Forgotten Family: The Nesser Brothers
|By Bob Hunter, Dispatch
Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
January 27, 2002
Each day, thousands of commuters whiz past the dusty weed patch north of I-670 near Joyce and Old Leonard avenues, unaware the sleepy rows of tractor-trailers parked there are sharing a bed with pro football history.
Pro football history? Here?
Next to a tarp-covered mountain of salt? On a piece of desolate Norfolk-Southern Railroad ground so homely that dump truck drivers probably refuse to go out there?
Pro football was obviously different in those days. The six Nesser brothers -- seven for one season -- and their teammates on the Columbus Panhandles worked all day on that grimy strip of land, at the shops of the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. They did backbreaking, muscle-straining work for 10 hours a day but always rushed through lunch so they could practice football for 50 minutes before they returned to their labors.
Never heard of the Nessers? It's not surprising. The city's long-standing indifference to this family is a crime.
From about 1907 to 1925, they were only the most famous football family in the United States. They were reputed to be the sport's most brutal bunch of bone-busters, in a game that makes today's NFL seem tame as croquet.
"They all worked for the railroad," said Irene Cassady, 68, whose mother, Rose, was a Nesser and whose father, John Schneider, was a Panhandles teammate. "Some of them were boilermakers and my dad was a blacksmith. I think a couple of the brothers worked in the blacksmith shop, too. The shops were all close together and they would all eat lunch and then play football on their lunch hour. . . . If it was raining, they played euchre. If it wasn't, they practiced football."
Pro football was different in those days. That much is as plain as the nose on Ted Nesser's face.
"Dad had his nose broken eight times," Mary Katherine (Babe) Sherman said. "Dr. Charles Turner -- he had his office on Mount Vernon Avenue -- he said, 'Ted, we're not going to set that nose any more; you'll just break it again.' "
Ted Nesser's 90-year-old daughter laughed.
"The only person I knew who had a nose like my dad's was Knute Rockne," she said. "Dad used to say, 'We both have our nose all over our face.' "
In a game devoid of padding -- it was a game of leather helmets and bone-to-bone tackles -- the Nesser brothers were bigger and stronger than most of their opponents. In their prime, they averaged more than 210 pounds apiece, in an era in which the average professional lineman weighed about 180 pounds. Frank was 6 feet 3 and the heaviest at 250. Ray and Fred were the tallest at 6-5; Phil was 6-4, 236; Al was 6-2. John, the oldest, and Ted, the captain, were only 5-10. But Ted weighed 225 and might have been the toughest of the bunch. In 1908, he reputedly stayed for a game with two broken bones protruding from an arm because he thought his brothers needed him.
Joe Carr, the team's business manager (he later became NFL president, who had the league office in Columbus from 1921 until he died in 1939), once remarked that there "aren't three good ribs amongst the lot of those Nessers," and he might not have been exaggerating.
"Uncle Ray was the baby of the family and he didn't play very much," Sherman said. "I remember my older sisters telling me that he sprained his ankle in a game one day, and they put liniment on it and put his sock and shoe back on. He went out and played with it, and when they took the sock and shoe off, the skin just came right off of his foot."
Not all brawn
Tough guys, those Nessers. And smart. None of them attended college, but they could have. Their father, Theodore Nesser, was lured from Germany by the railroad and designed the steam engine the Pennsy used for years. When the railroad tweaked his design to get around his patent, Nesser quit and started a plumbing business. Frank was offered a chance to go to Notre Dame but chose to get married instead. Phil was a math genius.
"He taught at Central High School until they found out he didn't have a degree and they made him quit," said Kate Benson, Phil's 77- year-old daughter. "He never went to school beyond the fourth grade, but he had formulas you wouldn't believe."
Ted was a football genius and is credited with originating several plays -- the triple pass, the criss- cross and the short kickoff -- that became popular in the college game of that day.
Ted also was the first Nesser to make money at football, playing for Massillon's state championship team in 1904, '05 and '06. Older brother John also played for the Tigers, in 1905, before Carr formed the Panhandles in 1907. At that time, most of the Nessers lived with their parents at 1608 Harvard Ave., a large two-story house that's still there. They walked a mile or so to work at the Panhandle Shops, and rode their fathers' horse-drawn plumbing wagon to practice at Recreation Park, Franklin Park, Ohio Field or wherever they could find to play.
Frank Nesser frequently engaged in kicking contests with Jim Thorpe; he once was credited with a 63-yard field goal and old-timers used to recall his punts of 70 yards in the air.
"Mama (Rose Nesser Schneider) said they would get (to games) ahead of time and Uncle Frank would kick," Cassady said. "He would stand by the one (set of goal posts) and kick to the other one. Now what is that, 100 yards?"
From 1909 to 1917, the Nessers and the Panhandles were successful on the field, as well. In 1909, they were 7-1-1 against the best teams in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two states at the heart of pro football's universe at that time. In 1915, they were joined by former star Ohio State quarterback Louis (Pick) Pickerel and center Hiram Brigham, and went 9-3-1. In the penultimate game of the season, Brigham was kicked in the head during a 26-0 win over the Columbus Barracks, was taken to a hospital unconscious and almost died.
