Season 1, Episode 4: Coming of Age (Part Two)

The big game was now set. The Saint Mary’s Cadets, forerunners of the Dayton Triangles, would face off against long-standing champions the Olt’s-Superba Oakwoods for the independent football championship of Dayton in 1913. Meanwhile, Nelson Talbott was finishing an All-America year at Yale.

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-About That Talbott-Hinkey Story

A vignette near the end of the episode relates how Nelson Talbott and his coach Frank Hinkey likely bonded when they visited Canada for a Grey Cup game in (probably) 1913. I found that little vignette in an article from the 20’s describing how the NFL experimented with treating backward passes (laterals) like forward ones. According to the article, Talbott related how he and Hinkey took in the game between the Hamilton Tigers (later the Tiger-Cats) and the Toronto Argonauts.

One problem: The Tigers and Argos never played each other in a Grey Cup.

There are several possibilities. Talbott may have meant a game between the Tigers and Argos before the Grey Cup/ It probably would have to have been late in the season. My theory is that Talbott mistakenly named the Argos when in fact is was a different club from Toronto that faced Hamilton in the Grey Cup. That’s what I went with. If I find out differently, I’ll correct the record here and in the book I’m still planning for next year.

Episode Transcript

(Note: this is the original script. The actual narration may not match exactly.)

The Saint Mary’s Cadets, predecessors of NFL original team the Dayton Triangles, were nearing their showdown with the Olt’s Superba Oakwoods for the independent football championship of the city of Dayton.

Of course, the Cadets and Oakwoods were not the only claimants to the city championship. The West Carrollton Football club issued a challenge of their own, demanding to meet one or both of the championship game contestants. The following day, the West Carrolton manager called out Oakwood manager Huckins specifically. However, the Cadet-Oakwood matchup had entranced local football fans in a way West Carrollton could not. It featured a clear contrast in styles between the older, bigger and more experienced defending champions and the younger, faster upstart Cadets. The Oakwoods leaned heavily on running, the Cadets on big plays through the air. The Oakwoods represented “old school” ball, the Cadets the open, modern approach. For local grid fans, the David-and-Goliath angle was simply irresistible. The papers were confidently predicting, if the weather was fair, the largest crowd to see a football game in Dayton history.

In the end, the weather disappointed. The game itself did not.

Field conditions were less than optimal, and only about 2000 fans attended the game at Westwood Park. The field was slippery, and there was concern that this would neutralize the Cadets’ speed advantage and make passing more difficult. After a scoreless first quarter, Norb Sacksteder dropped back in the second quarter to receive a punt. While attempting to circle around the end, Sacksteder retreated past his goal line. The Oakwoods caught him in the end zone for a safety. The Oakwoods took a 2-0 lead and their fans believed the rout would soon be on.

Then, Al Mahrt went to work, engineering a four play, 80-yard drive that stunned the crowd by virtue of its sheer speed. Working quickly, Mahrt threw to right end Billy Zile for 30 yards to midfield. A Hugo Sacksteder end run was stopped for no gain. On second down, Mahrt dropped back and hit Babe Zimmerman for another 25. The next play, Mahrt took a pitch in the backfield and found Norb Sacksteder open in the end zone for the 25-yard score.

A four-play, 80-yard drive with all the yards gained by passing was not unheard-of in 2013. In 1913, it was a revelation. The extra point by Lewis Clark was good, and the Cadets took a 7-2 lead to the intermission.

In the third period, the Cadets padded their lead by capitalizing on an Oakwoods fumble. With excellent starting field position at the Oakwoods’ 35-yard line, Mahrt threw to left end Johnny Devereaux for 25 yards to the 10. On the next play, Mahrt tossed his second touchdown pass of the day, again to Devereaux for a 10-yard score. Devereaux, though knocked seemingly senseless by the hits of Oakwoods defenders trying to dislodge the ball, somehow managed to hold on and secure the touchdown catch. He was revived and stayed in the game. Another successful extra point by Clark gave the Cadets some breathing room at 14-2.

As time wound down, the desperate Oakwoods caught the Cadets by surprise, turning to the forward pass themselves in an effort to stage a comeback. Two passes from Cap Munk to Roy Barton set the Oakwoods up with first and goal at the Cadets’ eight-yard-line. Two plays later, talented Oakwoods captain Herb Allen swept around left end for the only Oakwoods touchdown of the game. The extra point was good. After a Cadet punt, the Oakwoods got good field position near midfield, but were unable to mount another deep threat, turning the ball over on downs. From there, the Cadets controlled the ball with a combination of short- and medium-range passes, pinning the Oakwoods deep in their own territory. The Cadets had possession of the ball when the final whistle blew.

To the astonishment of much of the crowd at Westwood, David had upended Goliath, 14-9. For the first time in more than a decade, there was a new city champion in Dayton independent football.

