Paddy Driscoll’s Almost Perfect Season

Back at the beginning of the National Football League in 1920, one of the smallest men in the circuit drew the biggest pay check. And this was likely due to the fact that he certainly earned it! This little dynamo played three professional sports, survived a collegiate scandal, and was head coach at both the collegiate and NFL levels…

Welcome to this episode of “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network. Today, we’ll travel back to the early days of the 20th century to meet John L. “Paddy” Driscoll, a well-deserving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and one of the most exceptional athletes to ever emerge from the Chicago area and the National Football League.

While we have talked about Mr. Driscoll before on this program, it is always an honor to share more information about his extraordinary exploits. After all, he was the stuff legends are made of, including one example when he successfully converted a 50-yard drop kick while semi-conscious!

He was a shifty runner, an astounding kicker, an accurate passer for the era…and a defender who was never afraid to splatter a much-bigger running back in the open field. All of this was accomplished by a gentleman who stood just 5-8 and weighed in at around 150 pounds!

John "Paddy" Driscoll (Chicago Cardinals)
Photo of John "Paddy" Driscoll (Chicago Cardinals) - courtesy of author's private collection

PADDY SCORED EVERY SINGLE POINT!

I’ve “borrowed” some information on Mr. Driscoll from my book When Football Was Football and sprinkled in some additional facts and fables to prepare this latest profile. Our focus today will be on perhaps the most exceptional month (or should we say year?) of Driscoll’s football career.

While he gave us many highlights, we dusted off some old microfilm recently to find that over a four-game period for the Chicago Cardinals in 1923, Driscoll scored every single one of his team’s points! Even better, in the nine NFL games that Paddy Driscoll played in 1923, he scored all of his team’s points in five of them!

While we don’t believe that the NFL tracks such a record, the only performance close to that mark might be when the great Ernie Nevers, also of the Cardinals, tallied all 59 of his team’s points over a two-game stretch in 1929.

Of course, the one similarity between Driscoll and Nevers was the fact that both also served as their team’s place kicker. So, in addition to rushing or receiving touchdowns, each of these gifted individuals could also pick up more points via field goals and extra points.

However, Driscoll favored the drop kick while Nevers preferred the straight-ahead place kick…and both players did extremely well in handling these chores during their NFL careers.

Driscoll, who was born in 1895 in Evanston, Il, (a suburb of Chicago) first enjoyed athletic success at Evanston High School where he participated in football, baseballand basketball. He was good enough to be noticed by nearby Northwestern University where he quickly became a standout in both football and baseball. On the gridiron, Driscoll was an evasive halfback and an exceptional kicker.

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GREATEST QUARTERBACK I’VE EVER SEEN

Behind Driscoll’s leadership in 1916 (his junior year), Northwestern’s football team defeated the University of Chicago for the first time in fifteen years and rose to second place in theBig Ten conference behind Ohio State with a 6-1 record. He was named to a pair of All-American teams and the founding father of football, Walter Camp, called Driscoll “the greatest quarterback I have ever seen.”

But then Driscoll made a fateful decision that temporarily stalled his burgeoning athletic career. Following the 1917 Northwestern baseball season, Driscoll was working out with the nearby Chicago Cubs. At that time, according to the Los Angeles Times: “There is a rule that permits a [major league] club to try out a semi-pro or amateur in ten games without signing.”

The newspaper added that at least five major league teams were seeking the services of Driscoll, who eventually signed with the Cubs. In his first major league at bat, Driscoll drilled a double in a 10-6 loss to the New York Giants. But his baseball stats quickly went downhill from there. Driscoll managed only an ugly .107 batting average in several games in 1917 before being shipped to the minors.

However, his signing enraged the amateur and collegiate athletic ranks since the professionals were now clearly soliciting the services of the leading college players. The South Bend Tribune stated: [Driscoll’s] signing by the Chicago Cubs may stir up a scrap between college and professional sports that will last some while!”

