It Happened in Jersey: Football
The Bruise Brothers
Two of Princeton’s early gridiron greats were Jesse and Dudley Riggs, a pair of raw-boned linemen from Baltimore who earned All-America honors in the 1890s. Jesse (below), five years older, was somewhat smaller and quicker at 5’11” and 190 pounds than his big little brother. He captained the 1891 Tigers following his 1890 All-America season. He was known for his willingness to mix things up at the bottom of the pile and was a particularly violent blocker and often mentioned in the same breath as Yale great Pudge Heffelfinger.
Dudley (right), one of the first players to have his own football card, was an All-American in 1895. He was a giant by 19th century standards at 6’1” and well over 200 pounds. He played center and guard. Both Riggs brothers attended boarding school at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, a school that would produce Princeton football and hockey star Hobey Baker a few years later.
Jesse and Dudley were two of five brothers—all of whom were athletes at St. Paul’s and Princeton—born to Mary and Lawrason Riggs, a millionaire banker. Riggs Bank had financed Samuel Morse’s telegraph and funded the Mexican-American War in 1846. After graduation, Jesse founded his own insurance company. He lived to the age of 75. Dudley, who was a pal of John D. Rockefeller Jr., became a horse and dog breeder. In his 20s he enjoyed the reputation among friends as “the strongest man in Maryland.” Alas, in 1913, he fell ill and passed away at the age of 38. Based on the large pustules that formed during his illness, the cause of death was judged to be pemphigus—a rare autoimmune disease.
Little Goes A Long Way
Long before BMI came to stand for “body mass index,” those three letters stood for Bordentown Military Institute, a prep school that operated in New Jersey between 1881 and 1972. Though the enrollment was relatively small, the Burlington County school punched well above its weight in high school sports and produced a number of star athletes, including Floyd Little, a member of both the Pro and College Football Hall of Fames. Little grew up in New Haven and attended Hillhouse High School in Connecticut for four years before transferring to BMI for two years of “post-graduate” education. He was the star of the football, basketball and track teams, and was promoted to officer in recognition of his leadership qualities. Little cherished his time as a Cadet. He once said that if Bordentown had been a college, he would have stayed there for four years.
During the 1960s, BMI football was described as a “survival camp” that molded future collegians. It was not unusual for 10 or more Cadets to earn scholarships in a given year. When Little arrived, he was used to being the focus of his team’s offense…but quickly learned that he would have to block and tackle in order to maintain that status. By the time he graduated, he was as well-known for his toughness as his moves. More than 40 schools courted Little while he played for BMI, and he was personally recruited by General MacArthur to continue his military and football careers at West Point. Little was actually leaning that way until he had lunch with Ernie Davis, who had just become the first African-American Heisman winner, who convinced Little to following his (and Jim Brown’s) footsteps at Syracuse. All three famously wore number 44.
Among the other players BMI developed were lineman Stan Walters, a two-time Pro Bowl pick with the Eagles, and Paul Costa, a running back for the Buffalo Bills in the old AFL. Tim Berra (Yogi’s son) who played for the Colts, also attended BMI.
Baseball was also a big deal at BMI. Two of the Cadets’ standouts during the 1950s went on to make an impact in the majors: Chris Short (left), a two-time All-Star with the Phillies, and Lee Elia, a well-traveled coach who managed the Cubs and Phillies in the 1980s. Both played for coach Stumpy Verdel.
In 2010, more than three decades after BMI closed its door (in part because of opposition to the Vietnam War), Little was among the former Cadets who attended a statue unveiling in Bordentown. That same year, Floyd Little was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Timing is everything, right? Well, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Atlantic City, which finished construction of Convention Hall in 1929—just in time for the stock market crash and implosion of the US economy. The structure housed the world’s largest clear-span space at the time, with a 138-foot vaulted ceiling. The project was started with the idea of bolstering AC’s already-booming convention business. Convention Hall managed to make it through the Great Depression and would host the Miss America Pageant, as well as the 1964 Democratic National Convention and an unforgettable Beatles concert.
