Season 2, Episode 3: The Turning Point

The 1922 NFL season represents a turning point for National Football League founding team, the Dayton Triangles. Founding coach Nelson “Bud” Talbott is forced to step aside to attend to his growing family business and social affairs, leaving team business manager Carl Storck to assume head coaching duties as well. Meanwhile, illness threatens the team’s biggest supporter in the local business community. The team’s long time quarterback and field general, Al Mahrt, faces his future.

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Unsung Hero: F. B. MacNab

One of the key points in the Triangles’ story was the untimely death of Forrest Burleigh MacNab, who had been one of the team’s staunches supporters within the companies that bankrolled the team. He and Nelson Talbott represented the majority of the executive committee that initially managed Triangle Park in Dayton. After Talbott’s departure as coach and MacNab’s death from kidney disease at age 37, the new management refused to tolerate further financial losses from the team and ended their support.

Episode Transcript

In 1922, APFA team owners and managers completed some historic business. Thanks to President Joe Carr’s leadership in formalizing operations, the “association” in APFA no longer made sense. This group of teams was now truly a league. Therefore, they adopted a new name – the National Football League. Carl Storck was now secretary and treasurer of the league, and was about to take on even more responsibility at home with the Dayton Triangles.

Nelson Talbott’s plate was full. His commitments to the family’s financial businesses and other interests left little time for coaching. Talbott stepped down as coach of the Triangles but promised to assist as much as possible, especially in preseason scrimmages. With Frank Hinkey in failing health, Storck took on the job of head coach himself rather than hire another outsider. He was no stranger to coaching, having done it for Stivers, his high school alma mater, following his graduation.

Storck, wearing his manager hat, still found time to sign fresh players to bolster the lineup. William “Jiggs” Ullery was the most notable, a former football and track star at Penn State University. Ullery could run the 100-yard dash in ten seconds, which was very fast for the day. Other teams had expressed interest in Ullery, but Dayton had the inside track because it was closest to his hometown of Bradford Junction (now called Bradford), in nearby Miami County. Other newcomers included Bruno Haas, a guard from the University of Cincinnati and Tip O’Neill, a running back from the University of Detroit.

Storck expected most of the key players from 1921 to return. Furthermore, he was confident of bringing Norb Sacksteder back to Dayton. Only Al Mahrt had yet to commit by early September.

Mahrt eventually decided to return for another season, and was present at the team’s practice on September 12. A dinner meeting followed at the Triangle Park dining room, featuring remarks by Coach Storck and Assistant Coach Talbott about the upcoming season. The coaches discussed rules changes and tried to motivate the team for the fall campaign.

This year’s schedule would be different from years past. Billy Sunday, a popular former baseball player-turned-evangelist, would hold revival meetings at the park during November, and out of respect, the team would not play home games that month. To accommodate Rev. Sunday, the Triangles would play all of their home games in October, and all games after that on the road. Storck indicated that a home game in December might be possible.

The October 1 opening game appeared to be a tough matchup at first glance. Jim Thorpe had organized a team made up entirely of Native American players. All had college experience, either at Thorpe’s alma mater Carlisle University or at other schools. In addition to Thorpe, the team featured the talented Jim Guyon and Pete Calac. Based in the little town of LaRue, Ohio, Thorpe’s team called themselves the Oorang Indians. Entrepreneur Walter Lingo owned the franchise and bankrolled the team to promote his booming dog business. Storck assured the press (as he had last season) that Thorpe himself would play at least part of the game.

The 1922 season brought a new wrinkle in team marketing: Triangle-themed advertising. The October 1 Daily News ran a two-page advertising spread promoting the opening of the season. It included a blurb touting the strength of this year’s team and a schedule of home and away games. Most of the spread consisted of ads for local businesses, each featuring a photo of a prominent player. Advertisers included auto dealerships representing brands Hupmobile, Nash, Moon Touring, Earl and Studebaker; The Dayton Money Weight Scale Company; Winters National Bank; and Nelson Talbott’s investment firm, the N. S. Talbott Company. Players’ photos included Al Mahrt, Russ Hathaway, Dutch Thiele, Lee Fenner, Hobby Kinderdine and Nelson Talbott (even though Talbott was no longer the head coach).

The Irvin, Jewell and Vinson Company, a local paint and glass store, had an ad in the spread promoting their finishing product. The brand name of the product was Calac, which happened to be the same as the Oorang halfback, and their ad included a photo of Pete Calac. Whether any of the players gave permission or received compensation for the use of their likenesses is uncertain.

