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It’s debatable whether the “Curse of the Pottsville Maroons” is enough of a hex to wrench Arizona’s 2022 Super Bowl aspirations, but coach Kliff Kingsbury isn’t taking chances.
“I’m sure they’re very lovely people in Pottsville,” Kingsbury said. “I hope that they will rescind the curse very soon.”
The “curse,” such as it is, stems from a disputed NFL championship in 1925. The record books show the Chicago Cardinals as the title winner. History, and a few thousand people in an old Pennsylvania mining town, will say there’s more to story.
Consider this 96-year-old dispatch from The Associated Press: “CHICAGO. Dec. 6 (1925) — Pottsville won the National Professional Football championship by defeating the Cardinals here today by a score of 21 to 7. The Cardinals could have claimed the national title without meeting the Easterners, but the post-season game was ordered to clear any doubt as to supremacy.”
The box score from that game, according to Pro Football Reference, shows that Arizona’s lone touchdown came from fullback Bob Koehler, and Cardinals Ring of Honor member Paddy Driscoll kicked the extra point.
Koehler and Driscoll had both played for Northwestern in nearby Evanston, Illinois.
Their Pottsville rivals featured four players from Penn State who helped secure the 1925 title — for about a week.
And it’s this regional pride that led to the Maroons being washed out of the history books.
Pottsville’s championship created an opportunity for a payday, and the Maroons scheduled a game six days later against a team of stars from mighty Notre Dame.
Then, as now, Pottsville was a small town, and the Maroons played in Minersville Park, which held only about 3,500 fans.
Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, meanwhile, would hold nearly three times that many, and the contest was scheduled there.
Sportswriter David Fleming is the leading historian on this game, having covered it extensively for ESPN. He ended up writing a book about the Pottsville Maroons, “Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship,” and pitching a screenplay in Hollywood about their plight.
In 2004, he wrote, for ESPN’s Page 2: “… the Pottsville Maroons agreed to play the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in a game at Philly’s Shibe Park that some historians consider the first-ever pro-versus college all-star game. In a shocking upset, the neophyte Maroons beat Notre Dame 9-7 on a last-second field goal. At the time, college football was king, and the NFL was widely dismissed as barbaric and disorganized. That is, until the Maroons victory over Knute Rockne’s boys helped legitimize and popularize the fledgling NFL.”
It’s hard to overstate how big the win would have been.
Rockne’s vaunted Four Horsemen — quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfback Don Miller, halfback Jim Crowley and fullback Elmer Layden — were more than football players in the public imagination thanks to sportswriter Grantland Rice, who wrote of the quartet for the New York Herald Tribune after a Notre Dame win over Army in 1924: “Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again.
“In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”
(It was a new formation Rockne had devised, and college football wasn’t ready for it.)
The New York Times in 1999 called it “The Sports Story that Changed America.”
“In a few swift, polished sentences — and with an assist from a photograph — Rice changed his own life, his profession, the course of college football and the character of American leisure culture.”
Pottsville’s big win wasn’t celebrated, however.
As Fleming wrote: “But because the game was being played in the ‘territory’ of another NFL team, comish Joe Carr warned Pottsville three times not to play the game. When the Maroons ignored him (barnstorming for big gate receipts was simply a way of life back then), Carr fined them $500 and suspended them from the league, essentially robbing them of the NFL title they won on the field in Chicago.”
The championship was awarded to the Cardinals.
Questioning curse’s authenticity
There have been a few disputes in the nearly 100 years since, longshot efforts try to get the 1925 decision overturned, but it’s never gotten further than a proclamation from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, acknowledging the Maroons’ place as pioneers of the game, and a little grandstanding from Pottsville and Pennsylvania politicians.
In 2003, despite tough talk from Pennsylvania’s governor, NFL owners voted 30-2 to let the Cardinals keep their 1925 title. In a revival of regional pride, the two dissenting votes came from the owners of the Eagles and Steelers.
Fleming was the first to raise the possibility of a Pottsville curse.
But Kent Somers, the dean of Arizona sportswriters and the foremost expert on all things Cardinals, has always been skeptical.
Somers has covered the Cardinals for the Arizona Republic since 1994 and wrote “100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.” Chapter 16 is about the supposed sacrilege of Schuylkill County.
“It’s difficult to ascertain if the alleged Pottsville curse began in 1925 or in 2003, when the Cardinals were allowed to keep the title. And as with most mystical things, the curse’s authenticity can be questioned.
“The Cardinals won a championship in 1947 and played in the title game in 1948. Sure, they didn’t do much in the six decades that followed, but what legitimate curse would allow a team to even win a title?
“If the curse started in 2003, it’s not working. … In the 2008 season, the team played in the Super Bowl.”
Somers has a point, except the curse, according to Fleming, originated in the early 1960s with the formation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Football historians, at some point, reached out to Pottsville leaders, asking for memorabilia to add to the collection.
The reply, as Fleming tells the story in a phone interview and on a recent podcast, was blunt, something to the effect of: “If you want our artifacts, give us our title back.”
The demand was denied, and the curse was born.
“We don’t know exactly who placed the curse,” Fleming said.
It could have been the team’s unofficial historian, Nick Barbetta, who died in 2013 at age 98.
It could have been Barney Wentz or his descendants. Wentz was a fullback who scored two touchdowns in the 1925 win over the Cardinals. He died months before the Hall of Fame opened in 1963 in Canton, Ohio, with an inaugural class that didn’t include any representatives from the championship team.
And it could have been Tony Latone, a bruising runner known as the Human Howitzer, who never got his due.
Latone entered the coal mines at 11 to provide for his mother and five brothers and sisters after his father drank himself to death. George “Papa Bear” Halas said, according to the Pro Football Researchers Association, said that “If Latone had gone to college and played college ball, he would certainly have been one of the greatest pro players of all time.”
Red Grange, the Hall of Fame Bears halfback known as the “Galloping Ghost,” didn’t care that Latone had never played college ball. “Tony was one hell broth of a rugged coal miner, and for my money, the was the most football player I had ever seen. I simply cannot imagine anyone who could equal that power-play fullback whose leg drive was so unbelievably potent he simply knocked the linemen kicking.”
Latone died in 1975. He was never inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Fleming thinks Latone haunts the Cardinals to this day.
In 2009, the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl to a Pennsylvania team, the Steelers, and everyone knows that the Cardinals were blatantly, boldly and brazenly cheated: Santonio Holmes was out of bounds.
Except Fleming has another theory. “I think it was the Ghost of Tony Latone that pushed his toe down in the end zone.”
If the curse originated in the 1960s, there’s a strong chance it’s real.
But it could be fading.
It’s been nearly 100 years and there aren’t many people left with direct connections to the team.
It’s debatable whether there’s enough hate left in that hex to wrench Arizona’s 2022 Super Bowl aspirations, but it would be unwise to mock or scoff.
Fortunately, Kingsbury knows this.
As he said when he first learned of the potential curse, “Yeah, I’m not touching that.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Moore: Kliff Kingsbury isn't taking chances with 'Pottsville Curse'