The Way It Was: Nevers may never be beat

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On the Thanksgiving morning of Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers was possibly the nation’s most frustrated football player, and with good reason. In their last four games against the archrival Chicago Bears, his Chicago Cardinals hadn’t scored a single touchdown.

“This was a game we just had to win,” Nevers would recall decades later in his autobiography. “Someone had to do something about it.”

That someone was Nevers himself - and how. That chilly holiday afternoon, the 27-year-old, 202-pound tailback scored six touchdowns and all the Cardinals’ points in a rousing 40-6 victory that might have made legendary Bears coach George Halas swallow his cigar.

The performance, if not the game itself, was one for the ages. Eighty long years later, Nevers’ 40 points endure as the NFL’s longest-standing record. Gale Sayers of the Bears and Dub Jones of the Cleveland Browns have matched the six TDs, but no one has bettered it.

A spectacular performance by Ernest Alonzo Nevers was no surprise in those days. His football feats at Stanford and in the NFL ranked him as one of the true athletic superstars of the Roaring Twenties. He also pitched in the major leagues and fiddled briefly with professional basketball, in 1927 becoming the only man ever to do all three pro sports the same year.

These days very few folks are aware of Nevers’ achievements. His name should be listed in the sports pantheon with those of such contemporaries as Ruth, Dempsey, Grange, Tilden and Jones. For some reason, it isn’t.

Nevers played, of course, at a time when there was no television or Internet and not much network radio or film to spread news of his exploits. In addition, he was a quiet guy who didn’t call attention to himself - except when a center snapped a heavy leather football into his mitts.

Yet his opponents knew how talented he was, even those who saw him infrequently.

Ernie pitched for the St. Louis Browns for parts of three seasons, and although his record was just 6-12, no less an authority than Babe Ruth recognized his skills.

During the 1927 season, Nevers went 3-8 for a Browns team that finished seventh in the American League with a 59-94 record and in the process allowed two of Ruth’s record 60 home runs. Said the Babe after one of their encounters: “You’ve got good speed, kid. For my sake, I hope you stick to football.”

How good was Nevers on the gridiron? His coach at Stanford, Glenn “Pop” Warner, also coached the immortal Jim Thorpe at Carlisle College years earlier, and Warner thought Nevers was better.

“The reason is that Ernie gave 100 percent of himself - always,” Warner once told equally legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. “In that respect, he was a coach’s ideal. Thorpe only gave it on certain occasions. … Ernie had an indomitable spirit and a great love for the game.”

Another famous Nevers fan was Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne. On New Year’s Day 1925, Rockne saw Ernie play all 60 minutes of the Rose Bowl, rush for 114 yards and outgain the vaunted Four Horsemen backfield, although the Fighting Irish won 27-10. All this after missing most of the 1924 season because of two broken ankles from which the casts were removed just 10 days before the bowl game.

“Nevers could do everything,” Rockne said afterward. “He tore our line to shreds, ran the ends, passed and kicked. True, we held him on the 1-yard line for four downs, but by that time he was exhausted.”

A contemporary writer once described Nevers as “a fury in football shoes because he was such an untiring football machine.” At Stanford, Nevers won 11 letters in four sports. During his varsity football career, he averaged more than five yards a carry, was never thrown for a loss and was virtually a unanimous All-American choice as the Indians went 21-5-1. Just to keep from being bored, he also played linebacker and punted.

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