There have been so many changes to college football since the first game was contested on a November day in 1869. The sport played now on autumn Saturdays looks nothing at all like the one that is acknowledged as the first in the game’s history. There were no helmets, no forward passes, no touchdown celebrations. There were, in fact, no touchdowns, because the sport had not yet been refined to that point.
Historians will tell you the first college football game bore a greater resemblance to soccer than modern college football, but gradually we progressed from the contest played that day to the one currently ruled by Clemson and Alabama.
To celebrate the 150 years that have made college football into such a spectacle – to the point thousands now turn up every Saturday merely to watch a televised pregame show – Sporting News will publish a list each week celebrating the game’s legacy.
And to start, we will look at one of the sport’s greatest contributions to our culture: so many magnificent nicknames. That may seem a curious choice for the opener, but consider this: The first game was played between the College of New Jersey and Rutgers College. This may not connect with what you’ve heard before – but that’s because the “College of New Jersey” had yet to adopt its current name: Princeton University.
So, yeah, names mean something in this sport.
Indeed, this particular list is so grand that William “Pudge” Heffelfinger couldn’t crack it, and neither could Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, Alan “The Horse” Ameche, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady or “All Day” Adrian Peterson. (So if they missed, you know there’s no room for something as lame as “Johnny Football.”
These are college football’s 10 greatest nicknames:
10. “Mean” Joe Greene (North Texas defensive tackle, 1966-68)
Although he was great enough to be named All-American with a relatively off-Broadway college program, Greene was not exceptionally well-known as a collegian. His became a household nickname when he helped the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls.
Greene’s punishing play on the defensive line perfectly suits the “Mean Joe” name. More to the point, he is one of the few athletes, ever, whose personal nickname became the nickname for his school’s athletic teams. It’s just not clear which came first.
When Greene arrived at North Texas, the school’s teams were known as the Eagles. At a football game in Greene’s sophomore year (per former varsity basketball player Willie Davis), he and a former teammate began a call-and-response chant in the student section: “Mean Green, you look so good to me!” Which was answered by the full group shouting, “Mean Green!”
Another story was that Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of the school’s sports information director, responded to a typically overpowering Greene tackle by hollering, “That’s the way, Mean Greene!” She suggested to her husband, Fred, that he assign the label to the team’s defense, and he put it in a press release. A half-century later, North Texas’ teams are known as the “Mean Green”, with an attacking green eagle as the mascot logo.
Greene’s No. 75 jersey at North Texas is retired. But his nickname endures.
9. Byron “Whizzer” White (Colorado running back, 1935-37)
In addition to the honor of finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting in his senior season, White became the only person named “Whizzer” ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
White rushed for 1,121 yards and scored 122 points – both national records – in his final year with the Buffaloes, and also led them to an 8-0 regular season that was spoiled in a Cotton Bowl loss to Rice. His single-season rushing and scoring records were not eclipsed until teams began playing 10- and 11-game schedules.
He was nicknamed “Whizzer” by a sportswriter because it suited his speed and was, as so many nicknames were in the first half of the 20th century, alliterative. When White subsequently became a Rhodes Scholar, a deputy U.S. attorney general and an associate justice on the highest court in the land, however, he no longer was comfortable being reminded some people still knew him as “Whizzer.”
8. Craig “Ironhead” Heyward (Pitt running back, 1984-87)
The legend of Heyward’s nickname is that his grandmother assigned it to him after hearing that Craig had been struck over the head with a pool cue – which broke in half – and barely flinched. In his four years at Pitt, during which I was a sportswriter at The Pittsburgh Press, I never heard him referenced by his first name.
Everyone called him Ironhead. Every time.
Heyward was huge for a running back, just 5-11 but weighing at or around 265 pounds. He had a huge head, too, size 8 3/4, which helped reinforce his Ironhead nickname.
It took a while for Heyward to become a great college player. That was partly because he was in a backfield loaded with other talents: Charles Gladman, who topped 1,000 yards in 1985, A.B. Brown, who reached 962 in 1988 after transferring to West Virginia, and Brian Davis, who was more talented than any of them but lost most of his career to academic issues. But Heyward eventually became dominant and rushed for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final season.
7. Johnny Musso, “The Italian Stallion” (Alabama running back, 1969-71)
Musso hadn’t yet carried the football in an official game for the Crimson Tide, but the people there always have known their football. They knew he was going to be a star. So, as Musso told the Hartford Courant in 1985, sports information director Charley Thornton wanted him to have a nickname to help draw attention to his play.
He came up with “The Italian Stallion” – a nickname so good that it later became a part of an Academy Award-winning motion picture.
There isn’t any literature to indicate Sylvester Stallone got the idea for Rocky’s ring moniker from Musso’s career, but Carl Weathers – so good as Apollo Creed in that movie – was a former Canadian Football League teammate of Musso.
At Alabama, Musso finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 1971, rushing for 1,088 yards, 16 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per carry.
6. “Neon” Deion Sanders (Florida State cornerback, 1985-88)
Sanders never liked this nickname and expressed a preference for “Prime Time”, a nickname he got from a friend in high school because Sanders had lit up the opposition for 30 points in a basketball game.
Let’s be frank, though: Anyone could be “Prime Time.”
