Football Urban Legends Revealed #18

This is the eighteenth 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.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: A $1 investment by a team manager eventually turned into 10% of the Minnesota vikings.

STATUS: Basically True

The early days of the National Football League (NFL) were so much different than the current NFL that they are barely even recognizable to modern fans. So many things needed to go just right for the league to make its way to where it is today. Had it not been for the actions of some early NFL pioneers, there is a very good chance that the NFL would have folded and perhaps we would be following some other league (the American Football League, perhaps). One of these early pioneers was Ole Haugsrud. Haugsrud owned the NFL franchise in Duluth, Minnesota, a franchise Haugsrud purchased for $1 (I guess you could say 50 cents even, since Haugsrud purchased the team with a partner). That deal in 1926 eventually led to another deal in 1960, where Haugsrud became owner of 10% of the Minnesota Vikings. How, exactly, did those two deals become connected? Read on for a journey into the strange early years of the NFL.

The NFL, as originally constituted in 1920, wasn’t even called the NFL (it was first called the American Professional Football Association before it adopted the NFL name in 1922). Professional football when it began was very much a regional sport, where small pro teams from the same area would face off against each other. In fact, before becoming an “Association,” the league’s first plan was to be a league of just teams from Ohio (and call themselves the American Professional Football Conference). All throughout the early 1920s, pretty much every Mid-Western city of any renown tried to form their own professional football team. In Duluth, Minnesota (birthplace of Bob Dylan!), the pro team was founded in 1921 by hardware store owner, M.C. Gebert, who formed a professional team with help from Dewey Scanlon, a native of Duluth who had played college football at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

After playing just local teams for a couple of years, in 1923 the team, known as the Duluth Kelleys (or the Kelly Duluths, after the store, which was called the Kelly Duluth Hardware Store) joined the NFL.

Coached by Joey Sternaman, the team was about middle of the pack (finishing seventh in the league), but financially it was not working out, and Gebert sold the team. Interestingly enough, he sold the team directly to the players themselves, who ran the team as a co-operative. They needed someone to manage the team, though, so they brought in 25-year-old Ole Haugsrud to become the team manager. Scanlon stayed on as the coach of the team.

For two seasons, the Kelleys only played eight games within the actual NFL, scheduling almost all of their other games as non-league games with other local Minnesota area teams. The NFL games would almost always be on the road, as the Kelley’s home stadium, Athletic Park, was a disgrace, even by mid-1920s standards!

With the team falling deeper and deeper into debt, Haugsrud and Scanlon ultimately purchased the franchise from the players for the sum of $1. This, of course, is misleading since the purchase of team also involved taking on the debt of the team, which was substantial after the two poor seasons. Haugsrud, though, had a plan. A close personal friend of Ernie Nevers, Haugsrud decided to build the 1926 Duluth team around Nevers. The problem was – how do you get Nevers?

Ernie Nevers, you see, was perhaps the finest football player of his era. An All-American at Stanford University, Nevers was called by none other than legendary coach Pop Warner himself, “the football player without a fault.”

nevers

Star player Red Grange had left the NFL after the 1925 season to form the American Football League as a rival to the NFL. He saw Nevers as the player that the league could revolve around. He promised Nevers $15,000 for the 1926 AFL season as well as 25% of the gate! Those figures were fairly astronomical for a professional football player in 1926. Nevers, however, was friends with Haugsrud, so he gave him the opportunity to match the offer. He did so, so in 1926, Nevers suited up for Duluth.

Haugsrud was so confident in his new player than he actually had the name of the team changed to Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos (most commonly referred to, though, as the Duluth Eskimos, as a number of papers called them at the time). Haugsrud also had a plan – with the knowledge that their home stadium was awful, after just a single game at home to kick off the season, he and the team went on a season-long journey around the country as a perpetual “road” team built around the drama of other cities getting to see Nevers play. Haugsrud gutted the team to pay for this, selling pretty much all of his stars, but also spending some money to pick up the legendary Johnny Blood for the team. Haugsrud’s deal with the non-Nevers players on the team was that they would receive $50 a game if they lost, $60 if they tied and $75 if they won. This was below market even back then, but to make it up to his players, he would schedule as many games as he could. The Eskimos played 14 NFL games in 1926 but played at least eight more games against semi-pro and local teams (Haugsrud would always claim they played 15 more games, but that seems dubious).

