For Christmas in 1989 I got the coolest gift a kid could ask for, a Tampa Jam scooter with tropical colors dressed in shiny chrome. This bad boy had a Tuffbilt frame with 16-inch fiberglass, reinforced mag wheels with white knobby tires, deluxe grips and nylon handlebar pad, and made for ages 10 and up. I was only 8. No question about it, I was the cool kid on the block.
My new Tampa Jam opened a world of exploration into my surrounding neighborhood when summer rolled around and I was old enough to cross the ‘busy street’ also known as Portage Ave. On a hot and humid afternoon, my friends peddled their bikes and I strutted my scooter to a place that nobody was around, Highland Cemetery.
The journey to the cemetery was only 1 mile long, but to me it felt like Christopher Columbus braving the unknown elements and discovering a new world. When we arrived in the best bike track this side of the Studebaker plant, the name Knute Rockne greeted me at the gate.
Of course, I had seen Knute Rockne’s picture plastered on football programs, game tickets, and t-shirts all over South Bend but to me he seemed more like a cartoon character rather than a real human person.
As a kid, my mother pointed out that Knute Rockne was buried in a cemetery on my way home from Corpus Christi elementary school, however, it didn’t become real until I discovered his grave, on my own.
Perhaps my fascination with investigating sports past started at the point, because I became fascinated with every aspect of his life. From his time growing up as the son of a ‘Norweigen’ immigrant in Chicago to the proper pronunciation of his first name — Ka-Noot. The iconic Notre Dame head coach is credited with 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties and 3 national championships with the highest all-time winning percentage (.881) for a major college football coach.
The man who brought fame to Notre Dame and made the town of South Bend a household name understood the importance of promoting a brand image while associating that moniker with championship football. After a plane crash took Rockne’s life in 1931, over 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession from Notre Dame to Highland Cemetery in downtown.
The same cannot be said for our football legend here in Romney, George Preston Marshall. When looking through the archives of Marshall’s funeral, The Hampshire Review spared 4 paragraphs to his passing, while the Washington Post was just a few paragraphs longer.
Last week I pleaded with my audience to come forward with any recollection of the funeral procession in Romney, and to my chagrin, only crickets responded.
It appears avoidance is the strategy in place when discussing the burial of the last owner in the NFL to integrate his team. In fact the reason the Redskins integrated at all was Marshall’s desire for a new stadium. Interestingly, the land Marshall wanted to use to build his stadium was on federal land.
The complicated career of the laundry magnate came to a crescendo in 1962, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy issued an ultimatum — unless Marshall signed a black player, the government would revoke the Redskins' 30-year lease on the year-old D.C. Stadium (now Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium), which had been paid for by government money and was owned by the Washington city government.
Ernie Davis, an All-American running back from Syracuse, was drafted in the first round by the Redskins in 1962, however, Davis refused to join the team stating, “I won’t play for that S.O.B.” Marshall traded Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell who became the first African American player to suit up for the burgundy and gold.
Upon acknowledgement for failing to integrate sooner, Marshall was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just one year later in 1963. Shortly after his induction into Canton, Marshall suffered a stroke and was bedridden until his death in 1969.
The NFL can thank Marshall for being the $16 billion industry it is today as he pioneered television deals that enriched the league beyond imagination.
No doubt Marshall’s face would be chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of NFL legends barring his bigoted racial views. Nonetheless, the natural showman and sports promoter is a fabric of the complex history of Hampshire County.
Over the past decade, officials at RFK stadium attempted to move the statue of George Preston Marshall to Romney, however, financial concerns and a lack of prime real estate to place the statue nixed the operation.
“I’m just glad it went away,” said one former Romney town official.
Apparently that same sentiment is felt throughout Hampshire County, happy that Marshall and his demons are both buried. o