Oorang Indians: One of the First NFL Teams
|By Sam Borowski
Ethnic NewsWatch Indian Country Today (Lakota Times)
January 5, 1995
It seems inconceivable now, during the National Football League's 75th anniversary -- a season marked by multi-million dollar stadiums, free agency and salary caps -- that the little town of LaRue, Ohio, population 803, once had an NFL franchise. And that team was all American Indian -- and it represented a dog kennel.
However unbelievable it may seem, it happened. And it was all because of a man named Walter Lingo.
It would be an understatement to say that Lingo, who owned the Oorang Dog Kennels in LaRue, just 14 miles outside Marion, Ohio, was a great promoter.
P.T. Barnum had nothing on this guy.
Lingo's obsession was proving that the King Oorang breed of Airedale -- which he owned -- was a new kind of wonder dog. He modestly billed it as "the world's great all-around dog." Lingo shamelessly wrote miles of press releases about his beloved breed.
"About 60 years ago," he said in his own monthly magazine, "the common man of Great Britain found it necessary to create a dog different from any other in existence. The bird dog became lost in the bush when at stand, the hound was too noisy and retrievers lack stamina. Therefore, these folks secretly experimented by a series of cross-breeding old types, including the otter hound, the old English sheep dog, the black and tan terrier, and the bulldog. From this melting pot resulted the Airedale, so named because he was first produced by the people along the dale of the Aire River between England and Scotland. The new dog combined the good qualities of his ancestors without their faults. It was a super dog."
However, Lingo simply wasn't satisfied with the average strain of Airedale, and after an incredible series of breedings, for which he brought in great Airedales from all over the world, he created the "King Oorang." At the time, Field and Stream magazine called it, "the greatest utility dog in the history of the world."
From his kennels in LaRue, Lingo operated one of the country's first large puppy factories. It was a mail-order business, providing over 15,000 Oorangs, to customers from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America. At least 1,000 females were out on contract to farmers in Ohio, who in return for one Oorang, were willing to sell all the puppies back to Lingo at cost.
Lingo's kennels were truly unique. Freeman Lloyd, a prominent dog-show writer of the period, said, "This writer has covered thousands of kennels all over the world and nothing has been seen or imagined such as Walter Lingo's mail-order dog business."
So how did this animal-lover turned entrepreneur get into the rough-and-tumble business of professional football?
Well, it was a widely known fact that Lingo had three true passions in his life: first, his Airedales; second, American Indian lore; and third, his love of hunting. Incredibly, he managed to combine all three of them for two years through the medum of football, a sport that Lingo wasn't all that familiar with.
But, he was familiar with -- or more appropriately, fascinated by -- American Indians.
He considered American Indians to be mythic people and felt that there was almost a supernatural bond between Indians and animals. And, after all, Indian people were strong, fierce and instinctive hunters as well.
Lingo soon became friendly with Jim Thorpe, a future NFL Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest athlete of his time, who came to Lingo's defense after neighboring farmers accused the Oorang Kennels of raising a nation of sheep killers. With no reluctance at all, Thorpe came to Lingo's aid by testifying that he once knew an Oorang Airedale that had saved a 6-year-old girl's life. After that, Lingo and Thorpe became hunting buddies.
One early winter day in 1921, the great showman brought Thorpe and Pete Calac, who was a teammate of Thorpe's at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, to his plantation in LaRue to hunt for possum. Later that day, the three agreed over a toddy or two, that Lingo would purchase a franchise in the National Football League. At the time, the franchise was priced at the whopping sum of 100. (In comparison, one of Lingo's Airedales sold for 150.) There were just two catches, though: first: Thorpe had to field an all-Indian team; and second, Lingo wanted the team to help run his kennels in addition to playing football.
"Was that something?" mused Grace Thorpe, one of Jim's seven children, "the dogs were worth more than the football team.
"But it was a unique marriage. (Lingo) wanted to promote his dogs," she said. "And Dad -- in addition to being a great athlete -- was a great lover of dogs. My mother told me one time that his favorite hunting dog was killed in a hunting accident and Dad cried over it. He loved his dogs.
"In fact, even when he was up in his 50s and living in California, Dad still had dogs."
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
With that, the Oorang Indians were born. Although professional football wasn't the darling of the sports pages in the early twenties, there was still sufficient interest to warrant the expenditure of 100, which is exactly what it cost Lingo to advertise his dog business on the playing fields of the nation. In an era that saw such teams as the Canton Bulldogs, the Pottsville Maroons, the Rock Island Independents and the Frankford Yellowjackets join the league, there is no doubt that the Oorang Indians, who were named after Lingo's favorite breed of dog, stood out.
Thorpe was appointed player-head coach, a position that brought him a salary of 500. He immediately began recruiting on reservations in the Midwest and discovered such players as Wrinklemeat, Lone Wolf, Eagle Feather, Running Deer, Red Fox, Bear-Behind-the-Wood-Chuck and last, but certainly not least, Long Time Sleep.
