Erickson Recalls 1937 Battle vs. Cal

There was a time, in the roaring 1920s, that Husky Stadium had no upper decks; and on game day, the black Model-T Fords that all looked the same crammed into the parking lot by the thousands. Former star center Bud Erickson, now 89 years old and in a wheelchair, remembers fondly trying to get into Husky Stadium as a kid.

"There were no upper decks," Erickson said. "It was a bowl, is what it was. The field was grass. So if you hit it real hard, you'd take up a yard of turf. You would see 18,000 fans there, sometimes 30,000. It was open on the side facing the lake, and they had a fence there. In 1928, I used to go down and try to get in through the end zone. The kids would break down the gate and flood through there.

"About ten university students with big long paddles would paddle them, but you could usually get in the game that way, we would run in en masse. It happened every game. It was a normal thing. If you got to the seats, then you were safe. I grew up idolizing guys like Chuck Carroll (1925-1928) and George Wilson (1922-1925). I hadn't seen Wilson play, but I had heard all about him. In later years, I talked to a halfback from USC who used to be a blocking back for both Wilson and Red Grange (Illinois's legendary "Galloping Ghost"). He said that Wilson was the better of the two."

By November 1937, Erickson was a 21-year old senior playing center for the Huskies. Next on the schedule was a game in Berkeley, against the nation's #1 ranked team, the California Golden Bears.

"The weather was a quagmire here in Seattle the week before the game," said Erickson. "We couldn't work out outside, so we worked out in Hec Edmundson Pavilion. (Washington head coach) Jimmy Phelan gathered us all together. He said, "We're gonna try something new. It's probably never been played nation-wide, and definitely not on the coast. It's a 5-man defensive line. We'll line up now and run a few plays, then forget about it until the day of the game."

Added Erickson, "I was center, but I also called the plays on defense. Back then, if you played, it was on both on offense and defense, and was usually for all 60 minutes."

On Thursday of that week, Phelan and his Husky team took a bus over to the King Street train station to depart Seattle.

"I think it was Sid Cohen, a sportswriter of the Oakland Tribune, that met us at the Oakland train station," said Erickson. "He publicized an article (the next day) that said, `Well the boys of the Chicago Stockyards are in town.'(many of the Huskies were from the blue-collar neigborhoods of Chicago).

"Then Cohen listed the names of our linemen, and said these guys couldn't play for Cal. He went right on down our line. And he said that Bud Erickson couldn't qualify as a water boy. So that got us madder than hell."

Cohen, however, wasn't the only visitor to greet the Huskies upon their arrival.

"George Wilson was there to meet us at the train depot in Oakland. It was the first time I had ever seen him. He was cleaned up with a nice suit on, a nice looking guy," said Erickson. "At that time, he was working the (San Francisco) docks, and he was also a wrestler."

On Saturday morning, the team exited their posh hotel and started toward the stadium.

"On the day of the game, we're riding in the bus, and I started singing," said Erickson. "Fritz Waskowitz, the halfback, started singing with me. And Jimmy Phelan cleared his throat and said, 'LAY OFF THE SINGING! WE'RE HERE TO PLAY FOOTBALL.' Phelan was really tough. There was no talking back to him."

In previous weeks, California had routed the Cougars and Beavers, and easily beat UCLA and USC. Bay Area fans had also heard the rumors emanating from Seattle that Washington boosters wanted to fire Phelan. Given this combination of factors, those pouring into Berkeley's Memorial Stadium that Saturday of 1937 fully expected the Bears to trounce the Huskies and clinch the Rose Bowl berth.

"Cal had three drives right off the bat toward our goal line," said Erickson. "They had several great players and a couple of All-Americans. They were running Johnny Meek over the line. They were down at our goal line. So I thought there was no sense in me trying to tackle him, so I reached in and scooped out the ball. That saved the touchdown.

"We held them until the half. Then in the second half, they started down the field, and threw a pass and I jumped up and caught the ball. From then on, we rubbed their nose in it. I'll never forget ‘ol Frank Mattes on runs, crackin' in there like a crab. He only weighed 175 pounds. I was running right in there behind him. He grabbed (Cal halfback) Bottari by the legs and threw him back about 5-6 yards. From then on, it was our ball game (momentum-wise)."

As was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, on November 7, 1937: "America's No. 1 team, my friends, never crossed midfield at any time in the final two periods... Why? How could Washington stop what no one else has stopped? All season long Washington has been the Coast's second most dangerous team and Washington came out today piping mad. Washington came out also with what is more important still, three varying defenses, in command of her truly great center, Bud Erickson."

With less than a minute left in the game, the score was 0-0, and Bear players and fans were panicked. The Huskies were down to the California 20-yard line. Husky halfback Fritz Waskowitz rolled out and threw a couple of passes into the end zone. But each fell to the turf, incomplete. An ineffective run led to 4th down.

"We were trying for a field goal in the last thirty seconds," said Erickson. "I thought we didn't have any more time outs. But we actually had one left. But I didn't know that, so I played dead (to stop the clock). I ran to the sideline and Jimmy Phelan is standing there with his hair hanging down. "Erickson! Are you injured?' I said no. He said,`Well get the hell back out there!'

"So I ran back out there. And the official turned to my teammate Vic Markov and asked, `Was he really hurt?' And Vic said, `Oh yea, he gets hurt every game.'"

The Huskies lined up and attempted a field goal with the ball kicked from the 28-yard line. But the ball sailed wide of the goal posts. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. The sub-headline in the next day's San Francisco Chronicle stated: "PHELAN AND SCALP WILL NOT PART COMPANY FOR AWHILE; INSPIRED WASHINGTON BOYS BATTLE BEARS TO STANDSTILL."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer began their article like this: "An inspired University of Washington team, playing its greatest game of the season, exploded the myth of the University of California's supposed invincibility today by holding the Bears to a scoreless tie, an upset unequaled in the Far West this year."

89-year old Bud Erickson, seated in his wheelchair - sixty-eight years after the game was played - has a fondness in his voice when he talks about it. "I was named game captain, so I was given the game ball," he said.

"And I still have it."

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories