The stories behind college football's best player nicknames
Upon careful review of the college football landscape, after close inspection of all the metrics and studying the game films, one conclusion must be made.
They don’t make great nicknames the way they used to.
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Florida native Lamar Jackson won the Heisman last season, but nobody called him the Orange Blossom of Boynton Beach. Not like Earl Campbell was once handed the trophy as the Tyler Rose.
Oh, there are all manners of Twitter handles, but can any of them match a guy known to the world as Too Tall? To honor the golden age of college football nicknames, let’s review how some of them were born.
Speaking of golden:
The Golden Boy
Paul Hornung was so impressive at a Notre Dame spring game, a reporter wrote something about the Golden Dome finding its Golden Boy. Bingo. The name must have been a hit with Heisman voters. He remains the only Heisman winner from a losing team. And the Irish didn’t just lose, they went 2-8.
There is the story that young Paul Bryant went to a cobbler back in Fordyce, Ark., and had cleats attached to the only pair of shoes he owned. He wore them everywhere, from church to the football field. Money meant something, so when a guy showed up at a Fordyce theater one day, offering $1 a minute to anyone who would wrestle his bear, Bryant took the challenge. Some would later say, he was trying to impress a girl.
When Bryant recovered from his bout with Yogi or Smokey or whoever it was, he went back for his money. The bear and his owner had skipped town. All Bryant got was a nickname -- that would carry him through 323 victories.
The Wild Bunch
USC’s defensive line picked up the tag while destroying offenses on the way to a 10-0-1 record in 1969 – including 10 sacks against UCLA. It came from a hit action movie, directed by former USC student Sam Peckinpah. One of the Wild Bunch was Al Cowlings. You might remember him from the day he drove O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco.
Crazy Legs Hirsch
Here’s a college resume you don’t see every day. Elroy Hirsch played one varsity season at Wisconsin, then the next at Michigan, after enlisting in the Marines during World War II. His unusual running style led to his nickname, though there are various stories as to its actual origin. Supposedly one sportswriter mentioned how his “crazy legs gyrated in six different directions.” Anyway, the moniker was a valuable thing to have, as Hirsch would later say, “I don’t think anyone would remember Elroy.”
The Galloping Ghost
Harold Edward Grange acquired multiple nicknames along his way. First, there was Red. Then, The Galloping Ghost, penned by a reporter who was inspired by watching the Illinois running back wreck Michigan in 1924 with touchdowns of 95, 67, 54 and 44 yards – all in the first 12 minutes. His No. 77 was memorable, too. Why 77? He explained one day, “The guy in front of me got 76, and the guy in back of me got 78.”
The Throwin’ Samoan
Jack Thompson passed for 7,818 yards at Washington State in the 1970s, which then was an NCAA record. He was born in American Samoa. A reporter in Spokane put the two together.
The Kansas Comet
It didn’t take long for people to start coming up with nicknames for Gale Sayers during his Jayhawks’ career. The first time he carried the ball in practice, he ran 75 yards for a touchdown.
Bryon White was a .400 hitter in baseball and played in the NIT in basketball for Colorado, but football stardom is what led to his nickname, supposedly from a Denver newspaper cartoonist. The name stayed with White through a distinguished legal career that included 31 years on the Supreme Court, though his distaste for it was the stuff of legend. Really, does it seem right as the justices enter the chamber to say, “All rise for Judge Whizzer?” There is the story that one day he was lunching in Washington – then as the deputy attorney general -- and a waitress asked if he was, indeed, the famous Whizzer White. His reply: “I was.”
Too Tall Jones
Ed Jones was 6-9 and known more for basketball when he tried to put on his first football uniform at Tennessee State. Problem was, all the pants were too short. “You’re too tall to play football,” a teammate said. No, he wasn’t. He ended up the No. 1 draft pick in 1974 by the Dallas Cowboys.
George Gipp went to Notre Dame to play baseball, dreaming of finding himself one day in the outfield for the Chicago Cubs. Turned out, he was pretty good in football, too. Somewhere around a late season game against Northwestern in 1920, Gipp picked up strep throat. It would kill him in weeks, but not before he made a death bed wish of Knute Rockne. “Win just one for the Gipper.” A single request that made him a football immortal.
The Tyler Rose
Tyler, Texas was famous for its roses, but got even more ink around the state when native son Earl Campbell started carrying the football for the Longhorns. That was 40 years ago, but the nickname still lingers. Going annually to the top offensive player in Division I with Texas ties is the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award.
In 1969, Tennessee played Mississippi, hoping to clinch a Sugar Bowl bid by stopping Archie Manning. It didn’t go well. Ole Miss won 38-0. When linebacker Jack Reynolds returned to campus, he had to do something to get rid of the frustration, so he bought a hacksaw at Kmart, then went at an old dilapidated Chevy, aiming to cut it in half and use it as a trailer for his Jeep. It took two days, and 13 blades, but at least he felt better. Plus, he had a nickname that would accompany him one day to the Super Bowl.
The Junkyard Dawgs
Wishing to rekindle the defensive ferocity at Georgia after a subpar season in the 1970s, coordinator Erk Russell came up with a name he hoped would inspire the right attitude. He noted that junkyard dogs are often rejects and have to fight for everything they get. “Nobody wants him and he is hungry,” he once said. “We had three walk-ons, four QBs and three running backs in our original Junkyard Dawg starting cast.”
The Seven Blocks of Granite
That was bestowed upon the offensive line at Fordham in the 1930s. Catchy name. What made it unforgettable is one of the blocks was named Vince Lombardi.
The list goes on and on. Reggie White, ordained as a minister as a teenager, ended up the minister of defense at Tennessee. Deion Sanders, with a nose for the football and the spotlight, turned into Neon Deion at Florida State. Walter Payton’s smooth running style and high-pitched voice made him Sweetness at Jackson State, Jevon Kearse’s defensive dominance earned him The Freak at Florida. As Steve McNair’s passing yardage piled up at Alcorn State, he became Air McNair.
And then there were Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Elmer Layden.
When the Notre Dame backfield ran over Army on 1924, while outlined against a blue-gray October sky, sportswriter Grantland Rice evoked the image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That will forever be the center of Rice’s journalistic legacy.
George Strickler’s contribution is a little less known. He was a Rockne's student publicity aide and had an idea. When the Irish returned from the Army game, he found four horses at a local livery stable, plopped the quartet atop them in uniforms and helmets, and had their picture taken. The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame were secure for all time.
Crowley would end up coaching at Fordham, where his offensive line became the Seven Blocks of Granite. The great circle of life – and nicknames. Too bad they seemed to go out with rotary dial telephones.