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Showdown at Soldier Field - The "Rock" versus the "Head Man"

Squeezed-in with a bunch of old documents and photos, I noticed a faded brown envelope in my late father’s gray metal file box.  At the top of the envelope, in my dad’s printing, were the notations, “N.D. - S. CAL.”  I pulled-it-out, opened it, and looked inside.
The first thing I saw appeared to be an "Irish" green banner folded into a rectangle.  It looked old, and the words on it were not immediately apparent.  I carefully took-it-out of the envelope and as I touched it, I realized it was probably made using some type of silkscreen process. 

As I unfolded it, the black-ink words on the green background quickly became apparent:  OFFICIAL COURIER - NOTRE DAME vs SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA - SOLDIER FIELD, CHICAGO - NOV. 26, 1927.  

I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but then it occurred to me that it might be an armband.  I wrapped it around my left arm and it fit with a little room to spare.  It even had an old rusty safety pin on one end and I could see it had been used to pin the two ends together.


Checking the envelope again, I noticed something else - a faded green “OFFICIAL COURIER” identification tag. 

It had the same information as the armband, along with some handwritten notations which appeared to read, “assigned to Ireland. Inspector.” 


At the top of the tag was a hole with a string attached to it - perhaps to tie it to a shirt button or coat zipper.

Although I knew nothing about this game over 80 years ago, I was determined to find-out.  After all, this was like a snapshot of a moment in my dad’s life

As I came to learn, the 1927 gridiron battle between arch-rivals Notre Dame and the University of Southern California (USC) was not only a history-making college football event, it involved some fascinating behind-the-scenes intrigue, and a victory mired in controversy.  

In true Chicago fashion, this game set the all-time single-game college football attendance record in what was the first time ever that a major West Coast team had visited Soldier Field.  And, it pitted against each other, two of the most heralded college football coaches of all time - Notre Dame’s immortal Knute Rockne, and USC’s legendary Howard “Head Man” Jones.

38914v-5 Although unique in itself, the 1927 game was actually the second match-up of the two teams; the first was the year before in Los Angeles.  That first game began an annual tradition of football rivalry that continues to this very day.

To really appreciate this ongoing rivalry, some history about the origin of the Notre Dame - USC series is in order.  However, the origin of the series - and its first game in 1926, remains a matter of some debate.

In what might be called the “romanticized” account, we can thank Bonnie Rockne, Knute’s wife, for getting the series started.  This account is based on the recollections of Gwynn Wilson, who in 1925 was graduate manager of USC’s Trojan football team.  Wilson’s recollections are recounted in Cameron Applegate's well-written and nicely illustrated book, The Game Is On - Notre Dame vs USC - A Fifty Year History.  
According to Wilson’s account, the momentum began in late November 1925, when Wilson [accompanied by his wife,
Marion], traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska to approach Rockne for the purpose of discussing a game.  After a brief encounter at the Lincoln Hotel and with no time to talk, Rockne told Wilson he’d arranged for him and his wife to ride back on the Notre Dame team train to Chicago so they could discuss things.  In the meantime, Rockne got the Wilsons a couple of tickets so they could see the Notre Dame - Nebraska game, which the Irish ended-up losing 17-0 during a Midwestern snow storm.

The Game is On-1

After the game, the Wilsons spent the night on the train, and in the morning joined the Rocknes in the dining car for breakfast.  Despite Gwynn Wilson’s efforts to get right to the point, Rockne continually maneuvered all conversations back to the subject of Notre Dame’s trials and tribulations, avoiding any serious discussion about a game with USC. 

When Wilson was finally able to pin-him-down, to Wilson’s dismay, Rockne said “no” to a game.  Rockne explained to Wilson that he and the team were tired of traveling all over the country and they wanted to play more games at home.  Rockne also mentioned that due to all their traveling, the team had been given the nickname, “Rockne’s Ramblers,” which Knute didn't at all like.

Rockne and Wilson said their goodbyes as the train was pulling into Chicago.  He told Wilson maybe they could play in a couple years, just not next year.  Wilson returned to his seat and watched as Rockne went back to his compartment to meet his wife, Bonnie.