One of the first big events at Convention Hall was history’s first indoor college football game. It was played in 1930 on the night of October 25th between Washington & Jefferson and Lafayette. More than two million pounds of topsoil and clay was carted in and tamped down to create a 6-inch-deep surface. The contest was billed as the first-ever indoor football game, but in the early 1900s a series of pro games had been staged at the old Madison Square Garden in New York. The game was broadcast live on radio on the Columbia Network.
More than 16,000 tickets were sold for the game. Many of the Lafayette fans boarded boats in Easton, PA that took them down and around the tip of New Jersey. Among the dignitaries on hand were New Jersey Governor Morgan Larson, ambassadors Dwight Morrow and Walter Evans Edge, mayor Harry Bacharach (of Bacharach Giants fame), and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who was nearing the end of his long reign as the city political boss.
The first half was a scoreless defensive battle. Early in the third quarter, W&J’s Stu Wilson attempted a coffin-corner kick from Lafayette’s 45-yard line. The ball took a high hop just short of the goal line. Lafayette’s Al Socolow, standing too close to the bouncing ball, received a shove from one of the coverage men and the ball ticked off of him inside the 1-yard line. George Demas dove on the loose ball and recovered it a foot from the end zone. Today, this would draw a penalty flag.
Lafayette made a gallant goal-line stand, repulsing two running plays. On 3rd down, Wilson bulled his way through the line for a touchdown and then kicked the extra point. Lafayette threatened twice in the final quarter but came up empty both times. The game ended 7–0.
The contest concluded just before 11:00 p.m. After the game, the players met again at close quarters—at a college dance held in the Convention Hall ballroom.
Convention Hall continued to host college football games throughout the 1930s. During the 1940s, the venue was used for military training. College ball resumed in 1961 with the creation of the annual Boardwalk Bowl, which was also known as the Little Army-Navy Game, as it pitted the Merchant Marine Academy against the Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University). Grass was grown outdoors and then moved in for the game. The end zones were 8 yards deep instead of 10. In 1964, the Liberty Bowl moved from Philly to AC for a year, before finding a permanent home in Memphis.
In 1939, George Halas purchased the Newark Tornadoes of the American Association, a minor-league circuit with teams up and down the East Coast. Halas renamed the club the Bears and used it as a farm team for his NFL club. The NFL Bears and AA Bears completed their regular seasons on the same day, December 3rd. Chicago finished in second place behind rookie quarterback Sid Luckman with an 8–3 mark. Newark finished 9–2–1, tied for first in the AA’s Southern Division.
A playoff game was scheduled between Newark and the 9–2–1 Wilmington Clippers to decide who would face the Paterson Panthers in the Association’s championship game. Halas wanted his farm club to win, so he sent Luckman to Newark. It’s worth mentioning that Luckman was no ordinary rookie. One year earlier, the former Columbia University star had made the cover of LIFE magazine, with the words “Best Passer” under his photo. In 1939, Luckman was also the NFL’s top punter and one of its best defensive backs.
The Clippers lodged protests before and after the game, but their objection to Luckman was overruled both times. Commissioner Joe Rostenover found a convenient loophole. The rules stated that only players who appeared for a team in the regular season were eligible to play in the league championship game. However, no mention was made of a playoff game!
The contest was held in Newark on December 10th, with almost 15,000 fans in attendance at Newark Schools Stadium. The Clippers outplayed Newark for most of the game, but Luckman found Dick Schweidler with a fourth-quarter TD pass to win 13–6. One week later, Newark defeated Paterson 27–7, without Luckman in the lineup. The American Association tightened its rules for 1940 to cover the use of ringers in playoff games. As for Luckman, he went on to redefine the quarterback’s role in pro football earned first- or second-team All-Pro honors each year from 1940 to 1948.
During the Great Depression, one of the most active sports organizations in New Jersey was the Zuni Athletic Association of Camden. The club assembled competitive teams in a number of sports. Members were originally Italian-Americans from the same South Camden neighborhood—many of whom had played with and against one another in high school—but by the late 1930s the club was recruiting athletes from outside the city. The Zuni Indians were ranked among the top semipro football teams on the East Coast., and even played an exhibition game or two against the Eagles. Crowds of 2,000 or more were not unusual at their home games.