The Oorang Indians provided a spectacle befitting football fans’ worst prejudices that day at Triangle Park. Based on published accounts of the pregame ceremonies, it would be difficult to argue that they didn’t exploit their heritage for entertainment purposes. It wasn’t just that their roster included men named Thunder, Downwind and Long Time Sleep. According to press reports, they donned blankets and traditional head dress and performed a war dance prior to the start of the game.

The pregame spectacle far exceeded Oorang’s on-field performance.

The Triangles appeared in mid-season form, other than some shaky center snapping. Lou Partlow’s short touchdown plunge capped a sustained opening drive that mixed runs and passes. Two other promising Dayton first quarter drives failed when passes over the goal line fell for touchbacks. The Triangles blocked two Oorang punts, the second leading to a safety for Dayton. Tip O’Neill scored on a misdirection run in the second quarter to make the score 16-0 at the half.

Ken Huffine scored on a short run in the third quarter, set up by Faye Abbott’s punt return to the Oorang 10. Then, passes from Jiggs Ullery to Gus Redman and Huffine to Abbott, along with a long off-tackle run by Ullery, set up another Huffine touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The last Triangles touchdown came from a play that is no longer legal in American football. Redman, instead of returning an Oorang kick, punted it back toward the Oorang goal. The lone Oorang player who had stayed back was unable to field the ball. Glenn Tidd grabbed it and ran 45 yards for the score. (A version of this play is still legal in Canadian football, but seldom used.)

The final result was an easy 36-0 win for the Triangles. Contrary to Storck’s promises, Jim Thorpe did not appear in the contest.

In the aftermath of the victory over Oorang, a question lingered. Were the Triangles that good or was the competition just underwhelming? The team would have to wait until the following Sunday for clarity. The Canton Bulldogs were coming to town, and by all accounts, they were good. Canton’s visit to Triangle Park also represented a source of embarrassment to Carl Storck; despite Storck’s efforts and assurances, Norb Sacksteder had signed with the Bulldogs.

Sacksteder played against his old team on October 8 at Triangle Park, but was not a factor in the outcome. In fact, neither team was able to score. It was the definition of a defensive struggle. The Triangles were unable to move the ball deeper than the Canton 15-yard line, while the Bulldogs could not penetrate Dayton’s 30.

The Triangles now faced what appeared to be another tough matchup with the Minneapolis Marines. The Minnesota team had a solid reputation, having beaten the Columbus Pan Handles 28-0 and dropped a close 3-0 decision to the Chicago Bears. Their lineup featured a number of top players from the Upper Midwest region.

The Marines played gamely, but were no match for the Triangles in the October 15 game, a 17-0 Dayton victory. In fact, Minnesota needed several defensive stands to keep the game from getting out of hand. The Triangles opened the scoring in the first quarter on a 70-yard run by Francis Bacon. Russ Hathaway kicked a 30-yard field goal in the second period to bring the score to 10-0 at the half. Ken Huffine intercepted a pass to stop the lone Marines threat in the third quarter. Gus Redman finished the scoring with a short run set up by a 30-yard Mahrt to Thiele pass.

The following week saw the return of an old foe, the Hammond Pros. These Pros were a shadow of the team that had once played the Triangles closely. They had not won more than twice in a season since becoming founding members of the league. The Pros entered the October 22 game at Triangle Park with a mark of 0-2.

The Triangles sent Hammond home 0-3.

Al Mahrt threw and caught touchdown passes as the Triangles won 20-0. A short first quarter field goal by Russell Hathaway was the only scoring of the first half; he missed another attempt in the second quarter. After the intermission, Mahrt’s exploits blew the game open. In the third period, he caught a short pass from Bacon, made two would-be tacklers miss, and cruised in for a 30-yard score. Later in the quarter, Mahrt threw to Thiele for another score. Lee Fenner completed the scoring when his 30-yard field goal hit the cross bar and bounced over. Hammond not only finished winless, they failed to score a point in the entire 1922 season.

The October home stand ended with a true challenge: a visit from last season’s league runner-up Buffalo All-Americans. Living up to their name, the Buffalo squad brought in a collection of players who had won Walter Camp’s blessing in recent years. They came in to Triangle Park following a close loss to the Chicago Bears, their first of the season, and felt pressure to stay within striking distance of the Bears and the unbeaten Canton Bulldogs. The Triangles hoped to avenge last year’s loss to the All-Americans and to start the road portion of their schedule with an unbeaten mark. Francis Bacon would be limited for the Triangles with knee trouble, but expected to see some action.