The traveling bravado of the Eskimos drew attention all over the country, and there is a very reasonable possibility that had Nevers signed with the AFL instead of Duluth, that the AFL would not have folded after the 1926 season (a season where Grange was the only real star – and Grange’s team, the New York Yankees, would be absorbed into the NFL). Nevers was a great commercial draw, and he was also a great player on the field, as well (the Eskimos played well, going 6-5-3 in their league games). Nevers played nearly every minute of every game. The only time he missed came when a doctor insisted that he sit out a Halloween 1926 game against the Milwaukee Badgers. He sat down for 26 minutes but he could not help himself – with the team down 6-0 he entered the game and eventually threw for a touchdown in a 7-6 Duluth victory. Those 26 minutes would be the only minutes he did not play in 1926. Nevers, of course, wasn’t the only Duluth player playing nearly all the games. While the team had over 20 players in total, they did not travel with that many, typically only traveling with 13 or so players at a time. In fact, their bench was so thin that Haugsrud and Scanlon often would suit up as players just to make it look like Duluth had more players than they actually did.

The constant wear of playing ever down of ever game on top of all of the traveling eventually took its toll on the team, though, and in 1927, after trying to repeat their 1926 glory, the team fell apart and went 1-8 in league play and not much better in their other games. Scanlon had left the team after the 1926 season and Nevers had taken over as coach.

After the disappointing 1927 season, Haugsrud took the 1928 season off. This was allowed back then, as the NFL understood that some owners just could not afford to play every year. However, there was a tiny little wrinkle here. Nevers’ deal was not with the Duluth Eskimos, but, as it turns out, with Haugsrud himself! It was a personal services contract, so if Haugsrud was not going to field a team in 1928, Ernie Nevers could not play in the NFL either. So after one Nevers-less season, the NFL insisted that Haugsrud get Nevers back into the league. He agreed, and sold the team to Edwin Samandi (or sold it to the NFL, who in turn sold it to Samandi, whichever), who moved the franchise to Orange, New Jersey. Haugsrud, of course, first sold most of the players to other teams, including sending Johnny Blood (who had played for Pottsdale in 1928) off to Green Bay, where he became one of the most famous Packers on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Haugsrud then took a job with the Chicago Cardinals, bringing Nevers along with him (who went right back to being a star player for the Cardinals). Eventually, the NFL ruled that personal services contracts were no longer allowed, so the Cardinals cut ties with Hausgrud.

However, in exchange for (or, perhaps, in honor of) Haugsrud agreeing to bring Nevers back to the NFL, the NFL (well, Chicago Bears coach George Halas, but presumably Halas was speaking on behalf of the NFL) agreed that if the NFL ever had another new franchise in Minnesota, that they would let Haugsrud have the first crack at purchasing it. That came up very quickly, as the Minneapolis Red Jackets (a re-worked version of a previous Minneapolis team, the Minneapolis Marines) joined the NFL in 1929. Presumably since he was going to Chicago with Nevers, though, Haugsrud passed on the opportunity to own part of the Red Jackets (the Red Jackets only lasted two seasons).

Over thirty years later, though, the NFL, in an attempt to squelch the brand-new American Football League, offered the new-AFL franchise Minnesota Vikings the chance to join the NFL instead. The ownership group of Bill Boyer, H. P. Skoglund, Max Winter and Bernie Ridder agreed, but the NFL did not forget its promise to Haugsrud, so they gave him a chance to become part of the ownership group. He agreed, and for $60,000, he purchased a 10% ownership interest in the Minnesota Vikings.

Here’s Haugsrud in his later years…

ole

Haugsrud would maintain his ownership right until his death in 1976, by which time the Vikings had become one of the more successful teams in the NFL.

