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The first American football player was a Chippewa Indian born and raised in North Dakota - InForum


A man considered one of the best football players of the early 20th century was an Ojibwe Indian from North Dakota. In 1930, Notre Dame great coach Knute Rockne listed William Jennings Gardner on his all-time American football team for Collier’s magazine. Not only was Gardner an exceptional football player, but he was also a lawyer, a military officer during World War I, a college football and basketball coach, and an elite ban enforcer who was selected by Eliot Ness to be one of his original “Untouchables”. “, recruited to bring down the empire of Al Capone.

William “Birdie” Jennings Gardner was born on January 23, 1884 in Towner, to George and Anastasia “Annie” Seice Gardner. Birdie’s father was half-white, half-Ojibwe, while her mother was Ojibwe. Birdie grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Shortly after the United States Indian Industrial School boarding school opened in Fort Totten in 1891, he and his younger brother, George, attended school there. At school, Birdie excelled in all sports.

Birdie’s father died on May 25, 1894, and in 1898 Annie married Joseph Rolette, a reservation interpreter. William “Birdie” Gardner is referred to as William Rolette in some sources. After graduating from Fort Totten in 1904, he became a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At Carlisle, Gardner learned football, basketball, and athletics. The school was considered a national football powerhouse under the leadership of Pop Warner. The Carlisle Indians finished the 1903 season with an 11-2 record, beating the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern and Georgetown. Warner then left Carlisle in 1904 to take over coaching duties at Cornell and, replacing Warner, Carlisle hired Eddie Rogers to be the new head coach.

Gardner and Rogers were very close, with Rogers becoming Gardner’s mentor. Both men’s mothers were Chippewa. Rogers had been a star football player at Carlisle before attending Dickinson School of Law to become a lawyer, and Gardner would follow in his coaches’ footsteps. In 1904, the Indians finished the season with a 10–2 record, outscoring their opponents 347–44. At the end of the season, Rogers left Carlisle to become head coach of the St. Thomas Cadets in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Since Carlisle was a one-year facility, students had to request a leave of absence if they needed to be away during the summer. In the summer of 1905, Gardner requested permission to return home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation to apply for West Point. It is obvious that nothing materialized with this request. I strongly suspect that he also played baseball that summer because in other summers Gardner requested time off to play baseball. It is reported that some of the teams he played with were Devils Lake teams; East of Liverpool, Ohio; and Staunton, Virginia.

In 1905, George Woodruff came out of retirement to coach the Carlisle Indians for a season. From 1892 to 1901, he was the coach of the University of Pennsylvania football team which compiled a record of 124-15-2. The 1905 Carlisle team finished the season with a 10-4 record, outscoring their opponents 354-44. “Two of the losses were professional (football) teams.” In 1905, Gardner’s younger brother, George Gardner, entered Carlisle and became a member of the football team. In 1906, Carlisle hired Bemus Pierce, a Seneca Native American from Erie County, New York, to be their new coach. Pierce had been a star player for the Indians from 1894 to 1898 and was Carlisle’s assistant coach in 1904. With Pierce at the helm, the Indians finished the 1906 season with a 9–3 record and outscored their opponents 244–40.

After three years at Cornell, Warner returned as head coach of the Indians in 1907. It was also during this time that Jim Thorpe became eligible to play college football at Carlisle. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Indian Nation, would later be listed by The Associated Press as the “greatest athlete of the first 50 years of the 20th century”. The forward pass had only been legalized a year earlier and Gardner, late on offense, became the recipient of numerous passes from the quarterback to Carlisle. It has been written that Gardner, under the direction of Warner, was instrumental in creating the first effective passing offense.

In 1907, the Indians finished with a 10–1 record and edged their opponents 267–62. Warner described his team as “almost perfect, but was upset that Walter Camp let Gardner off his All-American team” . Camp, who is considered the father of American football, publishes the American All-American teams every year. He was able to atone for his 1907 forgetfulness when, in 1917, he named William Gardner in his “All-American Service Eleven” for Gardner’s outstanding football play while serving in the Army during World War I.

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In 1907, the Carlisle Indians football team finished with a 10-1 record and outscored their opponents 244-70. Among the players featured on the team was George Gardner, front row, second from left ; Jim Thorpe, second row, second from left; and William “Birdie” Jennings Gardner, second row, third from left.

Contribution/Cumberland County Historical Society, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At Carlisle, Gardner not only excelled in football, but he also played basketball and, as a member of the track team, “set a school record for the half mile.” During the 1907 season, Gardner began law school at Dickinson School of Law, which was also located in Carlisle.

After graduating from Carlisle in 1908, Gardner was hired as head football and basketball coach at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky. While at school, Gardner completed his classes at Dickinson Law School in 1909, and in 1910 he was called to the Louisville bar.

In 1912 Gardner was hired as director of athletics at Otterbein College, now Otterbein University, a private college in Westerville, Ohio. In this capacity, Gardner coached football and basketball teams. His football team had a disappointing 1-9 record, but his basketball team went 8-5 which, in percentage at .615, remained the school’s best record until 1969.

Gardner was then hired as athletic director at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, but quit in August 1915 when the school’s athletic department ran into debt and could not pay him. Gardner contacted Carlisle’s administration to see if they could help him find a job at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. While in Detroit, the United States became involved in World War I, and Gardner enlisted in the army on May 15, 1917. Although he was 33, Gardner had kept himself in excellent form and would soon reemerge as one of the best in the country. non-professional footballers.

InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen will conclude the incredible story of William “Birdie” Jennings Garnder next week.




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