“The Fiercest Tackler Ever Developed in the South”: The Story of Arkansas’ First NFL Player


Few photos remain of Ben Winkelman, the NFL’s first Razorback.

Given Arkansas’ nosedive of a season, it’s probably a year later than he would have liked, but Tyler Wilson will eventually join the NFL. And when he does, as an expected early selection in the 2013 Draft, the quarterback will likely be the next of at least 205 Razorbacks to have entered the nation’s most lucrative sports league. He’ll join a world in which quarterbacks make an average annual salary of about $2 million, likely for a franchise worth more than $1 billion.

Nothing, it seems, can slow the NFL’s growth.

Ninety years ago, though, pro football was far less popular than the college variant. The NFL began in 1920 as an outgrowth of the Ohio League, a loose group of semi-pro and pro teams. With crowds rarely topping 6,000 people, it sputtered early on. Franchise entry fees as low as $100 allowed teams to constantly form and disband. In 1922, the Milwaukee Badgers formed, following Green Bay as Wisconsin’s second NFL team. Despite playing both sides of the ball, its players earned no more than $1,800 a season and had to work odd jobs to make ends meet. So did management: Milwaukee’s owner toiled in a Chicago stockyard during the season.

If New England quarterback Tom Brady were parachuted into this era, he would throw no more than a dozen times a contest. The pass, after all, was considered a desperation play. Constant punting, often used on third down for the sake of field position, greatly slowed the game. Safe to say, Brady would have trouble attracting a bob-haired Gisele to his side.

This is the world into which the Hogs’ first NFL player walked.

Fayetteville native Ben Winkelman was good, but no all-time great. His name appears only as a blip among the best Razorbacks around the 1917-21 stint he spent on campus. A UA yearbook lists his off-field exploits – engineering major, clarinet player, member of the Glee Club and Kappa Alpha fraternity – not on-field prowess. The sequence of events leading him from Fayetteville to Milwaukee isn’t known, although Arkansan Norris Armstrong might have had something to do with it. We do know the six-feet, 180-pound Winkelman’s brief but impressive NFL career began Dec. 4, 1922 at Milwaukee’s last game of the season.

The Badgers lost that game to the powerhouse Canton Bulldogs 40-6. Winkelman, whose position in modern terms equated to the tight end on offense and cornerback on defense, had seen much worse in his second year as Razorback. World War I took nearly all Arkansas’ players, which meant regular students had to be recruited to fill in for a 1918 showdown with Oklahoma. The result, a 103-0 loss, was the low point of a nine-year stretch involving five head coaches.

It’s unlikely Winkelman had seen an elite team led by African-Americans, as his Badgers were. While today more than two-thirds NFL players are black, the league had only five such players 90 years ago. Fritz Pollard and Duke Slater, two of the era’s best black players, played on the 1922 Badgers. Future civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who’d played pro football despite attending Columbia Law School and performing off-Broadway, was another black Badger. His injury before the Canton game opened a spot for Winkelman.

White teammates and opponents treated minorities differently. On one hand, there is evidence Pollard served as a player-coach, says Michael Benter, the author of an upcoming book on the Milwaukee Badgers. Conversely, Benter adds there’s evidence that white players often tried to injure black players, even after the whistle: “When he was tackled, Pollard would almost be doing bicycle kicks on the ground with his shoe spikes because [opponents] would be trying to pile on or something like that.”
After finishing the 1922 season with two wins, four losses and three ties, most of the Badgers began a barnstorming tour through Arkansas and Texas to raise funds playing against local amateur and semi-pro teams. Only three Southerners were on the team’s season-ending roster including Winkelman. The other Arkansan, Norris Armstrong, had starred at Fort Smith High School before attending Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. It’s highly likely Winkelman and Armstrong not only participated in this southern tour, but helped organize it.

On December 17, Milwaukee beat a Pine Bluff team 74-0, according to Benter. No score is known for the Badgers’ game four days later against a Fort Smith team. The trip ended in the Texas panhandle at Clarendon College, as recounted by Milwaukee quarterback Jim Conzelman in When Football was Football: “Well, we only had about 14 players and one was needed to carry water for when the field got dusty. Another drove a get-away car in case we had to leave in a hurry from some unhappy, gun-toting Cowboys who had bet on the wrong team.”

Winkelman broke out in 1923, finishing fourth in the NFL with 45 points. The Milwaukee Sentinel lauded him as the “fiercest tackler ever developed in the South. Also was a marvel at forward passes and a speed merchant covering punts.” The following season highlights back up the praise:

1) Returned a pass thrown by Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe 40 yards for a touchdown in win over Oorang Indians
2) Made two field goals in a 6-3 win over Duluth
3) Made a 43-yard field goal, one of the season’s longest, against St. Louis
4) Scored 10 of Milwaukee’s 16 points in a shutout win against Racine

The next game, though, Winkelman missed all three field goals attempts in a 0-0 tie with the Chicago Bears in December. Still, his team finished 7-2-3 and Winkelman was honored as a third-team All-Pro end, as selected by the Green Bay Gazette.

Ironically this paper’s sports editor, George Calhoun, was a major reason Green Bay emerged as Wisconsin’s sole team. From the start, Calhoun had essentially been the Packers’ public relations mouthpiece, helping cement the franchise’s statewide popularity. Another problem: Milwaukee didn’t beat Green Bay any of the ten times the teams played in the Badgers’ five seasons.

Winkelman’s production diminished in 1924. He lost playing time at end and in the backfield to more talented competition, scoring only one touchdown. Instead, he emerged as a valuable utility player, filling in where needed.

He spent time at fullback, right end, halfback as the “first man up whenever they had any injury at any of the skill positions,” Benter says. Overall, the season was a disappointment as Milwaukee finished 5-8. Almost the entire roster left, including Winkelman.
At age 25, his NFL career was over.

From here, Winkelman’s path through the pages of history gets murky. He pops up a few years later coaching high school football in Fort Worth. A decade later, he moves to the college ranks and coaches backfields at Stanford and Oregon. His career apex, though, was a two-year stint as San Jose State University’s head coach. There, he worked for athletic director Pop Warner, one of the most influential and well-traveled coaches in the college football history. Indeed, at Pittsburgh Warner had coached George McLaren, one of Winkelman’s college coaches.

Little of Winkelman’s past is mentioned in San Jose State’s 1940 media guide aside from the four years he’d just spent at Stanford. He is introduced as “a burly Texan.”
Apparently, for a long while, few people knew or cared about this Arkansan’s place in the history of his state’s flagship university. That should change.

An edited version of this article originally published in Arkansas Life.

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