Early NFL Players Tackle Off-Season Jobs

Before the television era of professional football, which certainly changed the financial outlook of the National Football League, most players still needed to work at some other profession, often both during and after the football season. In 1941, the Chicago Tribune reported that “Twenty-seven percent of the young men under contract to teams in the National Football League spend the off-season completing study for degrees. The remainder go to work, some with the idea of maintaining the condition that makes champions, others with an eye to the future.”

While pro football in the 1940s often presented a lucrative opportunity for a few of the very best players, it was certainly a different story for rookies and journeymen. Even though the draft was in place since 1936, NFL teams would still recruit key collegiate players through a combination of football and off-season job opportunities.

A unique example of how the Chicago Cardinals “sold” themselves to new recruits and draftees was found in a letter sent to rookies prior to the 1941 season by line coach Phil Handler. Handler was careful to explain the financial aspects of professional football in his note:

We are making plans for the 1941 championship season. We understand you are interested in playing professional football; therefore, we are enclosing herewith a contract for $140.00 per league game. Concerning conditions of which a prospective player should be informed, the clubhouses and feeds its players during the entire training season.

After the opening game, the player pays his own expenses while the team is in Chicago, but while on the road, the club pays transportation, hotel, and meal expenses. With our ball club, the player receives his full salary whether he plays in the game or sits on the bench. We do not present professional football as a major life pursuit nor a short bridge to fortune. It does, however, provide a young college graduate with means to tide over the perilous period between graduation and the time for deciding what shall be his life pursuit.

What was left unsaid is that players did not receive any compensation for pre-season games! In 1941 playing professional football was still not considered a full-time career. For the first few decades of the NFL, the game was usually just a part-time job—not an occupation. In other words, the majority of the players were paid somewhat adequately, but certainly not enough to exist on for the remainder of the non-playing year. In order to survive, the players of the first half of the 20th century generally needed to secure gainful employment during the off-season.

So, in this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll share some research on what NFL players did years ago to supplement their football income.

Paddy Driscoll Coaches High School During NFL Season

The Chicago Cardinals players of the 1920s found the usual (and the unusual) means of employment. End Eddie Anderson was both a student at Rush Medical College and the football coach at DePaul University from 1925-1931. Roger Kiley, another receiver for the Cardinals, coached at Loyola of Chicago.

Future sportswriter and lineman Wilfrid R. Smith was the football coach at Harrison High School while fullback Bob Koehler held a similar position at Schurz High School. Will Brennan, the stocky guard, was a Chicago police officer while super back Paddy Driscoll was the coach at St. Mel High School, and halfback Norman Barry coached at De LaSalle High School.

On a more academic level, guard Herb Blumer, who played with the Cardinals from 1925-30 and again in 1933, was a Professor of Sociology at the prestigious University of Chicago. Big Hawaiian tackle Harry Field from the 1935 team spent the off-season working barefoot in a pineapple cannery in Honolulu while his teammate Pete (Champ) Mehringer was a professional wrestler.

The league’s only Canadian-born player in 1938 was tackle Earl Nolan who was a cow puncher in the off-season. From the 1939 squad, tackle Conway Baker was a policeman in Shreveport, LA while center Ki Aldrich was a foreman in the Texas oil fields…One of the better football stories from the Texas oil industry occurred in 1936 when the Cardinals were attempting to sign the previously mentioned Conway Baker.

Baker Signed On Texas Oil Well

When representatives from the team arrived in Texas to ink the 235 pounder, they found that Baker was working atop an oil derrick and couldn’t get permission to climb down to finalize the deal. After much discussion among themselves, the Cards convinced agile guard Phil Handler to scurry up the platform to wrap up the negotiations.

According to the Chicago Tribune: “So Handler took the contract, a fountain pen, and his life in his hands and went up.” Things ultimately worked out well for both sides as Baker spent his entire nine-year NFL career as a mainstay on the Cardinals’ line. Handler survived the dangerous oil field adventure to sign Baker and after his playing career, enjoyed another “dangerous adventure” as a long-time coach for both the Cardinals and the Bears!

