Harry Eielson was a dominant athlete in high school and college. The Springfield High School basketball team, with Eielson as captain, won the 1917 state championship. Eielson took first place in pole vault at the 1915-16 state track meet, setting a record that stood for 30 years. In football, he was all-state in high school and a Grantland Rice All-American in college.
But the defining moment of Eielson’s sports career took place on Nov. 23, 1918, when he initiated one of the great freak plays in U.S. football history. The play – fluky at the start, outrageous at the finish, and spectacular from end to end – also put his Great Lakes Naval Training Station football team into the 1919 Rose Bowl.
Eielson (1896-1983) enrolled at Northwestern University in the fall of 1917 and was elected captain of the school’s freshman football team. However, he soon joined the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the Great Lakes station near Chicago.
The training station had a football team that competed against teams from other military facilities and some colleges, and, with the war on, military teams were loaded with top talent. Among Eielson’s teammates, for instance, were later Pro Football Hall of Fame members Paddy Driscoll and George Halas.
During World War I, organizers of the Rose Bowl (then called the Tournament East-West football game) agreed that, instead of colleges, they would invite the two best military teams from opposite halves of the country to play in their New Year’s Day game.
In the fall of 1918, the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and the U.S. Naval Academy were the best armed forces teams in the eastern U.S. The winner of the Great Lakes-Navy game on Nov. 23 was to go to California for the Jan. 1, 1919, East-West game.
Playing at Annapolis, Navy took a 6-0 lead and was threatening to score again with only a few minutes left in the game. But Navy back Bill Ingram fumbled near the goal line.
There’s no film of the game, of course, and many details of the next few seconds are in dispute – where Ingram was when he fumbled, whether the ball popped into the air or bounced along the ground, and where Eielson was, in the end zone or still in the field of play, when he recovered the fumble,
In any case, Eielson ended up with the ball and running loose down the field, escorted by several teammates as blockers. He was headed for a certain touchdown.
As Eielson passed the Navy sideline, however, a substitute named Bill Saunders left the bench, ran onto the field, and tackled Eielson. A wild scrum ensued.
The story once again takes some confusing turns. State Journal-Register sportswriter Jim Ruppert turned to a book, Rose Bowl Football: Since 1902 by Herb Michelson and Dave Newhouse, for an article the SJ-R published when Eielson was named to the Springfield Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. Here’s how Michelson and Newhouse reported the finish of the play.
Referee Harry R. Heneage did not whistle the play dead. Eielson’s teammates unpeeled Saunders, so the touchdown run could be completed. That’s one version.
Football historian Rube Samuelson reported that the officials decided to give the ball to Great Lakes after penalizing Navy half the distance to the goal. But Captain Edward Walter Eberle (superintendent at Annapolis) came down on the field on the double and said, “I don’t care what the rules are. I’m running things at the Academy and I say that’s a Great Lakes touchdown.”
Eielson, of course, had his own vivid memory of the play, which he recounted to Illinois State Journal sports sports columnist Frank Weir in 1943, the 25th anniversary of Great Lakes’ win. Saunders came onto the field when Eielson was 25 yards short of a touchdown, Eielson said.
I saw him coming, realized what he was trying to do was illegal and also knew that attempting to change my pace and course would probably permit a legitimate player to overtake me and bring me down. …
So I just let him tackle me and then, boy oh boy, the fun started. The field was full of Great Lakes gobs, Annapolis midshipmen, lieutenants, commanders, captains and, yes, even an admiral.
George Halas, our end, now … owner of the Chicago Bears, took a swing at Saunders, and an admiral, pulling out his sword as a gesture of authority in an attempt to restore order, was curtly ordered to get off the field in no uncertain terms by (Hugh) Blacklock, our great tackle.
Then Blacklock and I calmly walked out of the crowd and went off down the field and over the Annapolis goal for the touchdown that was allowed to tie the game. Then Blacklock kicked the placement to win, 7 to 6.
Eielson and his teammates went on to defeat a team from the Mare Island U.S. Marines station in the bowl game. Eielson’s son, Harry Eielson Jr., told Ruppert in 1996 that the Rose Bowl victory was his father’s “proudest achievement in sports.”
The celebrated fumble recovery later was recognized by both Liberty and Saturday Evening Post magazines and reenacted at least once, in 1933, on the radio.
Harry Eielson Sr. returned to Northwestern immediately after the war, but then transferred to Washington and Jefferson College, where once again he starred in football. He was named an All-Eastern halfback and a Grantland Rice All-American.
After college, Eielson returned to Springfield to work in the family’s lumber business, but he also made his mark in politics. He was elected Sangamon County treasurer in 1934, county sheriff in 1938, and Springfield commissioner of health and safety in 1943, capping his career with a term as mayor from 1947 to 1951.
Eielson is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
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According to the Washington Times (24 Nov 1918), Saunders tackled Eielson at the Navy 18-yard line.
The 27 Nov 1918 issue of the Chicago Tribune reported that Henry Heneage referee’d the game between Great Lakes and Navy and that he related what happened to his friend Wallie McCornack, former Dartmouth and Northwester coach.
According to McCornack, Heneage said that Navy had pushed the ball to the Great Lakes 8-yard line, and then handed the ball off to team captain Ingram for the final rushing attempt. He broke through the Great Lakes line, but was hit by one or more players in the secondary, and the ball popped loose 5 feet into the air, and was caught on the fly by Eielson.
Eielson ran the ball down the Navy side of the field and Saunders, who was warming up, ran onto the field and tackled him.
According to Heneage, there was no fight, as had been alleged at the time, and which has been romanticized since. Heneage told his friend McCornack that the officials simply untangled the mess, and he (Heneage) gave the ball to the Great Lakes team captain (Keefe) and instructed him to carry it to the end zone and touch it down for the score. He then gave Great lakes their chance to try for the point after, which was successfully kicked by Blacklock.
According to Heneage, it appeared that Saunders was merely reacting instinctively to his coach’s screams of “Tackle him! Tackle him!” and ran out onto the field to do so. He believed that Saunders had been unjustly criticized in the media, and he felt that Saunders’ actions were not intended to be malicious at all.
Mr. Wiessing: Wow, another version of that touchdown. Thanks for the new information.