NEW FEATURE!

Tom Skenandore, Green Bay’s first pro

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

by Denis Gullickson

tom-skenandoreTom Skenandore climbed off the train at the Oneida depot in early-April, 1897, a sturdy, 20-year-old man. He’d left home at just 15 and taken the 850-mile train ride to Carlisle, Pa. — like so many other young Oneidas. Tom’s parents, Jacob and Mary, had bid him an anxious farewell — as had sisters Electra, Elsie, Delilah and Lillian.

Now, he was back.

At Carlisle he’d learned English, math, history, drawing and composition as well as “modern agricultural techniques” — training often prescribed for native students from rural areas. (Odd, really, since Oneida culture was literally rooted in highly-effective agrarian practices.)

Members of Oneida’s Methodist parish, Tom’s family had already adapted to many mainstream ways — though the Oneida language remained prominent in the home.

Once at Carlisle, Tom had his hair shorn even shorter and he was dressed in the standard outfit for boys. For all students, any vestiges of traditional language and practices were strictly forbidden. Critics saw it as cultural annihilation.

Carlisle had its advocates, however — even in Indian communities. Some felt that an education there — including access to Dickinson College and its law school — was akin to an Ivy League education for native students.

With the usual trappings of school spirit — a school fight song, motto, pennant and yell,  “Min-ni-wa-ka! Ka-wa-wi! Whoop her up! Whoop her up! Who are we? Carlisle! Carlisle!! Carlisle!!!” — many Carlisle students developed an esprit de corps and fondness for their alma mater.

Tom’s father was at the station with a horse and buggy to greet him. Together, they passed the prosperous business places in central Oneida as they traveled down the hill, across Duck Creek toward First Ridge Road. There, they headed south — passing the large, stone Episcopal church and, then, the Methodist church where Tom’s family worshipped.

About him, Tom saw his neighbors preparing for spring planting. The Dawes Act had recently put most of the reservation in the hands of individual Oneidas while the social fabric remained strongly-woven around the businesses and churches.

At the junction of today’s Freedom Road and County EE, they turned west toward the Skenandore allotment. The family owned about 140 acres — 90 in Jacob’s name as head of household and smaller, individual parcels in Tom, Electra and Elsie’s.

Tom would settle in those first few days, re-acclimating himself to his home and putting his strong shoulder into work around the large house and farm. On April 21, he married Ida Metoxen — “Zippa” to friends and family — the daughter of neighbor Martin Metoxen. Zippa had also recently returned from Carlisle. The couple moved in with Tom’s parents.

“Foot-ball”

Early that October, Tom and other Oneida guys from Carlisle and Hampton boarding schools organized a football game against Appleton High School as a part of the annual Oneida Fair. Green Bay’s “Weekly Gazette” reported, “After a well-played and hotly-contested game the Indians won by a score of 14 to 6.”
Days later, Tom was contacted by T.P. Silverwood, a young attorney who’d taken over coaching the Green Bay team from Fred Hulbert. Silverwood was familiar with Skenandore’s abilities — having played against him while at the University of Wisconsin. Silverwood and team manager, Ed Krippner, offered Tom $20 per game — recognizing those abilities and the fact that Tom would incur expenses traveling to and from Green Bay for games and practices.

The sons of west-side laborers and merchants when Hulbert first huddled them up — the Green Bay team had won just three contests in 1895 and ‘96. Going into the 1897 season, however, it had become an experienced hybrid of college-trained footballers like Hulbert and Silverwood and line-tested veterans like Frank and Jim Flatley, John Pease, Todd Burns, Harry Hanrahan, Albert Groesbeck, Henry Vandenbrook, Al Vandenberg, Gerhard Johnson and John Gray.

They were savvy enough to know that the addition of a locomotive-style running back with college football experience would tilt things their way as they made a championship drive.
Tom Skenandore fit the bill.

