The University of Wisconsin had a freshman football team in the fall of 1917, but Curly Lambeau wasn’t one of the 18 players. The photo appeared in the 1919 school yearbook, “The Badger.” The freshmen teams were identified in the yearbook by class year or the year of graduation; thus, the reference to The 1921 Football Team in the headline over the photo.
Hopefully, as the Packers approach their 100th anniversary season and birthday, you’ll learn things about their storied history you didn’t know before. But it will all come with a warning: Much of what you’ll read and hear about the early years will contradict what you’ve been told in the past.
There’s no more compelling story in American sports than the creation, survival and success of the Packers. But, sadly, the beginning of the story has become so distorted that myth and falsehoods have overrun the truth.
Before we move ahead, we probably should look back and try to explain how so many could have gotten this great story so wrong.
Let’s use Curly Lambeau’s so-called fling with the University of Wisconsin as an example.
It took place two years before the Packers were founded and is only a small part of the team’s history, but it illustrates how careless others have been about retelling the Packers story and it’s one of many examples that largely started with the same book.
The first mention I’ve found of Lambeau’s time at Wisconsin appeared in “The History of the Green Bay Packers: The Lambeau Years: Part One.” The book was written by Larry Names and first printed in 1987.
For the record, Lambeau climaxed his football days at Green Bay East High School by leading it to a 7-6 victory over rival West in the fall of 1916. He graduated from East on June 15, 1917.
Here’s what Names wrote:
“The summer of 1917 was the first year of World War I for the United States, and many of the area’s young men enlisted in the military service of their country. Others waited to be drafted.
“Curly Lambeau went to work for his father in the construction business. In the fall, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison but dropped out of college after attending for less than a month because the freshman football program was cancelled and he wasn’t allowed to play with the varsity.”
The mere suggestion that Lambeau specifically wasn’t allowed to play varsity football as a freshman should have instantly raised a red flag for anyone who read those paragraphs and had a clue about the history of freshman eligibility in college football.
In November 1904, what was then the Big Nine Conference established a residence rule that effectively prevented freshmen from playing varsity football. Other than when the rule was briefly waived during the two world wars, freshmen were ineligible to play football in the Big Ten from 1905 until 1972. Competition was limited to intra-school contests.
In 1972, the NCAA granted freshmen eligibility in football and basketball, a surprising move at the time, and the Big Ten schools, some reluctantly, voted to go along with it.
The bottom line is that Names struck out on all three of his points.
Strike one: Lambeau never enrolled at UW. Strike two: The freshman football program wasn’t cancelled. Strike three: There was never any chance of Lambeau or any other freshman playing on the varsity in 1917.
The University of Wisconsin “has been diligent in maintaining student records from its inception,” or since 1848, Keri Allard of the university’s Office of the Registrar recently wrote in an email. Previously, she had checked her office’s locator cards and also the State Archives and found no record of Earl “Curly” Lambeau ever enrolling at Wisconsin. Neither did another staff member when I previously called to check on Oct. 4, 2013.
Basically, student enrollment information can be obtained by anyone, almost instantly and with little effort.
Diligent as she was about searching the archives after she couldn’t find anything in the registrar’s office, Allard was careful to note she couldn’t guarantee that no student’s record was ever lost.
That’s why a good rule of journalism is to try and find at least two sources of confirmation for anything. And there were plenty of other records to be found at the UW Archives in the Steenbock Memorial Library, including a picture of the 1917 freshman football team in the 1919 university yearbook titled “The Badger.”
Those records could be searched in less than a day.
Nevertheless, at least five books about Packers history have repeated Names’ account almost verbatim.
Here’s a 1917 timeline that shows how easy it would have been for Names and others to get the story right.
Sept. 26 – Twenty-six players reported that evening to freshman coach Guy Lowman. Forty more players were expected to report the next day (Sept. 27), including Lambeau, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The paper identified Lambeau as one of four “well-known stars” expected to join the team.
Sept. 27 – Classes started at the university. The Daily Cardinal, the school paper, reported the following day that 21 more freshmen had reported for practice on the lower campus and the freshman roster now numbered 47. Lambeau was among the “new freshmen who appeared,” the paper stated in its Sept. 28 edition, but it didn’t list him among the 21 who practiced. The State Journal, on Sept. 28, listed the 21 new men and Lambeau wasn’t included.
(Note: Based on my research, the Sept. 28 Daily Cardinal was the last time the paper mentioned Lambeau’s name that fall in connection with UW football.)
Sept. 29 – George Whitney Calhoun wrote in his Cal’s Comments column in the Green Bay Press-Gazette that Lambeau had left for Madison and was being touted as “one of the best gridiron prospects that has ever been turned out of a high school.” Calhoun added, “Of course, the freshman rule will bar him from varsity competition this fall but he should make the yearling aggregation with ease…”
(Note: Again, based on my research, Calhoun didn’t mention Lambeau in connection with Wisconsin again that fall.)
Sept. 30 – The State Journal reported more than 50 freshmen had secured permits from the clinic to play that fall, but only 43 had appeared on the field as of the previous day. It listed 42 players who had received equipment and Lambeau wasn’t among them.
Oct. 3 – “The long awaited first scrimmage between the varsity football team and freshmen was staged at Camp Randall yesterday afternoon,” the State Journal reported in its Oct. 4 edition. Sixteen freshmen who participated in the scrimmage were listed in the State Journal’s lineup box. The Daily Cardinal also listed the freshman lineup. Lambeau was not listed in either paper.
(Note: The varsity and freshman teams continued to scrimmage each other throughout the remainder of the season, sometimes two or three times a week. The Daily Cardinal wrote about the scrimmages and listed the freshman lineup on at least eight more dates. On Oct. 17, the paper said the previous night’s scrimmage was “carried through until after dark.” Lambeau was never listed.)
Nov. 9 – The Daily Cardinal reported Lowman had picked 25 players to represent the freshmen in the annual Freshman-Sophomore Game.
Nov. 16 – The Daily Cardinal reported the freshmen had scored two touchdowns in the final scrimmage of the season against the varsity. Lambeau was not listed in the lineup.
Nov. 17 – The Sophomores beat the Freshmen, 22-0, in their annual game at 10,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium. The Daily Cardinal ran the lineups the next day, but Lambeau wasn’t listed.
(Note: The UW varsity finished the season, 4-2-1.)
It was several weeks later before Lambeau’s name resurfaced in the Press-Gazette.
The paper reported on Oct. 25 that he attended a Halloween party at the home of Miss Mary Hart. Also among the roughly 20 guests was Marguerite Van Kessel, Curly’s future bride.
Four days earlier, Lambeau led the South Side Skidoos to a 6-0 victory over De Pere. On Nov. 11, Lambeau starred again as the Green Bay All-Stars whipped the Marinette Badgers, 27-0, in a benefit game for the Brown County Red Cross Chapter.
“As a rule, Sunday football is not a howling success, but the game of yesterday was a cracking good exhibition,” the Press-Gazette stated in its game story.
Whatever happened to Lambeau in the roughly 48 hours between when he supposedly left Green Bay for Madison and when he was last mentioned as a football prospect at Wisconsin is something we’ll likely never know.
Even if others continue to regurgitate false stories, it won’t change anything.
*Photo: Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives (ID UW.UWYearBk1919.p0212)