In 1939, backed by influential political figures Gene Mariano and Joe Marini, Camden joined the Eastern Professional Football Conference midway through the season. taking over from a defunct club called Wentz Olney. In 1940, the Indians were a perfect 9–0 during the season and shutout the Philadelphia Magnolia in the playoffs, 6–0 in front of 10,000-plus fans in Philly—half of whom ventured across the river to watch their Indians. They were disappointed six days later when Caden lost the EPFC title game 22–8 to the Conshohocken Boilermakers. The Indians also lost an exhibition contest that year to the Eagles by a score of 49–13.
In 1941, the Indians ran the table again during the regular season, and then beat another New Jersey semipro squad, the Clifton Heighters, to reach the championship game again. The game was noteworthy in that it was played on December 7th. A week later, Camden defeated Norristown L.A.M., 10–0 to win the EPFC championship.
The Zuni Indians made their third straight trip to the title contest and repeated as league champs in 1942, albeit with a thinned-down wartime squad and an abbreviated schedule. The team’s best player was Ted Laux (right), a high school star from Collingwood who played college ball at St. Joseph’s and later in the NFL for the Eagles (and also the “Steagles”). In the championship game, he tossed a pair of scoring passes to Wally Hussong in a 14–10 win over the Shamrocks, a club from South Philadelphia. Earlier in the year Camden beat the Shamrocks 13–10 in the final minutes on a controversial scoring catch by player-coach Ray Cochrane, which appeared to be a trap. Earlier in the year, the Indians played an exhibition against the Wilmington Clippers of the American Association and lost 42–6. It was a reminder that Camden’s players were workers first and football players second.
In 1943, the EPFC suspended play and a team called the Camden Pros began play and signed many of Zuni’s best players. Zuni football would not recover until after the war. When the team restarted in 1946, Laux was signed to be its player-coach. He brought the T-formation to the Indians offense from his wartime stint in the NFL.
The Zuni Athletic Association continued to assemble football, baseball, basketball, bowling and other teams in the years that followed, and thrived as a social organization right through the 1970s.
UNITED WE FALL
The United States Football League (USFL) played three spring/summer seasons—1983 to 1985—as a rival to the NFL. The quality of play left something to be desired at times, but the quality of the top players was exceptional. Among the NFL stars who got their start in the USFL were Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, Kelvin Bryant, Bobby Hebert, Reggie White, Bart Oates, Kelvin Bryant, Gary Zimmerman, Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Sam Mills, Ken Hull, Nate Newton, Sean Landeta and William Fuller.
Like the NFL, the league held its championship game in a different city (each July) at the end of the season. The first was held in Denver, the second in Tampa and the third at the Meadowlands. The Stars—led by Mills, Bryant and quarterback Chuck Fusina (right)—participated in all three title games, the first two representing the city of Philadelphia and the third representing Baltimore. The Stars reached the big game despite a 1–3–1 start
The 1985 USFL Championship, between the Baltimore Stars and Oakland Invaders, was meant to be the final summer championship; in 1986, the owners agreed reluctantly to go head-to-head with the NFL in the fall. That never happened, meaning the title game at the Meadowlands was also the last USFL game ever played.
Just under 50,000 tickets were sold for the game, which began in a driving rain. This favored the Stars, who liked to run the football, while it hampered the Invaders, who counted on scoring passes from Hebert to Anthony Carter. Fusina opened the scoring with a 16-yard TD pass to Scott Fitzkee. Bryant scored a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, but the Invaders, who ran a Fusina interception back for a score, kept the game close.
Oakland took the lead late in the third quarter after recovering a Stars fumble. Hebert and Carter connected on a short pass to make the score 24–21. The Stars rallied in the fourth quarter and went up 28–24 midway through the final period on Bryant’s third TD run. On the ensuing kickoff, Oakland muffed the catch and had to start on its own 4 yard line. Hebert led a magnificent drive into the Baltimore red zone, getting to the 5 yard line. On third down and 2, Oakland’s Tom Newton got into a scuffle with cornerback Jonathan Sutton and was whistled for a 15-yard penalty. With the Stars blanketing Carter in the end zone, Hebert tried two TD passes to Gordon Banks, but both were incomplete. With three TDs, 103 rushing yards and 56 receiving yards, Bryant (left) was named the MVP.