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Thursday, October 4, 2007
Updated: November 20, 2:27 PM ET
The NFL's forgotten legend

By David Fleming
Page 2

Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship" by David Fleming. Copyright 2007 by David Fleming. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books.


Flem File

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In 1925, the Pottsville Maroons, a football team from the heart of Pennsylvania coal country, joined the fledgling National Football League. Built by an eccentric owner, molded by a visionary coach and led by hardscrabble miners, college All Americans and a host of wild, colorful characters (including one nut job lineman who wore a wool baseball cap instead of a helmet), the Maroons embodied the ethos of the Roaring Twenties and did the unthinkable: they dominated the NFL in their inaugural season. Meant to be cannon fodder for the league's established teams, the Maroons turned out to be the most dominant, influential -- and controversial -- team in NFL history. And the impact from their brief but explosive tenure can still be felt in the league today.

This chapter focuses on the Maroons' remarkable running back Tony Latone, the NFL's unofficial leading rusher of the 1920s and a player Hall of Famer Red Grange once described as "one hell broth of a rugged coal miner and for my money the most football player I have ever seen." Grange remains an icon of the frontier era of the NFL. Yet in 30 fewer games, Latone ran for more yards and scored more touchdowns than the great Galloping Ghost. In fact, Bears founder George Halas said that if Latone had gone to college he would "certainly have been one of the greatest pro players of all time."

Instead, at the age of 11, after his father drank himself to death, Latone was forced into the mines to support his mother and five siblings. (Back then, after a miner's death families living in coal company housing often had 48 hours to put someone back into the mines or face eviction.) Latone emerged seven years later as a chiseled, fearless 200-pound man and after trading in his pick for a pigskin he would go on to change the course of professional football.

Against Notre Dame, in what would become a watershed moment in American sports, Latone's Herculean performance was called "one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever seen on a football field." At a time when forward progress was measured in inches, Latone, nicknamed the Human Howitzer, rushed for 139 yards, accounting for 75 percent of the Maroons' offense in the 9-7 upset.

Despite their impact on the game, Latone and the rest of the pioneers from Pottsville are not in the Hall of Fame. Instead, Latone remains little more than a ghost, an eight-line footnote haunting the pages of the NFL Encyclopedia.

BREAKER BOYS
CHAPTER TWO: THE BREAKER BOY

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By the time Tony Latone was forced into the mines, anthracite coal consumption had skyrocketed to about 80 million net tons a year. To meet this demand, coal companies required nearly 200,000 workers, and they used anyone they could get their hands on -- even children. In the days before effective child labor laws, most coal mines employed not just a few but hundreds of boys, some as young as eight. They put them to work for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, inside their breaker houses. These mountainous wood buildings sat directly on top of the mines. And just like oil wells in Texas, the dramatically sloped roofs of the breaker houses served as the landmarks of the coal region. Inside, using a series of steep chutes, the coal that was unearthed by the miners was processed and cleaned before being shipped off on barges or railcars. For 13 cents an hour, "breaker boys" like Tony Latone sat on splintery wooden planks and straddled the chutes, picking razor-sharp slate and other debris from an endless flow of coal.

The work was unspeakably bad: backbreaking, poisonous, and monotonous. Boys chewed tobacco to keep the coal dust out of their mouths, and the deafening roar of the breaker made it impossible to speak or be heard. To spot a breaker boy away from the mine, one only had to look for his telltale "red tops." After a few weeks of picking slate, the outer layer of skin on the tips of a breaker boy's fingers would simply come off like the peel of an orange, exposing the pinkish flesh underneath. Red tops were excruciatingly painful, particularly during the first few minutes of a new shift, when the scabs would crack open and begin to bleed anew. And handling the chemicals contained in the coal was like dripping lemon juice on a paper cut. The boys kept working, though, because the only thing more painful than their raw nubs was a swing to the back of the neck or across the knuckles from the foreman's wooden stick -- or worse, a pink slip from the mines.

