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Williamsporter Quarterbacked 1925 Pottsville NFL “Championship” Team

As we get ready for this year’s Super Bowl between the Eagles and the Chiefs, it might be interesting to look back on an interesting Williamsport connection to the infancy of the NFL.

The 1925 Pottsville Maroons are one of professional football’s most storied and controversial teams, and they were quarterbacked by a former longtime Williamsporter, Jack Ernst.

Ernst was not always a Williamsporter, he was born on December 4, 1899, in Canton, Ohio, and his family later moved to the Youngstown area. His father had been a standout footballer at Lafayette College (now University) in Easton, Pennsylvania. Like his father, Ernst was also a gifted athlete starring in various sports in high school and later at his father’s alma mater of Lafayette.

When his father died suddenly during the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Ernst was forced to go to work in a Youngstown steel mill to support his family, and his dream of following in his father’s footsteps to football glory seemed in grave doubt, but then fate stepped in.

“Some of my grandfather’s teammates and classmates from the Class of 1904 at Lafayette thought so much of my grandfather that they paid for my father’s education there in the 1920s,” stated the late Jack Ernst, Jr., not long before his death.

“My father was quite humbled by their generosity and very proud of his father for making such a positive impression on his classmates.”

Ernst justified their generosity by becoming one of Lafayette’s all-time best gridiron stars, leading the team from 1922 through 1924 to an outstanding 20-5-2 mark.

In the words of Dave Fleming, in his excellent book on the 1925 Pottsville Maroons titled, “The Breaker Boys,” “Ernst was a bold, confident field general, a tremendous open-field runner, and he had a cannon arm that he was not afraid to use.”

All of these qualities made him highly sought after when the Pottsville Maroons were assembling their squad for the upcoming 1925 National Football League season.

Football during the 1920s was largely a running, grind-it-out, try-to-outpower-the-other fellow type of game, so when the Maroons with Ernst at quarterback would drop back and toss the almost round football to receivers who circled beyond the line of scrimmage, this caused a certain amount of confusion and readjustment for opposing defenses and when defenses would try to compensate for this Ernst would hand off to the powerful Tony Latone, known as “The Howitzer,” who would make line plunges that softened up those defenses and catch them off guard, often producing exciting scoring plays. Ernst was also an excellent punter and punt returner.

The Pottsville Maroons finished the season with a stellar 11-2 record, including an impressive 21-7 win over the Chicago Cardinals in what could be regarded as an informal NFL championship game (the NFL did not have formal championship games until 1933).

Trouble ensued, unfortunately, when the Maroons played a game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park against the Notre Dame All-Stars, featuring the legendary “Four Horseman” and the “Seven Mules.” The Maroons prevailed in that exciting contest 9-7.

The game was played in the territory of another NFL team, the Frankford Yellowjackets (the predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles). The owner of that team protested to NFL Commissioner Joe Carr, and he ruled the game illegal and suspended the Maroons and their players from the NFL, and they were not recognized as NFL champs for 1925.

Members and fans of that Pottsville team feel with some justification that the team was robbed of its true glory.

Ernst played pro football for four more seasons, playing for the Maroons, the New York Yankees, the Boston Bulldogs, and even the hated Frankford Yellowjackets.

He was not only an outstanding football player but also a fine baseball player as well, and it was this talent that would bring him to Williamsport in 1929 to play for the Williamsport Grays.

It was while playing for the Grays that he met his wife, the former Dorothy Reese, whose father owned and operated the Sheriff-Reese Lumber Company.

Brooks Reese, Ernst’s brother-in-law, remembered him with great fondness.

“Jack was a great guy; his nickname was ‘the Bear.’ He was a very quiet and humble guy who never boasted about his athletic achievements and was very self-effacing. He might talk about some of his experiences if you asked about them,” Reese recalled. “He met my sister at Bowman Field, where I think she played the organ while he was playing for the Grays.”

Reese remembered very well watching Ernst practice throwing a football accurately by asking friends to pick a nearby open window to throw the football through. He displayed his accuracy by not breaking any windows during these exhibitions. Reese said it made quite an impression on him as a teenager.

He said that Ernst was quite a versatile baseball player for the Grays, playing catcher, the outfield, third base, and first base, and said he won the Most Valuable Player Award in the New York-Pennsylvania League, the predecessor to the Eastern League, in 1930 while playing for the Wilkes-Barre Barons.

Ernst played professional baseball from 1929 to 1937, and after retiring, he stayed in the baseball realm by directing the Atlantic Oil Company Baseball School For Boys during the late 1930s. Later he would sponsor and coach a team at Memorial Little League.

Ernst also acted for a time as an assistant football coach with his former Grays’ manager Glenn Killinger at West Chester State College and also was an assistant football coach at Oberlin College and Grove City College and as a sometime scout for Bucknell.

He spent the last 20-plus years of his life working as a supervisor and salesman at his father-in-law’s lumber company.

When Ernst died on March 9, 1968, Sun-Gazette sportswriter Mike Bernardi paid tribute to him in his March 11, 1968 “Sports Mike” column writing in part, “Ernst had a way with children that every father would be proud to have. Jack was one of the greatest all-around athletes I have ever known and the finest teacher of youth that I have known. Ernst’s name will never be forgotten. It will remain synonymous with sports throughout Williamsport and the West Branch Valley for all times.”