Staley’s Bears 1920-1921
JAMES “JIMMY” GLEASON CONZELMAN [Born DUNN]
Height: 6’0 Weight: 175
Born: 3/6/1898 St. Louis, MO
Died: 7/31/1970 St. Louis, MO
High School: McKinley (St. Louis, MO)
College: Washington-St. Louis
“Courage is a mysterious quality, touching at times the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the wise and the fools in a bewildering method of selection.”
An address at the University of Dayton Commencement
May 10, 1942
“Jimmy Conzelman, who rose from ukulele champion of Great Lakes Naval Station during World War I, to become the most feared saloon piano player in American sports, is a man of many talents.”
Stars & Stripes Pacific Edition
May 8, 1963
“Everybody liked Jimmy. He really attracted people. He was priceless company as well as a man of so many accomplishments.”
Upon learning of the death of former teammate Jimmy Conzelman
July 31, 1970
“It is difficult to find a person with a more varied life, successful in so many unrelated endeavors as Jimmy Conzelman…. More important than his list of accomplishments was Conzelman’s passion for life. The epitome of the benefit of positive thinking, Conzelman was a born leader and a pursuer of perfection. This pursuit was tempered with a sense of realism and lofty but not unattainable goals. In a word – attitude!”
THE COFFIN CORNER
Vol. 19, No. 1 (1997)
Born in 1898 on the north side of St. Louis to Irish Catholic parents James Dunn and Margaret Ryan, Jimmy became a half orphan by the time he was two years old. About 1903 his mother married dentist Oscar Conzelman and the family moved to south St. Louis where the Germans lived as Jimmy adopted his stepfather’s last name. Jimmy was a gifted athlete in several sports and quarterbacked his McKinley High School football team to the city championship.
In 1916 he played football for Washington University in St. Louis. However, in the spring of 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. Jimmy planned to leave for France in June to work with the Ambulance Field Service but there is no record of him arriving there or serving. Instead, he ended up in the U.S. Navy and as luck would have it was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station where he became the middle-weight boxing champion, entertained his fellow gobs with song and played football. Years later he loved to regale his audiences on the post season banquet circuit with the story of his base “Commandant” giving the team a pep talk before taking on the undefeated U.S. Naval Academy on November 23, 1918. “If you men win this game you’ll go on to the Rose Bowl and then get your discharge.” He and George Halas won the 1919 Rose Bowl [as we call it today] and were out of the navy in 10 days.
Jimmy planned to go back to “Wash U” to play for the red and green and finish his degree. Plans needed to be altered when his stepfather died on May 4, 1919 leaving Jimmy with a twice-widowed mother and three young siblings to care for. He helped pay his way through another year of school by organizing a band while becoming the “All Missouri Valley” quarterback for the university Bears football team that fall.
In the fall of 1920 Halas convinced Conzelman to work at Staleys and start his professional football career in Decatur. Arriving the second week of October, Jimmy played right half back. He started in 6 games and subbed for Jake Lanum in 5 others and scored on three touch downs and two drop kicks. He left when the season was over and reportedly moved to Greenwich Village working as a monument salesman and songwriter. It was there that he met the famous American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies and served as a male model for a fallen French soldier in the future memorial, “The Battle of the Marne.”
It is not clear why Jimmy opted not to come back to Staleys in 1921 but rather played for the rival Rock Island Independents where he could be the quarterback. It was there that football history was made. As Conzelman often repeated the tale, the opposition kept running through team coach and starting right tackle Frank Coughlin, formerly of Notre Dame. The owner-manager sent in a substitute who then told Conzelman, “I’m the new tackle, and Flanagan the owner says you are the new coach.” Thus at age 23, along with Curley Lambeau in Green Bay, Conzelman was the youngest head coach in NFL history.