Latone rarely felt the breaker boss' wrath. He was his mother's child: quiet, steadfast, and impossible to budge from a task. The work suited him, which didn't surprise his family. You could hand Tony a 12-quart bucket and ask him to go pick a few blueberries, and he would stay out all day -- battling mosquitoes, hornets, snakes, and briars -- picking bushes clean until his bucket was overflowing with perfect, plump berries. Tony also loved the solitude and challenge of fishing, and he convinced himself that working in the mines was in some way similar: You simply sit still and quiet for several hours at a time, working the huge expanse under you for the chance at a small but meaningful reward. He had never been much of a talker, either, so the noise from the breaker that prevented the boys from communicating in any way other than hand signals and secret codes didn't really bother him. Truth be told, he didn't care for school all that much. Besides, most of his buddies from the coal patch were working in the mines.

It felt good to work, to be productive and proud, instead of making up stories about his old man and hiding out from coal company officials. The pain he had to endure, in his back or his fingertips, was nothing compared with watching his mother suffer all those years while Iggy was alive. For Tony, the mines became almost therapeutic. Whatever anger and resentment he had toward his father, he bore it down to the nub deep inside the mountains of coal he conquered each day. If all boys are either trying to live up to or to make up for the actions of their fathers, then what better way to prove he was a different man than to excel inside the very place that had broken and embarrassed his?

As soon as Latone grew big enough to handle heavier work, he was moved out of the breaker house and into the entrance of the mine. There, adolescent boys were given any number of jobs. "Mule boys," or "drivers," pushed and directed the beasts hauling the coal cars up and out of the mines. "Sprag boys" then stopped the cars by rushing up at the last second and placing a thick, wooden wedge behind the wheels of the three-ton cars before they could roll back down the tracks and crash violently into the mines, destroying everything and everyone in their path. Often times it was a child's arm or leg that stopped the coal car instead of the sprag. Once healed, the amputees were "rewarded" with jobs underground that required them to sit in pitch-black, cavernous chambers all day, opening and closing the massive airlock doors that kept fresh air circulating throughout the shafts.

CARDINAL CURSE

Ever look at the Arizona Cardinals and think: "In an era where the NFL practically legislates parity, how is it that the Cardinals have won only one playoff game in the last 59 years and have had double-digit losing seasons in 15 of the last 18 years? Are they cursed?"

Actually, yeah.

In what was widely regarded as the 1925 NFL championship game the league's two best teams met at Comiskey Park where, during an ice storm, Pottsville beat the Chicago Cardinals 21-7. At the time college football was still king and the greatest football team ever assembled was the Notre Dame Four Horsemen. An exhibition game was set up in Philadelphia against the fledgling NFL's best team (Pottsville) and Notre Dame, the undefeated national champs from 1924. Experts at the time said the pro football players who could beat Notre Dame hadn't even been born yet. Yet with darkness descending on Shibe Park (later, Connie Mack Stadium) a stunned crowd fell silent as Maroons captain Charlie Berry (who later became the dean of American League umpires) kicked a 30-yard field goal to upset the Four Horsemen, 9-7. The game helped legitimize the NFL but it also destroyed the town and the team that made it all possible. A week later, the Frankford Yellow Jackets (the team that later became the Eagles) protested that the Maroons had played the Notre Dame game in their "territory." The NFL suspended the Maroons, making them ineligible for the championship. At the 1925 owners meeting in Detroit, the league tried to award the title to the Chicago Cardinals owner Chris O'Brien, but he refused to accept what he called a "bogus" title that his team did not win on the field. As a result the 1925 NFL championship was never formally awarded.

At the time the Cardinals had bigger issues. After losing to the Maroons on the field, the Cardinals tried to cram in enough games to surpass Pottsville in the final standings. When it became clear that one of those opponents, the Milwaukee Badgers, could not field a full team, a player from the Cardinals coerced four high school players from Chicago to play for the Badgers. The game was an embarrassing farce and when word leaked out about the Cardinals playing against teenagers, an enraged NFL commissioner threatened O'Brien with a lifetime ban and ordered the result stricken from the record.