The win was a team effort. The line held up well against the bigger Oakwoods. Devereaux, Zile, Zimmerman and Norb Sacksteder did their jobs in snagging Mahrt’s passes. The defense took away Oakwoods chief playmaker Allen and the other Oakwoods were unable to make enough plays to compensate.

However, the clear star of the game was Al Mahrt. When Oakwoods pass rushers did penetrate the backfield, he simply dodged them, buying time for his receivers to come open downfield. Robert Husted, reporting for the Journal, compared Mahrt’s passes to rifle shots. Of “the little cotton-topped leader of the victors,” Jerry Connors of the Daily News wrote:

He ran his team like a veteran, and his individual work was simply brilliant, in fact almost marvelous. Nothing like his passes was ever seen on a local field, they being of the long, low and accurate variety and coming at the times when they could do the most good. So excellent was the play of the Cadet captain that at the end of the game Big Munk of the Oakwoods put his arm over Mahrt’s shoulder and yelled: “Kid, you’re the best I ever saw.” And Munk has seen some good football warriors.

Overcoming great personal tragedy, Al Mahrt turned in one of the most extraordinary performances ever seen on a local football field to that time.

The following day, Harry Huckins published an open letter in the papers challenging the Cadets to a rematch to be played on Thanksgiving Day. This time, he got the spelling of Al Gessler’s name right. Gessler accepted on behalf of the Cadets, but insisted that the game would be their last of the season, since the team would be preparing for basketball after that. Therefore, this game amounted to another winner-take-all. Before that fateful game could be played, though, there was other pressing business to address.

The Oakwoods answered the West Carrollton challenge with a hard-fought 13-7 victory. The Cadets took to the road in Cincinnati against the local champion Celts in a game billed as the “championship of Southern Ohio.” It was anticlimactic, with the Cadets winning 27-0 behind Al Mahrt’s passing and touchdowns by Hugh Sacksteder, Babe Zimmerman, and newcomer Carl Storck. Few knew at the time, but Storck’s appearance at running back in that game inaugurated a career in playing, coaching and professional sports management that lasted nearly three decades.

Carl Louis Harrell Storck was the eldest child of Charles Storck. Charles served the City of Dayton as a police officer during the 1890s. When Carl was four years old, Officer Storck suffered a gunshot wound while subduing a man who was terrorizing a neighborhood on the near east side of town. Charles recovered but later decided to trade his badge for an apron, retiring from the police force to open a bakery. He eventually became a saloonkeeper and was one of the first businesspeople licensed to sell liquor in Montgomery County, Ohio.

Young Carl was a standout at Stivers High School in both football and basketball. He was big but nimble and speedy for his size, and gave everything he had on every play. Sports observers of the time considered Storck the best fullback Stivers had produced in football to that time. He single-handedly carried the team in the high school city championship against Steele High in 1912, scoring the only Stivers touchdown in a 7-7 tie. In January 1913, Storck was selected as captain of the Stivers basketball team. He led by example, playing hard at right guard despite having trouble staying healthy toward the end of the season. He reported a mysterious bout of fatigue that March, and was listed as injured before Stivers’ high school basketball championship game against Steele, but always gutted it out.

Somewhere along the line, Storck picked up the nickname “Scummy” – a strange moniker for a man who would later prove to be such an advocate of fair play. Stranger still, no one seems to remember how he got that nickname.

With the Cadets’ win in Cincinnati and the Oakwoods beating West Carrollton, their Thanksgiving Day rematch took on even more significance. The winner would now lay claim to not only the Dayton city championship, but that of Southern Ohio as well. In addition, pride was on the line. Rumors surfaced after the Cadets’ championship win that the Oakwoods threw the game in order to make the betting more even in a rematch. The pressure was on them to play their best ball.

The stage was set for the second “game of the year” when, once again, tragedy reminded everyone that there is more to life than sport. Nicholas Sacksteder, grandfather of Norb and Hugh, passed away from heart trouble the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He was 78 years old. It appeared the bereaved brothers would be unable to play that Thursday. This put the spotlight and pressure on Storck and Mike “Pie” Decker, who would start in place of the Sacksteders at the halfback positions. The Oakwood squad, meanwhile, would have to go without their normal starting fullback Ernest Harter, who was injured in the first Cadet-Oakwood game.

The return match between the Cadets and Oakwoods proved to be one of the most exciting and controversial football games played in Dayton in many years. The Sacksteder brothers turned up but did not start. The Oakwoods opened the scoring off an early Cadets turnover, fullback Ford Dolan throwing a touchdown pass to Munk. Following the ensuing kickoff, however, it didn’t take Al Mahrt long to get the Cadets’ quick strike pass offense in gear.

