George Nevers and Mary McKenna were married in 1881 in New Brunswick, Canada.  He was from an old Sunbury County family, but her parents were immigrants to neighboring York County from Ireland.  The Neverses would have eight children.  The first two were born in Canada, and the rest in either Minnesota or Wisconsin after the family immigrated to the United States in 1887.  The last of the Nevers children was Ernest Alonzo Nevers, who, in 1962, was named the greatest football player of all time by Sports Illustrated.

Ernie Nevers was born in Willow River, Minnesota, in 1902, but grew up in Superior, Wisconsin.  My father’s older brothers played football and baseball with him.  Many years later they told me he was simply the best football player they had ever seen.  At 6’1″ and 205 pounds, he was a big running back for his era, bigger than many linemen.  Yet he was fast, agile, and explosive.  Moreover, he loved to hit, gave his all on every play, and had incredible stamina.  He usually played both offense and defense on every down.  He ran, passed, received, kicked, blocked, and tackled.

He left Superior Central High School after his junior year and moved with his family to Santa Rosa, California.  He led his new high school to a league championship, scoring 108 of the team’s 170 points, not including his touchdown passes.  (In 1925 the school’s stadium would be named Ernie Nevers Field.)  By the time the season had ended, the basketball season had already begun.  Although joining the team late, he quickly became the leading scorer.  His 32-point performance against Petaluma was a league record.  He was named Northern California’s player of the year.

Stanford and Cal wanted him, and, after deciding on the Indians, he went to Santa Rosa Junior College to fulfill course requirements he lacked for admission to Stanford.  When he got to the Farm, he had only three years of eligibility left but earned an unprecedented 11 varsity letters—3 each in football, basketball, and baseball, and 2 in track, a record that still stands.

In his three seasons at Stanford, under legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, Nevers led the football team to a 22-5-1 record and to the Rose Bowl against Notre Dame in 1925.  Nevers wasn’t supposed to play in the game.  In the penultimate game of the 1924 season he suffered fractures in both his ankles and had to watch the final contest, the Big Game against Cal, on crutches from the sidelines.  He stayed on crutches until the end of December, hoping his ankle bones would properly knit.  On New Year’s Day in Pasadena, and only two days off crutches, Nevers donned splints fashioned of aluminum and inner tubes by Coach Warner.  Pop thought Nevers, with his incredible competitive spirit and tolerance for pain, might last one quarter.

Instead, Nevers played every down of the entire game and set a Rose Bowl record with 34 carries for 117 yards, outgaining Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen by himself.  He also intercepted a pass, setting up a Stanford touchdown, and was in on well more than half of Stanford’s tackles.  He completed 11 of 21 passes, while Notre Dame was only 3 of 10.  However, he threw two interceptions, which were returned for touchdowns by Elmer Layden, one of the Horsemen, that led to a Notre Dame victory.  Nonetheless, years later when the award was created, Nevers was named Player of the Game.  “Nevers could do everything,” Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne said.  “He tore our line to shreds, ran the ends, forward-passed and kicked.  True, we held him on the 1-yard line [a disputed call canceled a Nevers touchdown] on four downs, but by that time he was exhausted.”

Pop Warner, who coached for 43 years, including 13 seasons at Carlisle and 9 at Stanford, said Nevers was the best player he ever coached.  “Nevers could do everything Thorpe could do.  And Ernie always tried harder.  Ernie gave 60 minutes of himself in every game.”  Warner later wrote in his autobiography,

In an era of great ones—Red Grange of Illinois, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen from Notre Dame, Elmer Oliphant and Chris Cagle of Army, or even Jim Thorpe of Carlisle—Nevers always stood a bit taller when trying to compare others to him.

Stanford thought so much of its consensus All-American football hero that the school retired his number—which, appropriately, was 1.  Nevers was the first athlete at Stanford to be so honored.

Before Nevers was finished with Stanford football he led the Indians in the 1925 Big Game to their first victory over the California Golden Bears in 11 years.  In baseball, in a three-game series with Cal, he pitched two full games and, with the count three-and-two in the third game, hit a grand-slam home run to win the series for Stanford.  At one stretch during the season he pitched 37 consecutive scoreless innings, another of his records at Stanford that still stands.

Nevers began his professional football career with the Duluth Eskimos during the 1926 season.  The Eskimos were coached by Dewey Scanlon, a native of Duluth and gridiron star at Valparai­so University, and owned by Ole Haugs­rud, who had been friends with Nevers since their days together at Superior Central High School.  While Haugsrud gave his other players $50-75 a game, depending on whether the team lost, tied, or won, he signed Nevers to a personal services contract for the princely sum of $15,000 per season.

