In Herb's Archive this month, we feature a story from Herb's
files about Notre Dame's first star and All-American, Louis
"Red" Salmon. It's excerpted from Chet Grant's book Before
Rockne at Notre Dame.
I don't think I ever saw Red Salmon play.
Yet I somehow remember the great redhead in action. I must recall a
composite of what I read and heard about him.
Louis J. "Red" Salmon wasn't a "huge crashing type of
fullback," as he's described in A Treasury of Notre Dame Football. He
couldn't be even loosely depicted as "the Nagurski of his time,"
as one historian recalled him. Bronko Nagurski was hefty enough to play
tackle at Minnesota before shifting to fullback and going on to great
renown in professional football.
Salmon indeed blasted the line with the impact of a heavyweight, but he
stood less than 5' 10" and weighed around 165 pounds. He was
shiftier, more versatile than the Bronk. He was a first-rate blocker. He
was reputed to be the only linebacker to stop the great Willie Heston of
Michigan even as the Wolverines dominated the scoreboard. A Western press
association circulated his picture with the caption "Greatest Back in
the West." At the time when it was a big event for a Michigan or
Western Conference star to breach the ivy walls of Walter Camp's
All-America lineup, Red Salmon of tiny Notre Dame made the third team.Several decades ago, at the climax of Frank Leahy's coaching regime at
Notre Dame, I published a series of weekly letters for Notre Dame football
followers. The series was introduced with an issue in which I nominated
Salmon for my all-time Notre Dame team and backed my choice with
contemporary newspaper testimony of his prowess:
Salmon, the mainstay of his team ... tore the Purple line as if made
of wet paper.... When Salmon was
forced to punt, the ball went 65 yards. . . . Salmon never fails to
gain.... When not crashing the line or
skirting ends, he was in the interference putting a companion to the
front ... on defensive also a star.
Notre Dame's favorite redhead
and first All-American, Louis Salmon.
I later talked to Harley Kirby, a great
Notre Dame trackman who played football with Salmon in 1902. Harley
recalled that Red, after going to work as an engineer in New York, spent
his first two weeks' vacation with the Massillon Club, his only venture
into professional football. For three games, Harley said, Salmon received
$1,500, a fabulous sum when a dollar was a dollar and eggs were 10 cents a
dozen. Salmon was impressed, but he was not to be diverted from his
commitment to an engineering career.
Harley had played professional football in Ohio, had done some coaching
and had followed Notre Dame closely for more than half a century; he had
seen all the great fullbacks in action after Salmon. He still ranked the
redhead as the greatest. Salmon could have breached a brick wall, Harley
soberly assured me. "Of course, if the wall did stand firm by remote
chance, a couple of us were always on hand, prepared to lift him by the
belt and throw him over the top."
In 1903, Notre Dame, captained and coached by Salmon, was unbeaten and
unscored-on in nine games and was tied once. The 0-0 standoff was with
Northwestern's Wildcats. Except for Michigan, the rest of the schedule was
short of modern name value, but the season's total of 292 points to 0
would have been worthy of respect in any ranking, although it did not put
us into championship consideration outside Indiana.
Salmon's most dramatic performance was a one-man march in a losing effort
against Michigan in 1902. The game was played in the rain at Toledo. The
Wolverines hadn't been beaten since 1900, and their fantastic winning
binge (interrupted only by a 6-6 tie with Minnesota) would continue until
the last game of 1905, when Chicago nosed in on a safety, 2-0.
During those fabulous five years, the Wolverines' opponents scored in 56
games a combined total of only 38 points. Their own scoring would
challenge a computer. Two leaders in the Western Conference, Chicago and
Minnesota, succumbed, respectively, 21-0 and 23-6. As the Notre Dame game
went in 1902, Michigan led the Blue and Gold 23-0. But Notre Dame fell
only one step short of scoring a touchdown that would have reduced
Michigan's margin to 17 points, giving Notre Dame a tie with Minnesota in
a comparison of scores.
Salmon's legendary drive began on his 48-yard line, 57 yards from a
touchdown (there were 105 yards in a grid- iron in those days). He was
unstoppable play after play. On eight straight bucks, he averaged
five-and-a-half yards without benefit of a forward-passing threat. He was
on the verge of crossing the goal line when he slipped in the mud on the
last down of the vital series. That was the climax of a one-man classic
over which Notre Dame men would revel for years. For at least a generation
it was challenged only by the story of how Pete Vaughn broke the goal post
when Notre Dame finally tamed the Wolverines in 1909.
Those who knew Red Salmon and admired the way he played football did so
with a warm regard for his character and personality. That appreciation
was communicated to people who had never met him or even see him play. 0f
all his worshipful fans, I certainly wasn't the least. When I came to know
him personally, I learned why this particular object of boyhood hero
worship never faded.
Salmon was persuaded only twice to return to campus. The first time was in
1920. I was still playing, after a long time-out in the service. Next to
George Gipp, who ran just once that Homecoming day (for 70 yards and a
touchdown), Red Salmon '05 was the Homecoming hero. The students loved
him. They held him over for the weekend and gave him a mass send-off when
he left on the train east.
I was coaching when he returned the second time, in the '30s, and head
coach Elmer Layden, deferring to my identification in time with the old
days, appointed me as a one-man welcoming committee and guide. It was a
privilege I selfishly engrossed at every opportunity.
Salmon the engineer was accustomed to dealing with projects and men on a
grand scale, yet you felt he had the profoundest respect for the smallest
things that engaged others. It was good to be with him. I think I know why
the students were so taken with him back in 1920. Perhaps while with him,
they were hoping to break through his reticence to the deep-down-inside
Salmon, because they felt that would be an even more rewarding experience.
At the same time they knew few people rated that favor and it was all
Salmon's greatest admirers were the men who knew him best. Bill Draper of
Chicago, a great athlete in his own right, captained the track team when
Salmon was competing. Several years ago we discussed the great redhead.
The last time they'd been together in New York, said Draper, Salmon
wondered aloud about the course his life had taken. I was surprised when
Draper recalled that Salmon had come to Notre Dame from a seminary back
East. If he had his life to do over, Salmon wondered whether he wouldn't
pursue his original inclination and become a priest.
Salmon's vein of spirituality might help explain his impact on fellows. If
a buried doubt increased his natural reserve, no vain regret soured him. I
think Red Salmon, Notre Dame's first football legend, was the complete
layman the founders of the school dedicated themselves to turning out.
When I was a boy, for me the symbol of Notre Dame was not the Golden Dome.
It was a living personality, a redheaded fullback. My image of Red Salmon
as a Notre Dame man is my bond with the school, not my years on the field
and in the classroom. It is the Notre Dame that Red Salmon represented,
and still represents in my memory, for which I carry an affection
transcending an old man's discomfort in the face of change.
To read previous installments of Herb's
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