Author: Hugh Wyatt
Originally Published: September 3, 2004
Ernie Nevers may be the only man in sports history to play pro football, pro baseball and pro basketball – and all in the same year (1927) at that.
Despite the passage of all the years, Nevers may still be the most illustrious figure in Stanford’s long and glorious sports history.
His number – number 1, what else? – is the only Stanford number ever to be retired.
He won 11 letters in four sports in his three years at The Farm.
In the Rose Bowl game, he outgained all four of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen.
He played professional football against Red Grange and pitched against Babe Ruth.
For months, he was listed as Missing in Action in the South Pacific in World War II.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its first class.
And yet, possibly because he was a private man, reserved and self-effacing, he is not as well-known as he ought to be.
Ernie Nevers was born in Willow River, Minnesota, on June 11, 1903. After his family moved to Santa Rosa, California, Nevers played as a senior on his high school’s very first football team. When it turned out that he knew more football than the coach, he designed the offense, putting himself at fullback.
“You see, I wanted every chance to carry the ball and kick,” Nevers explained later. Although Ernie Nevers is still regarded as perhaps the greatest athlete ever to attend Stanford, Stanford landed him only after an epic recruiting struggle with its archrival, the University of California.
The story that has since become legend was that while he was visiting the Cal campus, Nevers was “kidnapped” by Stanford zealots, spirited away to a secluded spot somewhere on the coast and – in the pleasant company of a good-looking young female – kept hidden from Cal people until he finally decided to attend Stanford. The young lady must have been very persuasive.
Years later, Nevers admitted that Cal had been his first choice. “Brick Muller (a Cal All-American from the early 1920s) had been an idol of mine, and I got to know him,” he said. “So I was all set to go to Cal, but at the last minute I picked Stanford. But if I had gone to Cal I probably would have stayed a lineman and nobody would have given me much of a chance. I was a terrible tackle. I did much better as a fullback.”
Indeed he did. At 6-1, 205, he was a big man by the standards of his day; as a fullback, he was gigantic. Called “Swede” and “Big Dog” by his teammates, he truly did everything – he ran, passed, punted and tackled. He was noted for his fearless, reckless style of play, and on occasion, when the action got especially ferocious, he would toss his helmet aside and fling himself into the action bareheaded.
Asked to compare him to the legendary Jim Thorpe, whom he had also coached, Pop Warner, Nevers’ coach, said, “I consider Nevers the better player because he gave everything he had in every game.”
Warner wrote, in his autobiography, “In an era of great ones – Red Grange of Illinois, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen from Notre Dame, Elmer Oliphant and Chris Cagle of Army, or even Jim Thorpe of Carlisle – Nevers always stood a bit taller when trying to compare others to him.”
Nevers’ most legendary performance was in the 1925 Rose Bowl against Knute Rockne and Notre Dame and the legendary Four Horsemen. He almost didn’t play at all. He’d broken his left ankle before the opening game of the season, and his right ankle in the next-to-last game. He was on crutches until two days before the Rose Bowl. And then, ankles supported by braces fashioned from inner tubes by coach Warner and wrapped so tightly that he had little feeling in his legs, he headed out to battle.
“You’ll probably last ten minutes,” Warner predicted pessimistically.
But Nevers played all 60 minutes, and outgained all four of Horsemen all by himself. Nevers carried the ball 34 times for 117 yards, handling the ball on every offensive play.
On defense, he intercepted a pass and was in on 80 percent of Stanford’s tackles.
So amazing was his performance that the two interceptions he threw – both returned by Elmer Layden for touchdowns – were forgiven.
Although Stanford lost, 27-10, Irish coach Knute Rockne was in awe of Nevers’ performance. “Nevers could do everything,” Rockne recalled later. “He tore our line to shreds, ran the ends, forward-passed and kicked. True, we held him on the 1-yard line for four downs, but by that time he was exhausted.”
So impressed was Rockne that day that later, when Nevers was playing as a pro with the Chicago Cardinals, Rockne would often take his players to Chicago just to watch Nevers play.
