Stanford's Greatest Back… Ernie Nevers

We are proud to present this outstanding article by former Stanford Sports Publicity Director Don E. Liebendorfer, who once served as editor of the Daily Palo Alto and wrote 1972's definitive Stanford sports book, The Color of Life is Red. This is his article as it appeared in Editor Peter Grothe's outstanding, but long out-of-print 1952 compilation of essays, "Great Moments in Stanford Sports".

Editor's Note: The Bootleg is proud to present this article by former Stanford Sports Publicity Director Don E. Liebendorfer. The late Mr. Liebendorfer [LSJU '24] once served as editor of the Daily Palo Alto – now the Stanford Daily, as sports editor of the Quad, and authored 1972's definitive Stanford sports book, The Color of Life is Red. The following is his fine article as it originally appeared in Editor Peter Grothe's outstanding, but long out-of-print 1952 compilation of essays, "Great Moments in Stanford Sports". The Bootleg is profoundly grateful to our longtime friend Mr. Grothe for having given us specific permission to re-publish these wonderful, long-forgotten articles and open them up to a new generation of Cardinal fans.


Stanford's Greatest Back… Ernie Nevers


Ernie Nevers' "number 1" jersey was the only one ever to be retired at Stanford [Ed. Jim Plunkett's #16 has been retired since]. He has been selected on many All-time All-American teams. Don Liebendorfer, who saw Nevers in all his games, describes some of the big fullback's feats.


Ernie Nevers did not become the best known name in Stanford history by chance. The handsome, blonde giant who owns that name might well be the pattern from which all great Indian athletes are cut.


"Big Dog," as he was called affectionately by his teammates and friends was truly a dream athlete. Off the field, Ernie reminded one of a big, friendly, and docile Newfoundland. But put Nevers in anyone of the numerous athletic uniforms he wore, turn him loose on the field and you had a driving, relentless, ferocious animal who swept aside all that stood in his way.


A rigid trainer, the great fullback was always in top condition and prepared to go all out for the duration of any contest in which he engaged. No punishment was too great for Nevers to inflict on himself in behalf of his team. He was totally unselfish, completely self-confident, yet extremely modest. He dealt out and absorbed some of. the most terrific blows imaginable but was never guilty of the slightest breach of the codes of fair play and sportsmanship. And nature had crammed into this splendid 205 pound, six-feet one-inch body her rarest gifts. Power, speed, agility, lightning reactions, and instinct were combined in perfect balance. Here was (and is) A MAN. Today, as he nears the half century mark, Ernie weighs within five pounds of what he did nearly thirty years ago, and looks like he could step onto a gridiron and hold his own.


Although his feats on the football field are best known, Nevers was an all-round athlete of great ability. He was an outstanding pitcher and long distance hitter for the baseball team; he was a star forward for the basketball quintet; and if he had not been occupied with baseball, he could have been a top-flight weightman for the track and field team.


In his freshman year, the track and baseball squads were meeting the California frosh, on the Stanford campus, on the same Saturday morning. Attired in his baseball uniform, the big youngster went over to the old track (now Angell Field) and tossed the discus far enough to place third and then retired to the diamond, where he pitched against the Blue and Gold yearlings.


Ernie's start in football at Stanford was far from auspicious. He was used at end and halfback and his frosh eleven was drubbed 54-0 by the Cal frosh. The following year, he moved into the fullback spot and there became one of the all-time greats. He was a terrific line-plunger, who was traveling at maximum speed in about two strides. He was a ferocious and punishing line backer - remember in those days (1922-25) a man had to go sixty minutes, which Nevers did on numerous occasions.

He was an expert blocker, an accurate passer, and a fine punter. He performed all these duties in every game and oftener than not, excelled all others in each department.


One of Ernie's greatest games was against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, January I, 1925. Fighting a losing cause (Notre Dame won, 27-10) and playing on two ankles which were taped so tightly that he had no feeling from the knees down, the great fullback emerged as the outstanding player on the field. He had broken one ankle in a pre-season scrimmage. Sidelined until the Montana contest, one week before the Big Game, Nevers was pronounced fit for action, to prepare himself for California. However, in the game against the Grizzlies, he broke the other ankle and did not see action against the Bears. As a matter of fact, he was just able to get back onto the practice field in time to
eceive the medicos' "okay" for the Pasadena classic.


As Maxwell Stiles put it so well in his great book, The Rose Bowl - "The point I am trying to make is that nobody ever saw anybody exhibit greater individual prowess than is displayed by Ernie Nevers against Notre Dame on this New Year's Day of 1925.  Not only does the great fullback stand out magnificently as a line-smasher, nay a line-pulverizer, and as a passer whose spirals usually are straight, and fast, and true. He also seems to be making about four out of five tackles made by Stanford. Also, his pass defense is good and he intercepts one to start Stanford .on its way to a third period touchdown ... " ... Throughout the rest of this game Nevers is a crashing wild man in a large red sweater. He is a battering ram, a steam engine, a sledge hammer, pile-driving his way to glory and to 114 yards net in 34 cyclonic rushes at the Notre Dame line. That is a Rose Bowl record for ‘times carried ball' under modern rules."


It is interesting to note Stanford carried the ball a total of forty-five times that afternoon, including Ernie's thirty-four; and that the entire team had net yardage of 174, from scrimmage, including the big boy's 114. Notre Dame carried the ball thirty-eight times for 127 net yards. What would Nevers have done with two good legs - or even one?


Nevers went on to win nearly unanimous acclaim as an All-Time All-American. He is All-Time All-Pacific Coast and is chosen on many All-Time All-American teams. Adoring Stanford students retired his "number one" jersey upon Ernie's graduation and "1" will never again appear on an Indian football shirt. After leaving the Farm Nevers had a distinguished career both as a coach and player in professional football and pitched in the Big Leagues and the Pacific Coast League.


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