At Carlisle

It surprised some that Carlisle — a boarding school focused on transforming native kids into adherents to mainstream European-American society — had gotten into the gridiron game at all. The school’s thrust was vocational and domestic training and Christianity — extracurricular activities were meant to further those goals.

Nonetheless, football found its way to the Carlisle campus early on — as it had at other eastern colleges. The game seemed to channel the angst of the Gilded Age, which had snared many between glitter and reality. The frustration sometimes broke loose and football was a legal way to exorcise the demons. “I like football,” said one early practitioner, “you can bust a guy in the chops and not get thrown in jail.”
Carlisle actually took to the field the year of the school’s founding — 1879 — with a team called the “Pirates.” Soon after the Pirates picked up the pigskin, however, Captain Richard Henry Pratt,  the school’s founder and director, nixed football when a Carlisle player broke a leg.

The ball would sit idle until 1893 when — according to historian David Wallace Adams — “more than a three dozen young men crowded into [Pratt’s] office … for the purpose of making an impassioned request … to play football …” Pratt acquiesced, records Adams, “on two conditions: that the Indians always play fairly and never slug an opponent, and that they whip the best football teams in the country.”

The group in Pratt’s office likely included Tom Skenandore as well as fellow Oneida players Jonas Metoxen and Martin Wheelock. With Pratt’s blessing and Pop Warner’s coaching after 1898, Carlisle teams went on a barnstorming tear — toeing up against some of the nation’s football powerhouses and doing their school and their indigenous heritage proud.

Gridiron Battles

Football — 1890s-style — was rough and tumble; not that far removed from a battlefield brawl. The only padding to speak of was the lined canvas uniforms called moleskin; the only protective gear was a rubber nose guard strapped around the head. Some players grew their hair out with the notion that it assuaged the ubiquitous blows to the cranium.

Passing was illegal so teams advanced the pigskin by running the thing — mostly up the middle. The mass of bodies along the line scrimmage conjured up images of two armies engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Fists, elbows and knees flew on every play. Blood, bruises and broken bones were commonplace. Guys died.
In 1892, sportswriter Caspar Whitney wrote, “The game is a mimic battlefield, on which the players must reconnoiter, skirmish, advance, attack, and retreat in good order.” Few used the war metaphor more than Pop Warner who, in 1912, suggested that “each scrimmage represents a battle, in which the opposing forces are lined up opposite each other, one side defending itself against the attack of the other.”

Warner described the line as infantry and the backs as cavalry. The quarterback was the field general who would “study well the defense of the enemy, and decide whether to force through their center, turn their flank by a quick movement, deceive them with a fake movement in one direction while the real attack is made at another spot, or transfer the battle to a more favorable locality by a punt.”

Before a contest with Army that November, Warner told his players, “Your fathers and your grandfathers are the ones who fought their fathers. These men playing against you today are soldiers. They are the Long Knives. You are Indians. Tonight, we will know if you are warriors.” Carlisle routed Army, 27-6.

A Strong Tradition

The Carlisle guys usually found themselves pitted against physically-bigger guys. In response, they relied upon speed and craft — the Carlisle playbook eventually consisting of legendary trick plays and innovations. Invention of the fake hand-off and overhand spiral pass, for instance, are credited to the Carlisle.

In 1903, the Carlisle team employed its famous “hidden ball” maneuver against Harvard. Carlisle was winning, but Warner figured that Harvard was due for a comeback. Warner told his guys to surround their return man, Dillon, at the second-half kickoff.

Then, one of them grabbed the ball and stuffed it into the back of Dillon’s jersey. The rest of them crossed their arms and ran in all directions as though they had the ball. Since his hands were free, Dillon seemed like the least-likely ball carrier. The Harvard players gave pursuit — after all the wrong guys. Dillon scored. Despite the “circus play,” Harvard edged Carlisle, 12-11.

By its close, Carlisle’s teams had accumulated a 173–92–13 (.646) record — making it the most successful defunct football program in history.

