The curtain fell on the 100th season of the National Football League last week and Virginia High graduate Beattie Feathers forever remains a very important part of its history.
It was in 1934 as a rookie with the Chicago Bears that Feathers became the first 1,000-yard rusher in NFL history, finishing with 1,004 yards on 119 carries over the course of 11 games for a team coached by George Halas.
His 8.44 yards per carry remained a NFL record until 2006, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick averaged 8.45 yards on 123 rushes.
On a team featuring six future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Feathers was the star of stars during that 1934 season for the Bears. He scored eight touchdowns and his most notable performance in the fall of ‘34 was a 158-yard outburst against the Green Bay Packers.
“Beattie liked to hang back a bit, look for daylight, and then take off. To accommodate his style, we supplemented our regular man-in-motion T with a single-wing series, featuring Feathers as the ball carrier with Bronko Nagurski out front blocking,” Halas wrote in a 1967 guest column for the Chicago Tribune. “This was the most destructive combination I’ve ever seen.”
The iconic Red Grange was on that squad in what was his final pro season.
Bill Hewitt, Walt Kiesling, Link Lyman, George Musso, Luke Johnsos and Joe Kopcha helped pave the way for Feathers.
Then there was Nagurski, considered to be one of the hardest hitters in the history of the game.
“I remember one game when I had a big afternoon,” Feathers once told Bristol Herald Courier sports editor Gene “Pappy” Thompson. “I came down to the hotel lobby the next morning, and Bronk was reading the paper. ‘Feathers,’ he said. ‘It says here you’re a great pro back.’ I couldn’t wait to get a hold of the paper. It said, ‘Anybody can be a great back with Bronko Nagurski blocking for him.’ We both had a good laugh over it.”
That record-setting season took a toll on Feathers, however, as a shoulder injury forced him to miss the final three games – including a 30-13 loss to the New York Giants in the NFL championship game at the Polo Grounds. It was Chicago’s only defeat that season.
For Feathers, winning games and piling up the yardage had been his calling card dating back to his days at Virginia High.
In 1926 the Bristol Herald Courier wrote of the star for VHS: “Feathers, fullback, is one of the hardest plunging backs Virginia has ever had, despite his scant poundage. Feathers weighs just above 150 and crashes into the line like a 180 pounder.”
He followed his high school teammate and fellow star running back who was 11 months his senior – Gene McEver – to the University of Tennessee. Both men became College Football Hall of Famers thanks to their exploits playing under legendary head coach Robert Neyland.
Feathers first made his mark with the Volunteers as a punter and had a memorable performance booting the ball against New York University in a 1931 postseason game at Yankee Stadium.
“They nickeled and dimed their way down the field against us, but we finally stopped them around the four,” former UT standout Herman Hickman once told the Bristol Herald Courier. “Feathers was sent in to punt us out. I looked over at Hobo Thayer, ‘Wonder why he’s sending in a sophomore at a time like this?’ I asked. Hobo just shook his head.
“Feathers sliced the punt off the side of his foot and it went out of bounds around the 35. Skeet Mayer was captain and Gene McEver the co-captain that day. NYU was offsides and the ref asked Skeet if he wanted the play or the penalty. ‘We’ll take the play,’ Skeet told him. ‘The hell we will,’ McEver exploded. ‘Time out.’
“Gene went back and said something to Feathers. Beattie punted again and when I looked up at the ball it looked like a balloon ascension. I never saw a ball kicked so high and far. …. That kind of broke their back. We won the game.”
What did McEver say to his teammate and friend?
“ ‘Beattie,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you kick the ball farther than that with your left foot. If you don’t kick us out of here this next time I’m going to boot you right in the butt.’ ” Feathers recalled years later. “Know what I said? I said ‘Yes sir.’ ”
In a 1932 game against Alabama played in rainy conditions, Feathers outdueled Alabama punter Johnny “Sugar” Cain in the battle for field position as the Vols vanquished the Crimson Tide, 7-3. Oh yeah, Feathers also scored the only TD that afternoon for Tennessee.
Feathers – nicknamed the “Bounding Antelope” and “Big Chief” during his college days – scored 32 touchdowns and rushed for 1,888 yards from 1931-33 in Knoxville as UT compiled a 25-3-2 record. Some gridiron historians said Feathers would’ve owned a Heisman Trophy if the award had been presented at the time.
“Beattie didn’t think in terms of first downs, only in terms of touchdowns,” teammate Freddie Moses is quoted as saying on Tennessee’s website.
Feathers never replicated the success of his rookie season in the NFL due to injuries.
He played with the Bears until 1937 and then carried the ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1938-39) and had a one-game stint with the Green Bay Packers in 1940.
Feathers also happened to be a two-sport star, playing minor league baseball from 1936-1943 and compiling a lifetime batting average of .316. He doubled as outfielder and manager in stops with the Pennington Gap Miners and Kingsport Cherokees.
Coaching became his profession after his playing days were done.