Starting from the Cadets’ 25-yard line, Mahrt rushed around end for five yards. On the following play, he found a wide-open Babe Zimmerman, who had streaked behind the Oakwoods’ defense. Mahrt delivered the ball forty yards in the air to Zimmerman, who outran the Oakwood defenders the final yards to the goal line, capping off a spectacular 70-yard touchdown play. Clark’s point after touchdown goal tied the score at seven apiece. Zimmerman threw a touchdown pass of his own to Billy Zile before the end of the quarter to give the Cadets a 13-7 lead. The extra point attempt failed.

In the second quarter, Oakwood regrouped and struck back. Captain Herb Allen intercepted Mahrt at the Oakwood 45 and the former champions drove relentlessly downfield by way of the ground game to within a few feet of the Cadet goal line. When the Cadets’ goal line defense stiffened, quarterback Roy Burton threw a touchdown pass to right halfback “Minnie” Black to tie the score. A successful extra point inched the Oakwoods back in front, 14-13. Another Cadet turnover deep in their territory led to a third Oakwood touchdown, scored on a short rush by Allen. Following another successful point after, the Oakwoods went to halftime up 21-13.

The third quarter went back and forth, but the injury bug began to bite the Oakwoods. Starting left end Willie McCune suffered two broken ribs early in the quarter and had to leave the game. Shortly after that, starting right end George Lemon went down with torn ligaments in his left knee. Nevertheless, the Oakwoods remained in command until Zimmerman intercepted a pass to stop an Oakwood drive at the Cadets’ 20-yard line. Then, Mahrt seized the momentum. Two passes, one of them to Zimmerman, covered more than 50 yards. The third quarter ended with the Cadets driving in Oakwood territory.

The Cadets completed their touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter on a Mahrt pass to Dungan, in at left end for Bill Weaver. Lewis Clark kicked the extra point to trim the Oakwoods lead to 21-20. Adding to the Oakwoods’ injury woes, fullback Dolan, who had started for the injured Harter, was himself knocked out of the game.

With time (and daylight) now waning, a critical kicking error by the Oakwoods turned the game in the Cadets’ favor. The Oakwood offense stalled at their 20 and they were forced to punt. Munk shanked the punt out of bounds giving the Cadets excellent field position at the Oakwoods’ 40. A short Mahrt run and incomplete pass left the Cadets in a critical third down. Mahrt then uncorked a pass to Dungan, who ran to the Oakwoods’ 10, setting up first down and goal to go. When Mahrt found Norb Sacksteder, who had entered the game for Storck, in the end zone, the controversy began. Sacksteder tipped the ball, juggled it and finally hauled it in. The touchdown pass put the Cadets back on top 26-21.

Following the play, the Oakwoods protested. Johnny Devereaux, in at end for Zile, was near Sacksteder on the fateful play. The Oakwoods players claimed that Devereaux had touched the ball prior to Sacksteder catching it. Under the rules of the day, this would have been an illegal forward pass and negated the touchdown. Only the first offensive player to touch a pass could be the one to receive it for his side. However, umpire Dr. Jack Eckstorm from Dartmouth ruled that Sacksteder had touched the ball first, and referee Frank Castleman from Colgate let the touchdown stand.

Bedlam ensued. Many people from the large crowd that had come to take in the game became excited and rushed onto the field, preventing the Cadets from attempting the extra point. Police tried to clear the crowd from the field so that the game could go on, but were unable to do so. With the teams unable to continue play, and darkness falling, Referee Castleman ruled the game over and declared the Cadets the winners by a final score of 26-21. The game ended with the crowd still on the field and nearly six minutes still left on the game clock.

The Saint Mary’s Cadets were now Dayton and southern Ohio champions. In just a few years’ time, they would form the nucleus of one the National Football League’s original teams, the Dayton Triangles.

While the Cadets were coming of age in Dayton, in Connecticut Nelson Talbott had arrived on the national football stage. His outstanding play on the line at Old Eli fired Dayton’s sports imagination, and both the Yale-Princeton and Yale-Harvard games were front-page news. So great was Talbott’s physical strength and skill that Harvard regularly used double-teams on him, yet he still affected play in all phases of the game. Despite a subpar season for Yale, Talbott caught the attention of Walter Camp, who named him an All-American at left tackle. At the end of the season, his teammates bestowed their highest honor on Talbott, naming him captain for the 1914 season.

That November, Captain-elect Talbott travelled with one his coaches, Frank Hinkey, to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada to take in the fifth Grey Cup game. Hinkey was a former star end at Yale who wanted the team to adopt a more open, modern style of play. Watching the Hamilton Tigers (now the Tiger-Cats) play the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club, the two men marveled at the use of backward passes to open up the field on end runs. Together they reasoned that with proper execution the same style of play could also work in American football. With Talbott’s support as captain, Yale appointed Hinkey head coach for the 1914 season, and the two men set out to create the most wide-open style of play ever seen on an American gridiron.