Season 1, Episode 5: Championship Blues

The Saint Mary’s Cadets, forerunners of the Dayton Triangles, set out to defend their city independent football championship in 1914. However, winning the title was one thing; defending it proved quite another. Meanwhile, Nelson Talbott sought to cap his college career by leading Yale to the top of the Ivy League. Norb Sacksteder goes west and begins to build a football legend.

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A little Norb Sacksteder trivia

As I researched this period, I was drawn to Norb Sacksteder’s 1914 season at Christian Brothers College at St. Louis. Sports writers there quickly acknowledged Norb as one the most dynamic running backs they had ever seen.

Another thing the St. Louis writers noticed that Dayton scribes did not: Sacksteder apparently never, ever used a stiff arm. He did everything he did by dodging or running around would-be tacklers.

Sacksteder’s 506 all-purpose yards against DePauw on Thanksgiving Day, 1914 was still considered an amazing feat as late as 1932, when Robert Ripley extolled it in his Believe It or Not newspaper feature.

Episode Transcript

(Note: This is a copy of the script. The actual narration may vary slightly.)

The 1914 season found the city and southern Ohio football champion Saint Mary’s Cadets, predecessors of NFL original team the Dayton Triangles, eager to defend their laurels. The Cadets, who fielded teams on the gridiron, diamond and hardwood, were in particularly high spirits after just winning the Dayton independent baseball championship. The new football season would find Al Mahrt and Babe Zimmerman again doing double duty. Both were apparently enrolled at Saint Mary’s, by then called Saint Mary’s College, perhaps in a graduate course, and both were playing on Saturday and Sunday. Mahrt played quarterback and captained both the college and independent teams. Although they would be without end Johnny Devereaux, who had gone west to play at Christian Brothers College in St. Louis, the future seemed bright. Louis Clark had stepped away from coaching, replaced by Al McCray, who would handle coaching duties for both the Cadets and the Saint Mary’s College Saints, as Clark had done previously.

As defending champions, the Cadets got every opponent’s best effort, but it didn’t seem to faze them at the start of the season. They opened at home with a 48-0 romp over a combined team of Crimson and Celts from Cincinnati. Then, things got tough. Early October found the Cadets on the road in Wabash, Indiana, where they lost a hard-fought game to the local team by a 19-14 count. Not only did the Cadets lose the game, they lost Hugh Sacksteder to what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder. They suffered two more blows the following week, when Norb Sacksteder and lineman Robert Greger decided to follow Johnny Devereaux to Christian Brothers. With a makeshift backfield, the Cadets rebounded, winning 13-7 over Christ Church of Cincinnati. The winning score came when the church team fumbled, and the recovery was returned for a touchdown by new center George Kinderdine.

Kinderdine, from nearby Miamisburg, Ohio, was the son of that city’s long-time police chief, James Kinderdine. George never competed in organized football at the high school or college levels, instead learning by doing on the local sandlots of the day. He began the 1914 season with the Oakwoods, but the Cadets lured him away in the hope of filling the hole left by the loss of Greger. George Kinderdine would go on to play for the Triangles throughout the team’s entire existence, making NFL history in the process.

Having eked out a road win over Christ Church, the Cadets now faced the tough West Carrollton football club in a much-anticipated clash. West Carrollton, featuring the Partlow brothers, gave the Cadets all they could handle in a seesaw battle. Lou Partlow, who would later earn a reputation as a battering ram of a back for the Triangles, figured in this game for reasons that had nothing to do with running. The Cadets blocked one of Partlow’s punt attempts and returned it for a touchdown. Later, Lou atoned by throwing a touchdown pass. Mahrt’s late touchdown pass to Zimmerman gave the Cadets a 19-18 victory. Missed extra points were the difference in the game.

