State your case: The Human Howitzer was the best running back of the early days of the NFL.

Tony Latone was twice named to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and 1964. As he is considered by many to be the main unofficial rusher of the 1920s, this should come as no surprise. The surprise is that the leader of the early days of professional football has yet to visit Canton.

While players like Red Grange made names for themselves on the college playing fields of this era before turning pro with great fanfare, Latona worked in the coalfields of Pennsylvania and played semi-pro football for teams like the Knights. Lithuanians from the Coal Region League. in 1920 and 1921 and the Wilkes-Barre Panthers in 1923-24 in the Coal Region Anthracite League before earning a place in 1925 on one of professional football’s first legendary teams, the Pottsville Maroons in the new National Football League.

Latona started working in the mines at the age of 11, replacing her father, who had been drunk to death, as the killer. This left the young Latona with a mother and five siblings to help support and the need to replace his father within 48 hours in the mines or have his family evicted from company housing.

Latona did this, among other tasks, pushing a mining cart loaded with coal and sludge up mountain slopes. It was torture work, but it gave young Latona something every runner dreamed of. This gave him powerful legs that by 1925 were on full display in the young NFL.

Between 1925 and 1930, Latona unofficially rushed for 2,648 yards and scored 26 touchdowns, topping the Galloping Ghost in both categories. Grange rushed for 2,616 yards and scored 21 times, so it’s fair to say that it was a close run between the future Hall of Fame and Latona, except that in fact it wasn’t because that Latona has racked up his numbers playing in 30 LESS games than Grange.

So how does one become a Hall of Fame member and the other disappear like a man sent down a coal mine shaft? Former Grange coach Chicago Bears owner George Halas once explained it this way: “If Latona had gone to college and played college ball, he would have certainly been one of the greatest. professional players of all time.

Since Halas is the guy who brought Grange out of Illinois and then transported him across the country on a storm tour that many say saved the NFL from economic collapse in its early days, he should know that. While pushing what were called “locies” on steep inclines before being a teenager could develop the type of leg workout that a fullback needed, it was not the kind of training ground. that would make you a household name.

Still, the 5-11, 190-pound Latona was a threatening figure in the 1920s on both attack and defense. Unlike Grange, he was not a galloping ghost. He was a Thunderous Steelhammer, slamming into opposite lines with a ferocity that those who played against him will long remember.

In 1925, the Maroons believed they had won the first NFL Championship after defeating the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park in a showdown in December. The 21-7 victory would be Chicago’s only loss, but the title the Maroons thought they won was taken away when they played an exhibition game against an all-star team made up of former Notre Dame two stars. weeks later that included members of the famous Irish Fighters Four Horsemen backfield.

While full details of that Dec. 12 game played at Shibe Park in Philadelphia have been lost, it was reported that he rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown in a 9-7 win, amassing 75 percent of the Maroons offensive. The problem was that the owners of the Frankford Yellow Jackets protested that the Maroons had infringed their territory by playing the game in Philadelphia and the league suspended the Maroons, costing them the right to claim a championship that instead went to the Cardinals. .

Either way, one of the Four Horsemen, Harry Stuhldreher, would later say of a press player of that time called “The Human Howitzer”, “We always thought Latona was pretty much a football as tough as anyone would want to see it. That day Tony turned out to be a one-man gang.

Latona was a two-time All-Pro and quite possibly the best NFL rusher of the 1920s, but he was eclipsed by bigger names. Store-worn barn, Ernie Nevers, Jim Thorpe and Joe Guyton, all former college stars in an era when college football was more popular than professional football and certainly more popular than young coalmines, have made it to the The All-Decade team of the 1920s, the NFL is the first. Still, he was argued twice for the enthronement in the early days of the Hall.

Perhaps more importantly, those who saw him run or had the displeasure of being thrown to the ground by him as he hid in self-defense made it clear what he was for those who did. had known the best.

“For my money, he was the most soccer player I have ever seen,” Grange said once at a banquet in Williamsport, PA. several years after he and Latona retired. “I just can’t imagine anyone who could match that power back. His leg workout was so incredibly powerful that he simply hit the linemen with kicks.

Maybe one of these days Tony Latone could still break down the doors of the Hall of Fame. If he does, he’ll run into it.

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