Best High School Football Team No One Ever Heard About?

This week we dig into the dusty archives and share some interesting stories about the early days of professional football in the Chicago area. But for this episode, we’ll move away from the pro game and examine what we consider the most dominant program in the history of Illinois high school football…and one that most people have never heard about! 

That team is the Morgan Park Military Academy.  Our journey becomes even more amazing when we consider that this school has not played a football game in over 40 years, yet is still among the winningest programs of all-time. 

Read the whole story or listen to the podcast episode below.

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Table of Contents (Minimize to the Right --->)

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

Back to the Beginning

With a decorated football history dating back to 1893, this private school on Chicago’s south side completed 12 undefeated seasons, sent four representatives to the College Football Hall of Fame, and often experienced difficulty scheduling games, no matter what the size of the opponent, due to the powerful teams it sent out on the field.

The school we’re talking about is Morgan Park Military Academy, still in existence today as Morgan Park Academy. In fact, the tidy campus on 111th Street on the south side of Chicago hasn’t changed much since it was founded in 1873 as the Mt. Vernon English, Classical, and Military Academy. It first became known as Morgan Park Military Academy in 1877 and has experienced several name changes over the past century.

While some of the buildings have changed, the stretch of plush, green lawn still stretches from 111th Street to 112th Street. From there, the campus extends to include more open space and an ancient fieldhouse built around the turn of the last century. Aside from its football legacy, the Academy also participated in the very first high school basketball game in history on February 24, 1893.

So, students, today can still walk the same paths that were used by a slew of football and other sports legends many years ago. High school football in 1893 was fairly rugged, with little protective padding, inexperienced referees, and usually without coaches. Game travel was via train and horse and buggy, game reports were carried by the major Chicago newspapers, and football stars were treated as local heroes.

As the game matured, so did the Academy football program, branching out to compete with schools from all over the Chicago area. Today, when one thinks of the traditional football powers in Illinois high school history, teams such as Joliet Catholic, Loyola Academy, and Lincoln-Way readily come to mind. Yet one school is usually absent from that list…and that is little Morgan Park Military Academy, which at one time, defeated all of those area powers just mentioned.

Advantages and Alonzo Stagg

One of the advantages of the Academy gridiron program was that the school student body was all-male and many were “boarders” meaning they were on-site day and night. Students were actively encouraged to participate in sports and other activities, but the strict military discipline was never out of sight.   During the first full decade of the 20th century from 1900-1909, the Academy football teams compiled an impressive 73-14-9 record, believed to be the second-best in Illinois over that period of time.

Four of those squads finished undefeated and flourished under coaches such as Amos Alonzo Stagg. That legendary name is correct since, for a time, the Academy was affiliated with the University of Chicago where Stagg was the successful football coach for decades. Hence, it was under Stagg’s suggestion that Morgan Park Academy was the first high school ever to play a basketball game.

Stagg had arrived at Chicago in 1892 after a stint at Springfield College where he was on the faculty with James Naismith, the founder of the game of basketball. Morgan Park Academy archivists Marcia Thomas and Sharon Eichinger also discovered that Stagg was on the school’s football coaching staff in 1903, 1908, 1909, and 1910, while simultaneously coaching the University of Chicago powerhouse.

It appears that Stagg planned joint practices at times with both the University and the Academy, and Chicago scrubs often met the Academy team in regular-season matchups from 1894 through 1907. Stagg also used the Academy team as a type of feeder program for his club at Chicago, with many Morgan Park Military Academy graduates continuing their academic and athletic careers at the University of Chicago. 

Stagg was just one of four individuals associated with the Academy football program that are now members of the College Football Hall of Fame along with Jesse Harper, Wallace Wade, Albert Benbrook.

