by Steve Sheinkin
After four seasons at the Carlisle Indian School, Pop Warner was already considered one of the brightest and most innovative coaches in football. However, Pop made the dubious decision to take the field for one last game as a player.
On the night of December 29, 1902, Pop Warner pulled on his football gear for the first time in nearly ten years and walked onto the field in New York City’s Madison Square Garden to play in the world’s first indoor professional football tournament.
At the time, it seemed like a good idea.
“I had not played since leaving Cornell,” Pop would later explain, “but my coaching kept me in fair condition, and three hundred dollars looked mighty good to a man on a small salary. Besides, I wanted a vacation.”
The First World Series of Football
The tournament was the creation of Tom O’Rourke, boxing promoter and Garden manager, who needed to fill seats during the slow post-Christmas week. He’d invited top college teams; they’d all turned him down. So instead he’d arranged a slate of games featuring athletic club squads, and proclaimed it to be the “World Series of Football.”
Warner heard about it from his brother, Bill. Coming off an All-American season at Cornell, Bill Warner joined the Syracuse Athletic Club team, and suggested his big brother tag along. The pay was “guaranteed,” Bill explained, and Syracuse was loaded with ringers—including former Carlisle Indian School greats Bemus and Hawley Pierce. That clinched it. Pop was in.
But now, as Pop got a closer look at the field, he wasn’t so sure. Workers had pulled up the arena’s wood floor and painted chalk lines on the bare earth beneath. The whole space was just seventy yards long, thirty wide, with no out of bounds area—just the “field,” then a wall, and the fans.
Well, too late to back out now.
Pop Warner Takes The Field
With the Garden lights burning, and tobacco smoke rising from thousands of cigars and cigarettes, Pop Warner kicked off. Syracuse’s opponent, former college stars from Pennsylvania whose team was for some reason called “New York,” could do nothing with the ball. Anchored by the Warner brothers on one side and the Pierce brothers on the other, the Syracuse line was impenetrable. That was the good news.
The bad news: Pop Warner, now thirty-one, pudgy, a chain-smoker, was in no shape for football. Especially not the style of ball played that night in the Garden. The field was too narrow, and the soil too loose for end runs or speedy reverses (the forward pass was not yet legal). Down after down, enemy lines collided with audible cracks, and the ball-carrier plunged up the middle, and every play ended in a massive human pile.
And this was early-day football, meaning plenty of slugging in the pile-ups. “Within a few minutes several of the players were exchanging blows,” noted the New York Tribune. Pop Warner took a gash to the head, and needed what the New York Times described as “medical attention.” He stayed in the game. Like everyone, he played every play, offense, defense, and special teams.
Syracuse dominated, but there was no score at the half. Mainly because the Syracuse kicker, an exhausted and woozy Pop Warner, missed three field goals.
The Second Half
In the second half, Syracuse’s entire offense literally pushed their runner over the goal line for what proved to be the game’s only touchdown. Warner missed the extra point. Then another field goal. The game ended 5–0 (touchdowns were then worth five points). Pop Warner staggered back to his hotel room and fell into his bed.
The next morning, he could barely move. He was able to lift his clothes from the suitcase, but unable to put them on. He called for his brother, Bill, who helped Pop put on his pants. “It would take me several weeks before I could move or dress without pain,” Warner recalled.
As a final insult, he never got the promised $300. The promoter paid him $23.
“That,” explained Warner, “ended my professional football career.”
Steve Sheinkin is the award-winning author of fast-paced, cinematic nonfiction histories for young readers. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, was a National Book Award finalist and received the 2014 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery, won both the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon was a Newbery Honor Book. A National Book Award Finalist, and winner of the Sibert Award and YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. A National Book Award finalist and a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award finalist. Sheinkin lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and two children.