Excerpts

/Excerpts

The Famous Bill George Saga

On a sunny morning in the spring of 1947, the southbound Silver Star pulled into the Seaboard Railroad Station in Raleigh, North Carolina and disgorged a load of passengers acquired from points all along the Atlantic coast. Among them was a strapping young man with an olive complexion and jet-black hair. Many would have called him handsome and none would have failed to notice. He was every inch of six-foot-four, possessed a graceful stride and, perhaps most of all, was draped in an ill-fitting suit—the coat too big, the pants too short. He had an excuse. It was the first suit he’d ever worn. But still, he stood out from the crowd.

Not far away, on a bench near the corner of the station building, a dumpy, silver-haired man watched the young man disembark. This man stood out, too.

He was wearing a trendy zoot suit, a black shirt, and an outrageous, hand-painted necktie featuring orange and red flamingos cavorting beneath a yellowish Miami moon. It was clear that it was a Miami moon. It said so right on the tie. A cigarette that was mostly ash clinging to a stub hung from his lip.

As a smile creased the man’s lips, ash tumbled down to his belly, bounced off the moon, and fell to the ground.

The older man turned to his companion, a plain-looking man in a brown suit, and in a thick Southern drawl, said, “Got-damn Greason, got-damn! Look at the size of that Wop. Got-damn! I think we got us something here.”

“Coach, I don’t think he’s a Wop,” Greason said. “I think they’re—his family—is from Armenia.”

The older man shrugged, nonplussed. “Wal, I tell you what, Greason. You find out what we call the fucking Ar-mean-yans and you let me know. Until then, he’s a wop. . . . Now, let’s go inter-duce ourselves. . . . And remember, be polite. Don’t call him a wop to his face.”

Greason, the man in the brown suit, nodded and shook his head. “Right, Coach,” he said.

The baggy-suited duo sliced their way through the platform crowd to where the young man was standing, searching the crowd, a bewildered look on his chiseled face. Suddenly, the older man materialized in front of him, gripped his lower arm, and said, in a deep, gravelly voice, “Hey there boy. You George?”

“Um, yessssir. I’m Bill George,” said the youth.

“Wal, Ah’m Peahead Walker, football coach at Wake Forest College, and this heah is my chief assistant, Murray Greason. Welcome to North Carolina, boy. Yo’re gonna love it here.”

“Yessir,” George said.

“Greason,” Coach Walker said, “grab the boy’s bags. We got us some sights to see.”

A few minutes later, accompanied by a sack of hot dogs and three bottles of cola from the station grill, the two coaches and their big recruit piled into Peahead Walker’s massive Cadillac sedan. Walker wheeled out of the parking lot and onto the city street.

 

1. The dialectal spelling of cuss words—and other words—spoken by Peahead Walker in this theoretical conversation, and others, is intended to convey some sense of his particular accent, which was noted by all who knew him. It is, of course, imagined, but adheres to typical Deep South speech patterns, sounds a bit like Walker in the lone audio recording of him uncovered while researching this book, and is exactly how the several Walker imitators interviewed for this book—all former players—portrayed his speech, especially the “gottdamn,” which, if the imitators are any measure, was the single most common adjective/exclamation to pass Peahead Walker’s lips.

Nicknames

Throughout his coaching career, if one of Walker’s players didn’t have a ready-made nickname, he’d come up with one. For some fortunate few, he devised two or three.

A handful of Walker’s players—Wake Forest’s William “Nub” Smith comes to mind—brought their informal handles with them to school, but most of his players received their nicknames directly from Walker. Many came directly from off-the-cuff invective spewed by Walker while chewing a player out at one his rugged practices. Most of that dealt with the mental shortcomings of his charges.