Jesse Harper

Let’s start with Harper, known for basically bringing Notre Dame into national prominence during his tenure as head coach, while also working with his successor, another Chicagoan named Knute Rockne. Born on December 10, 1883, Harper graduated from the Academy in 1902 and followed his brother Floyd to the University of Chicago to play for Stagg. He spent two years at the Academy and was a solid performer on both the football and baseball fields. Initially, Jesse preferred the diamond at Chicago, earning a starting spot his freshman year in the spring of 1903.

Although he was the respected captain of the baseball team, Harper was on the slight side physically for football and avoided that sport until his senior year in 1905 where he quickly saw action at halfback. In just a short period of time, the tenacious Harper had become an invaluable asset to the Chicago football team which finished the season with a lofty 11-0 mark. The Maroons outscored their opponents 271-5 and were recognized as the national champions. Harper also demonstrated his business sense by selling hot dogs during Chicago games, while sitting on the bench! As the Chicago Tribune reported:

“While Harper sat in gridiron togs on the sidelines in the Michigan game of 1905, awaiting a possible call for emergency duty, his partner in the enterprise was disposing of 300 dozen, if you please “hot dog” sandwiches to appreciative customers at ten cents a throw or “two for a quarter,” if they were in a hurry. As the cost of the sandwiches was one and one-fourth cents each, the profits [for Harper] can be estimated.”  

Harper landed the Notre Dame coaching job in 1913. At the time, Notre Dame was considering the termination of its football program. He immediately upgraded the schedule, increased revenue for the University, and pushed the Irish to become a major player on the national level. Harper eventually retired from Notre Dame after just five seasons, compiling a superlative 34-5-1 record. He opted to return to his first love of cattle ranching.  

Wallace Wade

Wallace Wade was another proud graduate of the Academy that is now in the Hall of Fame and was likewise influenced by Coach Stagg. Author and Wade biographer Lewis Bowling explained the reasons behind Wade’s decision to attend the Academy:

“By the time Wade arrived, Coach Stagg had put John Anderson, one of his former Chicago players, in the position of head coach, but Stagg still attended practices occasionally. The knowledge that he would have an opportunity to be tutored by either Coach Stagg or his players, played a significant role in Wallace’s decision to go to Morgan Park.”

Wade graduated from Morgan Park Academy (it added the Military name again in 1918) on June 12, 1913, and enrolled at Brown University. Before graduating from Brown in 1917, Wade helped his team to win 18 games against just seven losses and three ties. For Wade, his graduation from Brown was not the end of his football interests, but just the beginning, as he embarked on one of the most successful football coaching careers in the history of American collegiate football.

Wade’s football journey took him through both Alabama and Duke, where he won three national championships as the head coach at Alabama, and he enjoyed further success at Duke, compiling a lifetime record (at both schools) of 171-49-10, good enough to earn Coach Wade a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. The football stadium at Duke is named after Wallace Wade.

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    Albert Benbrook

    The final College Hall of Famer from Morgan Park Military Academy was 1906 graduate Albert Benbrook, a big lineman who was twice named an All-American at Michigan. His biography at the College Football Hall of Fame notes:

    “A testament to the ability of Albert Benbrook was that he was the first western lineman to become a two-time All-American. Weighing over 200 pounds, he was considered huge for his time. What made Benbrook such a dominating force was his exceptional quickness.”

    Albert Benbrook from Morgan Park Military Academy

    Famed sportswriter Walter Eckersall once asked the burly Benbrook how he overcame holding tactics during one game against the University of Pennsylvania.

    Eckersall recalled asking Benbrook: “How many times did they grab your legs when they had the ball?”

    “Every time,” was his reply.

    “How did you shake them off?” I asked.

    “I simply used the knee of my free leg on their faces and went about my business. And on one occasion I stepped on their hands before they got a chance to hang on.”

    Other Famous Players From Morgan Park

    In addition to the Hall of Famers, the Academy football program produced numerous collegiate head coaches at schools such as Illinois, Cincinnati, and Baylor, a Broadway playwright, an NFL official, and even a man who ascended to one of the highest political offices in the country as a U.S. senator.

