Who was Ernie Nevers?

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Some of the best athletes in the region annually tread the flawless artificial turf and composite track at Santa Rosa High?s Ernie Nevers Field. And it?s no slap in the face to state that none of them has a chance of matching the sporting exploits of the man whose name graces the scoreboard.

Ernie Nevers lived in Santa Rosa less than a year, not long as legacies go. Then again, Nevers was not your typical Golden Age sports star. His exploits read like tall tales spun around campfires and cold beers.

Imagine a man who:

Outgained all ?Four Horsemen? of Notre Dame while playing on two broken ankles.

Played 1,714 out of a possible 1,740 minutes of football with the NFL?s barnstorming Duluth Eskimos in 1926.

Owns the oldest mark still standing in the NFL record book.

Surrendered two home runs to Babe Ruth the year the Babe hit 60.

Brought down a Japanese Zero during World War II by hitting the plane with a football.

That last one isn?t real, or at least not verified. But that?s the thing about Ernie Nevers. The more you learn about his life, the more you are willing to believe. In a different era, people were awestruck just to make his acquaintance.

?I said to my brother, ?I met the nicest man last night. His name is Ernie Nevers,? remembers Ernie?s widow, Margery. ?He said, ?Ernie Nevers?!? I said, ?What, has he been in jail?? Remember, I went to a boarding school (in Chicago). I never saw a football game. We were in school on Saturdays, too.?

Margery, whose home in Tiburon looks across the water to the ferry landing on Angel Island, doesn?t care to state her age. But let?s just say the FDR presidency is more than an American history study topic to her.

During Ernie Nevers? junior year of high school, he and his parents left Superior, Wis., for Santa Rosa. George Nevers, Ernie?s father, bought a prune ranch opposite the brass foundry near the current intersection of Mission Boulevard and Highway 12.

It was the spring of 1919, and Ernie?s arrival was good news for the Santa Rosa High football team, which had formed the previous fall and stumbled through a winless season.

Nevers helped design plays, and carried or passed the ball on nearly every snap from the fullback position. He anchored the defense and kicked field goals and extra points, too.

?This lad seems to have an educated toe, for when he kicks his goals he never fails to make them,? The Press Democrat reported on Oct. 17, 1920.

A former Santa Rosa classmate, Raymond Clar, once wrote of trying to tackle the 187-pound Nevers in a scrimmage.

?I remember no particular pain,? Clar wrote. ?I did exhibit, with some pride I must confess, a bit of flexiblity in my nose which healed itself about the time Ernie began to appear bigger than lifesize on huge roadside billboards as ?America?s Greatest Athlete.?

Riding Nevers? broad shoulders ? he scored 108 of 170 points, not including his touchdown passes ? Santa Rosa finished 7-3 and won the Northwest Section of the California Interscholastic Federation before getting drubbed by a much deeper and stronger Berkeley High team in a playoff game.

Nevers immediately turned his attention to basketball, and dominated so thoroughly that he was named California high school basketball player of the year for 1920-21. Pretty impressive when you consider he played less than half the season.

After three league games, capped by a 32-point performance against Petaluma ? the school yearbook, The Echo, called it ?the most sensational scoring ever seen on any court in the country? ? Nevers got an urgent message from his former coach in Wisconsin. The old team needed him desperately. So he abandoned Santa Rosa and traveled east, playing for Superior?s Central High the night he arrived.

But Nevers returned after graduation. He was a player-coach on Santa Rosa Junior College?s first football team in 1921, taking units at the JC to help him get into Stanford.

It was at Palo Alto that Nevers? reputation exploded. He earned 11 varsity letters in three years, in football, baseball, basketball and track. On the football field, he became one of the West?s first grid stars.

The pinnacle of Nevers? collegiate saga was the 1925 Rose Bowl. He had broken both ankles earlier in the year. Legendary coach Glenn ?Pop? Warner went to his garage and fashioned splints that ran from the bottoms of Nevers? feet to six inches above the ankles, fastening them tight with inner tubes.

Five days before the game, Nevers couldn?t walk. But he played. And carried the ball on every single snap for the Indians. And finished with 114 yards. Despite throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the Fighting Irish?s 27-10 win, Nevers shared player-of-the-game honors.

In 1962, Sports Illustrated named Nevers the greatest college football player of all time. Warnerwrote in his autobiography: ?In an era of great ones ? Red Grange of Illinois, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen from Notre Dame, Elmer Oliphant and Chris Cagle of Army, or even Jim Thorpe of Carlisle ? Nevers always stood a bit taller.?

He was a bona fide celebrity, with film roles on the way, and his two-semester alma mater was quick to capitalize. Santa Rosa High, newly relocated from a schoolhouse on Humboldt Street to the Mendocino Avenue campus, dedicated Ernie Nevers Field in 1925. It would be four years before the school had enough funding to add bleachers, a permanent track and a field that was more than a dirt patch.

Out of college in 1926, Nevers joined an NFL team called the Duluth Eskimos that was owned by a former high school chum, Ole Haugsrud. Eager to trade on the Nevers name, Haugsrud organized a barnstorming tour that took the Eskimos to 29 cities, including five in an eight-game span.

Sportwriters dubbed them the Ironmen of the North, and no one was more unbreakable than Nevers. He missed only 26 minutes all season, sidelined briefly with a case of appendicitis.

The Eskimos folded after the 1927 season, and Nevers sat out the next year with a back injury. He joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1929 for three stellar seasons.

Nevers was still a fullback, but of course he did everything for the Cardinals. On Nov. 28, 1929, he scored six touchdowns and kicked four extra points against the rival Bears; 79 years later, his 40 points remain a single-game NFL record.

They called him Swede or Big Dog, and he was all-pro five times in five seasons. In 1963, Nevers would become a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But football wasn?t his only pursuit. Nevers pitched three seasons for the St. Louis Browns, dishing up those two dingers to Ruth in a mostly lackluster career that saw him finish 6-12.

Some insist Nevers played pro basketball, too, though the record is murky.

The big man still wasn?t done with Santa Rosa. After retiring from the NFL he joined the football staff at Stanford and played for a Santa Rosa semipro football team called the Bonecrushers. They played on the field that now bears his name.

Despite his reserved nature, the affable Nevers also became a regular speaker at the annual sports banquet at the Flamingo Hotel. His sister Edith remained in Santa Rosa, and the family would gather here for holiday dinners.

During World War II, Nevers enlisted in the Marine Corps, became a major with the 134th Torpedo Bomber Squadron and served for nearly three years. At one point, his battalion was missing in action for several months, cached on a small island. Some of the men died, and Nevers, suffering from beri-beri, supposedly wasted away to 110 pounds.

His first wife died stateside during the war.

Nevers met Margery in New York City after coming home, and she became his second wife. The couple later settled in Tiburon, where Margery sold real estate and Ernie became a sales rep and spokesman for beverage distributors and a spice company.

He never lost his athletic build, but not everyone who knew him realized they were talking to a living legend.

?He didn?t live in the past,? said Tina Nevers, Ernie?s daughter. ?I had to pull stuff out of him. He had some stories about (colorful NFL star) Johnny Blood and playing in Pottsville, Pennsyvania. But they were funny stories, not really about him.?

Nevers died in 1976.

There aren?t many people left who remember the 1925 Rose Bowl or the 40 points scored by one man against the Chicago Bears in 1929. But thanks to an astute decision by the Santa Rosa board of education some 83 years ago, Ernie Nevers? name won?t be completely forgotten here for many years to come.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 526-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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