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Jim Murray

Damn the Detractors, a Stanford Back Has Mustered This Vote

November 14, 1986|Jim Murray

The way you know Brad Muster is going to be a great player is, they're already sniping at him.

He (choose one) runs too straight up, runs right at people, can't cut, can't change speed, is too slow, too tall, too top-heavy.

He's the worst Stanford running back since--oh, say, Ernie Nevers. It's a wonder they gave him a uniform.

All he does is gain 100 yards a game, catch 70 or 80 passes a season. But he probably can't dance.

"They'll make him a tight end in the pros--if they use him at all," sniff his detractors.

For all those reasons, I am going to put him in my top three in the Heisman balloting. I've heard this song before. They sang it about Larry Csonka at Syracuse, Alan Ameche at Wisconsin, John Riggins at Kansas.

I guess there were people who said it about Ernie Nevers and Norm Standlee at Stanford. Maybe Bronko Nagurski had trouble convincing All-American voters, too.

Of course, Brad Muster comes from Marin County--Novato--and you all know what that means. He didn't grow up on the raw border between Minnesota and Canada where summer is a day the butter melts in the window. He wasn't born on the back of an Iowa hay wagon and he didn't grow up chopping cotton. He probably eats quiche for breakfast and watches public television.

The fact that he goes to Stanford should tell you something right there. Real football players go to Oklahoma or Nebraska. Real football players can't get into Stanford. Quarterbacks, maybe. If you count those.

But if Brad Muster had done nothing else in his Stanford career, he has served the Farm--and football generically--well. Because he has resurrected the legend of Ernie Nevers.

Ernie Nevers is an authentic old California historical figure on the order of Father Serra or Joaquin Murrieta or Black Bart. Talk to an old California sports buff--and they are a thinning golden line--and a mist comes over his eyes, his teeth begin to chatter, he starts to perspire in the palms and he almost stutters.

Ernie Nevers, to hear the old-timers tell it, was somewhere between seven and eight feet tall, he weighed just less than a freight train and was just as unstoppable. He not only carried the ball, he punted, passed, blocked, coached and put the game up on a plateau few people ever put it before or after.

He carried the ball 60 straight times, they would assure you, and never settled for less than a 10- to 20-yard gain. He could run so fast he used to hunt rabbits by hand in his native Minnesota, and for exercise he would go out and smash into telephone poles. He was so big an strong, they told you, that when he went out on the streets he should have been licensed.

That's the legend.

But, the only place you see Ernie Nevers' name in the list of all-time Stanford standouts is in a lone category: yards rushing, season. He is ninth on that list with 710 yards for a 3.9 average and 9 touchdowns in 1925.

Ernie Nevers' career seems to have revolved around a single pivotal game--the 1925 Rose Bowl encounter, which has come down to us as an elemental struggle between the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and Ernie Nevers, the one horseman of Stanford.

The game was a battle between the raw power of Nevers and the speed and precision of Knute Rockne's Notre Dame team. And it was no contest. Speed and deception won handily--27-10 handily if you want to know.

But the press of that day has handed down that game to posterity as a magnificent display of one lone giant against a swarm of Lilliputians--and maybe it was. Nevers broke the collegiate record for carries with 34 that day and he gained 117 yards, or 3.3 a carry.

But he threw two interceptions to Notre Dame's Elmer Layden, who ran them back for touchdowns, one for 78 yards and the other for 72, and Nevers later admitted ruefully that "one of the great passing combinations ever to hit the Rose Bowl was Nevers to Layden--two touchdowns and 150 yards!"

It was really as a pro that Nevers achieved his true stature. Playing for a ragtag operation known as the Duluth Eskimos in 1926, he struggled through a season on the road--the team played only one game, an exhibition, in Duluth--in which the team played 39 games, 10 of them exhibitions, in 112 days.

They won 19, lost 7 and tied 3 of the regular-season matches, and the players got $75 if they won, $50 if they lost and $60 for a tie. They played five games in eight days once, and the "squad" consisted of 13 men.

Nevers handled the ball on every offensive play and was a Dick Butkus on defense. He once completed 17 straight passes in one game and kicked 5 straight field goals in another. It was in his contract, he had to play every down.

Nevers was somewhat of a cult figure in his home state. Always identified as the "blond giant" in newspaper accounts of the day, he seems to have been a little over 6 feet tall and a little over 200 pounds in weight.

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