- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2012

Editor’s Note: Times sports columnist Dan Daly knows the history of the NFL as well as anybody anywhere. The Times will offer an excerpt from his new book every day this week.

The NFL needed a referee in 1942 to replace the famed Red Friesell, who had decided to retire after breaking his leg in a game the year before. The injury was so bad, in fact, that Friesell was still wearing a cast five months later.

Actually, he told Stanley Woodward of the New York Herald Tribune, the leg “was broken in four places. The tibia and fibula were chopped off, as if by an ax, slightly above the ankle. Three inches above, both bones were cracked through. … You could hear the crack all over Shibe Park.”

To fill the Friesell void, the league turned to a 5-foot-4, 145-pound dynamo named Sam Weiss. Weiss, a former Duquesne football captain, had been working high school and college games for nearly two decades, but that isn’t what set him apart from other whistle blowers. No, what made Sam unique was that he was a U.S. congressman, the representative from Pennsylvania’s 31st district in Pittsburgh.

(He had also, by his own count, had six teeth knocked out in his officiating travels — not that it dampened his enthusiasm any. “Football, like politics, is real excitement,” he said. “And in these war times, refereeing is my one real diversion. I’m going to keep it up as long as my legs last. You’d think refereeing would tire me out. It really peps me up, makes me do a better job in Congress.”)

Weiss was one of five referees on the NFL’s rolls from 1942 to ‘47. Among the officials he worked with regularly was Fay Vincent, the father of the future baseball commissioner, who often served as his umpire. Sam wasn’t assigned to any championship games, but he did get tapped for the biggest game of the 1943 regular season, the battle between the Chicago Bears, the 1940 and ‘41 champs, and the Washington Redskins, the ‘42 champs. Despite the teams’ well-known antipathy for each other, the congressman managed to keep the peace.

“The most overworked item on the field was the whistle carried by referee Sam Weiss,” the Associated Press reported after Washington’s 21-7 win. “He called 16 penalties excluding pass interference plays.”

Weiss did more for the league, though, than just measure for first downs. He also looked after its interests in Congress. Some lawmakers, after all, would have placed greater restrictions on travel during World War II and made it more difficult for pro leagues to operate. But Sam was of the opinion that sports were “a vital factor in our all-out war effort. Happy soldiers make better fighters just like contented workers make better production men. Soldier and civilian morale demands that the government permit spectator sports to continue for the duration.”

Weiss even pushed to build a 200,000-seat stadium in Washington after the war “as a giant memorial to our servicemen who have died. [It] would bring teams together from all over the world and in that manner help serve to maintain lasting peace by encouraging friendly relations in sport.” It never came to pass, of course, but it was a lovely thought.

Weiss left the House in 1946, midway through his third term, when he was elected as a judge in Allegheny County. He stopped refereeing NFL games soon afterward. To his credit, he survived his years in pro football without any major gaffes — without anything like the infamous Fifth Down that Friesell gave Cornell in its 1940 game against Dartmouth.

And was Sam ever glad. “Why,” he once said, “a fifth down would put me in the doghouse in Congress, and I’d be fearful about re-election.”

Excerpted by permission from The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years by Dan Daly. Copyright (c) 2012 by Dan Daly. Published by University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available wherever books are sold or via University of Nebraska Press (1-800-848-6224). Follow Dan on Twitter @dandalyonsports.