Similar injuries were more common to the teams who played the Panhandles. Ted reputedly ended the career of Willie Heston, a former Michigan All-American, with a hard tackle in the Massillon-Canton game in 1906. Rockne, the famous Notre Dame coach, once said "getting hit by a Nesser is like falling off a moving train."
Their reputation spread quickly. In 1909, Texas A&M coach Charley Moran, fearing a loss to Texas, offered to pay Ted for his help. Even though Ted had never finished high school, he wore a freshman beanie on campus and suited up for the game. The Aggies never trailed, so Ted never got in, but afterward Moran paid him $200 for his trouble. Having a Nesser on the sideline was a nice insurance policy.
"Sometimes if the Panhandles would go to different places and the other team didn't have enough players, they would take somebody from the Panhandle team," Cassady said. "But they never took one of the Nesser brothers. My dad (John Schneider) said, 'I was the poor fool who got picked to play against the Nessers, and they pulverized me.' He used to say, 'I think that was my scariest day, other than the day I asked the brothers if I could marry their sister.' "
There were 12 children in the Nesser family. The only boy who didn't play football, Pete, weighed 325 pounds. Ted's son Charles also played briefly for the Panhandles, as did Ted Hopkins (sister Anna's son). So at one point there were seven Nesser brothers, a son, a nephew and a brother-in-law on the team. Two of the brothers' sons, John P. and Bill, eventually played football for Ohio State.
Four of the brothers retired as players after the 1921 season, including 46-year-old John, who held the record as the NFL's oldest player until it was broken by George Blanda. Al continued to play for the Akron Pros and the New York Giants, was an all-league guard as late as 1927 and was eventually named to the Helms Foundation Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But none of that ever seemed to matter much in the self-styled football town they represented. By the time pro football caught up to the college game in popularity, the Nessers were a faded memory.
"I think they were just so darn happy playing and reminiscing about it," Cassady said, "that I don't think they cared."
It's a good thing. Columbus still feels pretty much the same way about them. There is a Panhandles exhibit in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, but no mention of them in the city where they lived and played. Not a Nesser street, not a Nesser alley, not even a Nesser plaque recognizing their pioneering ways.
The late Vera Nesser, Fred's daughter, tried to get the city to name a street for the Nessers about 15 years ago and got snubbed. Apparently, city officials didn't know much about them, either.
One reason is that the Panhandles played most of their games on the road, using their free railroad passes to cut down on expenses. They would get nice guarantees in places like Massillon, Canton, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Wayne and Akron, where they wouldn't have to go to the trouble of renting grounds, printing and selling tickets, etc.
"When I first started playing, the players split $500 or $600 at the season's end," Al Nesser remembered later. "But in 1915, one of our most successful years, the first-stringers collected $1,500 apiece. I felt like a millionaire."
They played a few games at Recreation Park, now occupied by a Big Bear store in German Village, and at Neil Park on the west side of Cleveland Avenue, across from Fort Hayes, but mostly they traveled.
They were a huge draw everywhere they went -- a game against the Detroit Heralds in Navin Field (Tiger Stadium) in 1916 drew 7,000, even though the Heralds hiked their ticket prices from $1 to $1.50 only for games against the Panhandles and Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs -- and were written up extensively in out-of-town newspapers, but barely received notice here.
"The Panhandles received excellent newspaper coverage outside of Columbus," Keith McClellan wrote in The Sunday Game, a book on the early years of professional football. "The Panhandles rarely received more than token coverage in Columbus during this period, because the fans were focused on Ohio State University games and were not much interested in games played by railroad workers. As a consequence, the Panhandles never achieved much of a hometown following."
At the time, that might have even been understandable. But what about the decades since? The Panhandles were charter members of the NFL when it was formed in 1920 and stayed until 1926 -- the last three years as the Tigers because most of the Nessers and their railroad workers were too old to play by that time.
Pro football historians Mike Rathet and Don R. Smith wrote in Their Deeds and Dogged Faith that "next to the Canton Bulldogs of the Jim Thorpe era, they were probably the best-known team of the pre-NFL years." Yet they have never been formally inducted into the Hall of Fame, and in Columbus they remain as faceless as that weed patch near I-670.
It's about time the Nessers are given their due -- here and in Canton.
"It's sad they didn't honor them some way," Cassady said. "Vera always wanted something Downtown, and that was all spoken for. But even Leonard Avenue going out there -- I'd be proud if they'd name (it) Nesser Way or something like that. Gosh. It doesn't matter where it is, in a city this size, they should be able to do something."
Or at least break a nose trying.
Copyright 2002 The Columbus Dispatch, Article by Bob Hunter, Dispatch Sports Columnist Columbus Dispatch (Ohio), January 27, 2002
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