Legends of the Fall
They’re ghosts now, distant echoes riding the crisp air, forever suspended in the mists of long-lost autumn afternoons. They’re the groans of effort, the crack of helmet on helmet, the ring of cheers, the music of a fight song. They are a peculiar sense of togetherness.
It’s been 31 years since the final gun sounded and the last Musketeer football squad ran off Corcoran Field and into the dark tunnel of history. But for many, the names are still tinged with a bronzed familiarity—Kropowski, Mutryn, Gilmartin, Martinkovic, Hauser, Hoffman, Abramowicz, Shinners, Conaton and a legion of others. They span the rise and fall of a small-college program with major-college aspirations, a program that glimpsed greatness before financial realities brought the game to an end.
It began in 1901, when the Spanish-American War was recent news and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were national heroes. The first St. Xavier College football team put on its turtleneck jerseys, bulky pants and high-top shoes and proceeded to go undefeated. But the record deserves an asterisk at best: The wins came over foes like Woodward, Franklin, Hughes, Walnut Hills and Technical—all high schools. The school began facing more formidable opponents, including Miami University, the following season, and in 1907, started a long-standing rivalry with St. Mary’s Institute, now the University of Dayton.
In the eyes of most, however, the St. Xavier football program didn’t arrive in earnest until 1918 when Joseph Meyer became head coach of the Saints, as the team was then known. Over the next 16 seasons, Meyer literally built a program from the ground up: In the early days he even marked the field himself using a coffee pot filled with lime. Following his lead, the team went 4-1 in 1918; 6-2 in 1919, including wins of 74-0 over Hanover and 121-0 over Fort Thomas; and 7-2 in 1920.
As the decade of the 1920s wore on, the University settled into its first real building boom, and it became evident that the football team needed a home in line with its upwardly mobile aspirations. After a fundraising drive led by Myers Y. Cooper, later governor of Ohio, the $300,000, 15,000-seat Corcoran Stadium officially opened on Nov. 23, 1929. According to a handwritten note in the University archives, the stadium offered “a splendid view for all.” The 1929 season also marked the first time the Governor’s Cup was presented to the winner of the Xavier-Dayton game. There were other changes, too:
In 1929 the Saints became the Musketeers, and in 1930 St. Xavier College became Xavier University.
Between 1918 and 1934, Meyer’s teams tallied 14 winning seasons and one .500 season versus just two losing campaigns. Then, just three games into the 1935 season, Meyer unexpectedly resigned. A newspaper account said Meyer “gave no reason for his action,” but added, “it is rumored that the present regime is not favorable to the continuance of football except as an incidental phase of the Xavier instructional program.”
To fill Meyer’s shoes, Xavier officials promoted assistant coach Clem Crowe. Already the University’s basketball coach, Crowe had been a two-sport star at Notre Dame, where he played end on the famous “seven mule” line of 1924. Crowe provided solid leadership into the war years. But when Xavier dropped football for the 1944 season, Crowe left for a position at Notre Dame.
Conference affiliation is a big plus for any college sports team. Natural rivalries and the possibility of a conference championship generate fan interest, and the lack of such an affiliation plagued the Musketeer football team virtually throughout its existence. The University tried to alleviate this problem in 1937, agreeing to become a member of the Buckeye Athletic Conference. But the conference died before Xavier achieved full membership.
With the end of World War II came an influx of G.I. Bill athletes. On their shoulders, the football program rode to its greatest heights. In 1947, the program found a leader in 1940 graduate Edward Kluska, and from 1947-1951 his teams ran up a 35-12-2 record, outscoring opponents nearly two-to-one.
In 1949, Kluska’s Musketeers went 10-1, losing only to Kentucky, 21-7, and were invited to the Salad Bowl game in Tempe, Ariz. There, on Jan. 2, 1950, the favored Musketeers fell behind early before rallying to knock off Arizona State, 33-21. No less an authority than then-Kentucky coach Paul “Bear” Bryant called the squad “one of the best teams I’ve seen anywhere.” And the winning trend continued in 1950 when the team lost only to the University of Cincinnati, 33-20.
Two years of near-perfect seasons finally boiled over in 1951: The Musketeers went 10-0, the only legitimate perfect season in school history. The team didn’t crack the Associated Press’s final Top 20, but it did receive votes, along with other programs such as Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, Texas, Louisiana State, Purdue and Alabama.
In all, seven players from the 1950 and 1951 teams soon found their way into the National Football League. But even amidst the success, there were ominous rumblings. Georgetown University dropped football in 1950 in a cost-cutting move, and there was speculation that other Jesuit schools would follow suit. And the stream of G.I. Bill players was drying up. In 1973, Cincinnati Post sports editor Pat Harmon points to this factor as the beginning of the end of Xavier’s program. “Most college players of 1951 had been ex-G.I.s attending school on government scholarships,” Harmon wrote. “Now the burden of providing scholarships shifted to the schools or their fans.”
Still, there were many bright spots to come. Harry “Mick” Connolly took over as head coach and registered several successful campaigns. His 7-3 team of 1956 featured end Steve Junker, later a star for the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Ed Doherty followed Connolly for three years, but Eddie Biles arrived as head coach in 1962 and continued Xavier’s winning tradition throughout the 1960s. And the Musketeer faithful watched with pride as 1967 graduate Danny Abramowicz rose to stardom and All-Pro status in the NFL, and 1969 graduate John Shinners became the school’s only Sporting News All-American.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the team struggled under two new coaches—Irv Etler and Tom Cecchini—while the gap between the program’s income and expenditures widened. School officials made a careful cost analysis in 1969 and each year thereafter. Ultimately, the program was losing about $200,000 a year. Something had to be done, but what?