And it all began with a $1 purchase…

FOOTBALL LEGEND: A future Hall of Famer was drafted in the last round of the 1934 NFL Draft based on the sound of his name!

STATUS: I’m Going With Essentially True

The first germ of the idea that became the National Football League Draft (the first of the major sports leagues to have a draft) occurred in 1934 when Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell contacted Stan Kostka, a graduating senior from the University of Minnesota who was an outstanding fullback and linebacker. Bell asked Kostka that if Bell personally came to see him and offer him more money than any other team was offering, would he sign with the Eagles? Kostka said yes. So Bell flew out to Minneapolis and met with Kostka. He offered him $4,000, $500 more than any other team had offered. Kotska hedged, and Bell gave him a deadline of an hour. In an hour, Kostka still could not commit. What Bell had figured out what was going on was that Kostka was trying to call the Brooklyn Dodgers (the NFL one, not the MLB one), the team that had offered him $3,500, to see if they would up their offer but had been unable to get through. So Bell finally said, “If you give me an answer right this second I will give you $6,000.” Kostka would not commit, so Bell left. Kostka ended up playing for the Dodgers in 1935.

Bell was convinced that this system of the teams bidding against each other was bad for the league but even more importantly to Bell, it was bad for his Eagles, who finished the 1934 season 4-7 due to what Bell felt was their inability to land the top players over the more solvent big market teams like the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears. After the end of the 1934 season, in early 1935, the other owners ratified Bell’s historic proposal for an NFL Draft after the 1935 season (where Bell’s Eagles fell to 2-9).

The first draft was held on February 8, 1936 in Philadelphia, where Bell’s Eagles held the first pick. The nine-round draft was a ramshackle affair, with the number one choice choosing never to play professional football and a grand total of four Hall of Famers being drafted – none stranger than the fellow drafted in the final round by the Chicago Bears, a player drafted because of the sound of his name!

First off, regarding the first overall pick. It was a player for the University of Chicago named Jay Berwanger. A halfback, Berwanger was a star player and was the first winner of Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935 (the next year they started calling it the Hiesman Trophy). Berwanger had no interest in playing professional football, which, at the time, certainly was not a sport you were playing to make the big bucks. When the Eagles were unable to sign him, they traded his rights to his hometown Chicago Bears. When the Bears owner/coach George Halas ran into Berwanger soon after in Chicago, he asked him for his contract demands. Berwanger asked for a two-year/$25,000 deal. Halas never countered and Berwanger never played professional football (the two became friends, though, over the years).

As you might imagine, in a sport like professional football in 1936, there was not much of a scouting department on any team for the actual pro games, let alone to scout college players. The most famous college players were usually pursued due to the fame that they had accumulated. All the rest were signed by teams either due to tryouts or by word of mouth. So when the teams suddenly had to draft 81 players, well, there was a great deal of uncertainity.

This was born out in the results of the draft – less than half of the drafted players actually ended up signing with the team that drafted them. This was a combination of football not being a great profession at the time, money-wise, as well as teams not properly scouting players. Most teams “draft rooms” for the 1936 Draft consisted of a bunch of newspaper clippings written about players eligible to be drafted.

So by the end of the draft, you were really getting to the point where teams had extremely little information to go on. The Redskins did end up drafting a future Hall of Famer of their own in the Eighth Round, but the player, Wayne Millner, had attended Notre Dame and Redskin Coach Ray Flaherty was familiar with him.

In the ninth round, Bears owner/coach Halas said upon making his pick, “I saw a name I liked; Danny Fortmann. Now that name’s got a good sound to it.” Fortmann was a guard playing for Colgate University in New York. Colgate was not necessarily a college football powerhouse, but they were still definitely a respected program during the 1930s. Fortmann was 6 feet tall and just over 200 pounds, so he was about average size for a guard at the time (nowadays, guards are 6 foot 4 at the shortest and always over 300 pounds), but boy, his name certainly does sound like a football player. The debate here, then, is whether Halas was joking or not.

