Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Bull Early: Iron Man of the Gridiron
by Phil James
“Well, back in my day…” has been the opening volley for countless stories of personal conquest. Whether it was a long, tortuous walk to school, deprivations back home, confrontations in foreign war zones, or on local sports fields, nearly everyone has or has heard a tale or two about how tough it used to be.
Senator Nathaniel Bezaleel Early was known for his mastery of oratory, an art which served him well during his half-century of political service to his fellow Virginians. But the farm boy from Earlysville earned his letters and a colorful nickname inside the lines of the 1890s college gridiron.
The modern version of the game of football is relatively docile compared to the terrific game played over a century ago. The era sometimes referred to as the Gilded Age or the Gay Nineties endured a college football tradition where injuries and deaths during contests prompted intervention from the Rough Rider himself, President Teddy Roosevelt. The football game that defines collegiate sports today was once nearly in danger of legally being banned from college campuses.
Nathaniel Early, or N. B. Early Jr., as he preferred to sign his name, was born on his family’s farm, Wakefield, in Earlysville in 1866. The rural village was named for his ancestors who were prominent in Greene County’s business and political circles. Following elementary schooling, Nathaniel graduated from Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro and proceeded to Virginia Military Institute where he earned a bachelor’s degree. During his years at VMI, Early was involved with baseball and football, sports which remained lifelong interests.
Early enrolled at the University of Virginia to pursue a law degree, and it was during those years, specifically 1892 and ’93, that he attained a degree of sports immortality. In the 1893 season, while playing the dangerous center-rush position for celebrated UVA football coach Johnny Poe, the 26-year-old earned the nickname “Bull” Early while helping to lead his team to an 8-3 record and to the independent “Championship of the South.” Two of those three losses had occurred while Early was taking an extended break to attend the public opening of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. My—haven’t times changed!
Back in the day when Bull Early played, the game was an hour-and-a-half long: two 45-minute halves. Most players went both ways—offense and defense—and Early’s favorite boast was that he “never had a substitute” in a game.
Walter Camp is credited with refining the rules of football. In 1891, when referring to the center-rush position, he stated that it must be performed by a man who exhibits “sense and strength… brain and brawn.” Camp continued, “A coach should see to it that his center has a variety of men to face, some big, some tricky, and some ugly.” (He did not qualify whether “ugly” was a reference to their visage or their manner of play.)
In the early days, when the center lineman faced his opponent, he was prepared to employ his best skills as boxer and wrestler to subdue his adversary. Adorned with little protective equipment, the offensive linemen of the 1890s pushed, pulled and, sometimes, literally lifted the ball carrier over their heads to propel him toward the goal.
The “flying wedge” maneuver invented in 1892 allowed the offensive line a 20-yard running start prior to the snap of the ball which could explode a hole through the defense’s position, and, too often, leave a trail of carnage for the ball carrier to follow. Within a few years, such “momentum plays” were disallowed. But such were the playing days for Bull Early.
The University of Virginia’s football team of 1893 enjoyed their fellow students’ inspiring chants of “Wah-hoo-wah.” That storied team was the first to revel in the singing of The Good Old Song, written in 1893. Traditionally sung following UVA touchdowns, those unfamiliar with the “new” song that year had a crash course in singing when the team had a rematch with Georgetown, one of the teams that had defeated UVA during Bull’s World’s Fair absence. With their famed center-rush back in position, UVA handily won the rematch 58-to-0!
In 1894, N. B. Early married Miss Sudie Brown of Brightberry in Brown’s Cove. Not long after his graduation from UVA, he was elected in 1897 to the Virginia House of Delegates, serving the counties of Greene and Madison for nearly a decade.
Perhaps as a consequence of his enjoyable visit to the Chicago World’s Fair during the 1893 football season, Senator Early served as a Commissioner for the Jamestown Exposition of 1907.
Elected as State Senator for Virginia’s 26th District, he served the counties of Albemarle, Greene and Madison for 26 years until accepting a position as United States Collector of Internal Revenue for Virginia. He served in that capacity until the year of his death in 1947. In 2009, the Virginia General Assembly approved House Joint Resolution No. 998: “Commemorating the life and accomplishments of Nathaniel B. Early, Jr.”
In his private life, Nathaniel B. “Bull” Early was a farmer and cattleman, enjoying the seasonal routines at his estate “Fairview” on the Rapidan River in Greene County.
The tough farm boy from Albemarle and Greene County who distinguished himself in the classroom, on the gridiron, and in the halls of state government, might have traced some of his tenacity to University of Virginia Coach John P. “Johnny” Poe, Jr., who compiled a record of 16-5 during his two seasons of coaching football at UVA.
Poe, at age 41, volunteered during World War I for service with the Black Watch, the ferocious Scottish Infantry Regiment. His life was taken in 1915 at the Battle of Loos, France. Earlier in his life as assistant football coach, Johnny Poe was attributed with the quote, “If you won’t be beat, you can’t be beat.”
That attitude was undoubtedly instilled in countless young men in Poe’s charge. To this day, we are the unknowing beneficiaries of their lives of sacrificial service.
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2011 Phil James.