Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Michigan's National Champions

Only one school in Michigan can lay claim to a national high school football championship.    Of course, the honor is mythical, as it has not been proven through defined organized competition.  Like college football before the establishment of the Bowl Championship Series, (and one can strongly argue, even after the founding of the BCS), a national title has always been purely conjecture.
            The school? Despite leading the state in all-time football victories, it's not Muskegon High. Nor is it perennial gridiron powers, Farmington Hills Harrison, Birmingham Brother Rice, or Detroit Catholic Central.
            Surprising to most, it is Detroit Central.  The year?  1915.
Detroit Central High School.  Some will recognize the building, now known as "Old Main" on southwest corner of the intersection of Cass and Warren Ave, on the campus of Wayne State University.
            Actually, Detroit Central can claim the honor twice.  The 1904 team defeated Toledo (OH) Central 6 to 5 in what some historians consider the first-ever contest to determine a national high school championship.  However, skeptics will note that the opponent was from a short distance away, and that the next such contest was not played until 1908.  Because of this, most lists of national prep football champions begin in 1910.
           It is competitive human nature to want to know who is the “best.”  With the rapid rise in popularity of the high school football in the early 1900’s came the natural outgrowth of declaring championships.  Claims of county or regional titles grew to declarations of mythical state titles.  The next step, of course, was a national championship.
Like today, the pursuit of prep national honors was loosely based around an undefeated record in regular season competition in these early days.  However because of the abundance of teams claiming such honors, things began to change in 1910.
Oak Park (IL) High, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, earned a reputation as a national football power during this era.  Backed by a community interested in gaining national bragging rights, the team traveled from coast-to-coast in pursuit of this honor.  Under the guidance of coach Bob Zuppke, a former head coach at Muskegon, Oak Park traveled coast-to-coast to defend claims of national titles in 1910, 1911 and 1912. 
In 1912, Oak Park tutored Everett (MA) High School, a national powerhouse from the greater Boston area, in the open style of play ushered in by the integration of the forward pass in the game.  Zuppke’s squad won the contest 32-14, and the coach landed head coach duties at the University of Illinois shortly after the season.
            Everett rebounded with a national championship of their own in 1914, capping a perfect 13-0 record by defeating their Midwestern rivals from Oak Park, 80-0.  Coached by future Purdue University mentor Cleo O’Donnell, the squad did not allow a single point during the season, while racking up an incredible 600 points of their own.
            In Michigan, Detroit Central had earned a reputation as one of the top programs in the state.  Between 1903 and 1916, rather than face teams from the city, Central opted to play a schedule dominated by the best opposition from around the state and the Midwest.  Between 1910 and 1914, Central possessed three undefeated seasons and an outstanding 42-3-2 mark.
            The 1915 season was expected to be another strong one for the Blue and White.  Undefeated in 10 contests in 1914, the school returned a solid core of veterans.  However, the single question mark was the line.  Ward Culver, the team’s center and captain, was to lead an inexperienced group into battle. 
            That question was quickly put to rest as the team dispatched their first three opponents with ease.  Pontiac was soundly defeated in the opener, 68-0, followed by Toledo (OH) Waite, 89-0 and Grand Rapids Union, 81-0.  Week four brought Scott High, a perennial powerhouse from Toledo to town, but again Central rolled to a convincing victory.  A Thursday game with Detroit Northwestern was won 25-0.  Their next opponent, Ypsilanti, was expected to provide little opposition, and head coach Edbert Buss substituted the second-string early, in an attempt to preserve his starters for Central’s showdown with Muskegon the following week.  The strategy nearly backfired. Still, Central escaped with a 13-7.
            Entering the contest with an undefeated record, Muskegon certainly presented a threat to Central’s unblemished mark.  Muskegon had downed Central in both 1908 and 1912, and the pending challenge was taken very seriously by staff of the Blue and White.  Coach Buss enlisted assistance from a host of individuals, in preparation for the game, considered by the press as the battle that would determine ownership of the state’s interscholastic football crown. George C. Paterson, a Central alum and ex-University of Michigan football captain, George Lawton, a fullback at the University of Michigan in 1910, (later a renown prep referee and author of the Detroit Free Press All-State teams), and former Central head coach William Stocking were assembled to discuss strategy and assist with team practices.
Quarterback Oscar “Dutch” Hendrian, the team’s top player, plunged through center in the last minute of the first quarter to cap a 65-yard drive as the Blue and White opened up a 7-0 lead.  The game remained tight throughout the second and third quarters before the 5-foot-9 Hendrian broke loose for two more touchdowns.  Central scored three times in the final quarter to capture a convincing 28-0 win over their longtime rivals.
Saginaw was disposed of in fast fashion the following week and the team went about preparation for their match with Grand Rapids Central.  Meanwhile, Detroit Central’s athletic director began to inquire about post-season battles with other undefeated squads.
With a crushing 54-0 win over the “Furniture City” squad from Grand Rapids and in the regular season finale against Ann Arbor, the media pronounced Detroit Central as the rightful claimant to the mythical state title in the Wolverine state, and the chase for national recognition was on. 
“Central is mighty anxious to prove her right to that national title, too, and to that end is willing to meet anybody, anywhere and at any time,” it was noted in the Detroit Free Press.  “The Detroit school’s challenge includes the world and any public high school that cares to get a game will have no trouble whatever so long as reasonable financial arrangements can be made.”