In the 1940s, the players continued to sample a variety of interesting off-season positions. Guard Lou Marotti was a welder, and Clint Wager played pro basketball and raised Chesapeake Bay Retrievers…Defensive back Red Cochran sold sporting goods while two-way star Marshall Goldberg was involved in the sale of industrial machinery…Mal Kutner was an oil scout in Texas… and tackle “Cactus Face” Duggan was a member of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. 

And who was “Cactus Face” Duggan? The legend of tackle Gilford Earl “Cactus Face” Duggan seemed to grow with each pound the sturdy Arkansas native added to his football frame during his lengthy NFL career with the Cardinals and other teams. As an All-American lineman at Oklahoma, the big guy (230 lbs.) once showed up for pre-season training camp looking a bit thinner than usual for the Sooners. The Seminole (OK) Producer shared the following exchange from 1939, Duggan’s senior year:

“How does Cactus Face Duggan look?” somebody asked trainer Ted Owen. “Darned good!” Owen replied. “He’s down to 214 [lbs.] in spite of the fact he’s been home for a week, ‘eatin and loafin’.” Duggan walked up just then, his stomach surprisingly lean. “What have you been eatin’?” the others asked, admiring his trim build. “Fried chicken and fried squirrel,” the tackle replied. Duggan, whose unique nickname was apparently the result of his ever-present three-day growth of “prickly” beard–hence the cactus reference–was drafted by the Giants and played with that team in 1940 before joining the Cardinals in 1942.

    Green Bay Packers Work In Lumber Mill

    And what about the Green Bay Packers? In 1941, the Chicago Tribune informed its readers that: 

    At Green Bay, Cecil Isbell, Clarke Hinkle, and Don Hutson are undergoing rigid preparation for executive positions with the Kimberly-Clark Paper Co. They dig ditches, lug pulp, and push trucks.  

    Russ Letlow, veteran Packer guard, and Frank Balazs, rookie fullback last year, have gone to work for the Hoberg Paper Mill, but they are interested primarily in keeping themselves in shape for the start of practice in August. Letlow wrestles rolls of newsprint all day, exercising and strengthening the leg muscles that were torn in the championship game. Balazs, also injured last fall, builds up his weakened back with a daily stint in the receiving room of the paper company, where his task is unloading heavy sacks of borax.

    Ki Aldrich, the Texas Christian center, who starred for the Cardinals last fall in his first year of professional football, tired of a prolonged vacation down south and came up to Plymouth court in Chicago to take a job in the Bentley-Murray print shop. Here he handles the type from which theater and mutual tickets are printed.

    George Wilson, the Bear end, has been studying refrigeration and for his practical experience, he works for the Snow Ice Company on the west side. Part of his assignment is the packing of refrigerator cars with pulverized ice which is blown into the car after vegetables or other perishables have been loaded.

    One Tough Chicago Cop

    And, there is one final story that we would like to share that concerns a Cardinals’ player who carved out a career by working full time throughout his eight-year stint in Chicago. Tackle Willis Brennan never attended college. A life-long law enforcement agent, Brennan once said that “I received my degree of hard knocks on the streets.”

    Born in 1893, Willis Brennan played for the Cardinals from 1920 through 1927, mostly as a tackle. And, on the infamous day of November 26, 1925, when Red Grange played in his first NFL game for the Bears against the Cardinals, Brennan was the only starter on either team that was not affiliated with a college program. 

    In 1927, Brennan, thought to be the oldest player in the league at the time, was honored for his long career, which actually began before he signed with the Cardinals. The Southtown Economist in Chicago wrote: “Brennan began his service with the Cards in 1920 after nearly 13 years as a member of strong pro and semi-pro teams. The “Chief,” who is a member of the state’s attorney’s staff police, plays the game because it is the sport he loves, his friends say.”

    At 6-0 and 214 lbs., Brennan was not the biggest tackle but his daytime job, first with the Chicago Police Department and then with the State’s Attorney, was certainly beneficial for Brennan, following shoot-outs with gangsters and dealing with assorted other criminals. After those types of experiences, tangling with belligerent tackles in the NFL must have seemed like a breeze for Brennan!

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    Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

    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.

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