    However, only one player managed an NFL career and that was the intriguing Lloyd “Shorty” Burdick, a 1926 graduate who starred on the Morgan Park’s undefeated 1925 team. His sturdy frame, estimated to be 6’5” and 230 pounds even in high school, landed Burdick the affectionate nickname of “Shorty.”

    The Academy was just the first stop in a boisterous athletic career that would take Shorty to acclaim on the gridiron at the University of Illinois and later as a member of the National Football League (NFL) champion Chicago Bears. But there’s more…Burdick was also a boxer, a pro wrestler, a musician, a track star, an actor, and a real-life hero who once saved two children from near death.

    At the University of Illinois, Shorty concluded his football career with a 6-1-1 mark in 1929, leaving Burdick’s teams with an impressive three-year record of 20-2-2. In the NFL, he was a two-year starter and the Bears won the 1932 NFL championship, prompting teammate Red Grange to remark about Burdick:

    “Picture a fast, trimly built athlete…then imagine Jack Dempsey (heavyweight boxing champion) two or three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, and you have Lloyd Burdick.”

    Impressive Output For a Military School

    It should be mentioned that Morgan Park Military Academy rarely enjoyed an enrollment of over 300 students, yet the football team kept on winning. Probably the best team in school history was the undefeated 1939 squad which finished 9-0.

    1936 Morgan Park Military Academy football team photo on the school cannon
    1939 Team Photo

    The highlight of the season was a 19-0 victory over rival Culver Military Academy on November 11 in front of over 5,000 screaming fans at the Academy’s tiny Abells Field. The battle between the two top-flight Midwest military schools was an extravaganza with a trainload of fans from Culver, IN marching up 111th Street accompanied by the sharp Culver band. In pre-game coverage, the Chicago Daily News predicted:

    “A miniature Army-Navy football spectacle is in prospect when Morgan Park Military Academy meets Culver; A trainload of Culver rooters, including the entire corps of cadets and the famous marching band, will invade the Morgan Park stronghold.”

    Being a military school, Morgan Park was extremely hard-hit during WWII, but the school proudly contributed 875 students and alumni to the service, with over 40 not returning.

    The football program continued and became even stronger in the post-war years when the “Golden Age of MPMA Football” was in place from 1946 through 1949 when the team compiled a 27-4-1 record under coach Joe Ziemba.

    1949 Morgan Park Military Academy football team huddle
    1949 Team Practice

    Yes—that was my father and the wins were picked up against much larger schools such as Lockport, St. Charles, Joliet Catholic, and Pullman Tech. The Academy was even considered for membership in the powerful South Suburban Conference. Eventually, the wins dried up and the Academy dropped its military affiliation in 1959. The football field on 111th Street is now condominiums and the school itself dropped its football program in 1978.

    Still, Morgan Park Academy has survived and continues to graduate incredible students who are routinely recruited by the finest academic institutions in the world. While the football program is long gone, the influence of the school and its lofty academic standards continues to grow year after year…even to those who perhaps never knew of the legendary football giants, and their 400 wins, that came before.

    I would like to thank the Morgan Park Academy archivists Marcia Thomas and Sharon Eichinger for their assistance in the research for this program, as well as Academy graduate David Honor, and school administrators Vincent Hermosilla and Mrs. Mercedes Sheppard. If you are interested in more information about the Morgan Park football program please check out our book called:

     Cadets, Cannons, and Legends, which is available through Morgan Park Academy or on Amazon. 100% of all sales of books sold through Morgan Park Academy will remain with the school. 

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football” and please return for the next program which will cover “Christmas Memories” of the Chicago Cardinals. We’ll look back at some significant holiday events in the team’s past, including coverage of the weirdest injury in football history! 

    Interested in more from host Joe Ziemba?  You can see him on the other side of the mic as a guest on The Football History Dude podcast talking about the history of the Chicago Cardinals and his book When Football Was Football.

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