GORDON WHITE: Ironmen: Yale Eleven Were the Last to Play All 60 Minutes
Football specialists in kicking, catching, blocking or tackling will run on the field to replace a teammate for a single play and then run off after that play is completed in the Super Bowl a week from today. That is the way football is played today with unlimited substitutions. No player on the field will compete for very long without a rest.
Back in the 1930s, if a player was removed for a sub, he could not return during that same quarter. Unlimited substitution was first adopted by pro football and then college football in the 1950s.
I wonder if the modern footballer, good as he may be, could last an entire half, let alone play for all 60 minutes of a football game. Even though today's players are bigger, faster and stronger than the ones who played over half a century ago, I think most of today's football players would have their tongues hanging to their shoe tops if they tried to go an entire half, let alone an entire game.
But it did happen years ago. Individuals occasionally played from opening kickoff to final gun.
And then there were Yale's Ironmen.
This heroic group of eleven young athletes, most of whom were also fairly good-to-excellent students at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions, did something no team has done since their rare and thrilling performance of November 17, 1934, in Princeton, N.J.
All eleven Yale players who started that day against Princeton in Palmer Stadium remained in the game for the entire 60 minutes of action that consisted of 138 plays. There was nary a sub for Eli that day.
Not only did they have the guts and fortitude to withstand the maximum punishment any football player must endure, but these "Ironmen" upset a highly favored and previously undefeated Princeton team on the Tigers' home turf, 7-0.
This was during the days when college football was the version of the sport most attractive to American fans. Pro football was struggling to be recognized. It was also at a time when players did not wear nearly as much protective gear as they do today. For instance, the helmet was made of leather without a face mask and there was no mouth piece.
This test of endurance occurred during the height of the Great Depression when even a Yale or Princeton graduate's future might not be secure. It also occurred shortly before World War II, which took the life of one member of the team. Eight of these "Ironmen" served as naval officers during World War II.
William N. Wallace, a former colleague of mine at The New York Times sports department, has written a compelling book about the exploits and lives of these eleven men from Boola Boola land in New Haven, "Yale's Ironmen: A Story of Football & Lives In the Decade of The Depression & Beyond."
One of the finest American reporters on college and professional football during the second half of the 20th century, Wallace dipped back into his childhood for this story of a very notable team from his alma mater, Yale. Bill attended that 1934 game in Palmer Stadium at age 10.
Most notable among the "Ironmen" was Larry Kelley, a sophomore end that November afternoon in Princeton. He scored the game's only touchdown on a pass from the junior quarterback, Jerry Roscoe, late in the first quarter. Kelley went on to win the second Heisman Trophy in 1936.
Kelley met a tragic end when he committed suicide many years later. Roscoe, one of the more successful of Yale's Ironmen, was a fine golfer who retired after a long career as an advertising executive. He moved to Pinehurst where he was an active member of the Pinehurst Country Club prior to his death in 2003.
Wallace brings his expert knowledge of football to bear on the pre-game strategy and game tactics by coaches and players. He tells how Yale, punting often, kept Princeton bottled up most of the game.
But Wallace is not content with just a game story. The author takes the Ironmen beyond graduation, through World War II and into their later years when business careers and marriages, good and bad, became much more important than a mere football game way back in 1934.
We all expect that the handsome, strong athlete who is a good student is going on to great success in whatever field he selects and that he will live the life of Riley with a beautiful wife and three wonderful children in a house surrounded by the ubiquitous white picket fence and two cars in the garage. Sort of the Hollywood dream life.
Read Bill Wallace's book and realize Hollywood has it all wrong. Some live happily ever after while others are tragic figures. Kim Whitehead, Yale's handsome and highly regarded fullback and captain, met Princeton's captain, Pepper Constable, at midfield for the customary coin toss prior to the opening kickoff at Palmer Stadium, Nov. 17, 1934.
Wallace tells us how Whitehead's life deteriorated because of alcoholism and that Constable committed suicide in his 70s when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Yale's Ironmen were surely noted as heroes that day over 72 years ago. But, as Bill Wallace so eloquently discloses, they suffered as human beings.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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