Was Paddy Driscoll the First Superstar of the NFL?

As kids, we all looked up to our favorite athletic heroes. After all, they were taller than us, so looking up at them, was a realistic requirement as well as a figure of speech. In this episode of “When Football Was Football” we’ll look back at the life and career of a pro football hall of famer (Paddy Driscoll), who was one of those very few athletes who also played pro basketball and major league baseball.

He was an All-American, won a Rose Bowl, was selected as an All-Pro eight times, and was the finest field goal kicker of his generation. He could shoot hoops from the outside and his speed could easily turn singles into doubles on the baseball diamond.  In short, he was a giant among men even though he stood just 5’8’ and weighed about 160 lbs. His name was John Leo Driscoll, but we can call him Paddy!

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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.

Driscoll's Early Days

Despite his size, Driscoll was a dynamo on the football field who could run, pass, kick, tackle, fake, swerve, leap, and intimidate. He did it all during a time when players were expected to “do it all” by playing both offense and defense, taking infrequent rests, and enduring inadequate medical attention while wondering if they could recover from the brutality of the sport on Sunday and report in time for their “real” job on Monday morning!

Driscoll was born on January 11, 1895, to Timothy and Elizabeth Driscoll. Nine days later, the infant was baptized into the Catholic Church by the Rev. H.P. Smyth at St. Mary’s Church in Evanston, IL. Paddy would spend his formative years in Evanston, starring in football, basketball, and baseball at Evanston High School before moving on to nearby Northwestern University.

After the 1916 football season, Driscoll was named to several All-American teams, excelling as a quarterback, halfback, defender, and kicker. He also played baseball for the Wildcats.

A Pro At Multiple Sports

During the summer of 1917 while still in college, Driscoll played professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs. During his brief tenure with the Cubs of just 13 games, the rugged infielder batted only .107 with three hits in 28 at-bats. Unfortunately, Driscoll’s flirtation with the Cubs as a professional ballplayer apparently cost him his final year of football eligibility later in 1917. 

He quickly moved over to try his hand at professional football, signing with the Hammond, IN club where the pleased Hammond Times described Driscoll as “only 152 pounds but he is fast, cool and heady.” In an early game at Davenport, Iowa on October 14, 1917, a writer with the dubious name of Nock M. Stiff for the Quad-City Times, was enthralled with Driscoll’s performance in a 9-3 Hammond victory over Davenport:

“It was all Driscoll for the Hammond club. He ran 65 yards for the only touchdown of the game and booted a dropkick from the 30-yard line that helped bolster up the score. Besides that, he played a wonderful defensive game.” Mr. Stiff further described Paddy’s running abilities as “Wriggling snake dancing.” 

Paddy Driscoll Forgets The Score?

One of my favorite stories about Paddy during his time with Hammond concerned his toughness, as was reported by the Chicago Evening Post: “When tackled while running back a punt, Paddy Driscoll was knocked out on his feet. Without being aware of the fact, he drop-kicked a field goal from the fifty-three-yard line after calling signals for a forward pass.

He had to be taken out of the game.” Since this was not a punting or field goal situation, someone asked Driscoll at halftime why he decided to go with the long dropkick. “What drop kick?” he replied. “And what’s the score, anyway?” 

Apparently, there was no concussion protocol in 1917!

    Great Lakes Naval Academy

    With World War I ongoing, Paddy Driscoll passed his military physical tests on January 31, 1918, and was soon assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. Ironically, he would soon be a teammate of recent University of Illinois student George Halas on the Great Lakes sports teams, initiating a life-long friendship with Halas.

    During the war, many collegiate teams were either disbanded or played a brief schedule due to a lack of personnel since most young men were in the service. For the January 1, 1919, Rose Bowl, two service teams met with Great Lakes, with Driscoll and Halas in starring roles, stopping Mare Island from California 17-0. Famed columnist Red Smith recalled that the offensive firepower of Driscoll was the turning point in the game.

    One of Driscoll’s passes was a 32-yard touchdown to Halas while Paddy’s booming punts, including one 60-yarder, kept Mare Island deep in its own territory. As Smith stated in 1956: “In all the years since no one has seen a finer football player than the little guy who led Great Lakes to victory over the Marines of Mare Island.”

    His performance earned high praise from Walter Camp, the acknowledged football expert of the time, who said that Driscoll was the greatest quarterback he ever saw in action. Legendary sportswriter Walter Eckersall described “Paddy as the greatest football player at Northwestern since the adoption of the forward pass,” according to Edward Prell of the Chicago Tribune.

    After The War

    With his departure from the service, Driscoll spent a couple of months playing baseball for the minor-league Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, but his inconsistent hitting led to his release in late May. That fall, he hooked up with Halas again as both returned to the gridiron for the Hammond All-Stars.

    When the American Professional Football Association (now called the NFL) was founded in 1920, Halas urged Driscoll to join him on the Decatur Staleys team. Instead, Paddy accepted a lucrative offer of $300 per game to play with the Racine (Chicago) Cardinals. Back when a loaf of bread cost 11 cents and an NFL franchise could be had for only $100, this was truly an unusual opportunity and Paddy did not disappoint! He was named the first “All-Pro” quarterback in the history of the league and was usually the entire offense for the Cardinals as the team finished 6-2-2. 

