Imagine a long-ago world of college football when a middle-level team from Pennsylvania could be invited to meet the defending national champion in a bowl. Today, that would be like Lehigh going to the BCS Title Game to take on Alabama.
In 1921, the mighty California Golden Bears
were winners of 18 straight games by a combined score of 822 to 47, including 28-0 over undefeated Ohio State in the previous year’s Rose Bowl, the original post-season football event designed to pit the best of the west against a deserving team from the eastern half of the country.
California’s return engagement to Pasadena was no surprise. The shocker was Washington & Jefferson College
as its opponent. A West Coast sportswriter cracked: “All I know about Washington and Jefferson is that they’re both dead.”
The Washington& Jefferson Presidents could claim a measure of eastern supremacy with victories over Syracuse (7-2), Pittsburgh (5-3-1), West Virginia (5-4-1), but they earned most of 10 victories against small-fry like Bethany College, Bucknell, West Virginia Wesleyan, and Westminster. Several well-established teams from east of the Rockies were passed over: Cornell (8-0), Georgia Tech (8-1), Iowa (7-0), Navy (6-1), Nebraska (7-1), Notre Dame (10-1), Penn State (8-0-2), and Yale (8-1). Odds on the Rose Bowl game were quoted as high as 21 points in favor of the Golden Bears. One prognostication had Cal winning 50-0.
W&J, boasting only 450 students on its Washington, Pa., campus, could take only a small contingent because only 18 cross-country train tickets could be afforded from the mortgaging of the modest home of graduate manager of athletics Robert “Mother” Murphy. The Presidents team embarked by rail on Christmas Eve and made their way through Cleveland and Chicago. They stopped in Kansas City for rest and a workout. But reserve end Lee Spillers came down with pneumonia and had to be left in a hospital both to recuperate and avoid infecting the rest of the team.
From Kansas City, the Presidents took the famed Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line west. The team worked out in Albuquerque and stopped in Williams, Ariz., to take a side trip to the Grand Canyon. [The Grand Canyon Railway
still operates today from Williams.]
Another workout was arranged on the south rim of the canyon, and this time no player had to be left behind due to illness or falling into the canyon. The traveling party arrived in Pasadena on December 30.
The Presidents were coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale
, who left his baseball career on hold in time for fall practice after having played 85 games during the 1921 season with the Phillies and Reds. Neale would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after
coaching the Philadelphia Eagles to two NFL championships.
A key figure on the W&J team was Charles “Pruner” West
, who became the first black quarterback in a bowl game.
The West family had moved from their farm in Burgettstown
, Pa., to Washington, Pa
., in 1911. West's father William opened a drug
store that later became a grocery store. West's nickname, “Pruner,” came not from trimming trees but from his pronunciation of "Peruna" a cough syrup
sold by his dad. Charles was an outstanding high school athlete and scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates
. Rumors said he had outraced a horse and wrestled a bull to the ground.
Pruner, a sophomore in the 1921 season, became the starter at QB after the late-season game against Pittsburgh. The following game was played at West Virginia on Thanksgiving Day. W&J arrived in Wheeling
to play the Mountaineers
amid chants of "kill the nigger," in reference to West. But, the mob was unable to tell which player was West, as Pruner was a fairly light-skinned African-American. West was the last member of the team off the train and further confused the crowd by saying, "We didn't bring him (West) with us this time." Following the 13-0 victory, Pruner visited a Wheeling drug store that displayed a Sambo
doll tagged "West." West introduced himself to the store owner and asked for the display "after [he] was done with it." The embarrassed store owner gave it to him on the spot.
New Year’s Day arrived with poor weather. A fierce rainstorm turned the Rose Bowl playing surface into a quagmire and clearly helped the undermanned W&J team keep up with the swift Cal Bears. Pruner led his Presidents to the biggest surprise of the 1921 season as W&J held California to a scoreless tie
, the first blemish on the Bears’ record since the finale of 1919. W&J played only 11 men.
After Walter Camp
named Pruner West as an All-American
honorable mention as a senior in 1923, West signed with the Akron pro football team. But, he soon quit for the higher calling of medical school at Howard University
in Washington, D.C
., where he also coached football. He went on to practice medicine in Alexandria, Va
., for many years. In 1978, Dr. West was awarded the W&J Distinguished Alumni Service Award and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 before dying later that year at age 80.
Bob Boyles is the co-author with Paul Guido of the USA TODAY College Football Encyclopedia
and is a board member of the Valley of
the Sun Chapter of the NFF.