The Story of Ernie Nevers’ First Pro Football Game

Fans of football history usually find the name of Ernie Nevers to be a familiar one. Maybe not a household word in 2021, but certainly one that ripples with respect with the knowledge that Nevers was one of the all-time greats in the National Football LeagueAnd yet, his entrance into the world of pro football back in 1926 is a bit obscure and perhaps confusing. 

Of course, back in 1926, there was no NFL draft. Teams could identify key players of interest and then contact them with promises and hopes of playing time, and even a part-time job, that might be enough to convince the player to consider joining that particular club. In 1925, Ernie Nevers was part of a landmark season in college football while a member of the Stanford University eleven.

Nevers and the legendary Red Grange of Illinois were members of the first-team All-American backfield in the collegiate ranks, and Grange broke all preconceived rules of etiquette between the college and pro interests by signing with the Chicago Bears immediately after his final game for the University of Illinois in November of 1925. Previously, it was assumed that the pro teams would not sign a college player until his class graduated. Owner/coach George Halas of the Bears interpreted that rule a bit differently and contracted with Grange after he completed his eligibility, not his graduation. 

Grange and the Bears then embarked on a pair of barnstorming tours that found the team heading east for eight games at the end of 1925, then heading south and west for several more in early 1926. For the first time, pro football was no longer buried in the rear of the nation’s sports pages as readers, without the luxury of television or the internet, gobbled up any information about Grange in their local newspapers.

Nevers: Multi-Sport Athlete At Stanford

Grange was the cover boy for pro football in 1925 and early 1926 as the Bears moved from sparse crowds of less than 5,000 to over 70,000 in New York and Los Angeles. Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of Red Grange. But where was Nevers at this time? While Grange visited the White House, signed numerous endorsements, and even agreed to a motion picture contract, Nevers quietly resumed practice with the Stanford basketball team.

As a multi-sport athlete, Nevers had plenty of options following graduation, and most expected him to pursue his dream of playing major league baseball, which he eventually did. However, as Grange continued to entertain legions of fans across the country as the “Galloping Ghost,” Nevers professed little interest in leaving school early to join his collegiate colleague on the pro football circuit.

Later, Nevers would join the vagabond Duluth Eskimos and then establish his professional stardom with the Chicago Cardinals, where in 1929 he set an NFL record that still stands by scoring 40 points in one game against the Chicago Bears. But where did this all start? When did Nevers actually play his first professional football game? We at the Sports History Network enjoy challenges like this, so we set out to discover the answer to those questions. With so many research capabilities now available, it wasn’t difficult to unearth his first pro appearance, although it was quite an unusual circumstance. But, the story behind that first game was even more intriguing.

When Nevers completed his collegiate gridiron career in Stanford’s 26-14 victory over California on November 21, 1925, it would not be unreasonable to assume that football was over for him. Stanford had finished with a 7-2 record and Nevers was ready to resume his basketball career at Stanford. After that, it would be spring baseball and a likely career opportunity as a pitcher in the major leagues. In the fall, Nevers could take his pick of collegiate football coaching jobs. The future looked bright!

Nevers Joins Jacksonville All-Stars

But in mid-December of 1925, rumors and reports drifted out of California that Nevers had been offered a very lucrative contract to play pro football, but not with one of the recognized teams in the National Football League. Instead, a group of Florida businessmen was looking to build an all-star team around Nevers and play a series of five games in Florida during the winter.

Neither opponents nor teammates were mentioned in the early reports, but this was viewed as an excellent opportunity to cash in on the newly found popularity of pro football thanks to the emergence of Red Grange as a more than popular gate attraction. With Nevers in the lineup, could that same magic be duplicated? The Tampa Tribune reported that Nevers had also received attractive offers to play professional baseball, enter the boxing ring, or even to begin a career in the motion picture industry. The newspaper added:

 Professional football as a sport was not particularly appealing to Nevers. But the monetary return, in his opinion, was an opportunity not to be overlooked, especially as it would aid him in paying his parents for the sacrifices, they have made to put him through the university. 

It was reported that Nevers would receive a flat guarantee of $25,000 for the expected five games as well as a 5% share of the gate receipts. If additional games were to be scheduled, Nevers would be paid $5,000 per game with a 10% cut of the gate revenue. It was announced on December 15, 1925, that once Nevers received the $25,000 guarantee, he would sign the contract for the Florida excursion. Lurking in the near future would be his opening game of the series on January 2, 1926, against none other than Red Grange and the Chicago Bears—a match made in heaven for local promoters in Jacksonville, FL. For Nevers, the contract to play in Florida made perfect sense as he told the Associated Press:

 “I was sent to the university to prepare for life. This offer will help me to the same end. It will enable me to repay my parents immediately for the sacrifices they have made in sending me through school and college.”