Lingo had gotten his wish. The Oorang Indians were all Cherokee, Mohawk, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Winnebago, Mission, Cadoo, Sac and Fox, Seneca and Penobscot.
The pieces were set in place for one of the most unique sports franchises to open its inaugural season in 1922, but there was just one problem. LaRue didn't have a playing field. However, the suburb of Marion, Ohio, did.
Marion was booming at the time. President Warren Harding, who hailed from the town, had contributed 2,000 towards the construction of a 150-room hotel. The town's population had swelled to more than 30,000 people and it was rapidly transforming from an agricultural city to an industrial center. In fact, in honor of the newly elected president, Al Jolson had consented to play in Marion's only theater, the Chautauqua Auditorium in Garfield Park. And now, Marion could boast the Oorang Indians.
In retrospect, the team only played two home games in two seasons. The Indians, who were one of the largest drawing attractions of any of the NFL teams of the time, spent long weeks on the road moving from Rochester to Toledo to Chicago to Minneapolis to St. Louis. But, despite the hectic schedule, Lingo said in his weekly magazine Oorang Comments that the Indians received the very best of care. The same dieticians and the same trainer who fed his Airedales and cared for their well-being, also tended to the Indian team members.
It was debatable, though, whether the Indians were there to play football or give Airedale exhibitions at half time. Lingo himself wasn't quite sure. In addition to the exhibitions with the dogs -- the Indians, including Thorpe, participated in helping the Oorang Airedales perform tricks for the adoring crowd -- Long Time Sleep wrestled a bear on the field. It was one of the earliest halftime shows ever generated.
"He might've been the first one to do it," said Mrs. Walter Lingo, 90, who still resides in LaRue. "He was the first as far as I know."
The Oorang Indians were also the first to have a regular training camp during their short existence. However, it was their halftime entertainment that made them such a hot ticket in the early 1920s. And Lingo certainly wasn't shy when it came to his gala halftime exhibitions that could have rivaled today's spectacular Super Bowl halftime shows.
"Speaking of using Indians," he wrote in "Me and my Dogs," a self-promoting book he authored, "Let me tell you about my big publicity stunt. You know Jim Thorpe, don't you, the Sac and Fox Indian, the world's greatest athlete who won the all-around championship at the Olympic Games in Sweden in 1921? Well, I found him a bit down and out and I invited him to come hunt with me in Ohio, those Indians being almost as good as my Airedales when it comes to tracking game. Assisted by two other Indian stars, Joe Guyon and Pete Calac, he headed a company of 50 Indian athletes and toured the country with a trained pack of Oorang Airedales. They played football against the leading big-city team.
"They have exhibitions with my Airedales at work trailing and treeing a live bear, fancy rifle shooting by Indian crack shots, with the Oorang Airedales retrieving the targets. The program also included Indian dancing, fancy tomahawk work, knife and lariat throwing by Indian performers. The climax was an exhibition of what the United States' loyal Indian scouts did during the war against Germany, with Oorang Airedale Red Cross dogs giving first aid in an armed encounter between scouts and Huns in no-man's land. Many of the Indians and dogs were veterans of the war -- the Oorang's up front."
As you can imagine, Lingo was never stuck for a dog story, something that absolutely astounded Thorpe. At dinner on the evening before the Oorang Indians played the Chicago Bears, Lingo spoke at length about an Airedale that had personally defeated two enraged sows. And here's the kicker: Despite the fact that the dog was just a puppy, he grabbed two of the fiercest beasts in the world and killed them both.
"That man Lingo even told stories that made us look bad," said Thorpe. "He had a couple of us breaking in on this pioneer woman while she slept and having her rescued by a pair of Oorang Airedales. They never had Oorang Airedales on the Kansas frontier, but he said they were there anyway. It made good news for his kennels and that's all he thought about. I did what I was paid to do. I sure couldn't play football for him because I was getting up towards 40 and I couldn't breathe so good."
So, the football players fulfilled their true role, testifying constantly about what good and faithful dogs their Airedale buddies were. They argued that their dogs could kill bear, wolf and deer in a single gulp. They claimed no other dog could catch a dead duck floating on the water like and Oorang Airedale. They stopped just short of saying the dogs could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
On the other hand, the Indians weren't quite as successful as their Airedales, although they did get off to an auspicious start. The Oorang Indians lined up on offense for their first contest in 1922 against the Indiana Belmonts, who were not an NFL team. The offensive line was Long Time Sleep and Stilwell Sanooke were ends, Xavier Downwind and Baptist Thunder were tackles, Elmer Busch and Ted Lone Wolf were guards and Ted St. Germaine was at center. The backfield consisted of Joe Guyon, who directed the offense at quarterback, with Reginald Attache and Pete Calac at halfback and David Running Deer at fullback. Among the reserves were: Peter Black Bear, Joe Little Twig, Dick Deerslayer, Bemus Pierce, Newasha, Laughing Gas, Red Fang and Arrowhead.
