EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is the kickoff for a 12-part series on Ohio’s historic football personalities.
Ohio’s football history is etched with incredible details, dynamic personalities, glorious achievements and horrendous tragedies. Some of the state’s residents possess a passion for the sport that encroaches on hysteria.
“Ohio is a state, first of all, which if it has raised any kind of false God before the Lord, looks upon football with idolatrous eyes,” author Jerome Brondfield noted in his New York Times bestseller, Woody Hayes and the 100-Yard War. “Where an appearance at the Friday night high school football game is probably more obligatory than at church on Sunday morning.”
Note the illustration accompanying this story. Miami Trace quarterback Art Schlichter, the greatest high school quarterback in Ohio history, was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 1978. A four-year starter at Ohio State, he became a Big Ten MVP, a Heisman finalist, an All-American, and a No. 4 pick in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Despite all that, Schlichter’s tale is a cautionary one. His pro career was sidetracked by a gambling addiction that led to a life of crime. Indeed, as of this writing he is again behind bars, where he’s spent the majority of his adult life.
On the other end of the spectrum is another Ohio quarterback that reached every peak imaginable in the sport, and beyond. Cincinnati Purcell product Roger Staubach was the Queen City’s high school player of the year in 1959, won the Heisman Trophy (and the admiration of President John F. Kennedy) in 1963, and became a Super Bowl MVP in 1972.
Staubach is a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, a Vietnam War veteran, and a wildly successful businessman who sold his massive real estate business for $613 million in 2008. He married his wife Marianne in 1965 and they have five children, including four daughters. Staubach earned the nickname of Captain America and was considered such a role model he was frequently chided about being a square — in comparison to a more flamboyant contemporary like Joe Namath.
“Darn it,” Roger complained during a CBS interview that tweaked his pristine image. “I enjoy sex as much as Joe Namath, only I do it with one girl. It’s still fun.”
Ohio has also produced racial pioneers from the sport’s earliest days. Wooster’s Charles Follis became the first black professional by signing a contract with the Shelby Blues on Sept. 15, 1904. Sadly, it didn’t last.
Just a few years later, Sept, 17, 1920, the NFL was founded in a Canton garage by Jim Thorpe and a group of owners of the American Professional Football Association. The first NFL game took place on Oct. 3, 1920, with Columbus playing at Dayton.
In fact, five of the league’s charter members were Ohio teams, the Canton Bulldogs, Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Cleveland Indians and Akron Pros. At one point, Portsmouth had a pro team, the Spartans, who just missed the 1931 and 1932 NFL titles. They later became the Detroit Lions.
Unfortunately, a color barrier evolved and was not broken for good until Canton’s Marion Motley, and Bill Willis, of Columbus, signed with the Cleveland Browns on Aug. 10, 1946.
Steubenville’s iconic lineman Calvin Jones became the first black man to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated on Sept. 27, 1954. Unfortunately, his story ends in tragic fashion, too. After a bizarre recruitment led him to a spectacular career at Iowa (and the Outland Trophy), Jones decided to pursue the road less traveled in the Canadian Football League. As a rookie, Jones made the CFL’s postseason all-star game, but was killed in a plane crash in the Canadian Rockies.
So huge was Jones’ image, his college coach simply couldn’t believe his Ohio star was gone.
“I can’t help but feel that if anyone could come through such a desperate situation, it would be Calvin Jones,” Iowa coach Forest Evashevski said.
Another coach, Ohio native Paul Brown, was instrumental in shattering pro football’s color barrier with Motley and Willis. But trailblazing was nothing new for him. Brown made his mark at Massillon High School, where he won multiple national championships and revolutionized the sport with a coaching staff, equipment upgrades, scouting reports, and even the presence of marching bands, booster clubs and cheerleaders.
He went on to claim the 1942 national championship at Ohio State and three NFL titles with the Cleveland Browns.
Brown could draw inspiration from his home state.
Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne and his college teammate Gus Dorais spent their summer of 1913 working at Cedar Point and perfecting the forward pass in their spare time. That tactic led to a monumental upset of Army in the ensuing season, thrusting the Fighting Irish into the national limelight for good. A permanent sign was recently planted on the shores of Lake Erie, marking the spot in Sandusky where Rockne and Dorais practiced.
In those days, college football had the top spot in the sport, and Ohio had a comet of a superstar for the era — Chic Harley. A three-time All-American, Harley led Ohio State to multiple Big Ten titles, and was a three-time All-American. Sports Illustrated theorized had the award existed, Harley would’v won two and possibly three Heismans.
Yet mental illness derailed Harley’s pro career before it really got started with George Halas and the Chicago Staleys.
Ohio’s contribution to the college game features two members of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen (Massillon’s Harry Stuhldreher and Don Miller of Defiance), legacy players like Archie Griffin, Frank Sinkwich, Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz, Dick Kazmaier, Howard “Hopalong Cassady,” Desmond Howard, Bernie Kosar, Chris Spielman, Orlando Pace and Charles Woodson.
It’s elite coaching fraternity includes Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, Lou Holtz, Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer, among many others.
Even those that may have little interest in football could be an unwitting fan of an Ohio great. Those who read the comic strip Doonesbury are no doubt familiar with the character D.B. The inspiration for that individual was Cleveland St. Ignatius quarterback Brian Dowling, who went on to a brilliant career at Yale.
Dowling never lost a high school or college game that he started and finished. His exploits are the stuff of borderline fiction, and transfixed a classmate named Gary Trudeau, who created D.B. in Dowling’s honor.
Such stories have made for a rich history that adds chapters every year. Over the next two weeks we’ll take a closer look at those individuals that have made the biggest impact in the sport beyond their Ohio high school roots.
After all, the next chapter begins this fall.
Those interested in learning more about Ohio’s football history are strongly encouraged to purchase Ohio’s Autumn Legends, Volume I & Volume II, by Larry Phillips. Both editions come in Kindle, paperback and hardback, and all are available at Amazon.com.