Unbeknownst to Rockne, behind the scenes his wife Bonnie and Marion Wilson had become fast friends during the train trip.  They discussed the possibility of a visit to Southern California and Bonnie liked the idea - and she was sure Knute would too.  Shortly before the train stopped, Rockne came out of his compartment, made his way down to Wilson, sat-down opposite him, and with “kind of sheepish grin on his face,” asked Wilson to tell him about the game again.
Afterwards, Rockne promised to call Wilson once he cleared the game with Notre Dame’s president, Father Matthew
Walsh.  The next day, Wilson got a call from Rockne telling him, “the game is on.” 

 However, in Murray Sperber’s meticulously researched and documented book, Shake Down the Thunder - The Creation of Notre Dame Football, Sperber questions this sentimental “little-woman-behind-the-Great-man anecdote.”  (In writing his book, Sperber had the use of Knute Rockne’s voluminous private correspondence which had been stored undisturbed in the university library’s basement since Rockne’s death.)   

Shake Down Thunder2-1In his book, Sperber explains in detail why he believes the Wilson account ignores the realities of how Notre Dame’s athletic board and coach scheduled the games in the 1920s.  He cites the complicated negotiations involved and the monetary guarantees necessary for Notre Dame to seriously consider a match-up, all of which run contrary to Wilson’s simplistic account.  Sperber also notes that Rockne never mentioned his wife or anyone else’s wife in his letter to USC confirming the scheduling of the first game.

Further, Sperber indicates that during the research for his book, he found no evidence that anyone from Notre Dame, including Bonnie Rockne, ever told the Wilson anecdote during their lifetimes.

Worth mentioning - although it is difficult to say what significance should be attached to it, is the lack of any reference to the Wilson anecdote in Knute Rockne’s unfinished autobiography.  Rockne’s autobiography is incorporated into the book, Knute Rockne - His Life and Legend, compiled by Robert Quakenbush and Mike Bynum.   Actually [as revealed in Sperber’s Shake Down the Thunder], Rockne’s autobiography was derived from a series of eight articles written for Collier’s National Weekly magazine in 1930 by Rockne’s ghostwriter, John B. Kennedy. 

Sperber is of the opinion that Kennedy composed the Collier's articles in his own literary style based on his research of articles written-by and about Rockne, and based on conversations with the coach himself.  Rockne then proofread the articles and made editorial suggestions, although [Sperber makes a solid case that] the constraints of the coach’s demanding schedule left Rockne little time to thoroughly scrutinize the articles before they were actually published.

Autobiography-1As fate would have it, no one could have foreseen that Rockne would die in an airplane crash the following year and the Collier’s articles would suddenly morph into the coach’s autobiography.  As a result, some of Kennedy’s factual errors and “historical fiction” have taken root as part of the Rockne legend.  Thus, a caveat is in order should you decide to read Rockne’s unfinished autobiography.  The words you read may not have been originally written or spoken by the coach himself, and [even though this story references accounts from the autobiography] those words should not be blindly accepted as Rockne’s verbatim recollections.
But getting back to Wilson’s anecdote, some might consider it a bit harsh to totally discount Gwynn Wilson’s recollection of
events leading-up to the enduring series.  After all, why would he fabricate such an intricate story?  Isn’t there usually some thread of truth in every story? 

Unfortunately, this appears to be one of those instances in which it is no longer possible to distinguish the “truth,” from what’s left-over after the truth has been subjected to that ageless human foible of embellishment.  

Although the origin of the Notre Dame - USC series is debatable, there is no doubt that the first game of the series was played on December 4, 1926, in front of about 77,000 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  And, although Rockne’s unfinished autobiography [in Knute Rockne - His Life and Legend] makes no mention of how the series came about, there is a reference to the first game’s “melodrama.” Permit me to paraphrase Rockne's autobiographical account . . .

With Notre Dame ahead 7-6, but exhausted from the heat, Southern Cal’s tailback penetrated the Irish line and scored with a little over four minutes left to play.  A failed extra-point kick left the score at 12-7 in Southern Cal’s favor.  After both Notre Dame and Southern Cal failed to score in a subsequent set of downs, Southern Cal punted the ball back to the Irish. 

