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Alfred Wright
September 24, 1962
The author, a Yale man who grew up in the West, confined his hunt to the 20th century. His choice: a man (above) who never played for a national champion
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September 24, 1962

The Best College Player Of All Time

The author, a Yale man who grew up in the West, confined his hunt to the 20th century. His choice: a man (above) who never played for a national champion

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We now come to the 60-minute players, who were, after all, the only ones with a fair chance to show the full spectrum of their talent. Fortunately for the purposes of this consideration, they fall rather neatly into three groups.

The first would contain Jay Berwanger and Byron White, two athletes who were as conspicuous for their character as their performances, plus Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the two outstanding headliners in Army's long pageant of football success. That Berwanger was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy—in 1935—shows how he was regarded by his contemporaries, although he played for a team that was not even a contender in its own conference, the Big Ten. Indeed, Berwanger was nearly the only real football player Chicago had at the time. He not only could do everything that had to be done on the field; he had to. One regrets never having seen him in the company of a truly first-class team.

When White was at Colorado, the Rocky Mountain area was to college football about what Florida is to ice hockey, yet White was able to lead his teammates to the Cotton Bowl, where they put up a surprisingly good showing against Rice until worn down by obviously overwhelming manpower. Like Kazmaier, White never had the opportunity to test his skills among his peers. True, he went on to become one of the very good running backs in pro football during the three years he played there, but after college Berwanger abandoned football entirely. As for Blanchard and Davis, their reputations were also limited by their environment, for they played during the closing chapters of World War II, when so many superb athletes of college age were in the services. Each won the Heisman Trophy and together they helped give Army a three-year record of superiority unmatched by any other college team in the country at the time, but the opposition was far from formidable. Among all these exceptional players, Berwanger, White, Blanchard and Davis left the largest question marks at the end of their careers.

The next group contains Red Grange, Tom Harmon and Nile Kinnick, the three most spectacular offensive players in football history. Of these, Kinnick was the most versatile in every department—running, passing, kicking and blocking. No one could do all these things any better. Grange and Harmon were the most dangerous and breathtaking runners—in their own time or ever. To be sure, they played on good teams under good coaches, and each had a superlative blocker to help clear the way—Grange's Earl Britton and Harmon's Forest Evashevski—but in the open there was nobody like them. Just consider Grange's performance against Michigan in his junior year. In the first 10 minutes of the game he made touchdown runs of 95, 66, 55 and 40 yards, even though he had his hands on the ball just six times. He left the game before the first quarter ended but returned in the second half to run 15 yards for his fifth touchdown and throw a pass for his team's sixth score. Playing only 41 minutes, he gained 402 yards in 21 attempts—an average of nearly 20 yards a carry—and completed six passes for another 64 yards. And this against a fine Michigan team that lost but one other game.

Harmon is the only other broken-field runner who can be spoken of in the same breath with Grange. Although both of them could pass and kick and play defense well, their primary skill was running. A backfield of four Granges or four Harmons would leave something to be desired.

You could, on the other hand, have an entire team made up of 11 Jim Thorpes or 11 Ernie Neverses or 11 Bronko Nagurskis or 11 Kenny Washingtons, and it would be pretty hard for anyone else to break into the lineup. These truly were men who could do everything required of a football player in any situation. How, then, would you choose among them?

You would have to eliminate Nagurski first on the ground that he never reached full football maturity in college, and his awesome reputation as a pro fullback with the Chicago Bears has tended to overcolor his performance as a collegian. A provincial farm boy, he did not play football until he reached Minnesota, where he served his first two varsity years as an end and tackle and, great as he was as a fullback in his senior year, he was still learning the trade.

Washington, too, matured rather late and only reached his full stature in his senior year, particularly in his final game, a 0-0 tie with USC. It was a performance that no one who saw it will ever forget, for it was against one of the last and best of Coach Howard Jones's Thundering Herds, the team that beat Tennessee in the Rose Bowl 14-0. Of course, Kenny had the speedy young Jackie Robinson at wingback to help spread the defense a bit, yet he himself was really the team—tackling, knocking down passes, blocking, punting, passing, running the ends or off tackle or carrying three or four USC tacklers with him through the center of the line. If Washington had not waited until his senior year to develop into such a player, it would be almost impossible to avoid ranking him above all others, but we can at least say there was never a more thrilling performance on a football field than he gave in his final collegiate appearance.

It boils down, then, to either Thorpe or Nevers, and some of the most eloquent barside oratory of the last 35 years has been spent on this subject. Pop Warner, who coached them both in their college days, finally picked Nevers. Warner claimed that Nevers could do everything that Thorpe could do and do it more often. Big Jim, he said, occasionally dogged it on the field, but Nevers refused to let up.

There is no question in my own mind where I stood—and stand. Nevers was to me the greatest college football player of all time, including those I had seen and those I had only read about. I saw Nevers in what I am sure was the most awesome and impressive one-man performance of all time—an opinion confirmed by Knute Rockne himself. That was when Nevers, as a junior, played against Rockne's Four Horsemen in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Although Nevers' 117 yards outgained the total of all four of the Horsemen on the ground; although he must have made at least half of his team's tackles against them; although he wore down two Notre Dame lines with his crunching, knee-high running, although he handled the ball on almost every play; still he didn't have quite what was needed to win the game for his team, for he was playing on two recently broken ankles, which Warner had bound tightly with inner tubing. The difference between victory and defeat was two flat passes thrown by Nevers (who tried to overrule the calls in the huddle) and intercepted by Elmer Layden for touchdown runbacks of 78 and 70 yards (which Nevers, an exceptionally fast man, would have cut off if his legs had been sound) and a touchdown plunge by Nevers that the referee ruled was short, but which everyone else knew was successful. So the score was Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10.

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