History has generally reported the statement as serious, and I think the facts surrounding the situation are believable enough to support a “true” here. To wit, it was not like Halas was pulling a name from thin air – for him to even SEE Fortmann’s name, it means that someone must have thought enough of him to put him before Halas as an option. And when you were in the final round of a draft where most of the draftees were never going to play for the teams that drafted them in the first attempt at even doing a draft, I think it is reasonable enough to believe that Halas effectively rolled the dice on Fortmann. If he turned out to be a bum, Halas would simply not sign him (or offer him so little that Fortmann wouldn’t sign). In addition, only three teams picked after Halas, so he was only missing out on the chance of getting the rights to three other players, which at this point in the draft probably was no great loss. So I’m willing to take Halas at his word (and how his statement has been reported over the years) and say that he just took a shot in the dark with Fortmann.

Of course, if it was a shot in the dark, it was a great one at that, as Fortmann (who played his first game at 20 years old, the youngest player to play in the NFL at that time) went on to make the second team of the All-Pro team his first two years at guard and then first team All-Pro at guard the next six seasons from 1938-1943! He also made three Pro Bowls at guard from 1940-1942. He and his fellow 1936 Draft Pick (the Bears’ first round draft pick and another future Hall of Famer) tackle Joe Stydahar were a formidable sight on the Bears line. They were both a major part of Bears teams that would win three NFL Championships in the early 1940s (as well as six division championships during Fortmann’s career).

fotmann

Even more importantly for Fortmann, beyond his salary as a football player (which wasn’t great – he got paid $1,700 a year to start, which wasn’t a lot of money even back then), Halas helped him attend medical school while playing professional football, so when his career as an NFL player stopped, his career as a doctor began (he graduated from the University of Chicago’s Medical School in 1940). He eventually went to work for St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California in 1948, where he continued to work until his retirement in 1984. During this period, he also came back to the NFL to work as the team phyisican for the Los Angeles Rams from 1947-1963. In 1965, Fortmann was named Chief of Staff at St. Joseph Medical Center – that same year he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1995.

While that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet, I don’t know if we can say that a Fortmann by any other name would have been an NFL Hall of Famer.

Special thanks to Robert Lyons’ book about Bert Bell,On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell, for the Bell/Kostka story and thanks to a number of different folks, perhaps most prominently Jim Dent and his book, Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever, for the information about the Fortmann pick.

By the way, speaking of great names (and the “rose” line above), the third overall pick in the 1936 NFL Draft belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Guess who they picked? None other than William Shakespeare, out of the University of Notre Dame!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: The deed to Kenan Memorial Stadium required that the stadium never rise above the pine trees that surround the stadium.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Kenan Memorial Stadium is the home to the Tar Heels, the football team of the University of North Carolina (UNC). The stadium is nestled in a cluster of pine trees towards the middle of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina campus. It is one of the most beautiful college football stadiums that there is, particularly due to the way that it fits in so well with the landscape that surrounds the stadium. Built in the late 1920s, for decades the stadium never rose above the pine trees that surrounded it. This has led to an interesting “fact” about the stadium, that the man who funded the building of the stadium, William Rand Kenan, Junior, specifically required (either in the deed to the stadium or in a contract with the University) that the stadium never rise above the surrounding pine trees.

kenan1

This does not appear to be true.

William Kenan Jr.’s connection to UNC went all the way back to its founding in the late 18th Century, as his grandfather was one of the school’s original trustees. He graduated from UNC in 1894 with a degree in chemistry and a minor in electrical engineering. While in school, he worked for a Professor F. P. Venable on a project for Thomas Wilson to find cheaper ways of producing aluminum. As is always the case, there is a dispute over who did what, but whether Kenan and Venable helped confirm a discovery that Wilson had already made (Wilson received a patent on the process) or (more likely) that they made the discovery themselves (and Wilson just took all of the credit), the end result was an economical process to make Calcium Carbide, which is used to produce the chemical Acetylene, which is itself used in Acetylene Lighting.

