Editor's Note: Times sports columnist Dan Daly knows the history of the NFL as well as anybody anywhere. This is the last in a series of five excerpts The Times has offered this week.
No play better illustrates the sheer nastiness of the 1950s than a kickoff that took place at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium on October 24, 1954.
Early in the second quarter, the Detroit Lions' Gil Mains ran downfield to bust up the wedge and — in a moment of temporary insanity — flew feet-first into it. One of his cleats plunged into the thigh of the 49ers' Hardy Brown, who needed 15 stitches to repair the damage.
"His cleats raked Hardy along the chest and arm," the Oakland Tribune reported, "and then one ripped through his pants to inflict the deep cut. However, with the wound closed by stitches, Brown came back to play the entire second half on defense."
Mains was no ordinary projectile, either. He was a 6-foot-2 defensive end who weighed 243 pounds, a healthy 50 more than his victim. In other words, the injury could have been a lot worse — as Brown was well aware.
"When I first looked down [at all the blood]," he supposedly said later, "I thought I was Christine Jorgensen."
(Historical note: Jorgensen had one of the first sex-change operations in 1952.)
Two weeks later, according to the Tribune, Brown still had "a hole the size of a golf ball" where Mains had landed on him. Not that there were many tears shed for Hardy. He was a ruthless player in his own right who left much wreckage behind in his career — broken noses, broken jaws, broken cheeks, broken everything.
Still, what Mains did was pretty extreme, even by the (low) standards of the times. Turns out he'd gotten the idea from Lions roommate Bob Dove, who had regaled him with stories about the New York Giants' Nello Falaschi, back in the '40s, planting his cleats in the chest of the Washington Redskins' Willie Wilkin on a kickoff.
"It looked like three white stripes on Willie's chest," Dove told me, "— the scar tissue from the cleats."
Anyway, there was Mains, flying down the field on the kickoff, "and here comes Hardy Brown," Gil once said. "And I'm thinking: Oh, [goodness]. I'd been told all these [scary] stories about him. He wasn't that large, but he was built like a fireplug.
"And I don't know what made me do it, but just as he got to me, instead of getting hit, I jumped up feet-first and went straight at him. He went off the field, got stitched up, came back out in the second half and damned if, on the second or third play, he didn't hit [Lions fullback] Bill Bowman and break his nose."
That wasn't the only time Mains led with his cleats, apparently. He also tore into Los Angeles Rams Hall of Famer Les Richter, he claimed. ("The official came over and said, 'That's the dirtiest thing I ever saw.' And I said, 'Well, run the film of the last time we played, and watch when he comes up and hits me on the back of the head when I'm not looking.")
Finally, after Mains had cut open a few players, Commissioner Bert Bell phoned him and said, "Son, you can't do that." So Gil stopped doing "that."
"It's not all glory," he said. "I remember one time I went in cleats-first, and when I jumped up they all scattered. It had rained, and I hit on my bottom and looked like a speed boat going through the water."
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.
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