Obviously, Driscoll’s contract with the Cubs ended his Northwestern amateur career, as noted by the Chicago Tribune in September of 1917 when it was covering the Northwestern football prospects: “Paddy is ineligible because of playing professional baseball with the Cubs.”

With his senior year in sports at Northwestern eliminated due to ineligibility, Driscoll began working out with the Northwestern football varsity in the fall of 1917 and assisting with coaching duties. He also faced the strong possibility of being swept into the military as the need for military personnel for World War I began to intensify.

The Fargo (ND) Forum indicated “Second baseman Paddy Driscoll has the honor of being the first Chicago Cub to join the army. He is not required to report until September 5.” Although Driscoll did not receive the call at that time, he would eventually find an ideal assignment for his military future in early 1918. More on that in a moment…

DRISCOLL WAS KNOCKED OUT ON HIS FEET

Although fully intending to continue with the Cubs in 1918, Driscoll’s woeful major league batting average would not guarantee him a position with the parent club. So, for the 1917 gridiron season, he joined the professional Hammond (IN) football team for $50 per game, where he delighted the local fans, especially in one game against the Cornell-Hamburgs of Chicago.

Hammond won that game 13-3 with Driscoll booting two long field goals, including one that astonished his teammates. After returning a punt in the first half, the Chicago Evening Post claimed that Driscoll was staggered by the defensive tacklers:

“When tackledin 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, Driscoll was asked at halftime why he decided to go with the dropkick instead of the expected passing play. “What drop-kick?” he replied. ”And what’s the score, anyway?”

Then in early 1918, Driscoll finally did enter the military and received a very attractive assignment for his war-time duties: the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Glenview, IL, just north of Chicago. The station strongly believed in providing solid publicity for the base (and the military in general) and sponsored strong teams in several sports, including baseball, basketball, and football.

Driscoll eagerly participated in the sports opportunities, including the football team in the fall of 1918.  Driscoll’s teammates included future NFL legends George Halas and Jimmy Conzelman, among others, as the team captured the 1919 Rose Bowl. Because of the on-going war, as well as an influenza epidemic, not all colleges would field a football team during the 1918 season.

SNAKELIKE TWISTS AND DODGES

Although Driscoll led Great Lakes to a solid 6-0-2 record despite playing a major college schedule against teams such as Illinois and Notre Dame. Perhaps his most brilliant performance was against Rutgers. In this game, Rutgers grabbed a surprising 14-0 lead over the favored visitors, before Driscoll went ballistic on the gridiron by racking up six touchdowns and five extra points to total 41 points in an eventual 54-14 rout of Rutgers.

Apparently, Driscoll was fun to watch that day as the Chicago Tribune explained: “His long distance runs through broken fields, combined with snakelike twists and dodges, repeatedly thrilled the spectators.”

The spectacular play of Driscoll continued in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1919. Because of the still existing threat from the influenza epidemic, the game was played with two military teams: Great Lakes and Mare Island from California. It remains the only time that two collegiate teams did not play in the Rose Bowl.

As it was, Great Lakes emerged with a crisp 17-0 win, thanks to the sparkling talent of quarterback Driscoll who drop-kicked a 35-yard field goal and also connected with George Halas for a 32-yard TD toss. Of course, the visual appearance of the slight quarterback impressed the local media, including the Los Angeles Times which happily stated:

“Everyone wanted to see Driscoll, and could easily distinguish the little knock-kneed Irishman by his diminutive size!” After Driscoll’s performance that afternoon, Halas said: “Few backfield men ever turned in a more perfectgame than Driscolldid against Mare Island.”

Although Driscoll played baseball for the minor league Los Angeles Angels in 1919, his football reputation continued to grow when he re-joined the Hammond (IN) Pros that season. Driscoll was part of an impressive roster that once again included George Halas and which tackled the leading professional clubs of the time, such as the Canton Bulldogs and the immortal Jim Thorpe.

