SI Vault
James Poling
November 22, 1954
The children's home run by the Loyal Order of Moose fields a pint-sized football team that has licked big foes for years
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November 22, 1954

The Mighty Orphans

The children's home run by the Loyal Order of Moose fields a pint-sized football team that has licked big foes for years

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For the past 20 years a little coach who looks like a miniature Knute Rockne?which is pretty miniature when you recall Rockne's size?has been giving practical demonstrations of the physical law implicit in the old adage, The bigger they come the harder they fall. Johnny Williams, who consistently turns out one of the country's best high school football teams while working with a paucity of material that would traumatize the ordinary coach, is a specialist in the art of teaching small boys how to upend big boys with skill and gleeful discourtesy.

Johnny, who is so steeped in football that even his hair has appropriately receded into a stadium-shaped fringe, considers it a fat year when his Mooseheart, Ill. high school has an enrollment of 100 boys, and a fatter year if just one of them weighs over 175 pounds. This season his 54-man squad represents 64 percent of the school's total male enrollment of 84 students. And his starting eleven averages only 157 pounds, which is also about the usual for Johnny Williams' team. Even so, Mooseheart's Red Ramblers have taken on all comers, ranging the land from Tacoma, Wash, to West Haven, Conn., while building an all-time record of 214 games won, 72 lost and 17 tied. They have played high school teams from Chicago, Toledo, Dayton, Muncie, South Bend, Duluth, Muskegon, Columbus and Grand Rapids, and such preparatory schools as Culver and Marmion Military Academies.

For some mysterious reason that no one can explain, Mooseheart boys have always come in small packages. But there is no mystery about the school's small enrollment. It's an orphanage?the same orphanage to which Johnny himself was sent as a 14-year-old boy, forty years ago. Which may explain the blunt forcefulness with which he says, "I'd like bigger players but I sure as hell don't want more of them. The basic eligibility requirement for this team is just a little too tough."

Actually, Mooseheart is a self-contained village maintained by the Loyal Order of Moose for the needy children of its deceased members. It has a 1,200-acre campus, its own post office and over 100 buildings, and is located about 35 miles from Chicago. Its educational system runs from kindergarten through high school, and its total student population of both sexes averages around 800.

Perhaps the best measure of Mooseheart as an orphanage is its annual Homecoming. Each fall, 800 to 1,000 of its 5,000 graduates return for a gala weekend, complete with snake dances, bonfires, banquets, decorated halls and dormitories, dances and, of course, the big game. Ronnie Friday, quarterback of the unbeaten 1950 team and now coach of the sixth grade squad, says, "You should just see the hugging and kissing that goes on at Homecoming. After all, the only roots we have are here. It's our home. And we're proud of it."

The children's city at Mooseheart was founded in 1913. Johnny arrived from Bismarck, N.D. at 11 on the morning of June 26, 1914. According to the records, at noon he was in a fight; at 2 he was caught trying to sneak off the campus; and at 3 he was wrestling a punitive shovel to work off his excess energy. That fall he became the 128-pound quarterback of Moose-heart's first football team (he has since swollen to 143 pounds), and he was eventually named captain of the 1916 team.

After graduation he clerked in the campus grocery store until 1923, when he was named coach of the third team. Since he had only played in high school, he was forced to teach himself advanced football in order to conduct an adequate seminar for the scrubs. Then, in 1935, he took over the varsity and brought to it the system he now calls "the confused T, with an unbalanced coach in motion."


Ken Zimmerman, coach of the West Aurora (Ill.) High team, says the only confusion in Johnny's system is that created in the opposition. When he was a physical education student at the University of Illinois, he recalls, he was given an assignment to turn in a chart and a scouting report of a game the Red Ramblers were playing against Champaign High School. On Monday, Zimmerman says, he faced his instructor with empty hands and the question, "How the devil do you chart 11 greased pigs?"

This year's annual "pigskin previews" made much of the fact that the multiple offense would be the distinguishing characteristic of college football in 1954. Some schools, like the University of Washington, it was said, would even feature as many as six different offensive formations. Johnny's only reaction was the obviously insincere comment, "Amazing! Think of those college boys learnin' all that!"

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