- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

They should make Ray Brown — suddenly thrust into the Redskins’ starting lineup at the tender age of 43 — an honorary Nesser brother. Whoops, almost forgot. Outside of Columbus, Ohio, their stomping grounds about a century ago, the exploits of the indomitable Nesser boys are largely forgotten. The oldest of them, though, John, was just a few months shy of 46 when he played right guard for the Columbus Panhandles in the last game of the 1921 NFL season.

That’s right, right guard — the same position Brown will play Saturday against the Giants.

Lord willing.

Lining up on one side of John Nesser that afternoon was 38-year-old brother Ted, the Panhandles’ center; on the other side crouched 34-year-old brother Fred, the right tackle. Phil Nesser, soon to be 40, was the left tackle, and Frank Nesser, a mere pup of 32, was the fullback. The sixth Nesser on the team was a son, not a brother — Ted’s kid Charlie, the right halfback.

Yet another brother — Al, the youngest — suited up that season for the Akron Pros (with whom he won the first NFL title in 1920). He lasted in the league until he was 38 … and played semi-pro ball for several years after that. And yet another brother, Raymond, played for the Panhandles in the pre-NFL days. So legendary were the Nessers, once upon a time, that when George Halas was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, he mentioned them prominently in his acceptance speech. The family, he said, “did so much to develop football in this area and throughout the country.”

Such is the company Ray Brown keeps.

Of course, Ray has it easy. He wears a helmet. The Nessers weren’t particularly fond of headgear. Heck, Al didn’t even wear shoulder pads; he was the last player in NFL history to go without them — “preferring instead a single strip of adhesive that he spread from one shoulder to the other,” Barry Gottehrer wrote in “The Giants of New York.” “He was a 60-minute man, and if he ever was injured, he never told anyone about it.”

All of the Nessers were rugged. They labored for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Panhandle Division (thus the team’s name) as boilermakers and blacksmiths, and several of them were certified giants. Fred was 6-5, 250 pounds; Frank was 6-1, 245; and Ted and Phil both topped 220. (This at a time when a 200-pounder was considered a strapping fellow.)

Steve Owen, the Giants’ Hall of Fame coach, recalled scooping up a fumble during his playing days: “I lit downfield with a fellow named [Dutch] Webber as my blocker, and the only guy between us and the goal line was one of the Nesser brothers. I was very glad, too, that he didn’t have the rest of the family with him.”

After one game, the Detroit Free Press reported: “The Nesser boys are heavy and fast, and when one of [them] hits you flush there is usually a little work for the water boy and the club doctor.”

None of the brothers went to college. There just wasn’t the money for it in a family of, yes, a dozen children. But Theodore and Catherine Nesser, German immigrants, obviously fed their boys well — and taught them to play for keeps. Joe Carr, who managed the Panhandles (and later served as the NFL’s second president), once cracked, “There aren’t three good ribs among the lot of those Nessers.”

The Panhandles were a formidable club in early part of the 20th century. By the time the NFL was formed, though, most of the Nessers were on the downside. Also, it was more of a sandlot team than a pro team. The players would practice during their lunch break at the railroad, then catch a train on the weekend — free of charge, being “Pennsy” employees — to Akron, Chicago, Buffalo and beyond. (Pro football didn’t draw very well in Columbus, a college town, so virtually every Panhandle game was on the road.)

Little is known about John Nesser, the oldest interior lineman in NFL history. In fact, information about most of the brothers tends to be sketchy. Frank, it seems, played minor league baseball. Fred tried boxing. Phil was a pretty fair hammer-thrower. Al is probably the least shadowy figure — because he stayed on the stage well into the ‘30s.

He actually was a member of two championship teams — the other being the 1927 New York Giants. The Giants’ big game that year was against the Bears, and Al was “the real hero,” according to teammate Century Milstead. Despite his lack of padding, “He just kept submarining their running plays. He was battered, but he never quit.”

Al, too, gave boxing a whirl. When he died in 1967 at 73, UPI sent an obituary that included the following intriguing passage:

“In 1935, after [Al] retired from [football], he began a meteoric professional boxing career that ended when his teeth were knocked out during the sixth round of a bout during which he managed to knock down his opponent 19 times. Because of Nesser’s bleeding mouth, the referee declared him the loser.”

There are iron men and there are iron men. Ray Brown, still throwing his body around at 43, is assuredly one. But the Nesser brothers — helmetless, toothless, fearless — we’ll never see their kind again.

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