George Sniscak, a sometimes dense Wake Forest lineman from western Pennsylvania’s coal country, was Anthracite Head. Deacon quarterback Dickie Davis said his difficulty remembering plays, coupled with his mediocre classroom work, earned him the sobriquet Amoeba Brain (sometimes shortened to just Amoeba). Davis was also known as Dynamite, a highly alliterative title (Dynamite Dickie Davis) that the school’s publicists and some sports writers covering the team used in the context of Davis’s explosive abilities as a runner and passer. That was the public story, but teammates remember the nickname as shorthand for a Walker one-liner—it wasn’t original—regarding the relative impotence of Davis’s cranial material: “Davis, if your brain was made of dynamite you still couldn’t blow your nose.” The Dynamite nickname was not applied uniquely to Davis. Walker also renamed one of his Montreal players Dynamite. A team manager at Wake also carried the name, and Wake Forest’s first-ever sports publicist was known as Dynamite Holton thanks to a rechristening by Walker.

Along similar lines, Deacon Melvin Layton was forever known to teammates as Molly, which was not a feminization but the short version of molecule, which was part of another memorable Walker lambast: “Goddammit Layton, your brain must be the size of a molecule,” Walker said, while sputtering over a mistake at practice one afternoon. “It’s so small it’s like a BB rattling around inside a boxcar.” Future Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors recalls Walker using the term “celery seed” in a similar context. A brain power-challenged player had a brain so small it was like a celery seed rolling around in his head. How much smarter (or dumber) Amoeba Brain was than Molecule or Celery Seed or even Dynamite is not clear.

Other nicknames were less random—that is, they only applied to a single player—and hence were more biting. Hulking Wake Forest tackle Tom Palmer was known as Hogjaw for reasons obvious to anyone who saw him in profile. Davis recalled another played who went by Whalebone (or maybe Whale Butt, another anatomical reference). End Ed Butler, who as a collegian at Wake still had a noticeable scar from cleft palate surgery during childhood, drew the moniker Frankenstein from the ever-sensitive Walker. Mercifully, his teammates later renamed him Congo after a movie character. Walker liked that and picked it up as well.

Hard-hitting linebacker Jimmy Arakas was the Greek Water Boy, which he had, in fact, been at his father’s restaurant back in Wilson, NC, where Walker often dined. Tough-as-nails Bob Gaona, a defensive star on some of Walker’s later Deacon teams, was Mexican because his mother was Mexican.

All of Walker’s ministerial students were tagged Preacher or Reverend. Carl Haggard, who was from Norfolk, VA, told Walker during a recruiting interview that he was plenty fast enough to play in the backfield, thus becoming the Norfolk Flash, and later, just Flash. Glen Rheinhard, a 280-pound tackle without an aggressive bone in his body, was Teddy Bear, and later, just Teddy. Spindly Deacon safety Terry Gwinn was Spider or, as some recall, Spider-Man. Walker’s war-era teams at Wake included both Rock Brinkley and Hard Rock Harris. Players whose last name ended in “ski” or “vich”—and there were several—were called Polack or Sausage at some point. Walker usually avoided Wop for players of Italian ancestry but didn’t shy away from addressing them as Spaghetti, Lasagna, or Meatball.

“He had something for everybody,” said Pride Ratterree, a Walker favorite during the war years at Wake. “I can only remember two or three who didn’t and I was one of those. I already had a funny name.”

So prolific was Walker’s nicknaming (or name calling) that some players were confused. Tom Donahue, who played at Wake near the end of Walker’s tenure, remembered asking guard Leonard Paletta one day what his real name was. He had heard his teammate called so many things on the practice field that he was no longer sure of the reality.

“I’d heard one coach call him Joe and another Lennie, and I think there was a guy from his hometown (New Kensington, PA) on the team who called him Skeets,” said Donahue. “So I wasn’t sure. I said to him one time, ‘Hey, tell me your real name.’ And he said, ‘Well, Coach Cochran thinks it’s Jesus Christ because every time he says anything to me it’s Jesus Christ Paletta, and as best I can tell, the Head thinks it’s Goddammit. To be honest, I’m not sure anymore myself.”