The following week, disaster struck. Early in the Cadets’ away game against the Catholic Athletic club of Cincinnati, Mahrt suffered a broken left arm while being tackled. In the third quarter, Zimmerman suffered a broken left shoulder, also during a CAC tackle. Without the services of Mahrt and Zimmerman, the Cadets were unable to generate any scoring punch, and a 70-yard run followed by a 1-yard plunge late in the game gave CAC a 7-0 win. Both Mahrt and Zimmerman were lost for the rest of the season.

The end of the season for Mahrt and Zimmerman meant the end of the Saint Mary’s College season as well. The parents of two of the college players withheld permission for their sons to play any further. Combined with the season-ending injuries to Mahrt and Zimmerman, the school administration judged the team too weak to continue against the remaining competition. Within a few days, the college announced that it would forego the final two scheduled games of the season.

With the Cadets’ leader and star running back on the sidelines, expectations in many quarters were that the Oakwoods would easily reclaim the city championship. The former champs had started slowly, but made changes in their lineup and bounced back to top competitive form. Meanwhile, the Cadets had soldiered on, with backup Bill Sherry taking over quarterbacking duties, but Al Mahrt was irreplaceable. Shortly before the championship game, however, news from the west bolstered the Cadets’ hopes.

Cadet Manager Al Gessler arranged to bring Norb Sacksteder, Johnny Devereaux and Bob Greger back to Dayton for the championship game. Christian Brothers had a road game in Memphis the Saturday before the Cadets-Oakwoods tangle. Immediately after that game, Norb, Johnny and Bob boarded a train that travelled all night and arrived in Dayton the following day, in time for the big game. After the Sunday game, the men would have to board another train back to St. Louis.

It wasn’t enough.

On November 15, 1914, the Oakwoods regained the city championship from the Cadets by a 6-0 count. The only score occurred early in the game on a 4-yard plunge by Bob Bescher. The Cadets threatened on several occasions, including a late 45-yard pass from Sherry to Norb Sacksteder in the fourth quarter, but failed to score, while the Oakwood offense sputtered after Bescher was forced to exit with a broken finger. The Cadet offense was simply not the same without Al Mahrt and Babe Zimmerman, and the presence of Sacksteder, Devereaux and Greger were not enough to overcome Mahrt and Zimmerman’s absence. However, this was only the first of what could become a three-game series, with a rematch already contemplated on Thanksgiving Day.

Things were going better for Bud Talbott’s Yale Bulldogs. The New Haven team had suffered significant turnover from the team that had a less than stellar 1913 season, and had stumbled out of the gate itself, losing their season opener to Washington and Jefferson. However, under the coaching of Frank Hinkey and Talbott’s field leadership, Old Eli had rounded into form. They defeated Brown, and after two years of frustrating ties, dispatched Princeton. A win over Harvard would give Yale victories over both the Crimson and the Princeton Tigers for the first time in years.

The following Saturday, though, Yale’s hopes for Ivy League glory were dashed when Harvard dominated them in a 36-0 victory. It was the most lopsided win by either team in their long rivalry to that date. That week, Nelson Talbott returned home to Dayton to spend Thanksgiving with his family. During the week he came home, Talbott was again touted as an All-American; however, he did not make the Walter Camp All-America team.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving in Dayton found the Cadets reeling. For their next game at Westwood Park, a return match against Christ Church of Cincinnati, Hugh Sacksteder had returned to the Cadet lineup at halfback. Despite bringing in former Oakwoods quarterback Roy Barton to replace Sherry, the Cadets were still unable to generate offense, losing 13-0 that Sunday. The visitors’ first score came by way of a 20-yard pass, while the second came on a length-of-the-field return of an interception thrown by Sherry, who had replaced Barton in the second quarter.