After graduating, Kenan first went to work for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, but his expertise in chemistry soon led him to work with Wilson at the Carbide Manufacturing Company (also in New York) on the development of carbide and acetylene. He worked in that field for many years (helping to build carbide plants all over the world), while also diversifying his holdings in New York (forming a number of companies in Lockport, New York, which is where he settled down with his family). Eventually, even though he was already quite successful on his own, he inherited control of an even larger fortune when his brother-in-law, the multi-millionaire Henry M. Flagler, passed away and Kenan’s sister gave Kenan control of her husband’s financial empire. Kenan used part of his fortune to purchase a 400-plus acre dairy farm in New York where he used his scientific expertise to become a pioneer in the field of dairy operations/farming.

That’s where Kenan stood in 1926 when he learned of the University’s plans for a new stadium. In the early 1920s, the Tar Heels played at Emerson Field, but it was soon becoming extremely evident that a 2,400 person capacity stadium was not going to cut it. The University began to reach out to alumni to see if they could raise the money to build a new stadium (they even had already received a sizable amount of donations). Kenan heard about the plans and decided to step in. He donated $330,000 in 1926 to build a new stadium and field house for the Tar Heels. Construction began in 1926 and the stadium was ready for the 1927 season. It expanded seating ten-fold, to 24,000 seats (plus with additional temporary seating, the stadium could fit up to 40,000 people). Kenan wanted to name the stadium in honor his parents, and on Thanksgiving Day in 1927, it was officially named Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Kenan was a great fan of nature, and he especially enjoyed the beauty of the surrounding pine trees. As the years went by, the pine trees always stood above the stadium. This eventually led to stories that Kenan specifically required that the stadium never rise above the pine trees. One version of the story is that it was part of the stadium’s deed. It is true that Kenan enjoyed the way that the stadium did not dwarf the woods around it, and since Kenan was still a very important donor (in 1963, he donated $1 million to UNC to double the seating in Kenan Stadium to 48,000), it just made good fiscal sense to not do anything that would possibly irritate Kenan.

By the time Kenan died in 1965, his younger cousin, Frank Kenan, had already taken over almost all of the controls of the Fagler-Kenan financial empire (Kenan Jr. had no children of his own) and was a prominent financial supporter of UNC, as well (Kenan attended UNC in the 1930s – he even played football for the Tar Heels!). By the late 1980s, the seating had been re-jiggered to fit another 2,000 seats in the stadium, but the school was looking for more, and one of the places they thought that they could find it was in the press box, which was on the ground. They wanted to knock the press boxes down and put in another 2,000 seats and put the press box at the top of the stadium. The only problem with that would be that they would have to be able to build above the pine trees. UNC athletic director John Swofford met with Frank Kenan to discuss whether there actually was any sort of stipulation saying that they could not build above the pine trees (as Swofford could find none). Kenan assured him that there was not, and thus, the press boxes at Kenan Stadium were built above the pine trees (well, at least they were in 1988, trees do grow, you know).

You can see here that the press boxes are above the trees…

kenan2

Frank Kenan’s son, Tom, discussed the matter in a great article by Lee Pace for his Extra Points column about Tar Heel history:

Mister Kenan did want to preserve as many of the trees as possible. But the story that he said the stadium should never be higher than the trees was just mythology, but it’s not a bad idea if you ask me. He did love the trees and loved the landscaping around it. He thought that was the real beauty of the stadium, because there were very few stadiums in the country that had any setting like this one. That’s why it became known as one of the most beautiful stadiums. Most of them were downtown or they just dug a huge bowl in the ground and built the seats around the hole.

Various developments have seen the seating capacity grow to its current level of 60,000, but future developments will see it grow even further, and it appears as though (at least from the preliminary drawings shared by UNC) the next expansion will be the first one to noticeably dwarf the pine trees around the stadium (only in certain areas, of course, the designs for the expansion still highlight the pine trees surrounding the stadium) as the school makes a push for luxury club suites (and club seats) that will help provide greater support to the athletic program to make it more competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Thanks again to Lee Pace for the great article about Kenan Memorial Stadium.

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

-Brian Cronin

4 Responses to “Football Urban Legends Revealed #18”

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