Memorial Day Special: CAPTAIN BLEY!

I REALLY HAD no idea who Johnny Bley was until about five years ago. Sure, I'd seen his name on an all-time Cougar roster, but it was just that: A name. Today, though, I can't possibly think of Washington State football without thinking of him.

My dad, the foremost authority on 1930's era Cougar football, first suggested I interview Bley for this web site back in 1999. Bley was a high school football star in Spokane and one of dad's childhood heroes. He would arrange the interview, he said, on the condition he be allowed to accompany me so as to finally meet this gridiron giant he'd admired as a youngster. Sitting with these two men, as they invited me into a hard but beautiful period of American history, it became even clearer to me why they're referred to as "The Greatest Generation."

 

We called on Johnny a few more times over the years, last visiting him about a year ago for another glorious afternoon of conversation and reminiscing. "Where you been?" he asked when I phoned.

 

He was heavy in my thoughts prior to the USC game last season (for reasons you'll understand when you read the article) and I thought, as I often did, it was time I paid the Captain another call. I was too late. He'd passed away earlier that very week. "Now," his children told me at his funeral, "He'll be suiting up again on Saturdays."

 

I regret not spending more time with the great Johnny Bley. But I'm grateful for the time I did spend basking in the shadow of that giant of a man.

 

The following article was the result of our first visit with Bley and originally appeared on the pages of CF.C back in 1999:

 

Unless you followed Washington State football in the 1930s or you're a serious Cougar historian, the name Johnny Bley may not ring any bells.

 

But ringing bells was his specialty as a Cougar lineman; a fact made painfully clear to those unfortunate enough to line up across from Bley. And those who possess an intimate knowledge of that era of Cougar football will tell you there have been few tackles better than him. In fact, although nearly seventy years have passed since he played his final down for Washington State, his name still appears on a ballot or two when the all-time Cougar teams are selected.

 

Bley's renown, however, has dimmed with each passing decade - - no doubt hastened by the 1934 team's narrow miss of immortality that comes with a Rose Bowl berth, along with his decision after college to rebuff professional offers.

 

A closer look was taken at the career of Johnny Bley and that special era of Cougar football recently when we visited with the former star tackle at his Spokane home. Though nearly 90 years-old and, in his own words, not as "nimble" as he once was, he still has a strong physical presence, the same infectious grin of this collegiate years, and powerful hands that appear able to palm a globe.

 

During his playing days - - 1933 through '35 -- Bley was known as a "team player" in the truest sense of the term. And to this day, self-promotion is something he just isn't comfortable with. Personal triumphs - - and there were many - - must be coaxed out of him or pilfered from the thick stack of yellowed press clippings that give eyewitness accounts to the gridiron heroics of Johnny Bley.

 

Three honors bestowed upon Bley are reliable indicators of his high-caliber of play. The first was being chosen the 1935 team Captain by his teammates and legendary coach Babe Hollingbery. Secondly, his selection as the starting right tackle in the East/West Shrine game that same season. And finally, earning a spot on the Walter Camp All West Coast team, then selected by Grantland Rice.

 

Using today's standards, these honors might seem barely noteworthy. The opposite was true in the 1930s. Being chosen team Captain was the ultimate honor given a player. And with the Cougar's only other coach, another legend by the name of Buck Bailey, constantly on the road scouting opponents or fishing for players, the team Captain essentially took on the role of player-coach. And being named All West Coast would be the equivalent today of being selected second team All-American.

 

Also, back in the day, the East/West Shrine game was far above and beyond today's Senior Bowl or Blue/Gray contest. Next to the Rose Bowl, it was the game; an accurate and highly competitive showcase of the nation's finest.

 

Not surprisingly, Bley points to these three honors as the paramount highlights of his career.

 

He recalled an incident from that Shrine game that sheds light on both the era and the iron-men who played the game.

"I never cared much for pads - - and Hollingbery (who coached the West squad) would've strangled me had he known this - - but before the game I took all the pads out of my uniform and taped sponges in their place," he recalled with a chuckle, "Boy, did I feel light as a feather."

 

Indeed, it was a different game back then. Sixty minutes was a literal term for pigskinners - - you either had the ability and stamina to play both sides of the ball or you simply did not take up the game. A player such as Bley, standing 6'2" and weighing 205 pounds, was considered the norm for lineman. Road games meant train rides that would begin with a Tuesday departure from the Pullman Rail Station and conclude with a return one-week later. A player's off-season conditioning consisted of haying or harvesting or, as in Bley's case, a pick and a shovel. Following each game, the victorious team actually walked off the field with the game ball -- a simple, yet somehow poetic tradition that sadly has long since passed. (In the case of a tie game, the team captains met at mid-field and flipped a coin for it.)