The 1915 Detroit Central's team
            A game was scheduled with Oak Park to settle the championship of the middle western states.  Letters were sent to teams from New York, Ohio and to the reigning national champs from Everett in hopes of arranging a championship meeting, provided, of course, that Oak Park was defeated.
Everett officials discussed the idea and finally agreed to the game, scheduled for December 4 in Detroit.  Everett coach Cleo O’Donnell went about preparing his team for their season finale, to be played against Waltham, MA at Fenway Park in Boston.  A loss in the contest would cancel the trip west.
Coach Buss primed his squad for their Thanksgiving Day game with Oak Park’s team.
Although Central had to play most of the game without the services of Hendrian for the majority of the contest, Buss’ squad rolled to a 26-0 halftime lead and a convincing 39-7 win over the Illinois team.  With Hendrian tossed from the match for an alteration with an Oak Park player, the Blue and White relied on the running of Wayne Brenkert.  The fullback gained solid yardage behind the blocking of guard Don Straw and captain Culver, as well as on end sweeps to the delight of the crowd of 7,000 that packed Grindley field.
Central’s victory, combined with Everett’s 6-0 win over Waltham, set the stage for a December 4th showdown for the national championship.  
The 1915 squad from Everett, MA
The media frenzy began in earnest.  Ten days worth of coverage on the pending game could be found in newspapers across the state.  News of the contest attracted attention around the nation.  Detroit’s three daily papers, the Free Press, the Times and the News cranked out daily reports on game preparations, scouting reports, and Everett history and hype.  Photos of various members of the Everett team populated the sports sections. Rosters with heights and weights added additional fodder for consumption by the local sports fan.
            “The Everett-Central contest is the ‘talk of the town.’  Never has there been such enthusiasm evidenced over a football match as Saturday’s grappling on Navin field,” noted a Free Press article.  “Not even in the old U of M games with Carlisle and Illinois which were determined on the present site of Navin field was there such general intensity expressed as over the big schools clashing for the supremacy of the United States.”
The New England team’s strengths and weaknesses were prominently discussed. News came that coach O’Donnell, a graduate of Holy Cross, had molded a “veritable stonewall” on the line, led by captain Karl “Pike” Johnson, and that Everett had racked up 404 points in 11 victories, while allowing only 3. It was also noted that Everett would “letter” the players, rather than use the conventional identification of numbers on the backs of the jerseys.
            The press reports did not shake Coach Buss or the supporters of Central.  Rather, the team continued serious preparation, receiving assistance at their workouts from University of Michigan’s legendary mentor Fielding Yost and Detroit Tiger trainer Harry Tuthill, among others.  The general consensus was that this would be a tight ballgame matching two strong teams.
Everett Coach Cleo O'Donnell
            Back in Massachusetts, Coach O’Donnell gathered his squad for a final practice before boarding the train on Thursday for the trip to Detroit.  Special emphasis was placed on “polishing off the linemen and backfield players who executed their plays so crudely against Waltham.”  The team was released from school at 11:00 to allow them to “bid their parents goodbye, while the entire student body was allowed out at 1 o’clock, which gave those who wanted to watch the team depart for the west ample time to reach the South station.”  According to a Free Press headline, the Everett team left Boston “On ‘Jinx’ Track 13.
The elite of game officials, including the legendary University of Chicago all-American Walter Eckersall, who served at field judge, arrived at Navin Field.  At 2:15 under bright skies, a crowd of around 8,000 settled in for the showdown.  Although cold, ideal weather conditions prevailed, and with the field cleared of snow, the turf had softened under the bright sunshine.
The game turned into a defense struggle.  An early fumble by Central gave Everett an opportunity, but the visitors from the East were repelled at the Central 15 yard line.  On three separate occasions, Everett held Central within her ten-yard line.  Despite dominating the time of possession, Central could not score, and the game ended in a scoreless tie.  National honors were shared by the two schools.
At a post-game banquet, captain Culver presented the game ball to Everett’s captain, Pike Johnson, as a symbol and bond of friendship.  But the meeting was the last between the schools, and represented the last trip to a national title contest for both.  Only six more “National Championship Games”, the last in 1927.  The formation of statewide Athletic Associations and a general tightening of the regulations that governed prep sports helped curtail these contests staged primarily for bragging rights and the possibility of a large gate for the promoters of such events.
The reputations of at least a few members of the teams were enhanced by the contest and the surrounding media spotlight.   Following the season, O’Donnell, considered one of the finest prep coaches in the nation, was selected to lead Purdue University in the fall of 1916.  He would stay in that position for two seasons and later coach at Holy Cross and St Aneslm College in New Hampshire.  Buss made the jump to the college ranks at head coach at DePauw.  He would again square off against O’Donnell in a gridiron games against Purdue in both 1916 and 1917. 
Brenkert from Central continued his playing days in college at Washington and Jefferson, then for two seasons in the early days of the professional ranks with the Akron Pros, one of the founding members of the National Football League.  Teammate Oscar "Dutch" Hendrian followed Buss to DePauw before transfering to Princeton.  He also played in the early days of the NFL, and later moved to Hollywood, where he carved out a career playing small roles in over 100 films.  Fittingly, he played the roll of assistant coach Heartley “Hunk” Anderson in the 1940 release, Knute Rockne All-American starring Pat O’Brien and Ronald Reagan. 
Karl “Pike” Johnson attended Washington and Lee in Virginia then played professional ball, earning All-Pro honors as a tackle with Massillon in the Ohio Football League, a predecessor of the NFL. 

~ Ron Pesch