Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack has a long history with Hawaii

The first time the Nevada Wolf Pack football team landed in Hawaii it was greeted with a marching band, an adoring crowd holding blue and white Nevada pennants and smiling, welcoming faces that put Hawaiian leis around their necks.

What a difference a century makes.

We’re just guessing, but it’s not likely the Wolf Pack will get the same over-the-top friendly reception when it gets off its plane in Honolulu on Thursday, two days before meeting the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Saturday night (8 p.m., PDT) at Aloha Stadium.

“It’s always a challenge traveling over there,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week.

Norvell, like all 21st century college football coaches and players, doesn’t have a clue.

You want a real challenge? Try traveling to Honolulu from northern Nevada in 1920. When the 1920 Wolf Pack football team took on the challenge of going to Honolulu it was nothing short of a grueling test of stamina, courage, endurance and fortitude. And once they got there it was a bare-knuckle brawl for an entire 60-minute football game on both offense and defense (real men didn’t come out of the game in 1920) with leather helmets, no facemasks or TV timeouts and with only a bit more padding stuffed in their uniform than offered by the typical church pew.

“It’s mighty good to see land again,” beamed Wolf Pack head coach Ray Courtright as he stepped off the steamship, the S.S. Maui, on Dec. 21, 1920.

The landmark trip was accepted in the name of history. The Wolf Pack, then called the Sage Hens 100 years ago, was about to become the first mainland college football team to ever play a game in the Hawaiian islands.

Hawaii wasn’t even a state at the time. Women in this country only had the right to vote for the last four months. Hollywood movies didn’t have sound. Reno’s population was about 12,000. Hardly anyone had ever seen or heard of an airplane, let alone flew on one. The first Reno airport, after all, wouldn’t be built until 1929.

“It will be the greatest football game staged that has ever been played in the Hawaiian Islands,” the Honolulu Star Bulletin wrote in anticipation of the Christmas Day, 1920 battle with the Sage Hens from Nevada.

Why was Courtright so happy to see land when he arrived in Hawaii? Well, his Nevada football team began its trip to Hawaii on Dec. 14, 1920, boarding a train in the early-morning hours headed to San Francisco. The 17 Nevada players then climbed aboard the S.S. Maui on Dec. 15 and did not arrive in Honolulu until Dec. 21.

That’s seven days of floating back and forth, up and down and from side to side in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about two years after the end of World War I and about nine months after the end of the flu influenza that ravished America starting in 1918. This year’s Wolf Pack, by comparison, will sit on a plane for about six hours before landing in Honolulu.

“When Coach Courtright and Captain Ed Reed lead the University of Nevada football squad down the gangplank at Pier 15, a new page will be written in gridiron history of Hawaii,” the Star Bulletin reported.

Surviving the trip was a victory in and of itself for the 1920 Sage Hens.

“Not all men proved immune to sea-sickness,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported. “The coach (Courtright) was included among the victims.”

Courtright, who was also the Wolf Pack’s athletic director as well as its only head coach (for football, men’s basketball, baseball and track), was in his second season at Nevada. His Sage Hens went 8-1-1 in 1919 with new star James “Rabbit” Bradshaw and were 6-3 heading to Hawaii, coming off three losses (to west coast powers USC, California and Santa Clara) over the previous four weeks.

“We didn’t travel 2,100 miles to lose,” Courtright told the crowd who showed up to greet his mainland team in Hawaii.

Hawaii, which had never even played another college team, was 5-1 going into the Nevada game but their victories were against Navy (a team based in Honolulu), Luke Field (at Pearl Harbor), Schofield Barracks, Palama and Waikiki. Their only loss was 3-0 to the Outrigger Canoe Club. Hawaii, Outrigger, Palama and Waikiki were members of the Senior Football League, which all called the islands home.

The Nevada-Hawaii game was to be played at Alexander Field at the Punahou Academy, a college preparatory school in Honolulu.

“Opinions range from a 50-point victory for the visitors to a close win for Coach Ray “Rowdy” Elliot’s Wahoos,” the Star Bulletin wrote.

The Honolulu newspaper informed its readers that Nevada outweighed the Hawaii team by 142 total pounds. Just one Hawaii player (Mortimer Lydgate) weighed as much as 200 pounds with the rest under 175. The Reno newspapers told its readers that the Hawaii team had players that represented 11 different nationalities.

Nevada, though, had a 140-pound jackrabbit.

“Hawaii’s game will no doubt be to keep a weather eye on the little star (Rabbit Bradshaw) if they want to emerge with anything like an even break,” the Star Bulletin wrote.