 

Bley, the son of German immigrants and a star at Spokane's Lewis & Clark High, chose to attend WSU despite a scholarship offer from UCLA. The proximity of Pullman and the influence of high-school coach Bill Smith, himself a Cougar player in the mid-'20s, were the deciding factors. It is a decision he has never regretted.

 

An injury to the incumbent right tackle offered Bley the opportunity to crack the starting lineup early in his sophomore year. He succeeded spectacularly and retained the starting tackle spot for the remainder of his career with nary a game missed due to injury.

 

The 1930s were one of the most successful periods in Cougar football history, and the three squads Bley started on were no exception. In fact, the 1934 team, his junior year, just missed a trip to the Rose Bowl, going undefeated in conference play but seeing their New Year's Day trip to Pasadena derailed by a season-ending 0-0 sister-kisser with Washington. The Cougars received national attention the second week of the season by upsetting a top-ranked USC team 19-0 in Los Angeles. A victory, ironically enough, that may have been the downfall of the team.

"Every train stop on the way back to Pullman, the stations were packed with people wanting to see the team that beat 'SC," Bley remembers. "By the time we arrived in Pullman, most of the players couldn't get off the train, their heads were so big!"

Their inflated sense of greatness proved costly indeed, as they were upset the following week by a scrappy Gonzaga team in Spokane. (Gonzaga suffered a similar fate the following week, losing to an underdog Eastern Washington squad.)

 

Although Bley missed out on playing with all-time Cougar legends Mel Hein and Turk Edwards by just a few years, he did play along side another of the greatest to ever wear the Crimson and Gray, quarterback Ed Goddard.

 

Goddard played a part in an intriguing triangle of quarterback trivia, as revealed to us by Bley; one that has somehow slipped through the cracks of Cougar folklore. Indeed, this addition to that hallowed Hall of Cougar Legends may very well be chronicled here for the first time ever - - 70 years after the fact.

 

"Buck Bailey had a string on Sammy Baugh and went down to Texas to sign him up," Bley said. "But after a few days, he reported back to Babe and told him to forget about Baugh, he'd found a better quarterback by the name of Tex Magness!"

 

And Boyce "Tex" Magness was everything Bailey had said and more. Bley still agrees with Bailey's appraisal of the passing Texan, even so far as to say "he could run circles around Goddard." Even Goddard admitted as much. But Magness, although all business and hustle come game time, had no interest in training or practicing. It was a bad mix with the disciplinarian Hollingbery, who demanded his players prepare as hard as they played. Consequently, Magness spent most of his Cougar career watching from the sidelines. Baugh, meanwhile, went on to star at Texas Christian and became a Hall of Famer with the Washington Redskins.

 

But drooling over the image of Slingin' Sammy Baugh in a Cougar uniform or pining over the unfulfilled potential of Tex Magness can be soothed by this reminder: Goddard is the only Cougar ever to be named first-team all-American three consecutive years.

 

Following graduation, Bley rejected offers to play in the professional ranks from both the Redskins and the Chicago Cardinals. The meager $100 a game being offered by teams at that time and his eagerness to begin a career as a mining engineer made the decision an easy one.

 

Today, he remains a devout fan and follower of Washington State football. Indeed, a quick glance around his home reveals various pieces of modern day Cougar memorabilia. But a closer look brings into focus some true historical gems - - items that would do a WSU trophy case proud.

 

A framed photograph of Bley and Hollingbery hangs inconspicuously on a wall; a beautiful black & white portrait that so perfectly captures the look and feel of football's "Golden Age," it could be mistaken for a movie still from "Knute Rockne, All-American." It was another Hollingbery custom to have his picture taken with the player he endorsed for team Captain. The players usually, but not always, concurred with his "subtle" suggestion.

 

An authentic "Rooter Cap" rests quietly on a dresser. The caps were mandatory attire for all students on Fridays before weekend games. Various athletes representing the school's Gray W club - - armed with hack paddles - - would line up on the campus' "Hello Walk" to insure passersby's were properly attired. Bley once mistakenly took the paddle to a hatless faculty member who had been cursed with the look of a baby-faced freshman.

 

But without question the real "Lost Ark" is his 1935 jersey, replete with the thin strips of grooved rubber sewn on the arms and body - - a Hollingbery invention to reduce fumbles. Bley produced the jersey at a pre-Rose Bowl gathering in Pasadena in 1998 and the crowd of Cougar faithful went absolutely wild.

 

Time spent with Johnny Bley is an evocation of a glorious era of Washington State football. It is a guided tour down a Crimson & Gray hued memory lane by an all-star tackle whose style of play could best be defined with all-but-forgotten words like "might" and "grit."

 

Time spent with Johnny Bley is time spent with Cougar Pride personified.


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