This episode we fire up the DeLorean and head back to explore the life and career of Beattie Feathers, the NFL's first 1,000 yard rusher. Until 1934, his rookie season, it was thought to be impossible to amass 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. Beattie Feathers would end up surpassing this mark on the way to one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NFL history. So strap on your seat belt, and let’s get ready to take this baby up to 88mph.
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The 2000 season saw 23 running backs that gained over 1,000 yards rushing. It took the NFL 14 seasons to get just 1 running back to this 1,000-yard mark, and then another 13 seasons after that for it to happen a second time. In this episode I’m going to give you the name of the man with the first ever 1,000 yard rushing season in the NFL.
Welcome to the Football History Dude Podcast, where each episode is a journey back in time to learn about the rich history of the NFL. Your host is Arnie Chapman. Football is his passion and he wants you to come along with him to explore the yesteryear of the gridiron. So hop on board his DeLorean and lets get this baby up to 88 miles per hour (Great Scott).
Beattie Feathers Early Life
This time as we step off our DeLorean the date is August 20th, 1909 and we are in Bristol, Virginia. The name of the man who is the hero of our story this time is William Beattie Feathers, whom we are going to just call “Beattie Feathers” for the remainder of this episode. That’s because in all of the NFL accounts they just called him Beattie Feathers. But he did have a nickname, and that nickname was “Big Chief”. One of the big reasons why he got this nickname is because he had a Native American Heritage. So being a football star, there was natural comparisons to Mr. Jim Thorpe. He was the first star of the league. The owners decided that they could use the stardom from being this great athlete. This world renowned Olympian and we’re going to go ahead and use him and he’s going to be the poster child for our new league so we can go ahead and rule all of the sports in this country. It didn’t happen that quickly. Now it is the most dominating sport in America. But we had a long ways to go. The guy that we are going to talk about in this episode, Mr. Beattie Feathers, definitely had his own little mark on the game. But we have to go back a little bit. When he was in High School, he led the Virginia High Bearcats to the Virginia State Championship. When he led this team to the Virginia State Championship, he was a star halfback. He was amazing at football. He was also really good at some other sports too most notably baseball, which he would go on in college to play as well.
Speaking of college, he starred at the University of Tennessee (affiliate link). They would end up calling him “one of the greatest of all time” at that school. At the beginning he was just this young punk. He had to work for it just like everyone else. What I found was they said that he was brought in to be groomed to fill the shoes of a legendary Volunteer, Gene McEver. They didn’t necessarily need him at the time. It kind of reminded me of when the Packers took Aaron Rodgers (affiliate link) when they still had Brett Favre (affiliate link), a legendary quarterback in his own right. But they saw this potential in this dude. So they brought him in to fill Gene’s shoes. When he was in college, he played 30 games and scored 32 touchdowns. That is a pretty good mark. One of his teammates thought so as well, Freddy Moses. Freddy Moses is quoted as saying, “Beattie didn’t think in terms of first downs, only in terms of touchdowns”. That’s a lot of touchdowns in a short timespan. He led the Volunteers to a 25-3-2 record in his career. Then in 1932, he led them to the SEC championship. Mr. Beattie Feathers is doing it again – High School and now he is leading the college team. He was nicknamed the “Bonding Antelope” after a strange style of running. They talked about someone trying to grab him and would try to get away in a strange way. His style of running was quite unique. To me one of the more impressive things, that you don’t see very much of today, was not only was he a star running back but he also returned kicks. The most impressive thing was that he was an excellent punter. They talked about this one primary game where it really showed off his impressive punting skills. This game was a punting duel against Alabama’s Johnny Caine. They would end up together having 40 different punts, but Mr. Feathers scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter. And that goes to show you how important field position can really be. We talked about back in the Red Grange episode when Michigan was so convinced that kicking the ball off after they got scored on was a good idea. They wanted to focus on field position. Now it’s coming again, 40 punts in a game – a big duel. This rained out messy game – This guy said that this time he knows he’s usually the flashy one in the game, but I will continue to punt the ball even though I just got done failing to get that first down. I will continue to do it because that is what the team needs. He led that team to victory in the fourth quarter with persistence and that punting and scoring that touchdown. Even though this was just one game, he had a lustrous career. Scoring 32 touchdowns in 30 games is a pretty good feat. A few awards that he was given were the Consensus All-American, of course. Also, he was the SEC MVP in 1933. Finally, would end up being inducted into the University of Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame for both football and baseball. Which is pretty cool because we go back to the whole Bo Jackson styling it. And though he had a lustrous college career, that’s not really where he got his fame.
