Nittany Mountain: The Early Years
Penn State has as rich and storied a tradition as any program out there. Over the 125 years of its existence, Penn State has produced 828 wins, 39 All-Americans, 27 bowl wins, and a pair of national championship. And now, we at Black Shoe Diaries are going to take a trip back in time and look at the players who have defined that excellence.
Over the next few weeks, we'll feature the players who have defined the eras of Penn State football, in a feature lovingly borrowed from Eleven Warriors.
We start with the long-forgotten era before even Joe Paterno, looking at the best Penn Staters before 1960.
The Honorable Mentions:
- Rosey Grier, DT, 1952-55: A philanthropist, an activist, a singer, a television host, a bodyguard, a minister, and a macrame expert. Oh, and a two-time NFL Pro Bowler who lasted in the league for over a decade after a productive Penn State career. Is there anything Rosey can't do? Yes--make it on to Nittany Mountain.
- Shorty Miller, QB, 1910-1913: Back in 1910, Shorty Miller started as a true freshman, something no other Lion until Robert Bolden would ever do. But unlike Bolden, Miller never relinquished the job, starting for all four years. A great nickname--"The Meteoric Midget"--a 23-8 record as a starter, a 250-yard rushing performance that held up for nearly 70 years as the most in a single game in Penn State history, and enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame. Those are nice to fall back on.
- Steve Suhey, G, 1942, 1946-47: Steve Suhey might be best known as initiating the legacy of Suheys that's spanned three generations, but he was a hell of a player in his own right. An All-American and College Football Hall of Fame honoree, Suhey's also an American hero, having left college to join the Air Corps during World War II.
Those three fell just short, but four others have earned their spot on Nittany Mountain. Here are their stories:
Lenny Moore, RB, 1952-55: Lenny Moore was pretty good, but I don't know about putting him on Nittany Mountain. I mean, he wasn't an All-American, he's not a College Football Hall of Famer...but who am I to argue with Joe?
"Lenny Moore was probably the best football player I've ever coached, all-around. He was super."
Yeah, that about settles it. Lenny Moore might never have received the accolades of some other Nittany Lions, but he was a standout two-way star during his three years in the Blue and White. As the primary running back in each of his three seasons at Penn State, Moore ran for over 2200 yards and 23 touchdowns--but his best campaign was an unreal 1954 season when he racked up 1082 yards on just 136 carries--good for 8 yards a rush, to go along with 11 TDs. And did we mention he also led that team in interceptions, with 6, one of which he ran back for a touchdown?
Yes, back in those days when players went both ways, Moore wasn't only the star running back, he was also the shutdown corner and premier kick and punt returner, bringing in 10 picks over his Penn State career, averaging more than 17 yards per punt return during the 1953 season--and 35.5 yards per kick return in 1954.
Moore went on to be a first-round draft pick in the NFL, a 7-time All-Pro, and a member of the 1950s All-Decade team, on the strength of his remarkable versatility--Moore was as good at pass catching as he was running with the ball.
Mother Dunn, LB/C, 1903-1906: When Penn State released its football schedule posters last year, honoring the 125-year tradition of the program, most fans only had one question: Who's the dude in the sweater?
That dude was Mother Dunn, possibly the first great player in Penn State history, and a worthy selection not only to that poster, but to this collection on Nittany Mountain. In 1906, he not only became the first All-American from Penn State, but the first All-American outside of the Ivy League. During that 1906 season, Dunn was the star player on a defense that shut out nine of its ten opponents--and though Walter Camp only saw the eleventh, a loss to Yale, he came away pretty impressed.
Dunn of Penn. State was the best center of the season, and it was he who led his team to such remarkable results, a good deal of it depending upon Dunn himself...He persistently broke through and blocked kicks. Able to run the hundred inside of eleven seconds, he was down under his own side's kicks with the ends. Beyond all and giving him added worth was his earnestness of purpose and character.
That was only the best season of Dunn's four as a starter, as he earned a starting job on the first day of tryout camp and never looked back, even playing through some serious injuries. That he managed that alongside his duties as class president is only more impressive. The tradition of Linebacker U can be traced back to Mother Dunn, and for that, he's earned a spot on Nittany Mountain, even if they weren't the Nittany Lions just yet when he played.
Richie Lucas, QB, 1957-59: Stop right there, Matt McGloin--Richie Lucas was the first gunslinger in Penn State's history. Lucas earned the nickname "Riverboat Richie" for his gambling instinct, not only when calling plays, but also in executing them. The comparison ends there, though, as Lucas was not only a tremendous running QB, but also an all-around great worthy of his place here.
The memorable nickname does not begin to define why Lucas is the best all-around quarterback in the 118-year history of Penn State football.
Joe Paterno still calls the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Lucas Penn State's "best running quarterback ever," but he was more than that. He also was a fair passer, particularly in clutch situations, a very good blocker, and, as Paterno once remarked, "a tremendous leader, a clever faker and a very, very fine ball handler."
Richie Lucas opened the 1957 season as Penn State's backup QB. But in the fourth game of that season, following an injury to Al Jacks, Lucas entered a one-point game--and immediately threw the game-winning touchdown pass. After that, he never looked back, going 18-5-1 over the next two and a half years as Penn State's starting quarterback.
But Lucas really stood out in 1959, leading the team in rushing and passing, and was honored for his standout performance. He was named an All-American, won the Maxwell Award as college football's best player, and finished second to Billy Cannon in the Heisman balloting as Penn State finished a 9-2 season ranked 12th overall. Lucas became the first Penn State back in more than 3 decades to be an All-American. Oh, and he also picked off 5 passes to lead the team, and served as Penn State's punter.
Bob Higgins, E, 1914-16, 1919: If any Penn State fans have heard of Bob Higgins, they likely know him as the coach who preceded Rip Engle, who spent 19 years at the helm of the Nittany Lions, and won 91 games against 57 losses during the 1930s and 1940s. Maybe they know him as Steve Suhey's father-in-law, strengthening the ties of Penn State's first family. But odds are, they don't know him as one of the best football players in Penn State's early days.
Higgins' playing days were interrupted by his service in World War I, but in each of his last three seasons at Penn State, he was an All-American, becoming Penn State's first--and, to date, only--three-time All-American, making him part of a very exclusive fraternity. Here's the impact he made in the Blue and White--during his 3 All-American seasons, the Lions went 23-5. While he was in the service, they struggled to a 6-6-1 record.
Upon returning from the military, Higgins was named a starter for Penn State in 1919, a team that went 7-1, shutting out 5 of their 8 opponents, and only once allowing more than one score. They blew out most of the opposition, and, in the 20-0 season finale win over Pitt, Higgins made a thrilling 92-yard touchdown catch that would become immortalized in Knute Rockne's "Great Football Plays"
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