The first fifty years of America's most popular spectator sport have been strangely neglected by historians claiming to tell the "complete story" of pro football. Well, here are the early stories that "complete story" has left out. What about the awful secret carried around by Sid Luckman, the Bears' Hall of Fame quarterback whose father was a mobster and a murderer? Or Steve Hamas, who briefly played in the NFL then turned to boxing and beat Max Schmeling, conqueror of Joe Louis? Or the two one-armed players who suited up for NFL teams in 1945? Or Steelers owner Art Rooney postponing a game in 1938 because of injuries? These are just a few of the little-known facts Dan Daly unearths in The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years. Here is an excerpt about Marion Motley, the Hall of Fame fullback for the Browns:
Marion Motley once killed a man. It was an accident, but it easily could have derailed his Hall of Fame career before it had even begun. (And had it happened in the South, where he was born, instead of the West, which was more racially tolerant in those days, it almost certainly would have.)
Motley was in his first year at the University of Nevada in Reno, hadn't even broken a tackle for the Wolf Pack yet, when he drove to California with a friend in March 1940. Near Fairfield, he tried to pass a car and crashed head-on into a vehicle in the opposite lane. One of the passengers in the vehicle, a 60-year-old Berkeley man named Tom K. Nobori, suffered a fractured skull and later died of pneumonia.
That October, three days after Motley rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Eastern New Mexico, a court found him guilty of vehicular homicide.
The future Cleveland Browns great spent the next week and a half in jail awaiting sentencing -- and no doubt fearing the worst.
In a column in the Nevada State Journal, an anonymous "Old Grad" said, "All week I've been thinking of that poor kid sitting in a cell down in California after that terrible ordeal at which he heard himself adjudged guilty of negligent homicide. I'll bet the hours have seemed like weeks to him, and the thought that he may have to spend considerable more at San Quentin is more than enough to drive any man crazy, let alone a straightforward harmless boy whose most remote thought never included hurting anyone."
At this point Nevada coach Jim Aiken thought there was only "a slight chance" Motley might avoid prison. His hopes hinged on the fact that, in certain circumstances under California law, a person guilty of such a crime could be let off with probation and a $1,000 fine.
But where was Marion, who came from a poor background, going to get $1,000?
To the rescue came his friends – friends at the university, friends in the Reno community, friends from all over, really. He had played in just a handful of games at Nevada, but he had already established himself as "one of the most sensational halfbacks in [school] history," according to the Journal. There was no way Wolf Pack fans were going to let his life be ruined by one mistake, however regrettable.
And so a Motley Fund "thermometer" was set up on campus, and the red indicator was inched along as contributions rolled in. Students, faculty, school organizations, downtown merchants and Just Folks dug into their pockets to help Marion. Within a matter of days, the $1,000 goal was reached.
Less than a week before Motley was to be sentenced, a contingent from Nevada appeared before Judge W.T. O'Donnell in Fairfield and handed him a check. The Reno police chief and other dignitaries then attested to Marion's good character.
When they were done, the judge gave Motley three years' probation . . . and directed that $500 of the fine be given as restitution to the son and daughter-in-law of the deceased. (Five hundred dollars for a life!)
The next afternoon Marion was back on the practice field, getting ready for the Idaho Vandals. In a statement of thanks published in the Journal, he said to his supporters, "I cannot tell you in words how grateful I am for what you have done for me. I shall try to show it by the quality of school work I do and the service I can render in behalf of the University of Nevada and the people of this state."
Try finding that story on Motley's Wikipedia page.
-- Excerpted by permission from The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years by Dan Daly. Copyright (c) 2012 by Dan Daly. Published by University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available wherever books are sold or via University of Nebraska Press (1-800-848-6224). Follow Dan on Twitter @dandalyonsports.