Friday, December 26, 2008

Who was Ernie Nevers? With the Browns?

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.

Nevers was not your typical Golden Age sports star. His exploits read like tall tales spun around campfires and cold beers. (In this 1932 photo, Ernie Nevers, left, is shown with legendary football coach Glenn "Pop" Warner.)

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 while with the Browns 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.

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.

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.

There's a lot more interesting facts about Ernie Nevers, a former Browns player, at:

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