a tavern until Prohibition dealt the business a severe blow. After that, the family moved to Superior, Wisconsin, where Nevers got his first taste of organized football. It is a wonder he stuck with the sport. Seeing Nevers's potential, his coach used him as a tackling dummy, literally, to toughen him up. Nevers said of standing motionless in a sawdust pit as he was continuously hit by his teammates, "The only difference between me and an actual tackling dummy was I could talk and I wasn't suspended from a rope."

Nevers excelled in all sports at Superior's Central High School until 1919, when the family moved to Santa Rosa, California, and his father took up farming. However, during his senior year he returned to Wisconsin and led the Central High team to the state basketball championship.

Nevers probably would have gone to the University of Wisconsin after graduation from high school in 1921, but the school did not offer him a scholarship. Instead, the six-foot, one-inch, 210-pound fullback went to Stanford in 1922, following a year at Santa Rosa Junior College to correct a foreign language deficiency. He continued to excel in football, basketball, and baseball at Stanford. He was a consensus football All-American and good enough in baseball and basketball to sign professional contracts. Nevers earned eleven varsity letters at Stanford.

Perhaps Nevers's most memorable game was the 1 January 1925 Rose Bowl after his junior season. Nevers had broken an ankle in preseason practice earlier that fall but recovered to play the last regular-season game—in which he broke his other ankle. The determined, rugged Nevers vowed to play in the Rose Bowl against the Notre Dame team that featured the fabled Four Horsemen backfield. With both ankles heavily taped, Nevers played the entire sixty minutes, but as one man he was no match for the Four Horsemen. Nevers, always a workhorse, gained almost as many yards (114) as the entire Notre Dame team. Depending on one's allegiance, Nevers did or did not cross the goal line on a crucial fourth-down play. If indeed he was stopped, it was one of the few times Notre Dame halted the "Blond Blockbuster," as Nevers was sometimes known. The score was 20–10 in favor of Notre Dame at the time of the still-disputed play. Nevers returned for his senior collegiate season and led Stanford to a 7–2 record as the consensus All-America fullback. A highlight of his senior year was a 27–14 victory over University of California, Berkeley, in "the Big Game." It was Stanford's first victory in eight tries against California.

Nevers signed contracts to play professional baseball with the St. Louis Browns, and basketball with a Chicago team in a professional league that predated the National Basketball Association (NBA), but it was football in which he gained the most fame and fortune. Nevers's gridiron reputation was second only to that of the Chicago Bears "Galloping Ghost," Red Grange. He signed a contract for a $10,000 bonus, plus a salary of $22,500 (unusually high for the time—and, again, second only to Grange) to play the 1926 season with an NFL team based in Duluth, Minnesota. The team was owned by a high school friend, Ole Haugsrud, and played as the Kelleys in 1925. To take full advantage of Nevers's fame, the team officially changed its name to Ernie Nevers's Eskimos, originally just for the 1926 season, although the team played another season in 1927. The squad always numbered in the low teens and, because the starting eleven players usually played the entire game, the press dubbed them "the Iron Men of the North."

The Eskimos were really a road team. After they left Duluth in late September, they did not return until January 1927; they traveled 17,000 miles and once played five games in eight days. The Eskimos played fourteen NFL games, finishing 6–5–3, and played fifteen exhibition games as well. The durable Nevers missed only twenty-seven minutes of those twenty-nine games—he was knocked cold in one game, missing all twenty-seven minutes at once. Nevers earned most of the money, but his mates—just eager to play with him—did not complain about the pay scale. They were paid $75 for a victory, $60 for a tie, and $50 for a loss. Nevers married Mary Elizabeth Haegerty in 1926; she died in 1943.

Once when the Eskimos were in New York to play the Giants, the host team's owner Tim Mara sent a sightseeing bus to show them the town. When just thirteen Eskimos showed up, Mara said, "Where's the rest of the team?" Haugsrud, too embarrassed to admit his entire team was present, said, "Oh, they must still be sleeping. Let's just go without them." The next day the outnumbered Eskimos lost to the Giants 14–13.

Playing baseball with the Browns in 1927, Nevers became part of American folklore, when as a pitcher, he served up two of Babe Ruth's record 60 home runs. Whenever anyone mentioned Nevers's place in the baseball record book, he was quick to point out, "But I hit .347 as a pinch hitter."

During the 1927 football season the Eskimos managed only a 1–8 record, but they did much better in their exhibition games, with Nevers again the star. He missed the entire 1928 season due to an injury, and the Eskimos were no longer in existence when he returned for the 1929 season as a player-coach, so Nevers accepted an offer to play for the Chicago Cardinals. Nevers etched his name in the NFL record book on Thanksgiving Day that year when he led his underdog Cardinals to a 40–6 victory over the crosstown rival Bears. Nevers scored all 40 points—6 touchdowns and 4 extra points. No one has scored more touchdowns in an NFL game, and only Dub Jones and Gale Sayers ever matched the half-dozen touchdowns, and Nevers earned his rushing. Knute Rockne, perhaps remembering the 1925 Rose Bowl, had his Notre Dame team in attendance that day. When Nevers finished his record-setting performance, Rockne turned to his team and said, "That, gentlemen, is the way to play this game."

Nevers continued as the Cardinals workhorse for the 1930 and 1931 seasons, but the team struggled to stay around the .500 mark. Once Nevers was knocked unconscious when an opponent landed on Nevers's back with both knees. As Nevers was brought to and led to the sidelines, he broke free, saying, "You're not taking me out." He ran the ball sixteen straight times until he scored a much-needed touchdown. In another game he threw a 62-yard pass in the final minute to win 7–0. Against Hartford (then in the NFL) he kicked five field goals to win 15–0. Playing against the Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons, a team that claimed the 1925 NFL championship, Nevers completed seventeen consecutive passes.

Nevers organized a barnstorming team in 1931 called the Ernie Nevers All-Stars. His squad was comfortably ahead in a game against a local team from San Francisco when a teammate suggested he sit out the final few minutes. Nevers replied matter-of-factly, "The name of the team is the Ernie Nevers All-Stars; the fans paid their money and deserve to see Ernie Nevers." As usual, he played the entire sixty minutes.

Nevers's NFL career ended after the 1931 season, perhaps because business and coaching opportunities offered more security than depression-era professional football wages. He was All-Pro in each of his five seasons, the briefest career of anyone enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After his active playing career was over, Nevers coached on the college and professional levels. He also served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. He entered into several business ventures in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1947 married Margery Luxem. Nevers's two marriages produced a son and a daughter. He died of kidney disease and is buried in Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, California.

Nevers's greatness is attested to by his induction in both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Coach Glenn Scobey ("Pop") Warner, who picked Nevers over Jim Thorpe as his greatest player, said of him, "No one ever gave more of himself than Ernie Nevers."

A biography of Nevers is Jim Scott, Ernie Nevers (1969). His life and career are discussed in Arthur Daley, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963); George Sullivan, Pro Football's All-Time Greats (1968); Harold Rosenthal, Fifty Faces of Football (1981); and Joe Ziemba, When Football Was Football (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 May 1976).

Jim Campbell