Saturday, January 9, 2010

TORONTO'S FIRST PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER

      Many men would give their souls to play just one game in the National Football League, but it was the heart of Toronto Tiger legend John "Hook" Comer that gave him that single opportunity.
      During the first quarter of the 20th Century, football players participated for the love of a game with crude equipment and often with equally crude treatment.  Those playing for semi-professional teams, such as the Toronto Tigers, supplemented their primary jobs at the local clay works with a few extra bucks against such notable teams as the Akron Silents, Bradley Eagles, Dusquesne Apprentice and various Ohio Valley clubs.
      "Those were rough and tough days the way they dressed and talked," said Tom McKelvey, who watched many semi-pro games during their heyday in the Gem City.  "I remember before one game the Toronto coach had his players diving into a mud puddle by the old home plate to practice recovering fumbles."
      Out of the most physical and punishing era of football emerged one athlete, John S. "Hook" Comer, standing 6'3" and weighing 180 pounds.
      "My father told me Hook Comer could kick the ball almost the length of the football field," John Petras Jr. said.
      "They said he could throw the football 100 yards," McKelvey said.  "Of course, that's probably exaggeration."
      What isn't hyperbole was Comer's athleticism.  Some old timers said he was equally gifted at running, kicking and passing.
      In his "Era of Elegance," author Walter M. Kestner gives this account of Comer: "As I recall the football of that era was much larger in diameter that that used today and consequently was much harder to throw.  However, John Comer or Big Hook as he was called could grasp the ball and throw it with extreme accuracy.   On one play particularly called the Formation A, Dave Ferris would lateral the ball to Hook, who would then throw a pass down field to Goose Mundy or Jim Condrim with a touchdown usually resulting from the play."
      Accounts by both Kestner and McKelvey attest that the early Toronto Tiger teams consisted of local talent, but around 1920 Doc Kilgus, club owner, wanted to increase the talent pool in the Gem City.
      "Doc Kilgus brought in guys from out of town to build up the team," McKelvey said.
      Often these athletes were collegians playing under aliases for money to maintain their amateur status  One such athlete was Pete "Fats" Henry, an All American tackle from Washington & Jefferson who played on the same side of Kaul Field with ringers and the few remaining legitimate locals, such as Hook Comer.
       Henry would go on to play with the Canton Bulldogs in 1920 and, as player-coach in 1926, he brought up fullback John "Hook" Comer, now 36 years of age and well past his prime.  Wearing number 3, Comer played but one NFL game, carrying the ball once for one yard alongside 38-year-old Jim Thorpe.
      The Bulldogs that year finished with one win, nine losses and three ties--the worst record in the fledgling National Football League.
      In 1963, Henry was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, one year before Toronto and Green Bay legend Clarke Hinkle was enshrined, arguably giving the Gem City two members in Canton.
       Comer went on to become a well respected policeman in Toronto, serving with Hinkle's brother Les.  He died in 1950 and is buried in Toronto Union Cemetery, not far from other Gem City legends, such as Clarke Hinkle and Pick Nalley.