 

1. It could have been either, but the comic book character didn’t appear until 1962.

2. Sausage was apparently a condensed form of Polish sausage.

3. Tom Donahue, interview with author.

Practice

Indeed, rugged, sometimes brutal practices were the norm for Peahead Walker football teams (and for that matter most football teams during the era, when the grueling and gruesome were commonplace). Walker’s players often thought there wasn’t a point to much of what he did besides whipping them into shape by extreme physical exercise, and Walker himself really didn’t disagree. Quizzed by a reporter one March about the potential length of spring football practice, he replied, “Well, I reckon we’ll just stay down there [on the practice field] until we get tired.” Walker wanted his players to be in shape, but he believed the most difficult part of football to teach was the contact. As a player, and later, as a coach, he couldn’t get enough of it. So Walker’s practices involved a lot of contact.

A typical practice began with noncontact preliminaries. First up were calisthenics. Then a couple of laps around the field. Players at both Wake and Elon recall Walker spurring his charges to greater exertion by pelting them with small rocks as they ran. The old shortstop had a strong and accurate arm and could hit a fanny half the time from forty paces. But that seemed to be more for fun (at least for the coach) than for any real purpose. Although Walker ran his players into the ground—Deacon Carl Haggard recalls being so tired after some practices that he’d just lie down in the shower until he had recovered enough to stand—what would today be known as conditioning was more or less left up to the player. There was no organized training program, in season or out, and players who lifted weights were considered an oddity. During Walker’s closing years at Wake, he did have a few weightlifters, men like ex-paratrooper Bill Finnance, Buck Harris, and Ed “Bad News” Bradley. But anyone with a weightlifting interest brought it with them to school. Haggard recalled that roommate Harris brought his personal collection of free weights to school, causing their rickety dorm room floor to tilt towards Harris’ side of the room.

Walker occasionally boasted of his men’s toughness or conditioning—when Georgia Coach Wally Butts complained after a 1944 defeat that he didn’t see how Walker could beat his three-deep team with just twelve men, Walker replied that his boys could get after it all day and night—his main contribution to their fitness was a steady diet of full-contact football, a practice that ironically may have worn down his charges.

Players across the years remember forming two lines facing each other and practicing tackling to get things going after the calisthenics were over. Walker would make his way between the files, tossing a football to one man or the other in each pair. The player who received the ball would attempt to run over the player who did not. “There was no thought of dodging him or letting up,” said Pride Ratterree, a Deacon lineman from the mid-1940s. “Peahead gave hell to anyone who tried that.”Each man had to drop his partner five times (some players recall that it was only three).

After the hard-hitting start it was off to position work. Depending upon the number of coaches available (during Walker’s Deacon tenure he had as many as four assistants and as few as one), the squad would break up into two, three, or four groups and work on specific skills. Linemen would practice the blocking for a particular play through endless repetitions. Walker’s love for power football during his early years at Wake meant forty-five minutes to an hour might be spent on the various permutations of the double-team block for the strong-side off-tackle play, the bread and butter of the single wing. The team also spent considerable time on aspects of each week’s scouting report and game plan. Walker’s players all say they felt well prepared and that they were seldom surprised in games. Walker’s network of scouts helped some in this regard, but his intuition and detailed knowledge of the game also played a big role.

Backs spent practice time on ball handling, passing, and kicking (which also often involved some linemen) but were not exempt from heavy contact work. In addition to the considerable scrimmaging that ended most practices, Walker devised drills designed to simulate to critical points in the game. One drill encouraged runners to blast through a closing hole near the sideline. Another offered practice at “line plunges,” a special running skill in which a ball carrier, realizing he is going to be tackled as he goes through the line, leaps forward in a near horizontal posture in order to pick up an extra yard or so.

Several players recall a regular drill that went by the name “punt return” but which was really about practicing punt coverage, and more specifically, open field tackling. Willis “Doc” Murphrey, a rarely used sub on several teams just after World War II, says his main role was to catch punts in practice “and then get creamed by some Pollock or Wop that Walker had sent after me.”

Despite being a starter, Dickie Davis often found himself in the same role and said the problem (and it was only a problem from the player’s point of view) was Walker’s love of contact. There’s no play in football that produces more hard hits than a kick return. So . . .

