Overlooked Superstar’s Case for the Hall of Fame

Sports July 28, 2019
By Tom Archdeacon, columnist

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Karen O’Donnel preferred her eyes shut.

It was midnight and she wanted to sleep.But in what was becoming a recurring scenario over the past year, her husband Kevin was eagerly texting back and forth with his cousin Doug Spatz, who had been spending much of his free time in libraries from Dayton to Detroit, searching through microfiche back issues of newspapers.

And so those nightly exchanges between the O’Donnels and Spatz would go – according to the grinning Kevin and Doug the other day – something like this:Doug:

“You won’t believe what I just found!”
Kevin: “What?….What?”
Karen: “Hey, you guys got to stop it! Stop texting. Go to bed!”

Yet, from such passion – between Kevin and Doug, not Kevin and Karen – a Hall of Fame campaign has been born.
Their midnight mania has to do with their great uncle, Norb Sacksteder – “Hell on Cleats,” as the Detroit News referred to him in an October, 1916 article – who was one of the greatest stars in the early days of pro football.

• He was a team captain and the starting halfback for the Dayton Triangles in the first National Football League game ever played, an October 3, 1920, contest against the Columbus Panhandles at Dayton’s Triangle Park.

• He was the star halfback of the very first NFL champions, the 1922 Canton Bulldogs.

• Playing professionally in the five years that preceded the 1920 formation of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) – which would change its name to the NFL – Sacksteder was the game’s most dynamic presence: running the ball, passing, returning kicks and punts and playing defensive back.

At just 5-foot-9, 173 pounds, he was a small package who made a big impact.

As Spatz noted: “He changed the game from a rugby scrum type of contest to an open field game.”

He was like a jazz improvisation out there twisting, spinning, juking, changing direction, then cutting back again. Imagine an early-day Barry Sanders in a leather helmet and high top cleats.

Playing for the Triangles in 1916, he once scored seven touchdowns in one game.

In the early part of that 1922 championship season, he scored on a 60-yard punt return and a 38-yard run and threw a 35-yard TD pass.

In another game – against fabled Jim Thorpe and his Oorang Indians team – he had three interceptions.

Sacksteder would end up scoring more touchdowns than both Thorpe and the great and equally-inventive Fritz Pollard, both of whom have since been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

And no one could attest to Sacksteder’s breakaway speed more than the legendary George Halas, who was playing for the Hammond Pros in that November, 1919 game against Sacksteder’s Detroit Heralds team.

Late in the game Sacksteder fielded a punt and returned it 60 yards for a score.

According to one Detroit newspaper account:

“Sacksteder’s dash was as pretty a piece of open field running as any fan would wish to see, for he had to elude men of such caliber as George Halas, Ghee, Blacklock, and numerous others whose ability to stop a runner is well known. Squirming, dodging and straight arming, the Detroit runner kept going at top speed until he struck the center-field bleachers with a crash that left him unconscious. He was picked up and rushed to the clubhouse, but an examination revealed no injuries.”

Halas – who’d later become the eternal cornerstone of the Chicago Bears – was not the only big name unable to corral Sacksteder.

As good in baseball as he was in football, Sacksteder was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1916. When A’s manager Connie Mack told him to report in the fall, Sacksteder asked to delay his arrival until spring so he could play the football season with the Triangles. That ruffled the famed manager’s feathers and he wrote back that he “was not interested in pro football players.”

The season before, Knute Rockne had teamed with Sacksteder on the Massillon Tigers and over the years no one was paired more with Sacksteder than Thorpe. They were considered the game’s two best backs.

Before his pro days, Sacksteder was equally celebrated at the University of Dayton – then known as St Mary’s Institute – and also Christian Brothers College in St. Louis.

UD recognizes Sacksteder as a two-year football letterman and in the spring of 1913, he became the first Dayton Flyer ever – in a feat that’s been equaled just once since – to win letters in four different sports (football, basketball, baseball, track) in the same school year.

He played the 1914 season at Christian Brothers and by October, as one local newspaper there wrote, he had “developed into a football idol of St. Louis.”

And no wonder. His game against DePauw was highlighted in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not panel published in newspapers across the nation.

His feat?

He gained 506 yards in that game!

Yet all that fame came long ago and today few people – including the folks who vote old-time players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – have heard of Sacksteder. So that’s where O’Donnel’s and Spatz’s passion now is directed.

After a year of exhaustive research – Spatz in libraries, O’Donnel primarily dissecting every entry in Sacksteder’s treasure trove of a scrapbook – they have put together a comprehensive brochure filled with copies of newspaper clippings and book excepts on Sacksteder.

They are trying to get that to the nine members of the Hall of Fame’s Senior Committee – which is part of the overall 48-member Selection Committee – and deals with players who have been out of the game a least 25 years and previously been overlooked or bypassed.The cousins hope that Sacksteder – who they nominated for consideration next year – will become part of the expanded Centennial Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

For a long time players from those early years – especially those who starred before the APFA/NFL began in 1920 – have been mostly overlooked. But it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame – not the NFL hall – and a guy like Sacksteder should not be penalized for when he played.

Still the two realize what they are up against.

“It’s a real longshot because no one knows who he is,” O’Donnel admitted.

Then again, the end zone was a long shot that day in 1914 when Sacksteder – playing for Christian Brothers – fielded a rival’s kickoff on his own goal line. As teammate Bob Gregor once told the late Dayton Daily News sports editor Si Burick, he played in that game and watched the return.

He said Sacksteder ran up the field, then back down and back up again, zig-zagging from one sideline to the other as wheezing defenders chased and grabbed, but never got more than a remnant of cloth.

According to Greger: “I’ll swear he ran 400 yards, at least…When he crossed the goal line, he was stark naked from the waist up except for his shoulder pads. The undershirt, sweat shirt and jersey had been ripped off.

“My god he is good”

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Copyright 2019 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.
Dayton Daily News (Ohio) July 28, 2019 Sunday
BYLINE: By Tom Archdeacon

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