EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is Part 9 in a 12-part series on Ohio’s historic football personalities. The series began on Aug. 5. It continued on Aug. 6, Aug. 7, Aug. 8, Aug. 9, Aug. 10, Aug. 11. and Aug. 12.
No one had ever seen anything quite like Pete Henry in Mansfield. The son of Ulysses and Bertha Frank Henry was born on Oct. 31, 1898. He carried a heavy build throughout his life, and was frequently called “Fats.”
But his athletic gifts were the stuff of legend. He was the Paul Bunyan of his day with incredible strength, surprising quickness, startling footspeed, and agility that seemed almost unnatural for someone of his girth.
“Henry made several fierce tackles behind the line, throwing the runners back for losses,” the Mansfield News reported after the 6-0 victory over the Whippets.
The Tygers were just 4-7, and the team was worse his junior year, staggering to a 2-7 mark, with Henry as the lone threat. He had two toucdhowns in a 44-0 victory over Medina, but it wasn’t enough to save coach Roscoe Roy Siedell’s job.
Henry R. Patton took over and recognized that Henry in the backfield could also be a powerful lead blocker. The senior standout’s leadership, running ability and kicking performances fueled the Tygers to an 8-1 record. One of the season’s highlights was Henry’s 50-yard fumble return against Bucyrus in a 13-8 win.
“Mr. Henry was the star attraction. He plays fullback and he needed no number on his back to designate him, as he weighs 212 pounds and is all athlete,” the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum reported.
In its rivalry game with Toledo Waite, the Tygers were poised for revenge from an 88-0 beating they received the previous season. Henry scored three touchdowns in a 31-7 reversal.
“Individual honors in the game went to Captain Henry, who played most brilliantly,” the Mansfield News reported. “Time and again the big fullback carried the ball through for big gains and Toledo appeared powerless to stop him.”
Henry capped his high school career with a TD and an interception in a 59-0 blowout of Ashland.
Today he would be a national recruit, a strong Mr. Football candidate, and taking visits to colleges across the country. But Henry feared he would be stuck on the line at a football powerhouse, and wanted to carry the ball. His plan was to inspire a small school to take a chance on him in the backfield, so he cast his lot with Washington & Jefferson College in Pittsburgh. The Presidents were a solid football school, and finished second in the nation in scoring offense in 1914.
But his scheme was scuttled on the first day of practice when coach Bob Folwell looked at Henry’s 220-pound bulk and made a snap decision that shaped a Hall of Fame career.
“Henry, you’re a tackle!” Fowler exclaimed.
Henry came off the bench in his first game as a freshman, but started every contest thereafter, including a 16-7 upset at Yale on Oct. 23, 1915.
As a sophomore, he made several All-American teams and by 1917 his national reputation was cemented as a consensus All-American, joining fellow Ohioan Chic Harley of Ohio State on most lists.
In 1918, World War I made for a lax schedule and college football struggled through an uneven season, although Henry was again an All-American on the lists that existed. Since that campaign was so short, Henry was granted an extra year of eligibility in 1919. Yet arch-rival Pitt declared it would not play Washington & Jefferson if Henry were in the lineup. Despite competing against other fifth-year seniors, the Panthers wanted no part of Pete.
Henry didn’t play, and Pitt won the game 7-6. Fats’ supporters deluged Panther fans with flyers that read “Who Scared Pitt?” on the front, and a mug shot with one word on the back, “Henry!”
Not only was Henry the nation’s best kicker, he was also a most effective kick blocker. He blocked a punt and returned it 45 yards for a score at Westminster on Oct. 18, 1919, and blocked another punt in a 13-0 upset of Syracuse, in what he considered his most thrilling collegiate game.
“Beyond all question, you have just witnessed the greatest punt-blocker of all time in action,” noted no less an authority than John Heisman.
As there was no pro football draft at the time, Henry became the hottest free agent name available. His desire was to play with Jim Thorpe, and close to home, which made the Canton Bulldogs a perfect fit. When he signed a contract on Sept. 17, 1920, it was headline news in both Canton newspapers.
“Giant Tackle Casts Football Fortunes Here; Henry Comes Into Kennel of Bulldogs,” the Canton Daily News blared.
At the bottom of that story was a footnote about Thorpe founding the American Professional Football Association. Two years later the league was renamed the NFL. Ironically, today the NFL is the most successful professional sports league in North America.
“(Pete Henry was) the greatest lineman of all time and one of the most remarkable performers ever seen on a gridiron,” proclaimed Walter Camp, who fashioned the first and most prestigious All-America teams.
Camp’s opinion was the consensus of the day, and was shared by the nation’s foremost sportswriter, Grantland Rice.
“The greatest of all tackles, according to old-timers who still remember, was ‘Fats’ Henry,” Rice wrote. “He was a human rubber ball.”
Pete was an all-league tackle as a rookie, All-Pro his first five years in the game, and one historian made the case he could’ve been NFL MVP in 1923 if the award existed at the time. At 235 pounds, he was a man among boys at the highest level of the sport.
In 1922, Buffalo, quarterback and player-coach Tommy Hughitt determined to run right at Henry.
“Everyone rack him up at once. We’ll show him whose boss!” Hughitt said, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Buffalo lineman Lou Little, who later coached at Columbia, picked up the violent scene from there.
“This proved to be a bad mistake. Henry met the (first) play head-on. Using those huge hands of his and his tremendous, active body as only he could, Henry telescoped (end Heinie) Miller, myself, and (guard Swede Youngstrom), hurling the three of us into Lud Wray, our center, Little said.
“Then he plowed through and hit Hughitt, the ball carrier, like one of those baby tanks. Needless to say, the plays went around the other side of the line for the rest of the game.”
Henry’s domination on both lines of scrimmage and his tremendous kicking led the Bulldogs to the 1922 and 1923 NFL championships. In 1923 he finished second in the NFL scoring chase with 59 points. Pete scored in a variety of ways with nine field goals and an NFL-best 26 PATs.
Canton boasted a 25-game unbeaten streak during this stretch, outscoring foes 430-36. While history identifies Thorpe with the Bulldogs, he had already left the club by this time. Thorpe wasn’t part of either NFL championship, nor the league-best 25-game unbeaten streak, which is still a record.
An injury-marred 1927 season saw Henry divide time between the New York Giants and Pottsville Maroons. He finished his career as Pottsville’s player-coach in 1928 at the age of 31.
Later he was athletics director at Washington & Jefferson and eventually died of diabetes at home on Feb. 7, 1952.
In 1951, Henry was part of the 53-man inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1963, 11 years after his death, he was one of 17 men in the first class inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That makes Henry one of only eight men, and the only Ohioan, to be a charter member of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, joining Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Don Hutson, Bronko Nagurski, Sammy Baugh, Ernie Nevers and Dutch Clark.
Like so many linemen who followed him, Pete’s brilliance was lost in time.
In 1953, a group of Pete’s Mansfield Senior classmates approached the school to name its new gym for Henry. The board of education obliged and when a new school was built in 2004, its gym retained his name.
When Henry died, Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph sports editor Harry Keck wrote, “For all his poundage, he was speedy and amazingly mobile. He was immensely popular with teammates and opponents alike, and I can still see his chuckling, dimpled smiles. Playing football never was tough for him, rather it was child’s play.”
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.