He’d let those SOBs [the players covering the punts] leave early [before ball was kicked]. He [Walker] loved it because of the hits, but if you were the one returning punts you didn’t have a chance. I remember one day [Deacon lineman Ray] Cicia just drilled Bobby Stutts on a punt and Stutts came up bloody and ready to fight ‘cause he thought Cicia had taken advantage. And he and Cicia did start fighting, and one of the coaches moved in. But Peahead got there real quick and said, “Aw, let ’em go. . . . Next!” Well, that meant the next man get out there and get killed. I was the next man and I wasn’t having any part of that. So I caught my punt and, fast as I could, I ran backwards, sideways, wherever I could go, and up into the stands. Peahead was running after me, cussing me right and left. I just threw the ball back and we went on.

Wily players devised ways of making drills, and even scrimmage plays, look—and sound—better than they were—the better to avoid add-on work that could rain down as a punishment. Ratterree recalls learning to slap his pads against another player in a way that really made a loud noise—much louder than what was merited by the actual contact: “He [Walker] would say, ‘Yeah, goddamn Ratterree. That’s how we want to do it. I like the sound of that!’” Ratterree said.

Wake’s practices were long and grueling because of the allegedly salutary effects of such a regimen, but many players thought the coach extended the workouts simply because he loved practice and squeezed every minute he could out of the practice day. His teams practiced—scrimmaged mostly—until dark . . . and even beyond. End Jack Lewis is one of several Deacons who recalled the managers wrapping stripes of white tape around the ball so that it could be seen amidst the gloaming. Later, after it was darker still, Walker’s men would run plays with no ball at all.

“I don’t know what the point of that was . . . just to hit people I guess,” Lewis said. “You blocked anyone you could find, or tackled anyone who was running towards you.”Said Ratterree:

He thought the game was about contact and so you practiced that. The practices were tough. Sometimes you were just thankful if you were able to eat afterwards. But he was a tough guy. He was what? Mid-40s or so, when I played? He was very intimidating then. He had no problem just cussing you out, up and down, this way and that, or grabbing you by the throat and shaking you. People were terrified of him, understandably so.

Despite all the remembered rigor of a Peahead Walker practice, the occasional humorous recollection does crop up. Walker—perhaps more in hindsight than otherwise—was a funny man with a sharp wit. Long-time Wake Forest University Athletic Director Gene Hooks, who played baseball at WFC during Walker’s last few years at the school, recalled that Walker “had this incredible needle. He was quick and you didn’t want to be his target. I think that’s one reason his players avoided him away from the field. They didn’t want him to get started on them.”

 

1. Old Gold & Black, Mar. 23, 1945.

2. Sources for this anecdote included a story in The Chapel Hill Weekly from July 22, 1970, the Elon Sports Hall of Fame program from 1978, and various interviews.

3. Carl Haggard, interview with author.

4. Pride Ratteree, interview with author.

5. Murphrey, now deceased, was a well-known Wake Forest supporter and ribald raconteur. His ethnic slurs are, in part, a jab at Walker’s fondness for immigrant sons from the Northeast, but his politically incorrect terminology may have been picked up from Walker himself. This quote is from a recording Murphrey made many years after his Wake Forest days.

6. Dickie Davis, interview with author.

7. Raterree, interview with author.

8. Jack Lewis, interview with author.

9. Pride Raterree, interview with author.

10. Gene Hooks, interview with author.

War Time Football

Maintaining a collegiate athletic team during World War II was no easy feat. Between two and three hundred colleges across the country dropped football (and most other sports) for one, two, or even three years during the war. Most did so because they found the hardships imposed by manpower shortages and fiscal constraints too much to bear, but there was an ethical aspect to the decision as well. With college-aged boys headed off to war and the perils war entailed, some thought that athletics—mere “sport”—seemed frivolous and thus wrong. Others saw it as a much-needed, perhaps even necessary, diversion. The merits of carrying on were debated everywhere.

