December 3, 2011

1921: Thorpe & Brickley Stage Halftime Drop-kicking Competition

The pro football game between the Cleveland Indians and New York Brickley Giants on December 3, 1921 was something of an oddity in that the contest became secondary to what happened during halftime.

The fledgling American Professional Football Association, which would be renamed the National Football League the next year, was getting its first shot at a New York City franchise with Brickley’s Giants (no relation to the current New York Giants franchise). The team was named for Charlie Brickley, a former Harvard star who organized the club along with a sports promoter named Billy Gibson.

Cleveland had been an original APFA franchise in 1920 and was called the Tigers during that 2-4-2 season. For 1921, the team had added to its backfield three ex-members of the Canton Bulldogs who happened to also be Native Americans – the legendary Jim Thorpe (pictured above), plus Joe Guyon and Pete Calac – and was rechristened the Indians.

Brickley and Thorpe were considered to be two of the greatest, if not the greatest, drop-kickers ever. At that point, drop-kicking was an important skill in an era when the ball was more round and less sleek than it is today and touchdowns more difficult to come by.

Brickley (pictured at left) was an All-American halfback in 1913 and ’14 and had his most notable performance against Yale in 1913 as he kicked five field goals in a 15-5 win. He booted 13 field goals in all that year and had a career total of 34, which were both records at the time. Brickley went into college coaching and also played pro football in those pre-NFL years with the Canton Bulldogs and Massillon Tigers.

Thorpe had been star halfback at Carlisle Indian School, scoring 25 touchdowns in the 1912 season alone. An amazing all-around athlete who won the decathlon at the 1912 Olympics and played major league baseball, he was at his best on the football field and was a leading professional star from the time he joined the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. He was also a major figure as a player/coach (which he was for the Indians in 1921) and was the first president of the APFA in 1920.

On this day, the 33-year-old Thorpe was bandaged up due to two broken ribs. Brickley, who had recently turned 30, did not play for his team, despite calls from the crowd. The field was muddy and hindered the offenses, and the game itself was drab and generated little enthusiasm from the crowd of 5000 on a Saturday afternoon at the Polo Grounds.

Cleveland dominated as the Brickley Giants managed only one first down the entire game. Joe Guyon had an outstanding rushing performance, scoring the first touchdown in the opening period and on four occasions turning the corner for long runs down the sideline. Thorpe added the extra point and a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter. HB Johnny Hendren capped a long fourth-quarter drive with the last TD for Cleveland, and the Indians coasted to a 17-0 win.

The dropkicking exhibition proved to be more competitive. Thorpe and Brickley started off at the 25-yard line and moved progressively farther back, with Thorpe leading early but the two ending up tied at six successful kicks apiece. Accounts differ as to the lengths of the successful kicks, with Brickley getting credited for drop-kicks of 48 and 50 yards and Thorpe of 45, though some said Thorpe connected from 55 yards and Brickley hit the upright from that distance. Whatever the actual result, the exhibition attracted great interest.

Cleveland went on to finish the season with a 3-5 record, placing 11th in the 21-club league that was not yet broken up into divisions (that wouldn’t happen until 1933). The Brickley Giants were just 0-2 in league games - as was the practice at the time, they played several non-league contests against teams such as the Union Quakers of Philadelphia and Brooklyn All-Star Collegians and were 5-3 overall. Both clubs folded following the 1921 season.

Jim Thorpe went on to play with five more teams until 1928, his final year at age 41. Among many honors that he received, in 1950 he was chosen as Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century in a poll of Associated Press sportswriters and was selected as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Charlie Brickley left football coaching to pursue a rather checkered career as a stock broker (he was convicted of illegal practices in the operation of his brokerage firm in 1928).

The art of drop-kicking began to die away in the 1930s with the streamlining of the football. It became more and more necessary for kickers to use a holder in order to assure that the ball would be positioned properly. The last drop-kicked field goal in the NFL was by Detroit’s Dutch Clark in 1937. However, the drop-kick has never been completely forgotten – in the final game of the 2005 season (the actual date was Jan. 1, 2006), QB Doug Flutie of the Patriots drop-kicked an extra point to cap his pro football career.