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Friedman headed to Hall posthumously

8/4/2005

No less an authority than Red Grange called Benny Friedman one
of the NFL's greatest players.

On Sunday in Canton, Ohio, 72 years after his retirement and 23
after he died of a self-inflicted gun wound, Friedman will join
Grange and many of those other greats in the Pro Football Hall of
Fame.

It took some aggressive campaigning by Friedman's former players
at Brandeis University to finally convince the voters to admit the
former quarterback Grange dubbed "the best I ever played
against." Friedman and Fritz Pollard, another pioneer of the NFL's
early days, were nominated by the veterans committee, then voted in
by the 39-member panel that annually chooses new Hall of Famers.

Dan Marino and Steve Young are the other inductees.

"For a variety of reasons we can speculate on, he didn't make
it into the Hall of Fame," said Bill McKenna, a receiver when
Friedman coached at Brandeis and a former CFL player. "But
unquestionably those who remained in football and knew of him and
who knew football, they were all confident he would get in the
Hall.

"A group of us, mainly the players of Brandeis, maybe 40 or 50
players who played under him, recognized that and made a series of
objectives, put together presentations and brochures, and hopefully
they would come true and get Benny Friedman into the Hall."

At 5-foot-8 or so and just 170 pounds, Friedman hardly was the
prototype quarterback. But he became a star at Michigan -- his field
goal in 1925 lifted the Wolverines past Grange and Illinois -- and
then moved into the pros.

With no draft, he was able to choose his team, and Friedman
signed with the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927. A year later, the
franchise moved to Detroit and became the Wolverines. It seemed
Friedman had come full circle.

While starring for that team, his popularity was noticed by New
York Giants owner Tim Mara, who needed a headliner to stop the flow
of red ink he was enduring. He acquired Friedman, and fans began
showing up at Giants games, with Mara turning a profit during
Friedman's first season on the roster.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Mara's son Wellington
returned the favor, endorsing Friedman for the Canton shrine.

In all, Friedman played for four teams from 1927-34, and was
considered the best player on each of them.

Famed columnist Paul Gallico once wrote in the New York Daily
News:

"When a Friedman pass reaches the receiver, it has gone its
route. The ball is practically dead. The receiver has only to reach
up and take hold of it like picking a grapefruit off a tree."

Of course, the ball more resembled a watermelon in those days.

After he quit as a player, Friedman coached City College of New
York after being personally asked by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to
take the job. He spent six seasons there, then joined the Navy
during World War II.

Following the war, Friedman went to Brandeis as athletic
director and football coach. He turned the program at that elite
New England school into one of the best on its level in the nation.

"And we accomplished as `Bennie's Boys' a lot of good things
for the university, and I think it made our group that much
stronger," McKenna said. "Not just get-togethers for fun's sake,
but we helped the university and future athletes at the school."

Friedman often would work out with the players after practice.
McKenna said he would run 30 or so yards downfield and Friedman
would throw him perfect passes, time after time.

Friedman once bragged he probably could still play in his 40s,
and the boast nearly came back to haunt him. Brandeis was playing
Springfield College -- "the school was for phys ed only, so it was
all athletes," McKenna said.

"They started riding Benny after the comment showed up, saying:
`You are an old man, no way you could play.' He didn't say a word.
He was too much of a gentleman.

"All we could do for him was win the game and when we won the
game, he was a very happy man. And he walked away, the gentleman he
was, without getting involved in all the tormenting that was going
on from the stands," McKenna recalled.

More than 20 of "Benny's Boys" will be in Canton this weekend
to honor one of football's pioneers.

"There was no question he was one of the dominant football
players of the era of the late 1920s and early '30s," McKenna
said. "We recognized this and, fortunately, the members of the
Hall of Fame committee were kind enough to look at the material we
put together. Every time I read it, I am proud of what my teammates
have done. ... It has come to fruition."