This team was truly unique since it was also known as the ”All-Stars” because of so many well-known gridders. Hammond finished the schedule in 1919 with a so-so 4-2-3 record but it received more publicity when the players arranged to have manager Paul Parduhn arrested for issuing bad checks to the players near the end of the season!

BREAD COST 11 CENTS A LOAF

Let’s fast-forward a year to September 8, 1920 when Chris O’Brien, the manager of the Racine Cardinals in Chicago, shocked the football worldby signing Paddy Driscoll to a contract that would earn Driscoll an amazing  $300 per game, with a guarantee of ten games. In the days when a loaf of bread cost 11¢ and an NFL franchise reportedly $100, this was truly a substantial salary!

So, in 1920, Driscoll was the man that O’Brien decided to build his team around in the new professional league that would soon be known as the NFL. It was a wise choice, despite the outrageous salary for the time.

Driscoll would also serve as player-coach, a scheme that wasnot uncommon in those days but one that the Cardinals would continue to embrace during O’Brien’s tenure, perhaps as a fiscal necessity. Driscoll posted winning records in each of his three seasons as the Cardinals’ coach, going 6-2-2 in 1920; 6-3-2 in 1921; and, 8-3 in 1922.

But let’s take a peek at that magical period during the 1923 campaign during which Driscoll displayed his often-unstoppable offensive tendencies. In the season opener on September 30, Driscoll’s 47-yard drop-kick field goal had provided the only points in the 3-0 win over the Buffalo All-Stars.

The Cardinals were thus 1-0 when they hosted the Rochester Jeffersons on October 7, 1923 at Normal Park on the south side of Chicago. Without keen communications and scouting reports, the Cards were wary, but confident, when entertaining the Jeffersons. Driscoll played an awesome game, but was hardly the only offensive contributor as the Cards mangled the visitors 60-0. Driscoll did not tally all of the team’s points in this one, but he established a career-high with 27 points.

Paddy’s efforts were illuminated by the Chicago Tribune which reported: “Led by Paddy Driscoll, who crossed the easterners’ goal line four times, the fleet Cardinal backs bewildered the visitors by their elusiveness, which helped them to long runs through the line and around the ends.” In addition to his work on the ground, Driscoll picked up three extra points to finalize his total of 27 which is still the third most ever scored by a Cardinals player in one game in team history.

Who are the top two, you may ask? Both were also Chicago Cardinals, with Ernie Nevers scoring all of the points in a 40-6 victory over the Bears in 1929, followed by receiver Bob Shaw, who grabbed five touchdown passes for 30 points in 1950.

DRISCOLL MADE PROS LOOK LIKE BUNCH OF BUMS

During the next three weeks, Driscoll then proceeded to score every one of the Cardinals’ points in wins over Akron 19-0, Minneapolis 9-0, and Dayton 13-3. The Akron Beacontold us all we needed to know after the Cards blitzed the Akron Pros 19-0 on October 14, 1923:

“It can be credited to Paddy Driscoll, veteran star of the Cards, who upon numerous occasions, made certain members of the Pros look like a bunch of bums.” On this day, Driscoll scored once on an 8-yard run, added another with a pass reception, drop-kicked two field goals and added an extra point for his 19 tallies. After his 80-yard dash in the fourth quarter, the Akron Beacon reported:

“Paddy left the game after this sensational run and Chicago fans gave him a great ovation, some going as far as to shout for a speech from the star!”

Next, the 1923 Cardinals improved to 4-0 with a tight 9-0 victory over the Minneapolis Marines in Chicago. Driscoll provided all nine points with drop-kick field goals from 48, 45, and 23 yards out. On October 28, the Dayton Triangles fell 13-3 with Driscoll administering all of the pain according to the Dayton Daily News:

“In the second quarter, Driscoll booted a drop kick for the 25-yard line and then duplicated the feat from the same distance in the third quarter. In the fourth period, he crashed off tackle for a touchdown and added another point by kicking goal.”