The Wolf Pack would beat Hawaii 14-0 for its third shutout victory of the season and 10th in two years for Courtright. But it felt closer to the 50-point Nevada victory that some predicted. Vincent Dunne recovered a Hawaii fumble on the opening kickoff but Nevada couldn’t convert the turnover into points. A second Hawaii fumble, though, later in the first quarter, led to a short touchdown run by Nevada’s Herb Foster just 4:32 into the game.

Nevada would pick up 18 first downs to Hawaii’s four and gain 265 yards to Hawaii’s 77. But the game’s only other touchdown came in the third quarter on a run by Reed. Jack Heward added both extra points.

Bradshaw also connected with Reed for a 40-yard pass in the second quarter but the Sage Hens would not eventually score on the drive from the Hawaii 2-yard line. Bradshaw also had a 20-yard run in the game and helped his teammates control the football throughout the game with timely forward passes (an oddity n 1920).

“Jimmy Bradshaw, better known as Rabbit, Bullet and Shimmy, showed up to expectations,” the Honolulu newspaper reported. “Bradshaw is undoubtedly the sparkling genius of the Nevada Eleven.”

There was no question as to which team was superior that Christmas day at Alexander Field.

“Superior teamwork coupled with excellent generalship and all around speed, scored a victory of 14-0 for the University of Nevada football squad over the University of Hawaii Eleven,” the Star Bulletin wrote.

Other Hawaii headlines read, “Nevadans too Heavy for Locals” and “Bradshaw performs in style.”

All of the smiling and friendly faces that welcomed Nevada earlier in the week were still smiling and friendly after the game despite the two-touchdown loss by the locals.

“Both teams were cheered but Nevada got the heaviest applause,” the Honolulu newspaper reported.

“Two Nevada women, one carrying a Reno pennant, walked by the Hawaii fans and was given an open ovation,” the Star-Bulletin wrote. “One of the women then pulled out a pencil and paper and wrote down some cheers for the Nevada team and handed it to Nevada fans, much to the surprise of the Nevada players.”

Nevada, which stayed at the homes of Hawaii students while in Honolulu, was now a hometown Hawaii favorite. And Reno had become sort of a glamour destination for the Honolulu fans because of famous Hollywood actress Mary Pickford.

“Just six months ago Reno was little known to the local sporting world,” the Star Bulletin wrote. “But after America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford lived there for a few months in order to get a divorce from (actor) Owen Moore (so she could marry actor Douglas Fairbanks), Reno was forever on the map.”

A crowd of 4,000 saw the Nevada-Hawaii game and “a thousand more kids got in by jumping over the fence,” the Star Bulletin reported.

The afternoon was a rousing success.

“It was the day of all days as all roads led to Punahou,” the Star Bulletin reported. “The game was witnessed by the greatest crowd ever assembled to watch an athletic contest here.”

The Nevada football team, however, wasn’t quite finished in Hawaii in 1920 after the 14-0 victory. This year’s Wolf Pack, by comparison, is scheduled to leave Honolulu early Sunday morning (PDT) just hours after its game. The 1920 Nevada team had to remain in Honolulu more than two more weeks and play another game.

The Outrigger Canoe Club earned the right to meet Nevada on New Year’s Day 1921 by virtue of finishing in first place (thanks to its 3-0 win over Hawaii) in the Senior Football League.

Another crowd of 4,000 showed up to see Outrigger battle Nevada to a scoreless tie. Nevada had more yards (321-132) and more first downs (18-10) but couldn’t get into the end zone.

“It was one of the finest, if not the finest, football game ever staged in the Hawaiian Islands,” the Star Bulletin reported. “One reason Nevada did not win was overconfidence.”

Nevada missed a couple of field goals (all kicks were drop kicks in 1920) and also nearly won the game on a 2-yard pass from Bradshaw to Reed but Reed caught the ball slightly out of the end zone.

The Sage Hens would not leave Honolulu until Jan. 10 on the S.S. Lurline, giving the Nevada football team plenty of time to view the sites. Pearl Harbor, by the way, was still 21 years away from becoming a point of interest.

This year’s Wolf Pack, thanks to COVID-19 precautions, won’t see much of Honolulu or the surrounding area other than the inside of their plane, locker room and hotel room during their roughly 60-hour trip to Honolulu.

“There won’t be much freedom for the kids to leave their room or hotel at all,” Norvell said. “There’s a lot to see in Hawaii but we won’t do that this year.”

The 1920 Nevada football team would not arrive home in Reno until Jan. 17, 1921. The trip - two long boat rides and two train rides to and from the Bay area - turned out to be a full 34 days.

“Letters received locally from the traveling party report that everyone had a glorious time but they are glad to be coming back to Reno,” the Evening Gazette reported.


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