At Stanford, he earned 11 letters – in football, baseball, basketball and track – in three years. On at least one occasion, he competed in a track meet in his baseball uniform, then hurried over to the diamond to play a baseball game.
He once pitched 37 consecutive scoreless innings – a record that still stands at a school with an illustrious baseball history. In 1925, in a three-game series with Cal, he pitched the full nine innings in two of the games, and in the final game, with the count three-and-two, hit a grand slam home run to win the series for Stanford.
While in college, he also had some bit parts in Hollywood productions during the offseasons, working with a couple of USC football players named Ward Bond and Marion “Duke” Morrison. Bond would become a well-known actor, and Morrison would become fairly well-known himself as a guy named John Wayne.
In his first year as a pro football player, 1926, Nevers played for a travelling team called the Duluth Eskimos (later to become the Detroit Lions), playing 29 games in 117 days – including one stretch of five games in eight days. 27 of the 29 games on the road. There were 16 men on the Eskimos roster.
“Sometimes we used take two showers after games,” Nevers recalled once. “The first one would be with our uniforms on. Then we’d beat them like rugs to get some of the water out, throw them into our bags, get dressed and catch a train.”
Nevers missed just 27 minutes of action in the entire 29-game schedule – when doctors ordered him to sit out a game after he was diagnosed with appendicitis. But with Duluth trailing 6-0, Nevers couldn’t stand to watch. Disregarding doctor’s orders, he inserted himself into the game, and threw a 62-yard TD pass and kicked the extra point to give the Eskimos a 7-6 win.
His major-league baseball career was a short one. Playing for the woeful St. Louis Browns, he did gain a measure of fame as a result of Babe Ruth’s hitting two of his record-setting 60 home runs off him in 1927.
The Babe, not one to flatter anyone unnecessarily, said to him, “You’ve got good speed, kid. For my sake, I hope you stick to football.”
He once hit a double off the great Walter Johnson, but Nevers modestly said, “I think he grooved it for me.”
After his football playing career ended in 1932, Nevers began a coaching career, but at the outbreak of World War II, although too old to be drafted, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
While serving in the Pacific, he and his battalion were reported missing for several months. When they were finally found on an otherwise-deserted island, several had died, and Nevers, suffering from beri-beri, weighed only 110 pounds. Despite the rescue, however, all was not happiness – while he was away in the service, his wife died of pnuemonia.
Following the war, Nevers was involved in starting Chicago’s franchise in the All-American Football League, and spent most of the rest of his working life in a variety of positions for Bay Area beer, wine and liquor distributors.
Nevers was modest and private, and declined most requests for interviews. He kept few football mementos in his home, and reportedly never talked about sports with his family. Around the news media, he seemed embarrassed to talk about himself, and when he did so, it was often in a humorous, self-deprecating way.
Asked to recall his Rose Bowl performance, Nevers chose to dwell on the interceptions he threw. “A total of 150 yards and two touchdowns in two tries,” he once said, “makes the passing combination of Layden of Notre Dame and Nevers of Stanford the best in Rose Bowl history.”
Nevers lived in Tiburon, north of San Francisco, for much of his life and once invited Bob Murphy, then the sports information director at Stanford, to bring a tape recorder over his house to discuss his athletic career in detail for a possible book.
“We rambled on for a few hours,” Murphy recalled. “He talked about everything – the Four Horsemen, Pop Warner taping up his ankles with inner tubes, the home runs he served up to Babe Ruth. But here’s the sad part of the story. I transcribed the tape, but to this day, I don’t know what I did with it. I may have it buried somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find it.”
In 1951, Ernie Nevers was inducted into the College Hall of Fame, and in 1963 he was a charter inductee in the Pro Football of Fame.
He died on May 3, 1976.
“He loved doing things for kids,” recalled Murphy, his long-time friend. “He loved presenting the Pop Warner awards at their annual banquet. He had such great reverence for Warner, and loved to represent his memory at functions. Ernie really was a humble individual and a perfect gentleman.”