By now, the football world was certainly aware of the extraordinary accomplishments of Mr. Driscoll. The Cardinal were flying high with a perfect 5-0 record, and Driscoll was not slowing down. Here is how the Daily Timesof Davenport, IA assessed the situation:

“What a sorry plight the Chicago Cardinals would be in if Paddy Driscoll did not wear a Cardinal uniform. In the first five league games, they scored 104 points of which Driscoll contributed 71. The records show that Driscoll scored every point in four of five games. The only chance his fellow backs had to show their worth was in the Rochester game. This was a runaway, with the Cardinals winning 60-0.”

DRISCOLL STOPPED BY RAIN-SOAKED FIELD

Would Driscoll’s scoring dominance ever end? On November 4, the Cards dropped their first decision of the season when visiting Canton escaped with a 7-3 win. The Dayton Daily News asserted that the weather was primarily responsible for this low-scoring affair: “Captain Paddy Driscoll was stopped by a combination of a heavy rain-soaked field and a sterling defense.” 

Of course, Driscoll’s field goal accounted for all of his team’s points for the fourth straight game, but Paddy was injured in the battle and was unavailable the following week when the Cards edged Hammond 6-0.

However, the last month of the season proved to be detrimental to both Driscoll and the Cardinals. Although Paddy’s “all-scoring” streak ended with a 10-0 win over Duluth (he did score four points via a field goal and an extra point), the Cardinals moved to 7-1 for the year. The south siders then dropped three of their final four games to finish 8-4 and out of the running for the NFL title.

Driscoll missed two of the last four contests due to injury and failed to add to his NFL-leading point total of 81. Still, it was enough to out-distance both Pete Henry of Canton (58 points) and Dutch Sternaman of the Bears (51 points) for the most points scored in the NFL during the 1923 campaign.

Looking back now over 100 years ago, it might be argued that Driscoll was easilythe best player in the early NFL…and worth every penny of his impressive salary. He could run, kick, and defend. With his spectacular playing record at Northwestern (1915-1916), Hammond (1917), Great Lakes (1918), and Hammond again (1919), Driscoll had achieved a national notoriety that propelled him into theunique status of an early NFL box office attraction.

His punting and dropkicking were the things that created legends in his day. No one in the history of the NFL has ever exceeded his dropkicking records from his playing career, which concluded in 1929.

STILL HOLDS RECORDS

Driscoll still holds the NFL records for most drop-kick field goals in a game (four), the longest drop-kick in a game (fifty-five yards), and the most drop-kick field goals in a career (forty-nine). During the opening game of the 1924 season against Milwaukee, Driscoll booted a 55-yard field goal that stood as the NFL record for the longest in league history until 1953.

In a 19-9 win over Columbus in 1925, Driscoll drop-kicked four field goals, a team record. This mark was unequaled until Pat Summerall tied Driscoll’s record in 1954, but was not surpasseduntil 1964 by Jim Bakken.

When the Cards stuffed Kansas City 20-7 in 1925, Driscoll broke awayfor an eighty-yard touchdown run, which remained a team best until Elmer Angsman scampered eighty-two yardsfor a score in 1949. Driscoll’s feat is still the third best in team annals. His duplicate 80-yard TD run against Akron in 1923 for some reason does not appear in the Cardinals’ record book.

Of course, we could share Paddy Driscoll stories all day, but as we await the start of the new NFL season, it’s nice to remember a small, but talented player whose superior scoring performance on the field during that brief stretch of the 1923 season remains an “unknown” mark that will likely never by surpassed! Thank you for joining us on this episode of “When Football Was Football.”

Please check back soon for our next program which will be a fun one as we share some of the wackiest moments in the history of the Cardinals—the NFL’s oldest team! For example, did you know that at one time, the Cardinals were almost sold to a university? Thank you!

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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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