Walker weighed in on the matter in an opinion piece for Southern Coach & Athlete magazine, in which he advocated the continuance of collegiate athletics as a morale booster for the home front. The Wake Forest administration backed Walker, providing, of course, that wartime sports didn’t cause the university to blow a financial gasket. From a practical standpoint, that meant that Walker was once again asked to run a football program on a shoestring budget. The good news for Wake was that Walker was rather adept at that kind of thing.

Consider, for example, Walker’s work in circumventing wartime travel restrictions. The rules, which assigned priority to military travelers on trains and the rationing of many automotive necessities, were complicated. That complexity was no problem for a lifelong finagler like Walker. Mary Arden Harris, wife of wartime footballer Dave Harris, was among the first full-time female students at Wake, coming to campus in 1942. Her interest in a football player—she and Harris met when he enrolled in 1943—brought her into Walker’s circle. One day he saw her on campus, strode over with a big smile on his face, and began a friendly conversation. Eventually he got to the point: “Your daddy’s a traveling salesman ain’t he?” Walker asked. Mary Arden was stunned that Walker knew who she was, much less what her father did for a living.

“Yessss,” she stammered.

“He got any of them rationing coupons? Traveling salesmen get some extra gas coupons and all, you know.”

Mary Arden nodded.

“I need to do some recruiting and sure could use some coupons,” Walker said.

Mary Arden Harris asked her father about the coupons. He did have some and “he did pass them along,” she said. “We helped keep him [Walker] rolling until the end of the war.”

Walker’s creativity in funding travel was remarkable enough that Wake could stand to play the entire 1943 season on the road. The opposition couldn’t find enough gas (or train space) to travel to Wake Forest? No problem. Walker would find a way to meet them at their place (or, in several cases, at neutral sites along the way).

Making do with limited funds was one thing. Fielding a team during a time of dwindling manpower was something else altogether. The draft was pulling in 200,000 men a month nationally, and Wake Forest was certainly sending its share. The Old Gold & Black ran regular stories on the young men called to duty. The windows of an office building in downtown Wake Forest, a few blocks from the school, displayed photos of the men taken into the service—local town boys but young men from the college as well. The numbers peaked and dipped, but the drain never stopped. Thanks to the draft, enrollment at Wake in the fall of 1943 was well under six hundred, a twenty-five percent drop from the year before. Walker’s roster was decimated. Of the forty-nine players who wound up receiving letters or “numerals” (a lesser form of recognition, given to freshmen) following the 1942 season, only seven returned for the 1943 year. Not all of those absent were in the military, but the vast majority were.

What was left at Wake and at most “pure” college programs—that is, colleges not benefitting from the addition of a military training school or camp on campus—were very young freshmen (now eligible after a mid-winter vote by the Southern Conference), players not yet drafted, and players deemed unfit for service because of physical or mental defects—i.e., “4-Fers.” Members of this last group were often less than happy to find themselves available.

Among them was Dewey Hobbs of Wilmington, NC. A student commander of his high school ROTC unit, Hobbs had already signed up for officer candidate school when he and a group of friends drove to Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, for their required military examination. The first doctor Hobbs encountered checked his vision and pronounced him 20/300 in one eye—well outside of accepted Army norms. The poor vision had never bothered Hobbs, however. Glasses allowed him to do all he needed to do, and for many activities—football for instance—the blurry vision in his one eye did not greatly affect him. He pleaded with the doctor to pass him, and eventually he did. “He [the doctor] said, ‘Oh, if it means that much to you, go on,’ ” Hobbs said. “But the next guy was a cardiovascular man. I had this defect in my heart and always had real high blood pressure. The systolic was over two hundred sometimes. He said, ‘There’s no way, son.’ It may sound crazy today, but that was terrible news. I wanted to go. It was a real bad day for me. I was in a funk for a long time.”

Wilmington attorney John Stevens, a friend of Hobbs’s family and a Wake Forest alum, contacted the hulking Hobbs and asked him if he could write Coach Walker about him. Hobbs said okay, and a few days later he got a letter from Walker inviting him to come. “He knew a few things about me that surprised me,” Hobbs said. “I was impressed by that, but the truth is I didn’t have many other options.” Stevens bought Hobbs a one-way bus ticket to Wake Forest—which wasn’t against the rules back then—and drew him a map of how to get from the bus station to the gym. When Hobbs reported to Walker’s preseason camp, practice had been underway for ten days and the Deacons still weren’t up to full strength—full strength being defined in this case as having enough to hold a scrimmage.