Mistakes and missed opportunities haunted the Triangles that October 29. The home team missed field goals in the first and second quarters. Ken Huffine fumbled as he was trying to dive over the goal line for what would have been the first score of the game. Buffalo recovered past the goal line for a touchback. Then in the third quarter, a Tommy Hughitt to Oscar Anderson pass gave the All-Americans the only score of the day. The Triangles threatened at the end inside the Buffalo 10-yard line, but a fourth down pass fell incomplete. Although beaten 7-0, the Triangles played well and felt that they could have gotten a different outcome with better execution. Bacon did not play; Abbott, Huffine and Ullery split time at the halfback positions.

The Triangles opened their November road tour in Chicago against the Bears, which as the Staleys won the 1921 league championship. The game was close, and the Triangle defense played well, especially Eddie Sauer and Russell Hathaway. The offense, however, could not sustain drives in the slick field conditions. Dutch Sternaman did all the damage for the Bears. He kicked a field goal in the first quarter to stake the Bears to a 3-0 lead. Chicago finally broke through with a sustained drive in the fourth quarter, which Sternaman finished with a three-yard run, sealing the 9-0 Bears victory.

The next Sunday, November 12, found the Triangles in Rock Island to play the Independents. Two years before, the Triangle passing attack had made an indelible impression on both the Independents and the local media. Neither had forgotten. The 21-0 score in 1920 represented the largest margin of defeat for Rock Island in the team’s history to that point. This time they were determined to be ready for Al Mahrt and the Triangle passing attack. The Independents scrimmaged with the nearby Augustana College varsity team in the week prior to the game, with heavy emphasis on pass defense.

Bad weather deterred most fans from attending the game. Those who braved the elements at Rock Island’s Douglas Park had hoped to see an aerial circus. Instead, they saw something more akin to mud wrestling. This time, the Independents scored early and often. Indeed, they beat the Triangles at their own passing game. They also picked up scores on the ground and from a return of a fumbled punt. Dayton completed only two passes the entire game. When the contest finally, mercifully ended, the Independents had handed the Triangles the worst loss in their six-plus year history to that point, a 43-0 whipping. The lopsided loss, Dayton’s third in a row, left a once promising season in tatters.

The team limped home, arriving in Dayton to news that hurt far more than their defeat in Illinois. On Monday, November 13, 1922, Forrest Burleigh MacNab, the team’s biggest booster in the Triangle companies, succumbed to kidney disease after a long illness. MacNab was 37 years old.

As they mourned the loss of their devoted fan and benefactor, the Triangles had to wait three weeks to play again because of cancellations by Toledo and Cleveland. They finally returned to the field December 2 at Chicago against the Cardinals. The Cardinals were weakened by injuries sustained in their recent Thanksgiving game against the Bears, but managed an early field goal. They held the Triangles scoreless for three quarters, but then Dayton got the passing game working and mounted a fourth quarter drive that culminated in a short touchdown run by Ken Huffine. That score held up, and the Triangles closed out the season with a 7-3 victory. They finished with a record of four wins, three losses and a tie. The December home game Storck talked up earlier in the fall never materialized.

The same day the Triangles eked out a win over the Chicago Cardinals, the Canton Bulldogs finished their home schedule with a 40-6 victory over the Milwaukee Badgers. They followed that triumph with a 19-0 road win over the Toledo Maroons, and finished the season as the National Football League’s only undefeated team. Norb Sacksteder had played a key role for the Bulldogs in 1922. Team owners and managers awarded Canton the title at the league meeting the following year. Alone among the original 1908 Saint Mary’s Cadets, Norbert Sacksteder claimed the mantle of NFL champion.

Despite the Dayton Triangles’ respectable record in 1922, it was clear that times were changing. The level of professionalism in the NFL began to increase. Bigger, better-financed teams in larger markets would enjoy a widening advantage over teams in places like Hammond, Rock Island . . . and Dayton. Full-time professional players in places like Chicago would consistently outshine factory workers who played part time as the Triangles did.

Against this backdrop, Alphonse Herman Mahrt decided it was time to move on to the next stage of his life. Knowing he could not make a living playing football, Mahrt left Dayton for Chicago by 1923 in order to devote his full energy to starting a career in business. Without their crafty field general, who was perhaps the first great passing quarterback in NFL history, the Dayton Triangles would never be the same.

By Bruce Smith

Writer, producer and host of the podcast "Triangles: The Life and Times of an NFL Original Team." Music composer and producer. Dayton, Ohio native.

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