PREP: Nevers, Leonhard: A pair of gridiron greats

Ernie Nevers played in the 1920s. As a result, I doubt there's anyone alive today who saw him play. That may have cost him some votes in my quest to find the best athlete in the history of northwest Wisconsin.

Ernie Nevers played in the 1920s. As a result, I doubt there's anyone alive today who saw him play. That may have cost him some votes in my quest to find the best athlete in the history of northwest Wisconsin.

After all, in 1962, Sports Illustrated did name him the greatest player in the history of college football.

Nevers played football and basketball at Superior Central, but he was anything but a legend. According to some reports, he was better at basketball back then than football. It wasn't until his family moved to California and he enrolled at Stanford that he became immortal.

Nevers earned 11 letters in four sports at Stanford, but football was his game. From 1923 to 1925, Stanford went 21-5-1, and Stanford's legendary coach, Pop Warner, said Nevers was better than Jim Thorpe. Warner should have known; he also coached Thorpe.

In a 1925 Rose Bowl loss to Knute Rockne and Notre Dame, Nevers out-gained all of the famed Four Horsemen combined, despite the fact that he'd had the casts removed from his two broken ankles just 10 days earlier.


Later that year he began his pro football career, playing in a series of all-star games. That winter he played professional basketball in Chicago and in the summer he pitched for the St. Louis Browns. That's three professional sports in one year. Can anyone match that?

Then he joined the Duluth Eskimos. In the fall of 1926 the Eskimos played 29 games, 28 of which were on the road. They had only 16 players, yet they won 17 of those games. Nevers was the team's best rusher, passer, kicker, tackler, and blocker. He played one more season with Duluth before moving on to the Chicago Cardinals.

In 1929, in a win over the Chicago Bears, he set an NFL record by scoring 40 points. Nevers was All-Pro during each of his five NFL seasons and was a charter inductee into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Jim Leonhard, unlike Nevers, was the consummate high school star. Despite seeming too small to amount to anything he was a four-year starter in football, basketball, and baseball at Flambeau.

In football he once ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 250 yards and four TD's, all in the first half. In basketball he was good for 20 points and 10 assists a game, and in baseball he routinely batted over .500, with a dozen or more home runs.

He also wasn't a bad pitcher. One year he was 9-0 with 74 strike outs in 35 innings and an ERA of .80. He struck out 18 in one game while being watched by a scout from the Twins.

Great numbers for a high school kid, but still it was always the size thing. At 5-8 and 170 pounds he still didn't attract much attention from college recruiters. They didn't realize that his strength lay in his legs and in his heart. They also didn't realize that with a 3.9 GPA he was able to not only out-perform other kids, he could out-smart them, as well. It wasn't until he dazzled Barry Alvarez and his staff at a UW football camp that Leonhard was invited to walk on for the Badgers.

You know the rest of the story.


As a defensive back and punt return specialist he electrified the Camp Randall crowd and was a three-time All-Big Ten selection, a three-time All-American, was thrice named to the Academic All-Big Ten team, was a two-time Academic All-American and was a finalist for the 2004 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. He holds Badger records for most interceptions both in a season and in a career, as well as for punt return yardage in a career. As for punt return yardage in a single season, Leonhard ranks first (2003), second (2004), and third (2002) on the all-time Badger list.

So much for being too small.

Both were certainly great athletes, yet neither Ernie Nevers nor Jim Leonhard elicited the strongest support in our survey. Next week we'll learn about the two who did.


  • Vinny Ritchay, co-player of the year in the Wisconsin Valley Conference, will play for UW-Stevens Point next year. A 6-foot-1 guard, he averaged 18 points a game in each of the past two seasons, shot 49 percent from three-point range, and was a 78 percent free throw shooter. He's the great-grandson of Aaron Ritchay, who once scored 88 points for Mellen back in 1917.
  • Only time will tell, but it's possible new coach Dave Buchanan will really turn around the basketball program at UW-Superior. Buchanan's first recruiting class is a dandy. He landed Altoona's Shane Manor, Mercer's Greg Roeder, Rhinelander's Jake Smith, Superior's Ben Lindberg and Rice Lake's Dan Culy.
  • Finally, how unlucky was Plymouth softball pitcher Lindsey Grahn? In a recent game against Campbellsport she retired the first 20 batters she faced, struck out 19, and drove in the tying run in the bottom of the seventh to send the game to extra innings, only to have Campbellsport score an unearned run in the 11th for the win.

Carlo Kumpula is a longtime Spooner teacher, coach, official and fan who writes the Wisconsin Prep Spotlight, a weekly column about high school athletics. Comments and requests can be made to:

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