Going into their Thanksgiving Day rematch with the Oakwoods, the Cadets had good news and bad news. The good news was that Carl Storck would return to the lineup. The bad news was that Oakwoods star Herb Allen, who had been absent from their lineup, would return for the entire game. He had appeared in the first game of the series, but played only a few minutes. Cadet boosters had hoped for the return of Norb Sacksteder, but he, Devereaux and Greger were committed to play for Christian Brothers that Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1914, with an estimated 1000 in attendance at Westwood Park, the Cadets won the rematch 3-0. The only scoring came on a late 38-yard field goal by Louis Clark, which was set up by a fumble recovery. The Cadets controlled the game throughout, paced by Storck’s power running. Storck brought fresh legs to the roster, having spent most of the summer and fall settling into his new position as an athletic trainer for the YMCA.

While the Cadets were grinding out a win in Dayton that Thanksgiving, in St. Louis Norb Sacksteder had a breakout game for the ages. Playing for Christian Brothers against DePauw University of Indiana, Sacksteder was a one-man juggernaut. He scored a touchdown on an 85-yard punt return. He scored another on a 75-yard run during which, reportedly, all eleven DePauw defenders missed tackles on him. He even returned a short missed field goal 50 yards. In all, Sacksteder amassed an astounding 506 all-purpose yards that day. It was a feat considered so amazing at the time that Robert Ripley included it in one his famous “Believe It Or Not” newspaper features – nearly two decades later.

Back in Dayton, the Cadets’ Thanksgiving Day win set up a rubber game, to be played the following Sunday. The Cadet backfield, which had shuffled players in and out all season, would be forced to do so again. Storck, whose power running had been so crucial on Thanksgiving Day, would be unavailable. The returning Hugh Sacksteder would take Storck’s place.

Like the two games that preceded it, the final Cadets-Oakwoods game on November 29, 1914 had plenty of action but little scoring. The game was marred by penalties and turnovers on both sides. The only score of the game came in the second quarter after the Oakwoods, as they had done in the second championship game of 1913, misfired on a punt from deep in their territory. This kicking error set the Cadets up at the Oakwoods ten-yard line. On the third play, Billy Zile ran the ball over the goal line for the touchdown, and the extra point was good. For the rest of the game, the Cadets all but abandoned the forward pass, electing instead to run when they could, punt when they could not run and play defense. As time ran down and darkness loomed, the Oakwoods turned to the pass in a final effort to come back on the Cadets. They mounted a late threat behind two long passes, but fumbled away their last opportunity. The game ended with the Cadets on top 7-0 and, improbably, city champions for the second straight year.

For fans of the high-scoring, wide-open style of football that the 1913 Cadets had used so effectively, the 1914 edition must have been quite a disappointment. Both the Cadets and Oakwoods scored more points in the final game of 1913 (Cadets 26, Oakwoods 21) than both teams combined could produce in three games in 1914 (16). Yet, like all champions, the Saint Mary’s Cadets found a way to win.

The 1914 Cadets-Oakwoods series may have been more than just entertaining, if clumsy, football, though. It may have planted a seed in the mind of Nelson Talbott. With his playing career at Yale now over and graduation looming, young Bud’s thoughts must surely have turned, at some point, to his future.

Talbott, in attendance at the Cadet-Oakwood Thanksgiving Day game, was impressed by what he saw, telling the Daily News of the players that day (in part):

They have all the necessary ability and many of them have natural talent, superior to some of the players of the big school elevens, but the lack of regular practice prevents them from getting the results which their talents justify. . . Time after time they attempt and get away with plays which are only used after careful coaching by the college elevens. If these members of the independent teams could practice together every day and thereby get a system of team work, their play would be even more brilliant than it is.

It must have occurred to Bud Talbott that he was already familiar with just such a “system of teamwork” – the one he had learned under the tutelage of Coach Frank Hinkey – and that at some future date he might have the opportunity to coach a group of players like the ones who had impressed him that Thanksgiving Day. Before that moment came, though, Nelson Talbott was destined to return to the East Coast in 1915 for graduate studies, to learn the workings of the financial industry in New York City and to become an assistant coach for Hinkey at Yale.

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