- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

Alphonse Emil “Tuffy” Leemans, one of the best college football players ever to come out of the District, had become the toast of the Big Apple. The New York Giants were tossing a “day” with gifts galore for their star halfback, and many of the 55,051 appreciative fans at the Polo Grounds had chipped in to buy him $1,500 worth of defense bonds.

This was a day to remember — and it was but for a different reason. At about 2 p.m. EST, as the Giants’ Ward Cuff was kicking off to the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of the worst disasters in American history began to unfold six time zones to the west.

It was Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called it in his war message to a joint session of Congress the next day. Later no one would remember it also had been Tuffy Leemans Day, not even his biggest fans.

As the New York crowd watched the Giants and Dodgers tangle in a fierce rivalry that nearly matched that between their baseball brethren, Japanese planes were nearly wiping out the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and signaling the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II with their sneak attack.

During the next 90 minutes, the planes with big red circles killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,778 others and destroyed eight battleships and 140 fighter planes while peace negotiations were ongoing in Washington. Suddenly the Japanese ruled the Pacific, and it seemed to make no difference who ruled the NFL.

At the Polo Grounds and other NFL venues, few fans knew what had happened. This was before the advent of transistor radios, and no announcements of the attack were made over public address systems.

Explained bombastic Washington owner George Preston Marshall, whose Redskins were playing the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium, “It is against the policy of Redskins management to broadcast [sic] non-sports news.” Yet at some stadiums, particularly Griffith, fans began to wonder what was going on as one military man after another was ordered over the PA to report to his office.

Those following the Giants-Dodgers game on radio were luckier, if that’s the word. At 2:26 p.m., a WOR announcer broke in this way: “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press: ‘Flash, Washington — the White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.’ Stay tuned to WOR for further developments.”

Those “further developments” involved almost four years of war against the Axis powers, primarily Japan and Germany, that would cost 292,131 American lives and those of at least 50 million others worldwide before the conflict ended with the United States dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.

Wellington Mara, the Giants’ longtime owner who died Oct.25, was 25 years old and watching a game his team ultimately lost 21-7 from the Polo Grounds sideline.

“At halftime, Father Benedict Dudley, who was our team chaplain, told me the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor,” Mara recalled 60 years later. “Within two weeks, I was notified that my V-12 [training] program would begin in February.” Mara served with distinction in the Navy for more than three years, seeing action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

Leemans also signed up for V-12 and played on a game-by-game basis in 1942 while awaiting a call-up. But a head injury in a game against the Chicago Bears cost him the hearing in one ear, rendered him 4F and prevented him from serving during the war with 638 other NFL players. Tuffy played the rest of that season and sparingly in 1943 before retiring at 31 as years of batterings took their toll.

It is perhaps appropriate that Tuffy Leemans Day was nearly forgotten in subsequent years because few fans remember his career today. But he was an incredible football player whose NFL statistics seem relatively modest only because Giants coach “Stout” Steve Owen used a system under which alternate units played both offense and defense. Thus Leemans carried the ball much less than most stars.

“But Tuffy Leemans had it all,” Redskins Hall of Famer Wayne Millner wrote the shrine in recommending Leemans for induction. “He could run, pass and catch, and he played truly outstanding defense. He was aggressive, dedicated and gave 100 percent at all times to a game he loved. In my opinion, he ranks among the all-time greats.”

Redskins running back Cliff Battles, another Hall of Famer, praised Leemans this way: “When we played the Giants and they need 2 or 3 yards, they almost always called on Tuffy to smash over tackle. No matter how prepared we were, Tuffy usually would make it. I never saw a better player.”

Before becoming a favorite in New York, Leemans dazzled Washington area fans at George Washington University. The Wisconsin native transferred to GW after a year at Oregon and gained a school record 2,382 yards on 490 carries, a dazzling 4.9 average. The Colonials went 17-9-2 in three seasons, during which Leemans was All-Eastern his final two years and an honorable mention All-American as a senior. He also passed, punted and played on the GW basketball team.

“If I am remembered for nothing else, I’d like to be remembered for discovering Tuffy Leemans,” Mara once said. “It’s a good thing the Redskins didn’t move [from Boston] to Washington until 1937, or we could never have gotten Tuffy.”

After being named the most outstanding player in the 1936 College All-Star Game, Leemans was drafted by the Giants and led the NFL in rushing with 830 yards as a 6-foot, 195-pound rookie. In his eight seasons with New York, he rushed for 3,132 yards and 17 touchdowns, passed for 2,318 yards and 25 touchdowns, caught passes for 442 yards and averaged 13.8 yards as a punt returner. He was named first- or second-team All-NFL from 1936 to 1942.

No wonder he was enshrined at Canton in 1978, a year before his death at 66, after an inexplicable wait of 34 years. Said Tuffy at the time: “I didn’t know if I was ever going to make it.”

Leemans returned to the Washington area after his career ended and for many years ran a bowling alley in what is now the Glenmont Shopping Center off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

And though Leemans is not as well known as many other NFL greats, visitors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame will find two reminders of his greatness. The first, of course, is the handsome bust that adorns his niche.

The second is a game program from Dec.7, 1941, showing him on the cover and celebrating Tuffy Leemans Day — at least one lasting reminder of a joyous occasion that swiftly turned tragic.

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