Despite all that, when the Bidwill family bought the Cardinals franchise in 1932 they still began to claim the 1925 championship as their very own. And when the Pottsville Maroons petitioned the league in 1963, Charles "Stormy" Bidwill Jr. wrote to sportswriter Red Smith poking fun of little Pottsville and saying his family had no intention of giving away their title. This is when most believe that Joe Zacko, a huge Maroons booster who owned the Pottsville landmark Zacko's Sporting Goods, placed his curse on the Cardinals. Since then the Cards have won exactly one playoff game.

In 2003 there was a chance to make everything right when Steelers owner Dan Rooney, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and Pottsville mayor John Reiley came up with a solution that had then commissioner Paul Tagliabue's blessing: let the Cards and the Maroons share the title. Tagliabue had even begun to make plans to come to Pottsville to give the town its title back. Instead, Rooney and Reiley say that current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill used his influence behind the scenes to squash the Maroons petition. The owners never even discussed the case, they voted 30-2 against even talking about it or hearing the Maroons case. Bidwill has since refused numerous interview requests on the topic.

"What's been done to this town and this team -- it's not right," says Rooney. "It needs to be fixed."

Since then word of the Cardinals Curse has spread in Arizona. And after last year's 5-11 finish fans began contacting members of the Maroons Memorial Committee to ask them to lift the curse.

The request was denied.

But with the Cards still struggling to get above .500 you already knew that.
--David Fleming

The isolated, intense labor of the colliery made time relative: The days were interminably long, yet the years seemed to fly by. Almost overnight, Tony Latone had grown into a formidable young man who had earned, through his own hero's trial, the kind of inner strength, drive, and perspective that no one can ever hand to you -- nor take away. When he turned 18, in 1915, Latone joined the Navy. In the service, both his training and his 18-month stint aboard a battleship seemed to breeze by compared with his work entombed in the mines. After the war, with money in his pocket and the world at his feet, Latone dutifully returned to Edwardsville to support his mother and five siblings. This time, however, he entered the mines as a man working among boys.

There was something about his dark, piercing eyes -- accentuated by his pale skin and heavy brow -- that earned him respect far beyond his years. And at 5'11" and 195 pounds, his chiseled frame and relentless vigor allowed him to take on brutal tasks, like coal car pushing, that normally required two men. After the miners filled railcars with two tons of coal, mules would then lurch them to the entrance of the mine. There the cars had to be unhooked from the animals, held in place, and muscled several feet down the tracks, where they would be attached to a locomotive or another mule team. Latone excelled at the job because of his unique combination of physical gifts. He had quick hands and feet, giving him the dexterity needed to unhook and harness the animals, and he also had the raw power required to get a 4,000-pound cart moving. Years of this work gave Latone arms, shoulders, and thighs that looked like they had been transplanted from a man twice his size.

"I found myself pushing coal cars around for eight or nine hours a day," he would recall years later. "I was assigned to duty at the loading cage, and it meant I had to push, push, push all day. Those little cars would hold a ton or two of coal. There was more manual labor attached to that job than any in the mines. It meant constant pressure on the legs. I pushed those coal cars through the shift for more than two years, and all the time, my leg muscles were developing."

As was the region's love affair with football. To blow off steam during breaks and after their shifts, miners often played sandlot football in the shadow of the breaker house. Occasionally, laborers from different shifts would challenge each other on the makeshift gridiron. Once money began exchanging hands, it wasn't long before organizers were scouring the mines for players to improve their teams. One of these men surely noticed that the way Latone pushed coal cars around the yard -- shoulders low, just a foot or two off the ground, his body parallel to the dirt , and his legs pumping like freight pistons -- mirrored the technique used by football halfbacks, or line plungers, as they were called.

