Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Friday, October 1, 2004
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 2
Fall 2004

The Boys of ’31
Surviving Red Devils recall how they tamed the Nittany Lions
By David Smith
The day was very windy, Milt Davidson ’33 recalls. As late-October Saturdays go in the mountains, though, it wasn’t very cold, Ben James ’34 says.

When Ed Johnson ’32 thinks back to that day, he remembers a loving voice on the other end of a telephone call made in a moment of youthful triumph.

The day fell in the same week that British writer H.G. Wells declared that the ongoing economic Depression would come to an end only after the entire Western civilization had collapsed. The day found Thomas Edison near death in West Orange, N.J., and Al Capone freshly shackled to an 11-year jail sentence in Chicago.

In Carlisle, the day would linger, then rest gently under soft-blown leaves of time.

On Oct. 17, 1931, the Dickinson College football team went to State College for the first time in 24 years—and for the last time ever. There, with a freewheeling mix of speed, smarts and sheer audacity by the 14 young men who took the field, the Red Devils seized an unlikely 10-6 victory over the Nittany Lions that echoes across the ages.

“We weren’t afraid. We were aware that we would have a hard time, but we weren’t afraid,” says James, then a sophomore center-middle linebacker who went on to serve Dickinson for more than a half-century as coach, professor, dean of admissions, dean of students, trustee, neighbor and friend.

James, Johnson and Davidson remain living links to that day; no Nittany Lions who played that day survive.

Dickinson resurrected earlier football glory that day. Barely a generation had passed since coach Nathan Stauffer’s mighty 1898 team had finished 8-2, posted seven shutouts and outscored its opponents, 211 to 86. Backdated NCAA college football power rankings, compiled by researcher James Howell, consider Dickinson’s 1898 team the No. 12-ranked team in the nation in Division-I-A for that season. But even that team lost to Penn State, 34-0.

The two schools met annually from 1896 through 1907. Penn State held a 7-4-1 edge in the series after Dickinson’s 6-0 victory in 1903, but from then on, the Lions ruled. Penn State shut out Dickinson four straight years, capped by a 52-0 rout on Nov. 2, 1907.

The teams went their separate ways. But before the Lions would climb to national supremacy, the Devils got one last unlikely shot. Thrilled students, faculty and Carlisle townsfolk made the trip north, swelling the New Beaver Field “Dad’s Day” crowd past the 6,000 mark.

Red Devils coach Percy “Red” Griffith, says James, “had been an All-American at Penn State, and I think the game was kind of a courtesy to him.” By late 1930, though, Griffith was gone after a dispute with the college administration. But the future Ohio congressman had laid the groundwork for a terrific 1931 season.

Some of the most remarkable players in the college’s history were in place: Hi Bower ’34, Harry Zeising ’33, Eddie Dick ’35 and six future members of the Dickinson College Sports Hall of Fame—Johnson, James, Davidson, Joe Lipinski ’33, Ken Kennedy ’33 and “Cornie” Hughes ’34. New coach Joe McCormick, bolstered by a talented staff, cashed in a 4-2-2 season for which the Penn State game was the crown jewel.

“It would make a good movie,” says James, 91 and a great-grandfather of 11.

James’ older brother Richard was not only a Penn State senior, he was an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother of Lions fullback George Lasich, who, in this era before face masks, was like a jackhammer in the mouth of defenders who got in his way. Ben James remembers him as a 220-pound-plus pile driver. Richard James warned his brother, who weighed about 145 pounds, what he was in for.

“That summer, he was all over me,” Ben James says. Brother Richard warned him to “go the other way” when Lasich got the ball. “At the end,” James says, “I made a bet. I said, ‘I’ll bet you five dollars we win.’ ” Richard was in the stands that day, hardly expecting to be half a sawbuck poorer.

The Dickinson bunch stayed loose. “We had a good camaraderie. We respected one another,” says Davidson, the former lineman who is still a physically imposing figure at age 93.

“In our huddle, and in timeouts, we were never [too intense]. I think that came from Zeising and Hi Bower,” James recalls. “We had a kind of respect for one another, too. Hi Bower would turn to me and say, ‘They’re kickin’ me, Ben.’ I’d say, ‘Well, kick ’em back.’ ”

Bower and future attorney Joseph “Reds” Hildenberger ’33 played guard that day. Zeising and Davidson were the tackles, and James was in the middle. The ends were Christian Spahr ’33 and Robert “Red” Williams ’32. Johnson and Lipinski played halfback. Eddie Dick was the fullback and kicker, Kennedy the quarterback.

It was the era of two-way football. PSU would use 20 players in the game, while McCormick made only three substitutions—Ted Eichorn ’33 for Williams, Hughes for an injured Kennedy and Bill Lehman ’32 for Hughes when “Cornie” was ejected after a fourth-quarter scuffle.

Johnson, making his first start of the season, shocked the crowd by nearly scoring on the opening kickoff. He was stopped at midfield by the last Lion between him and the end zone. Johnson, who didn’t play football in high school, got his own hometown propellant on the play.

“There were guys from Wilkes-Barre up in the stands, and they were hollering at me,” recalls Johnson, now a 95-year-old Georgia resident with a beaming smile and a full head of hair. “Fantasy gets in the way of reality,” he admits, “so I often mention that, in fantasy, I avoided the last man on that play and scored the touchdown. But it didn’t work that way.”