Many former Carlisle stars — like Pete Calac and Joe Guyon — excelled in  pro football, including the nascent NFL. Jim Thorpe served as the first president of NFL’s predecessor, the APFA. The three of them huddled together with the 1922-23 Oorang Indians — an all-native NFL team.

Racism

Despite its success, the Carlisle team was often viewed as a curiosity piece more than a worthy opponent. Playing football with the specter of the Indian Wars still draped over the nation like a blood-stained pall — contests between Carlisle and their football opponents were too-often described with overt bigotry by hack scribes and sniggering cartoonists.

The war analogy was pumped up pathetically in describing confrontations between the “heroic decorum of the forces of civilization” by the college men and “savagery” by the Carlisle guys. Every person of every race, creed and color who saw such depictions should have had their hackles raised.

In his own melting pot of motivation, Pratt sensed value in sending a team out to represent his school: Part, vainglorious: “to gain wider support for his ideas on Indian progress,” wrote  Adams. Part, to promote the idea that Indian players could be “brainy, self-disciplined, gentlemanly athletes who could beat the white man at his own game.”

Pratt may have seen support for his squads. But for every white person who got behind the Carlisle football team, there was a stadium-full clutching ancient bigotry and espousing open racism.

Adams cites numerous scalping references in advance of a local team’s game with the Carlisle guys: “‘How am I going to get that fellow’s scalp?’” a savage-looking Indian wonders as he confronts a helmeted University of Michigan player in 1901. After an 1899 victory over Carlisle, a Harvard player clutches his head and remarks “I still have my scalp.”

Another stereotype slunk into a New York “Journal” cartoon where a Carlisle player was pictured taking a swig from a whisky bottle with the caption “An Appeal To The Great Spirit.”

In the face of garbage like that, one had to question the success of Pratt’s goals for his team. As Adams observed, “The objective of the football experiment was to awaken the public to the Indians’ possibilities … not to provide an opportunity to revisit images of tomahawk-chopping, scalp-hungry savages.”

Yes, sometimes, the success of Carlisle’s teams generated respect — but even that had a suspect underbelly. After one game, the New York “Sun” noted,  “These young fellows, who would have been with Rain-in-the-Face and Sitting Bull at the Little Big Horn if they had been born thirty years before, were standing up nobly to the work of men who had five centuries the advantage of them in training and inheritance.”

Following the 1895 football season, the Cleveland “Leader” reported that Carlisle’s success demonstrated the players’ “fitness for the most modern achievements of American civilization.”

That Championship Season

Green Bay’s first win ever came that same year against an eleven from Menominee, MI — a game so out of control that Green Bay’s “Gazette” called it “A Game for Blood.” Hulbert’s nose was broken and he was knocked out. Silverwood joined partway into the ’96 campaign as the team eked out two more wins.
The ’97 team spent all of September organizing, but didn’t schedule a game until midway through October — that, against powerhouse Marinette. Just days before the tilt, the Gazette reported, “The boys were given a surprise last night by Skena[n]dore of Oneida offering to play on the team … He has played with the [Carlisle] team for the years 1892 to 1896.”

Following the game, Tom’s “good work” in a 4-0 win (touchdowns were worth 4 points at the time) in “a stubbornly-contested struggle” was acknowledged in the press. He was depicted as Green Bay’s “star player … the way he plowed through the opposing line set local enthusiasts wild.”

The day before the next game — against Lawrence University — the press reported that Tom had “been in the city the past two or three nights, practicing with the boys.” Green Bay would tear through Lawrence, 42-0 — Pease, Skenandore and Silverwood getting nods for their outstanding runs downfield.

In an early-November game against Kewaunee, the Gazette reported that the GB “line[up] was changed somewhat owing to objections to the players by Kewaunee.” Skenandore, Silverwood and Hulbert all sat out — suggesting that the objection was probably over their college experience.