Only someone with Sanders’ first name and his propensity to draw the spotlight onto himself could be “Neon” Deion. College football has been cursed with a generation of dull, unimaginative nicknames, and Prime Time fits right into that category. But Neon Deion is an expression of how Sanders operated at FSU: supremely great as a cover corner and return man, never shy about making everyone aware of it.
Sanders averaged 15.2 yards on 33 punt returns as a senior – imagine kicking it to him three times per game, as if knocking it out of bounds weren’t an available option – and returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. He was a two-time consensus All-American at corner.
5. Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger” (LSU safety, 2010-11)
Most often, a colorful sports nickname is a product of a sportswriter looking for something clever to say about an athlete he is covering. (That’s not meant to be a boast, because it’s not like I’ve ever conjured a nickname that became legendary).
Mathieu’s “Honey Badger” name was conceived by football coach John Chavis, then working as defensive coordinator for the LSU Tigers. He noticed an online video of an animal called the honey badger, a small mammal native to Africa and southern Asia, so fierce despite its size that it has been seen to frighten away even grown lions. Chavis showed the video to his team – the line, “Honey badger don’t care” stuck out – and decided that Mathieu’s approach to defending warranted comparison to the creature known as the most fearless in the animal kingdom.
College football journalists went wild for the nickname, and Mathieu’s six forced fumbles and five recoveries in the 2011 season didn’t hurt. He was named a consensus All-American and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
4. William “The Refrigerator” Perry (Clemson defensive lineman, 1981-84)
A Clemson teammate, Ray Brown, noticed that when freshman defensive lineman William Perry exited an elevator, he filled the entire door frame. Brown called Perry “GE,” but let’s be honest: That wouldn’t have made this list. Along the way, the derivation of GE – General Electric, a maker of household appliances – led to the more compelling “the Refrigerator.” Or, for short, Fridge.
He really was built like a fridge, but Perry did not move like one.
“I’ve never seen that kind of bulk move that quickly,” Georgia coach Vince Dooley said of Perry. Duke coach Steve Sloan suggested a practice plan for his team: “To resemble William Perry, we are going to rent a Winnebago this week for our offensive line to practice against.”
Perry was a first-team All-American as a junior in 1983, and he was ACC Player of the Year as a senior. Perry attained even greater fame when he became part of the famed Chicago Bears defense as a rookie in 1985, when coach Mike Ditka chose to use him as a short-yardage fullback. Tackling him was like trying to pull down a rolling refrigerator, you know.
3. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (Notre Dame receiver, 1988-1990)
Could there possibly be a better word to describe the player who shot upfield for two kickoff return touchdowns against Michigan in a single game in 1989 – a performance that led Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler to declare, “He is faster than the speed of sound”?
The nickname also was convenient. I once sat opposite him in a Notre Dame cafeteria for a half-hour one evening during his freshman season – it was a delightful conversation – and, at one point, I asked him to pronounce his name for me. Was it Rah-GIB or Rah-GEEB?
Rocket was a simpler answer. And it captured the player who averaged 27.6 yards per kick return as a collegian, 22 yards per catch and 7.7 yards per rush – and who once delivered 10.2-second 100-meter dashes as a member of the Irish track team.
2. Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (Wisconsin running back, 1942; Michigan running back 1943)
Hirsch’s career was impacted by World War II, which is why he left the Badgers for the Wolverines following his sophomore year; he joined the Marine Corp as the war advanced and transferred to Michigan to be part of a Naval officer training program.
He was an amazing athlete who won letters in four varsity sports in one year at Michigan – football, basketball, track and baseball – and competed in intercollegiate events in different sports in different states on the same day.
He earned the Crazylegs moniker because of his unique running style, which seemed to send his legs spinning in dizzying directions. He lived up to that name with All-America seasons as a Badger and a Wolverine, and with a pro career that led him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Asked many times what he thought of the name, Hirsch had a ready response: “Anything’s better than Elroy.”
He also defended his right to the Crazylegs name in court, when a consumer products company launched a women’s shaving cream called Crazylegs. Hirsch won.
1. Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost,” Illinois running back, 1923-1925
When a guy is riding two nicknames at once, as Harold Grange did through his years with the Fighting Illini, he’s probably special. Red is rather common, has been the preferred name for such sporting hall of famers as Albert Schoendienst, Johnny Kerr and Gordon Berenson. No one ever wore that nickname as famously as Grange, who revolutionized interest in college football and then helped ignite the nation’s passion for the burgeoning NFL.
But being known as “The Galloping Ghost” is what puts Grange at the top of this list. Chicago American sportswriter Warren Brown, who would win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame a half-century later, came up with that alliterative masterpiece. It conveyed the speed with which Grange traversed the football field as well as the inability of defenders to contain him. His performance against Michigan in the 1924 season is one of the greatest in history: Grange scored five touchdowns, including a 95-yard kickoff return, threw for a touchdown and intercepted two passes.
The “Galloping Ghost” name stayed with Grange throughout his life, and particularly during his pioneering days as a professional football player.
Grange later portrayed a fictionalized version of himself in a serial film – in the language of today, it was a 12-part miniseries – called “The Galloping Ghost,” released six years after he left Illinois.