Dickinson’s defense now seized the spotlight. PSU plowed to a first down on the Devils’ 6-yard line, and with Lasich, halfback Philip Moonves and a bigger line, it was almost a given that the Lions would take the lead. But Dickinson turned the tables in what The Evening Sentinel of Carlisle would call “one of the finest defensive stands made in years.”

Lasich took the ball to the 2-yard line on first down, then PSU’s second-year coach, Bob Higgins, who would make the team a powerhouse before the decade was over, got tricky.

“It was the beginning of [the offensive style] of pulling guards, and Higgins had bought it,” James says. “When Moonves would get the ball, both guards would pull. Where they would go, Moonves would go.”

Twice, Higgins tried the newfangled play and got nothing.

“I would run as fast as I could after one of those guards and hit Moonves from the back and someone else would get him down,” James remembers. The Devils’ defense so frustrated Moonves that, James says, “In the third quarter, he threw the ball at me.”

The goal-line stand featured a “mixture of everything” on defense, Davidson recalls.

PSU faced fourth down. “We knew it was going to be a quarterback sneak,” James says. “ ‘Reds’ and Hi got under there, and we stopped them. Eddie Dick [later] kicked it 60 or 65 yards down the field” to get Dickinson out of the hole after the change of possession.

“Eddie Dick was one of the best punters I ever saw,” says Davidson, “and it was no small bit of fate that we had the wind behind us, too.”

Dick’s name doesn’t show up in Dickinson record books; it wasn’t for lack of ability. Injuries took a heavy toll on the New York City native’s legs, but he earned a place in history that day at State College. “That was one of the few games he played here,” James says. “He was a tremendous punter and place-kicker, and he had a lot to do with that game.”

Dick’s athletic ability was all the more impressive considering he was struck with polio as a child and fought back to excel at sports despite partial paralysis. After Dickinson, he would spend some time with the New York Yankees as a warm-up pitcher, then work for NBC as lighting and props director and assistant set designer.

Dick intercepted a PSU pass in the second quarter, then threw a 15-yard bullet that Lipinski caught in stride to complete a 55-yard touchdown play. Lipinski, a New Kensington, Pa., native and future cardiovascular surgeon, added the point-after touchdown on a pass from Kennedy, another future physician.

“Lipinski was great,” James says. “He was an excellent player … and he questioned nothing.” The Evening Sentinel hailed the blocking on the TD play: “Christy Spahr paid personal attention to Capt. Lasich on that one.”

Dick’s 25-yard field goal gave Dickinson a 10-0 lead in a third quarter dominated by the Devils. Johnson called for the field goal after a fair catch because, he says, Dick “was much better as a kicker than any of us were as a football player.” Another Dick field-goal try fell just short.

PSU scored on a late 20-yard pass play, but the game was over. Dick, Kennedy, Bower and Davidson nursed injuries, but the Devils couldn’t have been more satisfied. Johnson called back to Dickinson, to his girlfriend, Laura Crull ’31 of New Cumberland, Pa., who would later be his wife and mother of their four children.

“I said, ‘We won.’ She said, ‘You didn’t!’ I said, ‘We did.’ ”

Word spread around campus. Bells rang everywhere, Crull would later tell her children. She was dating the team captain, and she was proud. As he came off the field, “Red” Williams told The Evening Sentinel, his hometown newspaper, “It’s great to play on a winner.”

By late Sunday, a gleeful students’ “Midnight Frolic” celebration would become a near-riot when police tried to send everyone home. Tear gas was thrown, so were assorted vegetables. It was left to the college’s interim president, 74-year-old James Henry Morgan, to defend nine students in Carlisle burgess’ court a week later. A $100 fine settled everything.

Even though PSU would finish 2-8 that year (and not lose eight games in a season again until 2003), Dickinson would embrace its victory.

It wasn’t like football today, yet it was. “The ingredients of character are really the important thing. That team had that,” James says.

Davidson would coach high-school football, then, after World War II, succeed in business for a chemical company in the Philadelphia area. James and Johnson would coach, too, going head to head in Pennsylvania hard-coal country—James guiding Plymouth High School, Johnson leading Elmer L. Meyers High School.

Tragedy would take Johnson to West Orange, N.J. His only son, Richard, died soon after being burned in an accident while Johnson was in the Navy. He wanted to get Laura to a new place. Daughter Ann Johnson Jobbins ’63 became a Dickinsonian, while his friendship with James would stretch over more than 70 years.

The boys from ’31 would see each other occasionally at reunions. “We never made it a thing to talk about the Penn State game, but it was something we relished,” says James.

By the 1970s, he would get back to Penn State, attending games at a much-bigger Beaver Stadium with friends like former Lions star Carl Stravinski, whom James had coached at Plymouth. Once, at a State College tailgate party, Stravinski introduced James.

“He said, ‘Here’s a person who was on a team that beat Penn State,’ ” James says.

They looked him over and guessed “Syracuse?” James could only laugh.

Johnson can smile, too, as he looks back. He was offered a football assistant coaching job at Penn State in 1950 but preferred the steady paycheck he was getting at West Orange, where, on the way to being a great-grandfather of five, he would rise to become a junior-high-school principal.

Penn State coach Rip Engel eventually found someone else for the position Johnson turned down, a fellow named Joe Paterno

 


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