Victories over Menominee, MI and Marinette and a Thanksgiving-Day whipping of Fond du Lac, 62-0, cinched the deal. They’d outscored their opponents 142-6. They declared themselves “Champions” and waited for a worthy team to issue a “defi.” None did.

Tom Skenandore was the only compensated player on the team. Like other town teams, if the gate receipts covered the expenses, the guys considered themselves lucky. Being able to afford a difference-maker like Skenandore was a luxury — a practice begun when the Alleghany Athletic Association handed $500 to former Yale All-American guard “Pudge” Heffelfinger for a single game in 1892.

The fact that the team could pay even a single player suggested that football was growing in popularity in Green Bay and spectators were willing to show up and shell out a few coins for the experience.
“The Professionals”

What remains of ’97 team is a picture taken near season’s end. It’s an essential piece of the Titletown legend — the city’s first championship team ever. In it, Tom sits prominently — just to captain Silverwood’s left — surrounded by his dozen teammates. Each man reflects a collectively-proud countenance.
Tom would go on to play for GB’s 1898 team as well the Oneida town team into the early 1900s.

At age 90, Tom’s youngest son, Chapman, recollected his boyhood days growing up on a “pretty good farm” — well aware that his dad had been a star footballer with a team Chapman called “The Green Bay Professionals.” At one point, Chapman recalled sojourning to the Packers Hall of Fame to learn what jersey number his dad had worn. “They didn’t have any [numbers] at that time,” he said with a chuckle and a wince.

According to Chapman, Tom and Zippa raised seven children while assuming more and more of the responsibility for the land and the family’s chickens, pigs, cattle and horses as Jacob and Mary aged. Tom also labored off the farm as needed to support the extended family.

Like many of today’s former NFL players, Tom was debilitated in his later years — due to the inherent violence of the game he loved and played so well. Chapman recounted a drastic injury to his dad’s head “from a football game,” which eventually led to the loss of his dad’s ear and his inability to continue at such a grueling pace. Eventually, said Chapman, the “doctors got a hold of” the family’s land to pay the medical bills.

Tom Skenandore died of bronchial pneumonia and heart trouble on April 14, 1924. He was buried in the Oneida Methodist Church cemetery — a site he and his father had passed that promising spring day in 1897.

The “Indian” Packers

For a short time before they became the Acme Packers — Green Bay’s team played ball for the Indian Packing Company.

A year ago, the Green Bay Packers and Oneida Nation announced a multi-year extension of their partnership — including renewal of the tribe’s sponsorship of the Oneida Gate.

Packers President/CEO, Mark Murphy said, “The Oneida Nation shares a rich history with the Packers and we both look forward to continuing to provide great experiences to our residents as well as our visitors.”
In acknowledging their common history, the Packers recognized the tribe’s “enhancement of the Game-Day experience at Lambeau Field by providing dancers during the halftime show” as well as Oneida’s own “rich relationship with professional football in Green Bay that dates back to the late-1800s  — including some of the first professional paid football players in the city.”

“Oneida has experienced tremendous success along with the Packers during our relationship,” said Oneida Chairman Ed Delgado. “Two Super Bowl wins helped bolster our economy and generate positive things happening in our community. We look forward to more successful seasons in Titletown.”

Finally

Here in Titletown, this “Indian mascot” business — centered on the most-egregious example, “The Redskins” — is a no-brainer.

As a football historian, this writer can assure D.C. football fans that team names come and go. The Packers played as the “Whales” and “Blues.” The Bears were once the Staleys; the Lions, the Spartans. The Eagles and Steelers joined forces as the “Steagles.” The Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans. Houston got the Texans. The Colts-Ravens-Browns matrix is an hour-long dissertation.

Team names, mascots and logos are fleeting. A team’s legacy and a country’s tragic history of racism, however, stand forever. In that light, we celebrate Tom Skenandore — an Oneida man, first and foremost; an honored, vital member of the city’s first championship team and Titletown’s first professional football player.

Leave a Reply

Scroll To Top