The University board of trustees answered the question on Dec. 19, 1973. In a move that shocked virtually everyone, the board voted 15-3 to discontinue intercollegiate football. Xavier President Robert W. Mulligan, S.J., made the announcement at a press conference hours later.
The next morning, The Cincinnati Enquirer carried the program’s obituary under the headline: “Xavier Drops Football; Cost Cited.” The University announced it would honor the scholarships of all players, although many left to play elsewhere. Cecchini became linebacker coach at the University of Iowa. The stadium was razed in 1988, six years after an aborted attempt to revive the sport as an NCAA Division III program.
Today, the legion of honor plaque and memorabilia for the planned athletic hall of fame are the only reminders of autumns past, and for two generations of graduates, basketball has sat at the core of Xavier athletics. But those whose memories are long may well relate to the words of Paul L. O’Connor, S.J. Interviewed by Enquirer columnist Tom Callahan on Dec. 20, 1973, the former president and then-chancellor recounted how it was when his alma mater, Loyola of Chicago, dropped football. “There was,” he said, “always afterward a sense of something lost at the place.”
Offensive guard John Shinners enjoys a special place in Musketeer football lore: He is the program’s only Sporting News All-American. And as the 15th player taken in the first round of the 1969 National Football League draft, he is also the program’s second highest-ever professional pick. Of course, the University teams produced numerous small-college and Catholic-college All Americans over the years, but Shinners was the first to achieve the title without a qualifier. It was the preface to a nine-year NFL career, first with the New Orleans Saints, then the Baltimore Colts and finally the Cincinnati Bengals.
Honors aside, Shinners says his stock really rose with the NFL when he played in several all-star games following his senior season. The last of these, the College All-Star game, was both a high and low point: Shinners played with many future pro stars, including O.J. Simpson, but tore cartilage in his left knee, an injury that dogged him through the first three years of his NFL career.
In 1972, after a brief stint with the Colts, Shinners arrived back in Cincinnati. The Bengals, coached by Paul Brown and led by quarterback Ken Anderson, were an exciting, competitive team, and for Shinners, it was a chance to reconnect with old friends and be part of a winning atmosphere like the one he’d enjoyed at Xavier.
But aches and pains add up in the NFL, and Shinners retired after the 1977 season. He’s kept his eye on Xavier, however. In 1991, he took biology, the one class he needed to finally complete his degree. And his daughter, Rebecca, graduated from the University in 1997.
Shinners now lives in New Orleans and works as a marketing consultant. But his current passion lies in helping to create affordable housing for moderate-to-low income families.
“There’s a big need for that down here,” he says.
The most visible player
The image is etched into the memories of longtime National Football League fans: New Orleans Saints wide receiver Danny Abramowicz, body stretched parallel to the ground, making a fingertip grab along the sideline. It’s an impossible image that screams grit, determination and no little amount of faith, words that go a long way toward defining the 1967 Xavier graduate.
Abramowicz, who holds Musketeer receiving records for most catches, yards and touchdowns, was nevertheless an unlikely pro success. At 5-feet-11-inches, 190 pounds and lacking real speed, he was far from a prototypical NFL receiver. Drafted in the 17th round in 1967, he was cut after the third exhibition game but refused to leave.
“You didn’t give me a chance,” he told head coach Tom Fears. “I’m not leaving.”
Fears relented; Abramowicz flourished. He got a starting position when a teammate was injured. He never looked back. Abramowicz led the league with 73 receptions in 1969 and was selected to the All-Pro team, and by the time his eight-year career came to a close, he’d caught 309 passes for the Saints and 62 more for the San Francisco 49ers, scored 39 touchdowns and held the NFL record for most passes caught in consecutive games with 105, a mark that stood until 1982.
After retiring, Abramowicz worked as a Saints broadcaster before going into private business. In 1981, he “hit a glitch” and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, which he says brought his relationship with God into perspective. He returned to the NFL as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bears and the Saints in the 1990s. But when the latter run ended, he passed up coaching offers and followed his faith to become president of the Donum Dei Foundation, an organization focused on Catholic education and vocations in the Church. He also serves as coordinator for the New Orleans chapter of Legatus, an organization of Catholic CEOs, presidents and their spouses. “I look at this as a ministry,” he says. “I love what I do.”
Breaking the color barrier
Dennis Davis is a true pioneer. In 1951, four years before Rosa Parks and more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act, Davis became the first black athlete to play for a Musketeer team. A two-time All-Ohio linebacker at Steubenville Central Catholic High School, which sent many players to Xavier, Davis was hand-picked by the city’s archbishop, John King Mussio, to integrate the University’s football program.
“Bishop Mussio said Xavier had never had a black athlete, and he said I had the temperament to withstand it,” Davis recalls. “It took somebody who could laugh at things. I laugh at everything.”
Davis was put to the test quickly. “My freshman year, we played Louisville, and they snuck me down there because blacks weren’t allowed to play there,” he says. “I stayed with an old priest at a monastery. I had to dress at the monastery and the team picked me up and took me to the stadium.”
Now retired from the United States Postal Service, Davis fondly recalls the glory days of Musketeer football. “We beat the University of Cincinnati three out of the four years I played,” he says. “The fans would tear down the goal posts and carry them all the way back to Xavier. There’d be about 5,000 Xavier fans marching down Victory Parkway.”
Those good times also included a pair of wins over Boston College. Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1957, Davis was cut after three exhibition games but continued to play semi-pro football into the 1960s. Now, as he looks through the brown leatherette scrapbook that traces his football youth, Davis shows no trace of regret about the historic choice that brought him to Xavier. “I had a ball here,” he says.