Professional Career – Chicago Bears
This is back in the day where the Chicago Bears were the studs. They owned this land and Mr. George Halas was in charge of it all. He already had Red Grange, Sid Luckman, Bronko Nagurski, and many others. But he wanted that guy from Tennessee on his team. Even though he had all of these future Hall of Famers on his team in 1934, which was the rookie year for Beattie Feathers, George Halas looked at him to become his star. I know Red Grange was at the twilight of his career, and then on offense he mostly played wide receiver, and basically a defensive back, but it was time to unleash Beattie Feathers. And Bronko Nagurski was going to pave the way. You have Bronko Nagurski and now Beattie Feathers. George Halas decided to keep Beattie tucked away for a bit. He had this secret weapon that he was going to unleash on to the NFL. If we had a Fantasy Draft back in the day, the analysts would be calling him a possible super sleeper. We’re about to find out, but before we do, I want to remind you to head on over to TheFootballHistoryDude.com/episode8 for more show notes and information on this wonderful rookie year that Beattie Feathers had. If you want to share your favorite football moment of all time to be played on an upcoming episode of The Football History Dude, please head over to MyFootballMoment.com where I give you a couple different options and explain to you what you have to do to submit your story. But now we are getting back to that rookie season. It could possibly be considered one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. What better person to know how Beattie ran than Mr. Bronko Nagurski himself, which in the last episode we discussed how he helped Beattie Feathers run into the history books of the NFL. He had a quote that went as such, “Watching him reminded me of watching a jackrabbit in a cornfield with a hound chasing him. He would change his pace and his direction all the time. He also stayed close to his interference. Beattie would stay with you as long as you could do him some good. Then he would make his cut, and go off on his own”. Thinking about that in the modern day NFL, kind of reminds me of Le’Veon Bell. He just kind of comes up and shoots through. It’s pretty cool to watch how Le’Veon Bell runs. I don’t know what else to call him besides a pouncing tiger or something. So getting back to the season that Beattie Feathers had. The rookie season that will go down in NFL history. There are a couple reasons why this season is great. First, was like a team record. The second we are going to discuss an individual record, which at the time they thought was unfathomable. There is no way someone can beat a 4-minute mile, until someone did. Then it just kept happening. Lets get back to the season statistics. The Bears would end up becoming the first ever-undefeated team in the NFL. They would go 13-0 that season. Beattie Feathers led them there because he was that star. Later on, we would have two more teams in the NFL that would go undefeated. The Miami Dolphins in 1972 went undefeated and they ended up winning the Super Bowl. Again, in 2007 the New England Patriots would go undefeated, but they would end up losing the Super Bowl to David Tyree, the helmet catch, and the New York Giants. We’re going all the way back to 1934 to talk about the championship game. The Bears went undefeated. They were 13-0. But in this championship game, just like the fate of the New England Patriots, they would end up being defeated by the New York Giants. The New York Giants, throughout history, have been some giant slayers defeating two of the only undefeated teams in the NFL. Both defeated by the New York Giants. This game was famous and it was given the name, “The Sneaker Game”. The field was slick with ice because they had freezing rain all night before the game. The temperature at game time was only 9 degrees. The legend has it that the Giants coach at the time, Steve Owen, had to talk field conditions over with the right end Ray Flaherty. Ray Flaherty would end up having this light bulb above your head type of moment. He described a game that he had in college. He is quoted, “Too bad we don’t have sneakers instead of these things. I remember a game at Gonzaga, the ground was just like this. We switched to basketball shoes and ran away from the other team”. This was just before the game started and they had a game to play. Getting some sneakers was hard to come by because all of the sporting goods stores were closed. The trainer, Gus Mauch, suggested that the Manhattan College might have a supply of sneakers. They sent a man named, Abe Cohen, to get some shoes over at the Manhattan College. He would end up getting these sneakers, but he would not get back until a little bit after half time. At the time, the Bears were already up 13-3, so it did not look good for the Giants. After calling a time out, the Giants coach Steve Owen brought the players off the field. He told them to swap their shoes for the basketball sneakers. They would end up going on a 27-0 run with a final score of 30-13 on the back of Ken Strong. All because of some footwear they beat the Bears. There is a quote from Ken Strong, “I’m no hero (pointing over to Abe Cohen). There’s your hero”. And although this game did not end in the favor of the Chicago Bears, it was still one of the greatest rookie years of all time. Especially when you grade it on a curve. Like I said, it was thought to be unfathomable to have this next feat that I’m discussing. They figured that no one could ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season, but Beattie Feathers did. He had 1,004 rushing yards on 119 carries. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry, the best average for a running back of all time. Michael Vick would end up edging him out by a tiny fraction of yards per carry. But that is a quarterback so it is a little different. They went 14 seasons before one player in the NFL had a 1,000-yard rushing season. To me what makes it more impressive was he missed the final two games of the regular season from a serious injury to his shoulder that would end up haunting him for his entire career. Unfortunately, because it did haunt him, he was injury plagued and he only really had that one season that would end up being so good. He would end up playing for 6 more seasons, 3 for Chicago, 2 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then 1 for the Green Bay Packers. Nothing even came close to the impact that he had on his rookie year. You had Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange – The Bears were just loaded and now they’ve got this Beattie Feathers guy who just end up topping all of their stats. The first time ever having 1,000 rushing yard season. It must have been an awesome time to be a part of the NFL, especially in the Chicago region. But he had an injury -plagued career. He would never rush for more than 350 yards in one season again.
After he ended up retiring from football, he had all of this great knowledge so he would end up going on to become a head coach in baseball and football for many years to come. His first head coaching football job was at Appalachian State in 1942 and then from 1944-1951 he took over the North Carolina Football program. Then he decided to do baseball. The 1954 season to 1960, he was the head baseball coach at Texas Tech. Then he decided to go back to football. He went to Wake Forest first as an assistant and then as a head coach. While at Wake Forest, he was the coach of halfback Brian Piccolo who later would star with Gale Sayers on the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, he had an untimely death. The movie “Brian’s Song” was based on Brian Piccolo’s career. He was mentored by Beattie Feathers at Wake Forest. Going back to that magical rookie season.
Drop the Hammer
Beattie Feathers averaged 8.44 yards per carry in his rookie season. This still is an NFL record by a running back. Michael Vick edged him out in 2006 by averaging 8.45, a measly .01 more yards per carry. But he was a quarterback. With this feat standing unbroken for 84 years now, I would have to say this has to be one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Football History Dude, and were able to gain some knowledge nuggets of one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. If you would like to leave feedback about this topic to be featured on an upcoming show, head over to TheFootballHistoryDude.com/contact for two ways to do so. You can also hit me up on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @FHDude to leave feedback. I would love to keep this conversation going. In the upcoming episode, we’re going to take a look at the man behind the scenes in the past 5 episodes, legendary coach Mr. George Halas.
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