Sometimes, deep inside the mines of Eastern Pennsylvania, the equation of pressure over time can miraculously transform ordinary chunks of black coal into precious diamonds. When he stepped on the football field for the first time, it was clear that the mines had had the same effect on Tony Latone. Even in the ruthless frontier days of the game, Latone could make the most notorious roughnecks step back in fear simply by dropping his fist in the dirt. When he was down in position, the skin on his brow would bunch up, casting a sinister shadow over his eyes. His crouch was tightly coiled, freakishly close to the ground, and his right foot always staggered the tiniest bit. Just before the snap, the heel of that boot would rise up like a lit fuse, causing those around him to seal up their breath.

Word about Latone spread quickly, with one caveat: Better plug your ears. The vision of Latone unleashing his inner rage on the football field was at once barbaric and breathtaking. What most spectators couldn't shake from their minds, however, were the sounds it created. Even those watching from the opaque windows of the breaker house winced and shivered at the grotesque thud of Latone ramming mercilessly into the herd of flesh at the line of scrimmage, snapping bones like dry twigs. Latone ran angry. He ran mean. The more physical the fight, the stronger he became. The better the competition, the more yards he gained. With the ball in his hands he seemed possessed, as if his father's face had been superimposed under the leather helmet of every would-be tackler. And the sound it created was like that of a spooked horse hurling itself against the side of a barn. "On the street and at home, Tony was a phlegmatic, gentle man," explained one of his friends. "But once he donned his gear and graith, he suddenly became galvanized into a mood so devilish, there was no stopping him." For others, speed, skill, and strength were the keys to the game. For Latone it was perspective. At a time when the ability to endure pain was the main requirement of a line plunger, none of the blows he absorbed on the field could compare with what he had already plowed through in life. By 20 he had buried his father, saved his family, and survived 12 hours a day in the mines and the First World War. For a man who had outmaneuvered death every moment of his life since the fifth grade, football was as uncomplicated and comfy as life could possibly get.

As a result, those who watched Latone play the game say that no man, before or since, ever did so with such fearlessness and joy.

"Everything comes natural to me," Latone said of his football skills. "On the field, I have no trials or obstacles."

His relentless, gravity-defying, hard-driving approach defied description. He even carried the ball oddly: out in front of his body, with one hand cupped above and below the ball, like a boy trying to transport a baby chick. All in all, people just didn't know what to make of Latone, what to call him, or how to elucidate to other football fans the manner in which he played, which is probably why he inspired such a wide array of nicknames: Tony the Tiger ... Push 'Em Up Tony ... Five-Yard Tony ... the Human Howitzer ... Tony the Terrible&the Mack Truck&The Bulldozer ... Touchdown Tony ... and his personal favorite: Old Reliable Tony. Ten minutes and half a whiskey into a description of Latone's playing style, one football fan in Wilkes-Barre threw his hands up and said, "That guy's half Lithuanian and half nelson." Other football men in Edwardsville tried to get Latone back into school, where they were certain he could lead any collection of players to national acclaim. But by then Latone was nearly 10 years behind in his schooling. His lack of academics doomed his attempts at enrollment and, in turn, kept him a Pennsylvania secret for at least a few more seasons. Years later, George Halas surmised that if Latone had gone to college, "he would certainly have been one of the greatest pro players of all time."

Instead, he landed in the backfield of the lowly Lithuanian Knights, a barely semipro club formed by a social fraternity in Edwardsville. In one of his first games with the ragtag Knights, when rudimentary offenses measured forward progress in inches, Latone ran for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns in a 68-0 blowout against the club from nearby Steelton. "We never kicked on fourth down," recalled one of Latone's early teammates. "We just gave Tony the ball and let him roar."

