SI Vault
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

As captain of the Stanford team in his senior year, Nevers continued to play just as heroically, but his team lost a heartbreaker (and the Pacific Coast championship) to Washington after the Huskies belted Nevers early in the game and put him on the sidelines. Otherwise he would have taken Stanford to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year.

There are those, nevertheless, who would pick Thorpe over Nevers, and among them is Harry Stuhldreher, who quarterbacked the Four Horsemen and played against both Nevers (in the Rose Bowl) and Thorpe (as a pro). "Nevers was an alltime master," Stuhldreher said recently, "but I can't rate him as high as Thorpe. Thorpe was so fast he could run around the ends and so powerful he could drive through the center of the line dragging half a dozen tacklers with him. He was one of the best kickers there ever was both as a punter and a drop-kicker. On defense he was everywhere, tackling behind the line or knocking down passes in the secondary.

"I always told Warner it was his fault if Thorpe was lazy now and then. Pop used to pay off his Carlisle Indians by giving them swigs of whisky on their way home on the train after a game. If they played well they got an extra shot or two. If they didn't, they might not get a drink at all. So I blamed Pop for Thorpe's laziness, telling him he was shortchanging Jim on the whisky.

"Actually, I never saw Thorpe until many years after he left college. That was in 1926, when I was playing on the Brooklyn Horsemen and we met the Canton Bulldogs, Thorpe's team. Remember, this was almost 20 years after he first started wearing a Carlisle uniform. He had held up well through the years, and even then he was a bull through the line and would run right over you. In fact, he could still do just about everything when he wanted to.

"But I'll never forget the last time I saw Thorpe," Stuhldreher mused, looking off into the distance. "It was in the spring of 1931, and a lot of us former Notre Dame players were out in Hollywood making The Spirit of Notre Dame. That was when Rockne was killed, flying out for the picture. We were having a punting contest on the Universal lot and making bets on whether Elmer Layden, who kicked those tremendous long spirals, was a better punter than Frank Carideo, an exponent of the LeRoy Mills school of kicking for accuracy.

"The thud of the football must have attracted Thorpe, because he wandered over, all dressed up in an Indian costume. We tried to persuade Jim to kick, and for a while he said no, claiming he wasn't in condition, but eventually he began to limber up. He took off his big Indian headdress, and pretty soon he was punting the ball along with Layden and Carideo, and even though he was only wearing moccasins and must have been almost 45 years old he could still kick the ball as far as Layden and as accurately as Carideo. We were all so fascinated we never did find out which of the other two was better.

"I don't want to tear down Ernie," Stuhldreher concluded, "but Jim was a lot faster and a little better all around."

The only reply to such firsthand testimony is, respectfully, that Stuhldreher didn't have as good a seat as mineā€”up in the grandstand. The years have perhaps dimmed his recollections of Nevers, the blond giant of over 200 pounds, who threw his helmet to the sidelines and played bareheaded in a fury of determination when the going got tough; Nevers, who could run like a sprinter through a sliver of an opening or plow like a battleship through a mass of men; Nevers, whose punts always seemed on the verge of sailing out of the stadium (and often did out of the ball parks in which he played as a pro); Nevers, the shy and humble man who never admitted defeat. He was the greatest football player.

1 2 3