    In the winter of 1920, Driscoll showed another side of his athletic ability when he was also a standout for the Whiting (IN) Red Crowns professional basketball team. The Fort Wayne (IN) Sentinel described Driscoll as “a speedy forward, clever on his feet, and a dead shot with a basketball.” 

    Driscoll was with the Cardinals through the 1925 season when the Cardinals won their first NFL title. He was named an All-Pro four times during that stretch and served as the Cardinals head coach from 1920-1922 compiling a 21-8-4 overall record. His 55-yard field goal in 1924 was believed to be the longest field goal in NFL history for several years, and it came via a dropkick! Paddy booted an estimated 40 drop kick field goals during his NFL career.

    Shutting Down The "Galloping Ghost"

    One of his most famous games occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1925 when the heralded Red Grange made his debut with the Chicago Bears against the Chicago Cardinals. A sell-out crowd of over 34,000 was on hand at Wrigley Field and watched, with a bit of disappointment, as the teams battled to a 0-0 tie.

    Driscoll had done his best to keep the game close for the Cards by punting over 20 times, with the majority of those kicks being away from the dangerous Grange, thus limiting Red’s opportunities to break one of the returns for a touchdown. Driscoll later remarked that punting directly to Red Grange was like grooving a pitch down the middle to Babe Ruth.

    Overall, Grange could do little against the tough Cardinals’ defense and the careful placement of Driscoll’s punts. As he was leaving the field alongside Grange, the players were met by a chorus of loud “boos” from the crowd. Driscoll mentioned this to his wife and said that he felt badly that the crowd was booing the acclaimed rookie Red Grange, apparently for his poor performance during the game.

    His wife responded by saying, “They’re not booing Red, dear. They’re booing you for not giving him a chance to return those kicks!”

    Paddy Driscoll and the Chicago Bears

    Then prior to the 1926 season, the cash-strapped Cardinals agreed to sell the services of Driscoll to the Bears for $3,500 and Paddy was reunited with his old teammate, George Halas. Driscoll played with Bears through 1929 and paid dividends immediately for his new team when he was named an All-Pro in 1926 and topped the Bears, as well as the NFL, in scoring with 86 points. Included in that total were a league record 12 field goals.

    As was typical of pro football at the time, Driscoll needed to work another job to make ends meet while playing football. Beginning in 1924, he began a nearly two decades stretch of coaching high school and college players. He started as a coach and athletic director at St. Mel’s High School in Chicago where his basketball team won the 1925 championship of the National Catholic Interscholastic tournament at Chicago’s Loyola University. He later moved on to the position of head football coach at Marquette University beginning in 1937.

    But Paddy was never very far away from the Bears. After leaving Marquette in 1940, he served as a Bears’ assistant from 1941 through 1955. When George Halas decided to retire from coaching in 1956 and 1957, he handpicked Paddy to succeed him, and Driscoll promptly led the Bears with a 9-2-1 record to the NFL title game before losing 47-7 to the Giants in the championship match. In 1957, the Bears stumbled to a 5-7 mark and by the time 1958 rolled around, Halas had “un-retired” and took back the head coaching reins of the Bears.

    Paddy remained with the Bears as a vice president from 1958 to 1962 and was the team’s Director of Planning and Research until the time of his passing in 1968 at the age of 73. During his playing career, Paddy Driscoll was selected an All-Pro eight times and was named to the “All-Decade” team for the 1920s. In recognition of his accomplishments, Paddy was selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965 and then the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974.

    He will always be remembered as not only one of the greatest pioneers of pro football but also as one of its finest gentlemen. He was viewed with respect by teammates and opponents alike during his wonderful athletic career that took him from Evanston High School to Northwestern, to the Chicago Cubs, to Great Lakes, to Hammond, to the Cardinals, and finally to the Bears. Hard to believe, that standing just 5’8” Driscoll was a professional athlete in three different sports!

    Finally, we’ll share one story from Paddy’s college coaching days and it resulted in the first negative comment about Paddy that we’ve been able to uncover. During the week before Marquette played Boston University one year, Coach Paddy was unhappy with the team’s practice habits as told by columnist David Condon of the Chicago Tribune:

    “Two days before the game, Driscoll sent out his assistant Tarzan Taylor to get some marshmallows and other goodies. Then Driscoll lit a bonfire on the practice field, assembled the squad, and said: ‘No practice today. You can’t play football anyhow, so we’ll just toast marshmallows.’ Of course, Marquette went out and won!” And that led to the only negative statement about Driscoll when Tarzan Taylor remembered the incident and said: “Paddy burned the marshmallows!” 

    Thank you for spending a part of your day with us at the Sports History Network. Please join us for the next episode of “When Football Was Football” when we’ll explore why the Chicago Cardinals left that city over sixty years ago.

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    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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