Art Parisien-1 Rockne observed that Notre Dame’s substitute quarterback had an air of resignation as if all hope were gone, although the remaining ten players were “still trying, giving the best of themselves.”  Quickly evaluating the situation, Rockne turned to Art Parisien, a little French quarterback who had been injured during the year and hadn’t played since.  By the time Rockne finished asking Parisien if he could try a couple of his left-handed pass plays and maybe still “pull the game out of the fire,” Parisien had already put-on his headgear and was running onto the field.

Confidently, Parisien took the ball on Notre Dame’s 30-yard line with a little over a minute left to play.  The crowd was apathetic and some were leaving, thinking it was all over.  On the first play, Parisien spun and shot through center for eight yards.  Taking a time out, Parisien imbued his eagerness on his teammates. 

On the next play, Parisien spun and sprinted out of a mass of players, and with a left-handed flick, completed a 30-yard pass to halfback John Niemiec.  Then, a pass-off to Niemiec for a wide end run gained no yardage, but set-up position for the following play. 

With 30 seconds left to play, Parisien barked-out the signals, took the ball, sprinted through a mass of players, and again with a left-handed flick, completed another 30-yard pass to Niemiec who crossed the goal line for the winning touchdown.  The final score, 13-12.


By the way, if Marion "Duke" Morrison hadn’t injured his shoulder body surfing in Southern California prior to the start of the 1926 season, he might have played as tackle for the Trojans in this game.  Unfortunately, he did not play much, if at all, during the1926 season and quit afterwards.  Fortunately, he managed to get a job at Fox Studios, did some prop and stunt work, and later made good as an actor known as John Wayne.

The second game of the series on November 26, 1927, was the history-making spectacle at Chicago’s Soldier Field.  Not only did it mark the first visit to Soldier Field by a major West Coast team, it was the last game of Notre Dame’s 1927 season. 

The Irish were determined to end the season on a positive note after losing an earlier “climax” game to their chief rival, Army.  The game with Army took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium where over 80,000 fans - including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, watched the Kaydets beat the Irish 18-0.  After their game with Army, the Irish played Drake in Des Moines and gave them a trouncing, 32-0.  Then, it was off to Soldier Field. 

At the time of their meeting in Soldier Field, Notre Dame’s season record was 6-1-1 (having tied Minnesota, which finished their 1927 season with a 6-0-2 record), and Southern California’s record was 7-0-1 (having tied Stanford, which finished their 1927 season with a strong 8-2-1 record following their National Championship win the prior year). 

For reasons unknown, there is no reference to the November 1927 game in Rockne’s autobiography.  Nevertheless, the game’s publicity attracted the attention of everyone who was anyone.  More than 4,000 Californians, including Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, made their way to the game.  They were welcomed by a committee headed by Chicago’s corrupt “open city” Prohibition mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, along with Illinois’ [non-quite-as-corrupt] governor, Len Small, and the controversial but incorruptible vice president of the United States, Charles Dawes - a Nobel Peace Prize winner and long-time Chicagoan.  

An excerpt from the Chicago Daily Tribune (hereafter the “Tribune”) summed-up the nature of the crowd this way: “Not all of the boxes were occupied by notables and society folk, for the gangsters and detectives called off their shootings until after the game and were out in almost full force except for a few, who didn’t have tickets and were left in jail, but all the ‘big shot hoodlums’ were there, behaving just like gentlemen.”  

Apparently still enthused about seeing their friend Knute and the Fighting Irish, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig also made the game at Soldier Field.  The Tribune printed a standalone photo of the two “home run wizards of the baseball world” dressed sharply in their hats, ties and overcoats, and seemingly intent on watching the game.

Following the game, the Tribune’s headline proclaimed, “Record Crowd of 117,000,” and the newspaper published a photo spread of the sardine-packed crowd in Soldier Field that afternoon.  (Other sources would report the game’s attendance as high as 123,000-plus.)  Up until this game, the all-time collegiate attendance record of 110,000 was attributed to the 1926 Army-Navy game, which coincidentally was also played at Soldier Field. 