He was the head football coach at Appalachian State (5-2-1 in 1942) and North Carolina State (37-38-3 from 1944-1951), while serving as the head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Texas Tech from 1954-1960.
The final stop of his career came at Wake Forest, where he was an assistant football coach from 1961-1977 and the head baseball coach from 1972-75. Chuck Mills, who guided the Demon Deacons, from 1973-77, was among the guys Feathers worked under.
“You talk about a great, great guy,” said Mills, now 91-years-old and living in Hawaii. “Beattie worked with the punters and our backs. He was in his 60s and he could still go out there and kick the ball far. Our players loved him and I never saw him upset. He was sort of quiet, but very warm and friendly.”
Did Feathers ever bring up his part in NFL history?
“He didn’t live in the past,” Mills said.
The Wake Forest players had done research on the assistant coach who could be demanding when it came to conditioning. After all, Feathers had did it all during his playing days.
“He was a legendary figure,” said former Wake Forest football player R. Steve Bowden. “We always thought that he was a little excessive in his drive to get us prepared to play. And let me be clear, the coach had everyone’s respect.”
It was hard not to respect a guy who had achieved so much.
“What I remember most about Coach Feathers is that he was remarkably quiet about his personal accomplishments, but clearly knew the nuances as he coached the running backs,” said Johnny Foster, a former football equipment manager and 1978 Wake Forest graduate. “His Cherokee heritage was also well known and appreciated by the team. The most shocking thing was his description of some of the, shall we say, very colorful train trips they took for away games. Among other things it had simply never occurred to most of us that the NFL actually used trains at some point.”
David Doda is another former Wake Forest football player who holds Feathers in high regard.
“One of the most kind, caring, nicest human beings that I have ever had the privilege to know,” Doda said. “A great man, a great mentor and a friend. … In the spring of 1967, Beattie showed up at my house one evening in New Jersey and wanted to talk to me and my parents about the Wake Forest football program.
“As a senior, I was a very good offensive tackle and defensive end on a very bad [2-7-1] team. I had received local accolades for my abilities, but was in no way a New Jersey statewide star. I was never sure what he saw in me, but after talking about the program that night, he looked me straight in the eye and told me, ‘David, if you come to Wake, you will start at tight end for us.’ Well, I enrolled at Wake Forest and started at tight end for two years, including on the 1970 [Atlantic Coast Conference] championship team. One of the most cherished experiences of my life.”
Feathers died on March 11, 1979 of a heart attack at the age of 69.
It remains a mystery why there is no statue or historical marker of Feathers in his hometown that would honor his legacy. There is a picture in Virginia High’s trophy case, but you think a man with his credentials would be feted in a grander way.
His historical 1934 season has been dissected by many statistical sleuths.
The late Bob Carroll of the Pro Football Researchers and Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report are among those who have wrote in-depth stories on that season and investigated whether Feathers really reached the 1K mark was it a result of shoddy stat keeping during the time.
It’s never been proven or disproven, so Feathers’ achievement remains right there in the record book.
It wouldn’t be surpassed in the NFL until Steve Van Buren rushed for 1,008 yards in 1947 as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 2006, Former Powell Valley High School stars Thomas and Julius Jones became the first brother tandem to rush for 1,000-yards in the same NFL season. Julius gained 1,084 yards for the Dallas Cowboys and Thomas racked up 1,210 yards for the Chicago Bears.
Ahmad Bradshaw (Graham) eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark twice while carrying the ball for the New York Giants.
The 1,000-yard mark remains the goal of all NFL running backs and the charter member of that elite club remains the one and only Beattie Feathers.
Now, for a look at high school basketball moments which occurred this week in history:
Feb. 5, 1949
Charlie Nickels scored 16 points as Tennessee High trounced Oak Ridge for a 52-36 win. … Bunny Saltz had the go-ahead bucket in the final moments as Virginia High edged Graham, 41-39. … Jack Hawks scored 13 points in Tazewell’s 46-36 win over Pocahontas.
Feb. 10, 1967
John Peltier (27 points) and Fred Rutherford (14 points) led the way in John Battle’s 57-45 win over Abingdon. Jimmy Mink had 13 points to pace Abingdon. … Ronnie Hubble’s 23-point performance highlighted Rich Valley’s 56-55 victory over Independence. … Nickelsville notched a 48-46 win over Rye Cove as Gary Addington went for 27 points.
Feb. 8, 1972
Tom Turner scored his 1,000th career point to highlight Appalachia’s 78-69 win over Pound. … Joe Jones and Tom Bondurant scored 21 points apiece in Lebanon’s 110-57 stomping of St. Paul. … Behind 43 points from Scott Stephenson, Graham cruised to a 92-65 victory over Grundy.
Feb. 9, 1999
Josh Bradley fired in 26 points as Castlewood stopped St. Paul, 81-67. … Josh Saunders (25 points) led the way in Tazewell’s 72-64 win over Abingdon. … Matt McCoy’s 18-point, nine-assist performance helped Powell Valley post a 61-53 triumph over Pound.