Unbreakable? Ernie Nevers and the NFL’s oldest record

Unbreakable? Ernie Nevers and the NFL’s oldest record
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They say records are meant to be broken. Maybe, but the NFL maintains a list of the longest standing records in league history.

The grandfather of them all was set on November 28, 1929. When Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals scored all 40 points in a 40-6 beat-down of crosstown rivals the Chicago Bears.

Nevers put up those numbers by scoring six touchdowns and tacking on 4 extra points. Big numbers but Ernie Nevers was a big time player.

Ernie Nevers – college sensation

Before he made his way to the NFL Nevers had made his name on the college gridiron.

The Blond Bull played fullback for Stanford from 1923-1925. Nevers was Stanford’s captain in 1925 when he led a 24-17 upset of arch rival California. He handled the ball on all but three plays as Stanford posted its first win over California for eight years.

His biggest moment however came in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Stanford faced Notre Dame in the 11th Rose Bowl. Knute Rockne’s 9-0 Notre Dame defeated Pop Warner’s 7-0-1 Stanford team 27-10 to earn the program’s first national championship.

However it was Nevers’ individual performance that captured much of the attention. Just five days after having a cast removed from a broken ankle, and with his foot bound tightly in a brace, he set records with 34 carries for 114 yards. Amounting to just 13 shy of the combined total for Notre Dame’s legendary ‘four horsemen’ backfield. He also averaged 42 yards punting.

College football was much bigger than pro football at this time and this made Nevers a huge star.

Pro Football beckons for Ernie

Following on from his college career, Nevers signed pro basketball and baseball contracts. He even threw two home-run pitches to Babe Ruth in his historic 60-home run season in 1927.

Initially a Jacksonville All-Star team built around Ernie was envisioned. They would play exhibition games against Red Grange and the Bears, then others. Ernie stood to be the focus of the team and the recipient of a massive $25,000 contract.

Two games in – against the Bears and New York Giants and ticket sales were sluggish, so the plug was pulled.

Did Ernie Nevers keep the NFL afloat?

In 1926 Red Grange was pulled out of the NFL by his agent CC Pyle. They formed the first AFL to rival the still nascent NFL.

Grange was arguably the biggest football name of the day. Few could rival his reputation. One who could was Ernie Nevers.

So when in the same year Nevers signed a $15,000 contract (plus a cut of gate receipts), with an NFL team, he was helping legitimize the young NFL. His name was enough of a draw that he could guarantee the league the press coverage it craved.

Nevers turned out for the Duluth Eskimos. Or if you look at memorabilia of the time, a team oft’ referred to as Ernie Nevers Eskimos from Duluth!

Duluth get their moneys-worth

Ole Haugsrud , running the Esks omitted the actual number of games they would play in 1926 from that $15,000 contract.

He ended up scheduling 13 league games and 16 more exhibitions. In one eight-day period, the team played five games in five different cities.

The Eskimos were very much a traveling team playing just one game at home. They faced off against league and non-league opponents. Nevers reportedly played all but 29 of a possible 1,740 minutes. Sportswriter Grantland Rice called the Eskimos the “iron men from the North.” 

With a 13 man squad they traveled 17,000 miles and compiled a 19-7-3 record.

A hint of things to come was given on November 27, 1926, when Nevers scored every point in a 16–0 victory over the Hartford Blues. He kicked three field goals, scored a touchdown, and kicked an extra point.

Duluth played all of their games away in 1927 but were much less successful. Nevers took a break from playing in 1928 having been worked into the ground.

Ernie Nevers, Chicago Cardinal and record setter

Autumn 1929 saw Nevers return to the NFL to play fullback for the Chicago Cardinals. Ernie’s greatest performance, and long-standing record setter was on Thanksgiving Day against the crosstown rival Bears.

Neither team was having a particularly good season. The 4-5-1 Cards’ and the 4-6-1 Bears (including non NFL games) were contesting the city championship—something the Cards had never won.

The Cardinals had a series of spin and reverse plays but the field was too icy to run them. Instead, Nevers took the ball and kept running with it into the heart of the Bears D.

He scored his first touchdown midway through the first quarter on a 20-yard run, missing the extra point. Minutes later, he scored on a 5-yard run tagging on the extra point. His third touchdown came on a 6-yard run early in the second quarter. The extra point gave him a total of 20 first half points.

That tally was doubled in the second half. As Ernie scored on a short plunge in the third quarter and added the PAT. Two more touchdowns and another extra point in the final quarter gave him a total of 40 on the day.

The record could even have been 41 points but a bad snap prevented him from making a kick after his fifth touchdown. He left the field, presumably worn out, with 5 minutes left in the game.

The week before posting 40 points on the Bears, Ernie had notched all 19 points in a 19-0 win over the Dayton Triangles. I can’t confirm if 59 consecutive points is a league record, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise.

After the Record

Ernie Nevers was again the leading scorer on the 1930 Cardinals team. He was taping his legs and arms before each game. The team actually complained about the money he was spending on this (!) and at one point he used electrical tape to save a few dollars.

His last season came with the Cardinals in 1931. A season during which he recorded more points than the rest of the players on the team combined.

In his final NFL game, played before a crowd of 1,500 at home, Nevers led the Cardinals to a 21–0 victory over the Cleveland Indians. Nevers almost inevitably had a part in every point scored in the game with a 44-yard touchdown pass, two rushing touchdowns, and three extra points.

Nevers fractured his wrist in a postseason charity All-Star game. A game in which, again seemingly inevitably, he scored all of his team’s points. He announced his retirement in 1932.

Can it be broken?

Ernie Nevers single game record of 40 points has stood for an incredible 91 years. The NFL is 100 years old and constantly changing. Rare records are being added to like the 1000/1000 season. Yet others, like 2,000 yard seasons have been added to much more recently.

Both examples chosen because they centre around the running position, and Nevers was a fullback.

Nevers played only 5 years in the NFL , yet he has a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As well as being in the 1920’s All-Decade team, and a member of the Cardinals ring of Honour. Small wonder given his body of work over those 5 league years. The 5 time All-Pro was remarkable, and perhaps his most remarkable achievement was that 40 point game.

Dub Jones and Gale Sayers have come the closest recording 36 point (six TD games) for the 1951 Browns and 1965 Bears respectively. But Nevers was a kicker too. Meaning a player would have to score seven touchdowns on his own to break the record (or theoretically, kick 14 field goals).

So is Ernie Nevers single game NFL record of 40 points unbreakable? Never say never in sports. It would take a remarkable performance to surpass this nearly century long record though!

Banner Image: Ernie Nevers cradles the ball. Image from YouTube

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