“I was the twenty-first man in,” said Hobbs. “They were having managers and townspeople and whoever fill in to make enough for practice.”

The season was never really in jeopardy, but it was an adventure. Walker was seldom certain as to just what he’d have until he had it. Days before Hobbs appeared, Walker was quizzed by a Raleigh newspaperman regarding the pending arrivals of lettermen Bill Starford and Jeff Brogden. “The last time I heard from them they said they were coming back,” said Walker. “But the Army is grabbing them up pretty fast. . . . I’m not positive that they will show up.”

Starford and Brogden did eventually make it and Wake’s ranks eventually swelled to twenty-eight. Included in that number were four varsity holdovers, five or six sophomores up from the previous year’s freshman team, and a bunch of new guys. Most, like Hobbs, were freshmen, just out of high school. A few, like Dave Harris, were transfers from other schools. Harris, a star athlete in high school at Statesville High in North Carolina, spurned offers from UNC, Duke, and Tennessee to attend Appalachian State Teachers College, which was closer to his home and more economical. But after the 1942 season, Appalachian dropped football (it was revived with a four-game season in 1945). Hearing about the Appalachian decision, Walker scrambled to pick up some pieces. Harris, a rangy end with good speed, was one of the biggest prizes. So Walker borrowed some ration cards, drove to Statesville, and visited Harris at his home. “I’ll have to say, I was pretty impressed,” said Harris.

Harris, who had chronically flat fleet, was not draftable. Neither was his former Appalachian teammate Pride Ratterree. Ratterree, who would become one of Walker’s favorites, had already served some military time but was discharged because of a perforated ear drum (the Army would get less picky later on). He was working in a mill in his hometown of Cherryville, NC when Walker called him on a recommendation from Harris. Did he want to come to school and play some football? “Hell, I was working in a damn mill, going nowhere,” said Raterree. “Playing football, going to school, it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.”

In an ironic twist, one of the eventual stars of the 1943 team, blocking back/linebacker Elmer Barbour, had been eligible for the draft but was knocked down to 4-F status after a knee injury suffered during the 1942 football season. He missed the war even though his was knee was strong enough for two more collegiate football seasons and a brief stint with the NFL’s New York Giants.

There’s no evidence that Walker facilitated Barbour’s knee injury in any way, but the idea would certainly have intrigued him. At the end of the 1943 season, when Hobbs was summoned for another military exam, Walker took action to make sure his budding young star’s blood pressure didn’t improve. He approached Hobbs with a “one-dollar bottle of pills” that he told Hobbs was guaranteed to send his blood pressure skyrocketing. “But don’t worry, Dewey,” Walker said. “It’s safe. It’ll only go up for a little while. . . . ”

Hobbs said Walker told him, “ ‘Take one of these and then go see the doctor real quick. He’ll check, it’ll be high, and you’ll be fine. . . . ’ I think my blood pressure was 235 over 140 or whatever. It was way up there. But I lived through it and I was still in school.”

 

1. Mary Arden Harris, interview with author.

2. Until the final years of his career, Walker’s Wake Forest teams played far more road games than home games. The reason for this was fairly simple. With its small student body, Wake just didn’t draw that well at home, at least in terms of gross numbers (a problem that still plagues Wake Forest athletics to this day). Road games, especially in big cities, produced bigger paydays that helped fund Wake’s assorted athletic adventures.

Peahead in Canada

Players, Canadian and American alike, say it was clear that Walker knew more football than anybody they’d ever been around. But some things were lost in translation. There were some communication problems.