He might have lacked proper schooling, but Latone was a master of football physics: In the gruesome collisions that made up most of the game, the player moving lower and faster always won. Latone also used his combination of speed and strength to stay one step ahead of defenses. When teams like Plains A.C. in Luzerne County loaded up the center to barricade against his line plunges, he would flash to the corner, then turn the ball upfield. "To Tony Latone, the dashing new halfback of the Lithuanian Knights, goes the individual honors of the day," wrote one paper. "This youth, rated as one of the best in this part of the country, featured continually with line smashes and end runs that kept the [Luzerne] crowd on the defensive most of the time. A feature play by Latone came in the last quarter when he dodged and shook off a half-dozen men and carried the ball 45 yards on a sensational end run."

The following season, Latone signed with the Wilkes-Barre Panthers for a whopping $75 a game. It was more than he had made for an entire month in the mines yet was still well below the poverty level. And with his mother and siblings to support, Latone continued to live at home in Edwardsville and work in the mines between games. The Panthers, meanwhile, played neighboring coal region towns like Pottsville, Coaldale, and Scranton in the ultraviolent and highly competitive Anthracite League. Fans from Philadelphia called these early coal region battles "census games" -- because the two teams seemed hell-bent on exterminating each other and lowering the population by 11. Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard, the game's first black head coach, always maintained that there were three kinds of football. "You had your college and your pro," Pollard chuckled. "And then you had coal mine football."

Thanks to Latone, Wilkes-Barre made it into November 1923 without dropping a single game. But as the Panthers were to face the final and fiercest part of the schedule, their backfield was decimated by injuries. Latone reacted the way he always did: He silently lowered his shoulder and pushed the team to the finish as if it were a coal car. Against the NFL's Rochester Jeffersons, he scored the only touchdown of the game, and the Panthers prevailed 10-3. "Tony became famous as a member of the Panthers yesterday," announced the town's newspaper. "His all-around playing against the Jeffersons won him the plaudits of every fan who saw the great battle. Latone was easily the outstanding star.

Time after time, on almost every other signal, he crashed through the visitors' defense for big gains." In the season finale, the Shenandoah Yellowjackets employed the defense now known around the region as The Latone Special. Seven men packed the defensive line between the two ends, hip to hip and crammed so tightly together that if their teammate had two bits in his football pants, they'd know if it was facing heads or tails. An extra linebacker was then placed directly over center, and for good measure, the defensive backs cinched in close on either flank. The strategy worked ... for three and a half quarters. "Then Latone tore off tackle from the 15," went one account, "and three times men tackled him, but he struggled on, and the last five yards to the goal line, he traveled with two Shenandoah men hanging on his back."

Latone had always had the heart of a steely saint, like his mother. But his success on the field brought out a bit of his father's dreamer's spirit. And why not? After many years in the coal mines and 18 months at war, it was a miracle that he had even lived this long. In Wilkes-Barre, it was considered a safe year if fewer than a 100 men died in the mines. Every time he returned from the football field to the colliery, Latone knew he was pushing his luck. The mine always won. Always. Even for stalwarts like him, sooner or later it would begin to eat away at you, from the inside out, like a tapeworm.

At 27, Latone had found his true calling, and it was football. His father's death and his brutal childhood had left a hole in him, one that he discovered was the exact size of a football. And by the start of the 1924 season, he was eager to see just how far he could take it, or rather, how far the sport could take him -- if he could indeed run right out of the mines, for good, with a football clasped firmly between his hands.

Fate didn't make him wait long for an answer.

When the coal region football schedules came out for the 1924 season, the Panthers were slated to face Pottsville in the season opener. The Maroons were the class of the Anthracite League, and rumor had it that their avant-garde owner, while caught up in the unbridled enthusiasm and prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, was buying up all the talent in the region for a possible run at the NFL.

The mighty Maroons were said to lack only one thing: a running back.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow." His next book, "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," will be published Oct. 9 by ESPN Books and has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Thursday during the NFL season.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow." His next book, "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," will be published Oct. 9 by ESPN Books and has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Thursday during the NFL season.