Football Urban Legends Revealed #10

This is the tenth in a series of examinations of football-related legends and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of all the previous football legends.

This installment is a re-format edition, so these legends have already been posted on this site, just not in this format.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: A tremendously successful college athlete eschewed professional football because his religion would not allow him to work on Sundays.

STATUS: True

Bennie Oosterbaan was a legendary football player at the University of Michigan during the 1920s. Heck, he was just a flat-out legendary players of SPORTS at the University of Michigan during the 1920s!

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As a receiver and a defensive end for Michigan, Osterbaan was an All-American all three years he played for Michigan (1925-1927)

However, he was also a talented BASKETBALL player, as well (he was a forward)! He was an All-American in basketball for two years, 1927 and 1928. He led the NCAA in scoring in 1928.

If THAT wasn’t enough, he was ALSO All-Big Ten in baseball in 1928, when he led the Big Ten in batting (be played first base and pitched a little)!

So Bennie Oosterbaan was quite an athlete. He could have easily played professional football.

Yet, upon his graduation, he did not seek out a professional career.

And the reason was as simple as when professional football games are played.

You see, Oosterbaan was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and they forbade their members to work on Sundays.

So Oosterbaan put his religious convictions ahead of a career playing sports.

Instead, Oosterbaan stayed at Michigan (where they play on Saturdays) as an assistant coach for both the football and the basketball teams beginning in the 1928-29 school year. He became the head basketball coach in 1938 and held the position until 1946. In 1948, after twenty years as an assistant coach, he finally became the head coach upon the retirement of Fritz Crisler.

In his first year as head coach, Michigan’s football team won the national championship (he won Head Coach of the Year honors).

Oosterbaan was a kind, level-headed man, and the pressures of coaching for such a big program eventually wore at him and he walked away from one of the prominent coaching gigs in college football in 1958, continuing his tradition of putting his beliefs and ideals ahead of his career.

Upon his stepping down, he then became Michigan’s director of athletic alumni relations, where he stayed until his retirement in 1972, having spent his entire adult life connected to Michigan.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Bronko Nagurski was discovered when a college football coach found him doing some mighty acts of strength while plowing a farm by the road.

STATUS: False

Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski was born in Ottawa, Canada but moved to Minnesota with his family when he was a young boy. It is fairly well established that he was, indeed, “discovered” by University of Minnesota Head Coach Clarence “Fats” Spears, who got the young man to come play for University of Minnesota as a tackle and fullback, becoming one of the greatest college football players in history.

He later went on to become one of the greatest players in National Football League history, too, playing from 1930-1937 (plus one game in 1943) for the Chicago Bears. He is the only player ever to be named to the All-Pro team playing at three separate (non-kicking) positions, as he played fullback on offense and defensive lineman on defense, plus occasionally offensive tackle on offense, as well.

During the offseasons, he also was a star professional wrestler (he won three national titles as a wrestler).

The giant Nagurksi (he was about six two and over two hundred and thirty pounds, which is very big now but was absolutely a behemoth back then) is one of the most dominant athletes of his generation.

But while I will concede that Coach Fat Spears DID “discover” Nagurski, here is how the story of his discovery was laid out over the years (this particular version comes from the New York Times obituary for Nagurski, who died in 1990 at the age of 81):

He was supposedly recruited to play at Minnesota after the football coach, Clarence (Doc) Spears, saw him plowing in a field – without a horse. When asked directions, Mr. Nagurski, the story goes, pointed out the correct path while holding the plow in his hand.

The Times rightfully points this out as a story, because that’s all it is. That particular story has been told for DECADES before Nagurski came around, varying from country to country (in some countries, rather than sports, it is about a man enlisted in the military after he lifts the plow to point).

This is not even to say that Nagurski could NOT lift a plow – maybe he could (okay, he almost certainly couldn’t), but there’s just no way that Nagurski’s recruitment just “happened” to match exactly stories like that from decades past.

So, yeah, I’m going with false.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Notre Dame used a play called by a terminally ill child in an actual game.

STATUS: True

Montana Mazurkiewicz was a 10-year-old child who was dying from an inoperable brain tumor. The boy, a South Bend, Indiana resident named after famed Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana, was naturally a huge fan of Notre Dame.

In September 2005, a week before the much anticipated Notre Dame/Washington Huskies match-up (anticipated because the Washington Huskies were coached by Tyrone Willingham, who preceded then-current Notre Dame coach, Charlie Weis, as coach at Notre Dame) Weis visited the young Mazurkiewicz.

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Weis agreed to let Montana call the first play against Washington that Saturday. Montana asked him to “pass right.”

Tragically, Montana Mazurkiewicz did not live long enough to see the game on Saturday. He died at home the Friday before the game.

The game, by the way, made it as hard as it could on Weis to have the play be called.

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After a long opening drive, Washington ended up fumbling the ball and Notre Dame recovered at Notre Dame’s own 1 yard line!

Now, when you get the ball on the 1 yard line, you almost always run the ball first, because for a pass, the quarterback has to drop back, and if you BEGIN on the 1 yard line, you’re dropping back into your own end zone, and if you get sacked, it’s 2 points for the other team! So teams almost always run the ball until they’re safely out of their own end zone, and THEN they throw the ball.

However, Weis held true to his promise, and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn dropped back and threw a pass to the right and connected with Tight End Anthony Fasano, who then leaped over a defender for a 13-yard gain.

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Notre Dame ended up winning 36-17.

Montana’s mother on the play said:

It was an amazing play. Montana would have been very pleased. I was very pleased. I was just so overwhelmed. I couldn’t watch much more.

What a sweet job by Weis and Notre Dame.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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