After playing some minor league baseball and part of the 1922 football season in Rock Island, Jimmy moved on to be the player-coach of the Milwaukee Badgers for the rest of 1922 and then 1923 and 1924. In 1925 he was awarded the new Detroit Panthers NFL franchise for $100. The now owner/player/coach won a few more games than he lost, but the team was a money loser and he sold it back to the league after the following season for 50 bucks. He often related, “That gives you a rough idea of the kind of a businessman I was.”
He then moved on as player-coach in 1927 to the Providence [Rhode Island] Steam Roller football team. The team won the NFL championship in 1928 even though Jimmy finished the season coaching from the sidelines on crutches. His injured knee finished his playing career in 1929 so he moved back to St. Louis and began editing a local newspaper. In 1931 he also coached the semi-pro “St. Louis Gunners” football team in a local armory. From 1932 through 1939 he served as head football coach at his Alma Mater, Washington University, where he won three Missouri Valley Conference titles. It was during this somewhat stable time of his life that he married Anne Forrestal on December 5, 1936.
In the summer of 1940 Jimmy Conzelman played the role of a football coach in the musical “Good News” at the outdoor St. Louis Municipal Opera. Shortly thereafter he was hired to play a real coach by Charley Bidwill of the NFL’s lowly Chicago Cardinals [along with the Staleys/Bears, the only two original NFL franchises in existence today]. The “white-maned” Conzelman had little success with the team on the field in 1940, 1941 and 1942. He did however pen the team’s first fight song in 1941, “It’s in the Cards to win.” But they didn’t win so he returned to his beloved St. Louis to work as assistant to the president of the St. Louis Browns baseball team.
By this time in his life the once shy and poor public speaker had worked so hard at this skill and was such a good writer that he was in popular demand as both an entertaining and inspirational speaker. On May 10, 1942, he addressed the first college graduating class since the United States had entered World War II. The text of “A Young Man’s Mental and Physical Approach to War” can be found on the website of the NFL Hall of Fame http://www.profootballhof.com/news/the-young-man-s-mental-and-physical-approach-to-war/. After being presented at the Catholic university, this speech was read into the U.S. Congressional Record and made required reading for all cadets at the U.S. Naval and Military Academies.
When asked to return to the Chicago Cardinals after the war Conzelman once again became a professional football head coach. His article in the October 19, 1946 Saturday Evening Post, “I’d Rather Coach the Pros” explained his philosophy. In 1947 the Cardinals won the National Championship and might have repeated in 1948 had it not been for a blinding snowstorm in Philadelphia. Even with a loss in the title game, Conzelman was named NFL “Coach of the Year.”
The chain-smoking coach was now done with life on the road. He again returned to St. Louis and now became an advertising executive, working his way up to vice-president at the D’arcy Advertising Company. In 1956 he attended the Staley Day team reunion at Wrigley Field. For a brief time, he and George Halas were both officially retired from coaching. As a soon to be NFL Hall of Fame coach, Conzelman’s lifetime record with his five teams against Halas’ one team was 5-13-3. His speaking circuit routine included how close he was with his one-time Staley coach. “We always exchange Christmas gifts and this year George sent me a pair of moccasins …. Water moccasins.”
In 1957 he returned to the musical stage playing the manager of baseball’s Washington Senators in “Damn Yankees” at the St. Louis Munie. On September 6, 1964 he was admitted into the NFL Hall of Fame along with former Staley teammate, George Trafton. He now started to suffer the pangs of a hard but well-lived life. Hardening of the arteries may have kept him from writing his autobiography and lung cancer finely took his life at age 72. After a Requiem Mass at S. Roch’s Church he was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sports Editor Bob Broeg always referred to the diverse Jimmy Conzelman as “James-of-All-Games.” He eulogized Jimmy by quoting excerpts from a plaque that had been put up near the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in the former Busch Memorial Stadium.
“Eager for the challenge of the kickoff and the contacts of scrimmage … always determined to reach the last white line … loyal and appreciative of every player’s effort … a wonderful companion on and off the field.”
Mark W. Sorensen – Copyright @ 2016