Ernie Nevers: Stanford's First Great Athlete
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Stanford University has had its share of great athletes come through its doors. One of the first athletes in Stanford’s history is College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers. He tore through the opposition from 1923 to 1925 and became a consensus All American. Before his arrival, Stanford had never had someone of his caliber but when his career ended, they realized the possibilities of an outstanding athletics program. This is his story.
Ernest Alonzo “Ernie” Nevers was born on June 11, 1903 in Willow River, Minnesota. He was the classic underdog from birth. The youngest of eight was fat and clumsy and yet decided to see how he could do on the gridiron at Central High School in Superior, Wisconsin. He was mostly used as a living tackling dummy in practice which toughened him up. The rough treatment molded him into a fierce football player. However, despite his persistence, he never starred at Central High School. Instead, his family moved to Santa Rosa, California where he would star in baseball, basketball and football. From there, he moved on to Santa Rosa Junior College where he starred in football. He caught the eye of Stanford University after scoring four touchdowns, kicking six extra points and a field goal against Petaluma Junior College.
After starring at Santa Rosa Junior College, Ernie Nevers accepted a scholarship to Stanford University. Though he lettered in four sports, his greatness lied on the gridiron. Nicknamed the “Blond Block Buster” and "Big Dog", he played fullback in a run heavy, double-wing offense.
The 1923 season was his first year at Stanford and he did not disappoint. He led the team to a 7-2 record, losing only to USC and Cal to keep them out of the national title hunt. Though they lost to Cal in the first game ever played in California Memorial Stadium, he still managed to outgain the entire California team and from that moment on he was seen as a special athlete. Life would never be the same for him after that game. For his efforts, he was named first-team All-Pacific Coast and third-team All American. By the end of the 1923-1924 school year, he was recognized as the Pacific Coast’s best player in both football and basketball, the best college pitcher, a top track star and a decent swimmer too. The nation was starting to notice that he could do a little bit of everything at an elite level.
The following year was even better as he led the team to a 7-0-1 regular season record and a Rose Bowl berth. It was also Pop Warner’s first year in Palo Alto and he was well on his way to making Stanford into a powerhouse. As a fullback, Nevers didn’t have to worry about passing as much in that offensive system. Stanford lost to Notre Dame which was at the height of its greatness featuring head coach Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen backfield. Stanford lost to that great team 27-10. Nevers was heroic despite the loss. He ran for 114 yards on two previously broken ankles which was only 13 yards fewer than Notre Dame’s entire Four Horsemen backfield combined. He played all 60 minutes and averaged 42 yards on punts. The nation took notice of his heroics.
The 1925 season was special for Ernie Nevers. He led Stanford to a 7-2 record and he was named a consensus All American. Following his senior season he set out to make a name for himself in professional sports.
Following his collegiate career, Ernie Nevers briefly played for a professional football team from Jacksonville, Florida. He was paid around $30,000 and only played two exhibition games against the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. The Jacksonville team soon folded and he then signed with the St. Louis Browns of the MLB. He played in St. Louis for the 1926 season and went 2-4 as a pitcher with a 4.46 ERA. He played for the Duluth Eskimos of the NFL from 1926 to 1928 where he would learn the intricacies of splitting time between coaching and playing. In an era of 60-minute men, he played 1,714 out of a possible 1,740 minutes with the Eskimos in 1926. Multiple games saw him score every point for Duluth as he became known as a scoring machine.
Following his rookie year in the NFL, Nevers returned to the Browns where he compiled a 3-8 record and gave up two home runs to Babe Ruth who was in the midst of a season where he recorded 60 home runs. He added coaching duties with the Eskimos in 1927 and his coaching debut was a flop, going 1-8 as he split time between his coaching and playing duties. His MLB career ended in the Spring of 1928 as he went 1-0 as a pitcher. He would then spend two years with the Mission Bells of the PCL in San Francisco, California, compiling a combined 21-19 record during that span of time.
He sat out the 1928 season due to an injured back but signed with the Chicago Cardinals the following year. After signing with Chicago, he made league history by scoring 40 points against the Chicago Bears on November, 28, 1929. No one has surpassed his six touchdowns nor his 40 points since that incredible afternoon. He would continue as a player-coach for the Cardinals in 1930 and 1931 before retiring from the game. Incredibly, he was an All Pro in each of his five seasons in the NFL. He was recognized for his achievements by being inducted into both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames.
Following his professional sports careers, Ernie Nevers tried his hand as the head coach for Lafayette College, but after suffering through a 1-8 season, he resigned to pursue other opportunities as an assistant coach. Nevers enlisted in the Marines during World War II and in July of 1943 his wife passed away from pneumonia. He left for the Pacific Theater in October of the same year and didn’t return for 10 months. He reached as high as major and was eventually hired to be the athletic officer at Marine Corp base in San Diego, California. A short while after remarrying in February of 1947, Ernie Nevers retired from coaching. He would go on to work in public relations and sales promotions for wine and liquor companies. He passed away on May 3, 1976 at the age of 73.