How Glenn Warner Got His Nickname
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, Steve Sheinkin
When Glenn Warner enrolled at the Cornell University law school in 1892, he had never played football or even seen a game.

Now twenty-one, Glenn was a burly six foot two, with curly brown hair. He rode the train from Buffalo to Ithaca, in central New York, and walked around the Cornell campus, strolling pathways between grassy lawns and gray stone buildings. He wandered out to the sports field, where the football team was practicing.

Curious how the American version of this sport was played, he stood for a while and watched. He was startled to see the team captain, Carl Johanson, striding toward him.
Johanson looked Warner up and down and asked what he weighed.
"Two hundred and fifteen pounds," Warner said.
"Fine. Get on a suit right away. We need a left guard."
Warner was stunned. "Wait a minute," he managed to say. "I don’t know anything about the game at all."
"Never mind," Johanson told him. "All you’ve got to do is keep them from going through you and spoiling the play when we’ve got the ball. And when they’ve got the ball, knock the tar out of your man and tackle the runner. Perfectly simple."
The day after meeting Carl Johanson, Glenn Warner walked onto the Cornell football field for his first day of practice. The game had changed somewhat in the twenty-three years since Princeton had traveled to Rutgers (in 1869)—there were now eleven men per team on the field at once, for instance.
But the sport was still just loosely organized combat.
"Early-day football was anything but a parlor sport," Warner recalled, "many games being little more than free-for-all fights."
After only one practice, Warner was named starting left guard on the Cornell football team. Like everyone, he’d be on the field for every play, offense and defense. He learned on the fly.

L-R: Glenn Warner at Cornell; "Soldiers playing football," a Winslow Homer Illustration
Each play started with the teams lined up, facing each other, the ball on the ground between them. Before the play began, opposing linemen grunted at one another, spat, picked up dirt and threw it in each other's eyes. A lineman on offense snapped the ball to the quarterback, who then tossed it backward to one of the running backs lined up behind him. The man with the ball started forward, and defenders tried to knock him down. Teams could score by carrying the ball across the opponent’s goal line, or by kicking it through goalposts at the goal line. The ball itself was bigger and rounder than today’s ball, made for tucking under an arm or kicking, not throwing.
There was no such thing as passing; the forward pass was illegal.
Modern players memorize binders full of intricately choreographed plays. This was not the sport Warner learned. Early-day football was simple, repetitive, and—believe it or not—much more violent than today’s game. The typical play involved the ballcarrier plunging headfirst into a tightly packed wall of defenders, while his entire team pushed and pulled him—a "mass play," as it was called. Some teams even sewed suitcase handles onto the pants of their running backs so teammates could lift and drag ballcarriers through the pile. Defenders dove for the runner’s legs or leaped onto his back until he fell to the ground.
But the play still wasn’t over. It wasn’t over until the man with the ball quit moving. So while he squirmed and wriggled forward, more defenders piled on, and plays ended in massive, writhing mounds, inside of which guys would throw elbows and knees, scratch and bite, spit and choke, until the refs could untangle the heap.
Then, bruised and bleeding, everyone lined up and did it again.
The team on offense had three plays to move the ball just five yards. Five yards got you a first down—a fresh set of three plays to gain another five—so there was no need to do anything other than plunge straight ahead, play after play. "The stronger team usually was able to smash and grind the ball downfield in short, steady gains," Warner recalled, "until they had finally crossed the goal line."
And unlike today, football players wore little or no padding.
"In fact, one who wore homemade pads was regarded as a sissy," recalled John Heisman, an early player and coach for whom the Heisman Trophy was later named. Leather helmets were optional, and considered borderline wimpy. "Hair was the only head protection we knew," Heisman said, "and in preparation for football, we would let it grow from the first of June."
Warner joined the fashion, growing out his curly locks. "This sometimes had its disadvantages," he’d later say, "for when no arm or leg presented itself, a man made his tackle by simply knotting both hands in the opponent’s hair."
It was hardly enough to dampen Warner’s growing enthusiasm. "After I had gotten used to having my face pushed in and my head tramped on, I began to take an interest in the game."
One day, soon after he’d joined the team, Warner made a nice play at practice, and Carl Johanson shouted, "Good work, Pop!" Johanson never explained the nickname’s origin. Warner figured it had something to do with his being a couple of years older than most college freshmen.
Anyway, the name stuck. From then on, he was Pop Warner.
"Pop worked his way through school by waiting tables at a restaurant and played well enough to keep his spot at left guard." On the field, he paid special attention to the way his coach tried to get an edge using strategy—to use the word loosely. "If a player was too good-natured or easy-going," Warner explained, "the coach would tell one of his own mates to sock him in the jaw when he wasn’t looking and then blame it on the other team so as to make him mad."
Pop Warner was among the first coaches inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame when it began in 1951. He compiled a record of 319-106-32.

 

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