After a slight delay in receiving the money, Nevers embarked on the cross-country train trip to Jacksonville where he was welcomed by a grizzled trainer for the Jacksonville team in the form of 52-year-old Jerry McGuire, a former prizefighter. McGuire established a no-nonsense boot camp to ensure that the “Jacksonville All-Stars” would be physically ready for the match with the Bears. McGuire’s first mandate was that there would be no smoking and no drinking. The Tampa Tribune reported on the reaction of the players: 

 “The players were a bit inclined to make light of the order. This was not college football, they opined, and a little free and easy ways would be good for them. The pocket flask item was no trouble, but the cigarettes were different.” 

 The training was tough, beginning with a two-mile jog on the beach at 7:00 am, followed by a cold shower since McGuire did not allow his charges to use warm water. A full day of drills would follow with lights out at 10:00 pm. Apparently, training with Jerry McGuire was no day at the beach!

    Match Made In Heaven: Grange vs. Nevers

    The media build-in, as expected, emphasized the imminent collision between the two best backfield men from the previous college season in Grange and Nevers. Both players would be on the field for both offensive and defensive situations, a common practice in those days. Grange would spend a quarter or so on the bench to preserve his body as much as possible during the rigors of the two consecutive tours the Bears were enjoying, including a game the day before in Tampa when the Bears defeated Jim Thorpe and the Tampa Cardinals 17-3. 

    But first, Nevers had some more business to address. On January 2, the same day as the contest scheduled with the Bears, Nevers signed a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Browns. The pitching prospect previously turned down offers from the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds. The Chicago Tribune noted: “Ernie’s big-league contract will be framed to demand his withdrawal from professional football after carrying out his present contracts.” 

     A huge crowd was expected for the battle between Grange and Nevers in Jacksonville. And, with Nevers signed to that inclusive baseball contract which prohibited future action on the gridiron, it would be the first, and likely the last, time that the two highly regarded players would be facing off. Certainly, the Bears would have the advantage since most of the players had been together for an entire season, while the Jacksonville All-Stars had been patched together as a unit for just a few days.

    Yet for some reason, the ball game was a dismal failure, at least for the promoters. A crowd of just 6,500 showed up for the contest, which was played in very pleasant weather. The Chicago Tribune reported: “The Bears were a smooth working football machine while the All-Stars were a collection of stars imperfectly welded into a team by insufficient practice.” As a result, the Bears won easily 19-6 and the organizers took a proverbial bath. The Fort Lauderdale News predicted that the promoters would lose around $12,500 on the day but the paper added: “They expect to make it up later on games in which the All-Stars will participate.”

    Nevers Provides Thrills In First Pro Game

    As expected, Red Grange was on the field for all of the first quarter, then rested for most of the second period and all of the third stanza. He returned for the final period and ended up rushing for 29 yards on just five carries. Meanwhile, Nevers was all over the field, picking up 46 yards on 16 attempts and completing 8 of 16 passes, including one for 40 yards. In addition, Nevers punted six times for 320 yards, a lofty 54-yard average per boot. In the end, Nevers gave the fans what they came to see according to the Chicago Tribune:

     The real thrill of the game came in the last quarter. With a score of 19 to 0 against him, Nevers started a drive down the field and ripped off three first downs in a row, and scored a touchdown just before the end of the game.

     After the game, the Bears and Grange moved on to New Orleans and then to the west coast on their tour, while Nevers and the Jacksonville All-Stars entertained the New York Giants on January 9. The Giants won the battle 7-0 before another light crowd, but Nevers was injured when he was thrown to the ground on one carry resulting in ligament damage to his back. He was told to rest for at least a week, but by then, the immortal Jacksonville All-Stars disbanded on January 12. There were rumors that Nevers would then join the touring New York Giants when he was healthy, but instead, he returned home to California and waited for spring training with the St. Louis Browns. 

    Nevers did make the major leagues in 1926 as a pitcher, finishing with a 2-4 record and an earned run average of 4.46. Then in the fall, he joined the touring Duluth Eskimos of the NFL which played an improbable 29 games that season, finishing with a 19-7-3 mark. He was rarely off the field and some sources claim that he played all but 26 minutes out of a possible 1,740 that year. Of course, his Hall of Fame career took off when he joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1929. On Thanksgiving Day of that season, he scored those 40 points against the Chicago Bears which stands as the most points ever scored by an individual in an NFL game.

     From Stanford to Jacksonville to Duluth to the Chicago Cardinals, Ernie Nevers certainly made his mark on the National Football League, and his scoring record in 1929 still holds true as the best ever in the NFL after over 90 years! Thank you for joining us on the Sports History Network and please stop by next time when we’ll discuss some of the unusual part-time jobs that members of the Chicago Cardinals needed to make ends meet back in the days When Football Was Football!

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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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