The Saturday afternoon game began at 1:30 p.m. under a cloudy sky hinting at rain.  But by halftime the sky cleared, bringing sunshine and a balmy temperature in the low 60s.  The game got-off to a fast start and initially it appeared that Southern Cal might romp over the Irish.  Largely due to the efforts of Southern Cal’s team captain, Morley Drury, the Trojans scored first.  Drury’s short running gains and a completed touchdown pass to halfback Russell Saunders on Notre Dame’s goal line put Southern Cal ahead 6-0. 

However, a low hike to Saunders hampered the ball’s placement and Drury was unable to kick the extra point.  After back-to-back unsuccessful possessions by both teams, Notre Dame again took control of the ball on their own 48 yard line.  Through a combined running attack by quarterback Charles Riley and halfback Christy Flanagan, Notre Dame drove to the 28 yard line.  From there, Riley passed to halfback Ray Dahman over the Southern Cal goal line for a touchdown.  Dahman kicked the extra point and the Fighting Irish took the lead, 7-6. 

Within the first 10 minutes, each team had scored.  But from then-on, it became a battle of the lines, punctuated by occasional short smashing runs, crushing tackles, tactical punts, and passes thrown with hopeful abandon.  Despite threatened scoring by both teams during the remainder of the game, no points transpired and the final score was 7-6, with Notre Dame victorious.  

When all was said and done, statistically Notre Dame scraped-out 11 first downs to Southern Cal’s eight and the Irish gained 199 yards from scrimmage compared to 137 for the Trojans.  In the air, the Irish completed two forward passes for 31 yards versus the Trojans’ three completions for 18 yards.  Notre Dame was penalized four times for a total of 20 yards and the Trojans twice for the same total yardage.


Despite Notre Dame’s win on paper, the third quarter was marred by an official’s decision which USC Captain Morley Drury later said [and coach Howard "Head Man" Jones would concur] caused Southern Cal “to be robbed of a victory.” 

 The Trojans had driven the ball deep into Notre Dame territory to about the 23 yard line. On fourth down and nine, Drury dropped back and threw a forward pass.  Notre Dame’s Charles Riley leaped into the air to intercept the ball at about his own 4 yard line.  As Riley came down to the ground, he began to move upfield two or three steps towards his own goal.  Just then, he was hit by a driving tackle knocking the ball loose and causing it to spurt into the end zone and roll across the end line where a Trojan fell on it. 

Immediately, Southern Cal began yelling “touchdown, touchdown” - until umpire John Schommer informed them it could only be a safety or a touchback.  Then, the Trojans called for a safety - which would have given them two points and the lead, 8-7.  

After conferring with the team captains and the field judge, Schommer ruled that Riley did not have possession and control of the ball at the time he was tackled, and therefore the play was a touchback.  Thus, the ball was brought out to Notre Dame’s 20 yard line and put back into play by the Irish.  The score remained, Notre Dame 7, Southern California 6. 

Following the game, the controversy surrounding the call heated-up.  A couple days after the game, Schommer issued a written statement explaining his decision and it was carried in the November 30th Tribune.  

In summary, Schommer’s statement read: “Riley intercepted the pass . . . took two or three steps towards his own goal and was struck by California tacklers on about the 4 yard line.  The ball shot forward, struck between the goal line and the end line, then rolled across the end line. Then a California player fell on the ball . . . the play was either a safety or a touchback depending on possession and control of the ball by the receiver after the pass . . . I called the captains and [John] Griffith, the field judge . . . The disappearance of the ball from sight allowed me but guesswork as to possession and control.  There was only one official that could justly rule, and that was the field judge who was facing the play.  He gave his decision with courage and promptness, declaring ‘not possession and control.’  Therefore, I ruled a touchback.

But any support Schommer might have expected of Griffith wasn’t forthcoming.  (At the time, “Major” John Griffith was also the commissioner of the “Big Ten” conference.)  The Tribune reported on December 1st that Griffith was the last of the four game officials to issue a statement. 

