BOOK REVIEW: 'The Iron Indians': How A Small College Achieved Football Success With 24 Players, Barebones Budget

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Iron Indians': How A Small College Achieved Football Success With 24 Players, Barebones Budget
Exercise and recreation ... are as necessary as reading; I will say rather more necessary, because health is worth more than learning. A strong body makes the mind strong.
 —Thomas Jefferson, W&M Class of 1762

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle
. -- George Carlin (1937-2008)

College football in 1953 was a completely different game from the mega-technological spectacle of today, writes Rene A. Henry in his chronicle of the 1953 football season at his alma mater, The College of William & Mary:  "The Iron Indians" (Gollywobbler Productions, 100 pages, $14.95). It was more like the pastoral game described by the incomparable Carlin.

The "Indians" in the title refers to the Willamsburg, VA college's nickname (I noticed on the college's website that they now use the word "Tribe"), and head coach John J. "Jackie" Freeman (1918-2003) had only 24 players on his squad due to dismissals in the wake of violations of W&M's honor code. He even canceled spring training.
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

Back in '53 (my freshman year of high school began that fall) college football didn't have today's two-platoon system: all team members played both offense and defense. Coaches didn't get paid more than the university president: Freeman made less than $7,000 a year and lived with his family in a two-bedroom apartment behind Sorority Row, writes Henry, a Charleston, WV native, who graduated in 1954.

Rene Henry was the school's sports information guy and did everything himself with a Speed Graphic press camera, a mimeograph machine, manual typewriters and a very limited long distance phone allowance. He would later go on to a similar position at West Virginia before embarking on his public relations and writing careers.

It's difficult to compare prices from 1953, when gasoline was 20 or 25 cents a gallon, first class postage was three cents and the average worker earned $4,011 a year and lived in a new house that sold for $17,400 (if he was lucky, more than likely he bought an existing house for half that) and a new Ford or Chevy cost from around $1,500 to $2,400. Let's use  multiplier of 15, making Freeman's salary of $6,300 for both head coach and athletic director the equivalent of $94,500 today. A head coach at a major Division I university today is paid at least $500,000, with quite a few earning much more.

With two dozen players  -- instead of 50 or 60 -- Freeman's tiny team lost only once in its first six games, despite losing some 30 players, eight starters and both co-captains because of the honor code violation that involved stealing tests.

W&M's 1953 wins included Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, and Richmond and a tie against nationally-ranked Navy. Injuries took their toll late in the season, but W&M finished with a 5-4-1 record. The next winning season was in 1965 in Marv Levy's second year as head coach. 

The opening section of the book cites world and U.S. history during the Fifties as well as what was happening on the William & Mary campus. There are romantic, comedic and dramatic anecdotes Henry gained from numerous interviews with classmates and the players and their families.

Coach Freeman faced challenges that few coaches today would accept. He didn't have enough players for a full scrimmage so in practice when running plays to the right side of the line, he had the left side play defense and vice versa. Tackling and blocking dummies were used in spaces when players were injured, which was frequent. 

This book should be a must read for all college presidents and athletic directors, says Henry. It is an example why college football costs need to be brought under control just like the national debt.

"They need to stop making excuses for football; blaming Title IX for all of their athletic department problems; and stop dropping non-revenue Olympic sports from programs every year," Henry told me. He is a regular contributor to this site.

The book supplements information from the 1953 media guide with career biographical information on all 24 players and the coaching staff. There are pre-season stories as well as a complete narrative and statistical recaps of all 10 games. Five of the players were veterans returning from Korea. Most of the others entered military service after graduation. Three became prominent attorneys. Six were drafted by or signed professional contracts with NFL teams. Several were Dean s List and one Phi Beta Kappa. Two were pre-season Academic all-Americans. Several grew up in small Pennsylvania coal mining towns. Many married their college sweethearts in what became lifetime relationships.

In a 2010 op-ed, Rene Henry wrote about some of the Iron Indians:

"The quarterback, Charlie Sumner, even called his own plays. The players had to be versatile and flexible like Bill Marfizo who, during the season, played seven positions including center, offensive tackle and end, and defensive halfback and linebacker. 

"Sumner passed for touchdowns, punted, rushed for 903 yards, scored 30 points and even intercepted six passes. He went on to play eight years in the NFL as defensive safety for the Chicago Bears and Minneapolis Vikings. During his career as a coach with the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots many considered him the best defensive coordinator in the NFL. His last season he was head coach of the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. 
"Jerry Sazio, a junior guard and linebacker, who went on to play several years professionally in Canada, missed two games with torn knee ligaments, and in the season’s last game, broke his hand and dislocated his shoulder. The following year Sazio was named first team All-Southern Conference, beating out Sam Huff, West Virginia’s consensus All-American and Hall of Famer. 
"Fullback Bill Bowman and lineman John Bednarik were both named honorable mention to All-American teams. Bowman went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. Bednarik was the younger brother of Penn All-American and Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik." 

 This is Henry's eighth book and it is being adapted for a screenplay for a feature motion picture.

About the Author

Rene A. Henry has had diverse careers in public relations, sports marketing, housing and real estate, television and entertainment, politics, federal service, higher education and as a trade association executive. He has created and produced award-winning videos and television documentaries and authored books on land investment, utility cogeneration, sports and public relations.   His two books on crisis -  Communicating In A Crisis; You'd Better Have a Hose If You Want to Put Out the Fire - and Marketing Public Relations are used by professionals, professors and students. He received his A.B. degree in economics from The College of William & Mary, did graduate study in marketing at West Virginia University and has taken executive courses at Harvard University and Georgetown University law schools. In 2010 he was awarded the William & Mary Alumni Medallion, the highest honor the college's alumni association can bestow on a graduate. Website:
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