Haugsrud decided he’d capitalize on Ernie Nevers’ name and, in the process, help popularize pro football, then in its infancy, by taking the team on a barnstorming tour.  The Eskimos played 29 games that season, all but two on the road.  During one stretch, they played five games in eight days.  “Sometimes we would take two showers after games,” said Nevers.  “The first one would be with our uniforms on.  Then we’d beat them like rugs to get some of the water out, throw them into our bags, get dressed and catch a train.”

During the entire 29-game schedule Nevers missed only 26 minutes of action when he experienced severe abdominal pain that a doctor diagnosed as appendicitis.  Nevers stood on the sideline in pain but champing at the bit.  With time running out and Duluth trailing the Milwaukee Badgers 6-0, he could contain himself no longer and had Scanlon put him in the game.  Nevers threw a 62-yard touchdown pass and kicked the extra point.  Duluth won 7-6.

Nevers played the 1927 season with the Eskimos and was named All-Pro for the second year running, but Haugsrud was losing money and decided to suspend operations.  All his players were soon signed by other franchises except for Nevers, who was still under a personal services contract to Haugsrud.  When Haugsrud didn’t field a team in 1928, Nevers couldn’t play.  The National Football League felt the loss of pro football’s premier star and got the Chicago Cardinals to hire Haugsrud in a front-office position.  With Haugsrud came Nevers, who went on to play for the Cardinals for the next three years.

Nevers was the terror of the league, making All-Pro every season.  The greatest rivalry in the NFL in those days was between the Chicago Bears and the Cardinals.  Throughout the 1920’s, the Cardinals always seemed to spoil the Bears’ chances for an undefeated season or a league championship.  There was no love lost between the owner of the Bears, George Halas, and the owner of the Cardinals, Chris O’Brien.  In 1929 O’Brien sold the team to a Chicago physician, David Jones, but the rivalry remained.  Halas was determined that the Cardinals’ new star, Nevers, be stopped in his tracks.  The teams met on Thanksgiving Day.  Nevers’ opposite number was Red Grange, supported in the backfield by the legendary but past-his-prime Paddy Driscoll.

The game was all Nevers, who ran for a record six touchdowns and kicked four conversions, giving him a total of 40 points.  The number of touchdowns and points were both NFL records.  To this day Nevers holds the record for most points scored and for most rushing touchdowns in an NFL game—the longest-standing NFL records.  No player has yet scored seven touchdowns in an NFL game, although Dub Jones in 1951 (also against the Chicago Bears) and Gale Sayers in 1965 each scored six—but not exclusively by rushing.  Nevers set several other single-game NFL records—including most consecutive completed passes, longest flight of a completed pass, and most field goals—that have since been broken.

While Nevers was playing professional football, he was also playing professional baseball, pitching three seasons for the St. Louis Browns.  He wasn’t the star he was in football and had the dubious distinction of having Babe Ruth hit two home runs off him during Ruth’s record 1927 season.  “I didn’t feel too bad about that, though,” said Nevers.  “He hit a lot of pitchers—some of them good, too.”

Ruth told Nevers, “You’ve got good speed, kid.  For my sake, I hope you stick to football.”  Nevers may have been a better hitter than pitcher.  During the 1927 season, while playing as a pitcher, he hit eight home runs and got hits off the great Walter Johnson.

After five All-Pro NFL seasons and too many injuries to count, Nevers decided to hang up his cleats, although he stayed in football as a coach.  Ole Haugsrud moved on to other business ventures but was back in football in 1960 as one of the owners of the NFL’s newest franchise, the Minnesota Vikings.  The very name of the team, and the team’s logo, colors, and uniform, were copied from Haugsrud’s and Nevers’ Superior Central High School Vikings.

Following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Nevers enlisted in the Marine Corps, eventually becoming an aviation ordnance officer with Torpedo Bomber Squadron 134.  He served with VMTB 134, first in the Solomons and then in other Southwest and Central Pacific island groups in operations against the Japanese, including the Marine landings on Bougainville and Peleliu.  At one point, he and several of those in his squadron were listed as missing in action after crash landing on a deserted island.  When rescued, he was suffering from beriberi and looked skeletal.  On another occasion, he was said to have brought down a Japanese Zero.  He and several other Marines were throwing a football around when Japanese fighters suddenly appeared and began strafing 134’s airstrip.  Nevers, it is said, gave the football a mighty heave, and it struck the propeller of one of the Zeros, causing the plane to plummet to earth.  Whether true or not, people believed the tale because it was Ernie Nevers throwing the football.

Nevers survived the war and spent the rest of his years in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In 1951 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 1963 was one of the original inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  He died in 1976.