For starters, Walker’s accent was difficult for the Canadians and his penchant for throwing in French phrases (or at least what he thought were French phrases) didn’t help. Fellow Alabamian Forrest “Fob” James, an Auburn University star who played one CFL season for Walker in the late 1950s (and who later was elected governor of Alabama), said this sort of bilingual mangling was common among American gridders (and, indeed, Americans in general) and quite unpopular:

I pulled into a gas station in Montreal once, and got out saying, as was standard at the time, “Check the tires, clean the windshield, fill her up,” and so on, using as many of my French words as I could, but certainly not speaking entirely in French. “Buddy,” the station attendant said to me—he was clearly ticked off—“you’re either going to have to speak English or French. It can’t be both.” I suspect Peahead had some similar problems. And he was really speaking three languages: French, English, and Alabama.

Tough accent, mangled translations—and then there was Walker’s dry sense of humor. It was nearly impenetrable to many of Walker’s players when he coached in America. Add the cultural barrier and the result was a lot of puzzled looks.

For instance, one gloomy fall evening at practice, seldom-used reserve guard Des Findlay, a modestly talented Canadian reserve, broke his leg during a scrimmage. Walker, as was his wont, trucked no delay with practice over a mere injury and moved the scrimmage further up field while the trainer tended to Findlay. But between Findlay’s moans and the arrival of an ambulance, flashing lights and all, on the field, the incident became too much of a distraction. Fed up, Walker called the discombobulated squad together for a pep talk of sorts. It was a long season, he said. There was going to be some bad luck along the way. Bad times will have to be dealt with. When the times got bad, a real football player would just buck up and tough it out. All that was true enough, said Walker. It was the reality of football and of life. But this night, he wanted to make clear, was not one of those times. Motioning over his shoulder to where the wounded Alouette was being lifted into the ambulance, Walker said, “Injuries are tough . . . a broken leg is a bad thing. But gottdamn boys, it’s only Findlay.”

Defensive lineman Gerry Hogan said the Canadian players all looked at each other, thinking, “What the hell? Is this another slap on us Canadians?”

“But,” said Hogan, “the more we got to thinking about it, the funnier it got. ‘Goddamn! It’s only Findlay.’ Years later, the highlight of our team reunions was when Findlay would show up so we could all say, well, you know . . . that Walker . . . you had to know how to take him.”

An equally baffling display came after an especially ugly performance against Ottawa. Walker called the team together and announced that they were going to begin the day’s practice with a new drill. He called out fullback Jacques Belec, halfbacks Chuck Hunsinger and Bill Bewley, and a few other players and instructed them to form a circle and begin hopping up and down while moving to their right. Then he ordered them to hop to their left. Then he told them to jump in the air. Then he told them to hold hands while they did it.

“This went on for some time,” said Hogan. “It was kind of strange but we weren’t that surprised. This was when isometrics and that kind of crap was first being introduced and so coaches were always trying this new stuff. We thought it was some of that.”

Finally, after the players had gotten the idea of what Walker wanted and were doing it on their own, Walker turned to the rest of the squad and said, “Look at those assholes, running and jumping like a bunch of Maypole dancers, celebrating what a shitty game they played on Saturday.”

In his book Legends of Autumn: The Glory Years of Canadian Football, Denny Boyd portrays the aforementioned tale—which team members call the “ring-around-the-rosey story”—as another example of Walker’s dislike for Canadian players. But even their account notes that some Americans were included in what was apparently intended as humiliation. And Belec, a Canadian fullback on Walker’s early Montreal teams, said he took no special exception to the incident.

“I mean, he let everybody have it on a pretty equal basis,” said Belec. “And to be honest, we had played a shitty game, just like he said.”

Belec and several other players agree that the incident occurred in the middle of one of the curious, Saturday-Monday doubleheaders that Big Four teams played on holiday weekends. When Montreal played Ottawa again the next day, said Belec, “We played a helluva lot better.”

 

1. Fob James, interview with author.

2. Some players recall deciphering both the words, and the meaning, of Walker’s speeches at some later date.

3. Gerry Hogan, interview with author.

4. Ibid.

5. D. Boyd, Legends of Autumn, The Glory Years of Canadian Football. 1997. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

6. Jacque Belec, interview with the author.