In summary, Griffith’s statement read: “Schommer is absolutely wrong when he says he asked for my opinion before making his ruling that Riley’s play was a touchback and not a safety . . . I was to the right when Riley intercepted the pass . . . As the play happened in my territory I followed it up.  As Riley came down after reaching for the ball I thought he had possession of it.  He turned his back to me and took several steps, during which I could not see whether he had possession or not.  Then the ball fell free.  When I saw the ball fumbled I followed it up with the idea of a safety in mind.  Then when it was over, Schommer came running up to me . . . [and] said, ‘touchback - Notre Dame did not have possession and control’ . . . I figured that Schommer had seen more than I did . . . I replied ‘O.K.’ . . . I certainly did not make any ruling . . .”

Coincidentally, the next day - December 2nd, John Schommer happened to attend the Commonwealth Club’s annual football banquet held at the Palmer House Hotel.  There, his controversial decision resulted in his “roasting” by a number of guest speakers among the 300 or so attendees present, many of whom were prominent Midwest and Eastern football coaches. In response to his roasting, Schommer got-up and made his first public statement regarding the decision.  Don Maxwell of the Tribune was there covering the event. 

In his December 3rd column, Maxwell reported how Schommer told the crowd he saw Riley jump, grab the ball, turn in the air, and come down and take three or four steps toward his own goal line.  Schommer told of seeing Riley tackled and the ball spurting over the goal line and rolling across the end line.  He said some of Southern Cal’s players were yelling “touchdown, touchdown,” and he told them the play could only be a safety or a touchback.  He then took the ball to the 20 yard line and held a conference with the two team captains and the field judge, John Griffith.

Maxwell quoted Schommer as saying, “And I’ll tell you the crux of the whole ruling . . . Did Riley have possession and control of the ball?  I could not say.  But there was one official there who could . . . the field judge.  I asked him . . . and he answered, ‘No possession, no control.’  He said it then and he said it in the dressing room.  ‘No possession, no control.’  And that, gentlemen, is why I ruled that play a touchback."

As a Tribune sportswriter [as well as one of the game's referees that day] Walter Eckersall noted in his November 27th Tribune column that, “The officials, who were on top of the play, ruled that Riley did not have the ball in his possession and under control.  Consequently the play went as a touchback and the ball was brought out to Notre Dame’s twenty yard line where it was put in play by the Rockne eleven.  Capt. Drury of Southern California and his players asserted Riley had control and possession of the ball and then fumbled.  If this had been the case, Southern California would have been given a safety and two points, which would have reversed the result into an 8 to 7 victory for the Trojans.” 

Although Eckersall was one of the game’s referees, he did not claim to be in a position to see the play and render an opinion about the call - other than to say that if Riley did not have possession and control, the decision to call the play a touchback was correct.  

The fourth official at the game, George Varnell, said he “didn’t see the play and took the umpires’ word for it.” 

Cameron Applegate in The Game Is On, concluded his chapter on the 1927 game with the following observation: “The controversy over the disputed call raged on for days.  Non-partisan coaches and fans who had viewed the game were almost unanimous in their agreement that Southern California should have been awarded a safety on the fumble recovery, but a decision had been made on the field, and it was final. Even referee Schommer, after looking at the game film which definitely showed Riley in possession of the ball, muttered, ‘It looks like I pulled a boner.’”

Time has left no obvious evidence that Schommer’s call was anything other than an honest mistake.  And realistically, the average spectator (i.e., “Monday morning quarterback”) will never understand or appreciate the challenges and pressures of being a referee at a major sporting event.  So, to quote John Schommer’s parting shot in his address to the Commonwealth Club’s annual football banquet, “Make the most of it.”

Although Schommer’s call probably fell into the category of “innocent mistake,” unbeknownst to the public - and the USC team at the time, there were some behind-the-scenes financial dealings involving Rockne, Eckersall, and Griffith, which were hardly innocent or mistakes. 

Despite the fact that Notre Dame wasn’t a member of the Big Ten conference, the school had a policy of adhering to Big Ten rules in relation to hiring referees.  The development of a list of approved officials was delegated to the commissioner of the Big Ten, who was Major John Griffith.  Griffith attempted to reach pre-game agreements with the coaches on the assignment of officials, although he had the final say on those assignments. 