The Indians ambushed the Belmonts 33-0 in their inaugural game, taking home 2,000 in profits and a Cherokee tackle named Chief Johnson, who Thorpe recruited at halftime, in the process.
"The whole thing was played in a snowstorm," Indianapolis, general manager, Robert Eddy, said at the time. "Thorpe gave the darndest exhibition of kicking at halftime that anybody had ever seen. Our club never stood a chance against them."
Despite their initial success, it has never been suggested that the Oorang Indians were a powerhouse. After all, they only won three games in two years. And they certainly didn't take Lingo seriously.
"They were tough son-a-guns on the field, giving you an elbow here and a knee there," said Ed Healy, a Chicago Bears guard who played against the Indians. "But, off the field they were marvelous, a whole lot of fun. They just has a good time and didn't care that much about football. the man who owned the Oorangs had them doing shows with his dogs at halftime. That was what the team was all about ... it was there to advertise those Airedales. The Indians knew that football wasn't important to Lingo, so they just partied all the time."
They partied so hard on one particular occasion, that when a Chicago bartender at a place called "Everyman's Saloon" took it upon himself to stop serving drinks since Illinois law prohibited the sale of alcohol after 2 a.m., they stuffed him in a telephone booth and turned it upside down. The Indians were trounced by the Bears a few hours later on game day.
And don't forget the afternoon in St. Louis when several of the Indians who were out raising havoc, decided it was time to return to their hotel. Unfortunately for them, the trolley was headed in the opposite direction. Not to worry. The Indians soon rectified the situation. They picked up the trolley, turned it around on the tracks, and told the conductor where they wanted to go. Instant express.
"White people had this misconception about Indians," said the late Leon Boutwell, a Chippewa who quarterbacked the Oorangs for a short time. "They thought we were all wild men, even though almost all of us had been to college and were generally more civilized than they were. Well, it was a dandy excuse to raise hell and get away with it when the mood struck us. Since we were Indians, we could get away with things the white men couldn't. Don't think we didn't take advantage of it."
The partying, however, took a major toll on their ability to play the game of football. And after the Indians followed up their inaugural 2-6 season in 1922 with a 1-10 campaign the next year, Lingo, who was beset with financial problems, was forced to disband the team. After two colorful years in the NFL, the Oorang Indians disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived.
All of the Indians scattered: Thorpe, Guyon and Calac continued to play pro ball several more seasons. Guyon, like Thorpe, was later voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Calac also went to Canton, where he joined the police force. He remained there until his death in 1971. Boutwell went on to become an editor at a newspaper in Mechanicsburg, Ohio. Nick Lassa, more popularly referred to as Long Time Sleep, hung around LaRue until the 1930s, earning his living as a professional wrestler and strongman. A few other team members also remained in LaRue and some of their children and grandchildren still reside there. The rest, it's believed, went back to their reservations.
And what of Walter Lingo?
He remained in LaRue until his death in December of 1966, although his kennels didn't last nearly that long. His Oorang Airedales, which had sold for as much as 200 to 250 per head at one time, were soon a victim of the depression. Lingo couldn't even give them away. In 1929, with people unable to feed their own children, he had to have 300 Airedale puppies put to sleep. That same year, he sold the kennel's main building.
"I can see on my front porch where the Oorang Airedale Kennel office used to be," said Mrs. Lingo. "The people in the house now are a young couple. They just moved in about a year ago. They wouldn't know what it was once used for.
"But it's the same building. There's no more back building because it burned down in a fire."
Thorpe's daughter, Grace, still has many fond memories of the team and the dogs.
"It was a one-of-a-kind team," said Thorpe. "Of course, it was one of the very first teams. Whenever people ask me 'Oorang Indians? -- what kind of a tribe is that?' they laugh when I tell them it was named after a dog.
"Some of my first memories, though, are of Airedales. In fact, my mother told me that my first babysitter was an Airedale dog. Whenever I took off for the road, he'd grab me by my diaper and hold on. I guess he was one of Walter Lingo's."
Every year during the town's "Oorang Bang" weekend in the second week of June, LaRue brings back several Airedales to march in the parade.
"During the town's celebration in the second week in June, they bring back some Airedales," said Mrs. Lingo. "But they aren't bred in LaRue."
"There's nothing here anymore."
Nothing except the legacy of Walter Lingo. And while he may have missed the boat where pro football was concerned, he certainly didn't with friends and dog lovers. Jerry Siebert, an Airedale breeder in Buckeye Lake, Ohio, who followed in Lingo's footsteps, took a page out of his book and bred "Jerang Airedales." And, there's a kennel in Tennessee that claims to have original Oorang Airedales.
No, unlike his peers George Halas, Curly Lambeau and Tim Mara, Walter Lingo never saw any big money in pro football. He died in 1966 -- a month before the first Super Bowl was played, with little to show for having been a pioneer, save a few memories of when he put LaRue on the map.
And the greatest Airedales in the world.
Copyright 1995 SOFTLINE INFORMATION, INC. Article copyright Indian Country Today. Sam Borowski is a freelance sports writer based in New York.
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