From a financial perspective, Rockne and Griffith “scratched each other’s backs” in various ways.  For example, Griffith had a monthly athletic magazine and Rockne wrote articles for it, endorsed it, and purchased magazine advertising for both Notre Dame and his own personal business ventures.  Rockne had a coaching school, and Griffith, as Big Ten commissioner, sent coaching school-related materials to potential attendees.  

But perhaps more important than the financial accommodations [and partially because of them], Griffith was routinely obliging to Rockne’s requests for specific game officials, including Rockne’s journalist friends.  This was clearly evident in the case of Tribune sportswriter Walter Eckersall, who was a frequent Rockne choice for officiating at Notre Dame games.

It was no secret that Rockne admired and respected Eckersall. Eckersall, who was five years Rockne’s senior, was one of Rockne’s first football heroes.  Rockne’s autobiography describes how as a youth [in 1902], he sat spellbound the first time he watched Eckersall quarterback for Chicago’s Hyde Park High in the high school national championship game against New York’s Brooklyn Polytechnic Prep.  (Hyde Park beat Brooklyn that day by the outrageous score of 105-0.) Eckersall went-on to attend the University of Chicago, where arguably he was the Maroons’ greatest player during the entire existence of the university’s football program.

Destiny intervened some years later when as captain of Notre Dame’s football team, Rockne ran out on a Chicago field and found himself face to face with Eckersall - who happened to be one of the game’s officials.  This first in-person meeting of the two men would begin a friendship that lasted throughout both their lifetimes, both of which sadly were unexpectedly cut short. 

As indicated earlier, in addition to an officiating career, after Eckersall had left the University of Chicago he promptly secured a sportswriter's job with the Tribune.  Not only did Rockne regularly arrange for Eckersall to receive Notre Dame game tickets for family and friends, he asked commissioner John Griffith to assign Eckersall to any games Eckersall expressed an interest in working.  

More importantly, Rockne provided Eckersall with exclusive information he could use in writing his sports columns, and Eckersall reciprocated by providing good press for the coach and his team.  Eckersall’s columns continued to enhance Rockne’s reputation as the nation’s top coach and provided even greater marketability for anything Rockne.

In regards to the 1927 Notre Dame - USC game, Murray Sperber in Shake Down the Thunder cites two specific letters from Rockne to Eckersall.  A September 20, 1927 letter advises Eckersall that he has been selected to work as head linesman, and a November 17, 1927 letter informs Eckersall that “confidentially” Rockne has decided to give him $250 (the price of a new Dodge coupe) to handle the publicity in Chicago for the game.

In his documenting of Shake Down the Thunder, Sperber further cites an array of Rockne’s correspondence demonstrating apparent conflicts of interest in the coach’s dealings with Eckersall and Griffith.  He concludes that had investigators of the independent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, or the Big Ten’s Committee of Sixty, “discovered Eckersall’s arrangements with Rockne, they would have censured them and, in the Big Ten’s case, probably banned both men from future contact with conference schools.”  

Sperber further observes that, “Ironically, the man in charge of policing the Big Ten and enforcing its rules, Commissioner John Griffith, probably did know about the Eckersall-Rockne deals, but he was so compromised by his business and personal relations with the N.D. coach that he never said a word.”

One need only contemplate being in the positions of Eckersall or Griffith to understand how their personal and financial relationships with Rockne put them in a position in which they would be inclined [or even obliged] to give preferential treatment to Rockne, and by extension, the Notre Dame team. 

And although there may be a "lack of evidence" that the 1927 game was “fixed” for Notre Dame, one has to wonder how Eckersall and Griffith could have possibly maintained their objectivity and impartiality as game officials and not have given the most favorable treatment to Notre Dame. 

Without a doubt, November 26, 1927 was a memorable day at Soldier Field.  I wonder how much of the game my dad got to see that day.  I wonder what he would think if he knew what I know today.

Knute Rockne and Walter Eckersall - two football legends whom I have held in the highest esteem, have now regrettably lost some of their luster.  I suspect my dad would have felt the same. 


Copyright 2007 R. M. Burton