Note: In recognition of LSU’s great undefeated football team of 1908, this is the third in a series of three stories to appear on LSUsports.net this week documenting that team. Today’s story is an excerpt from the book “Eye of the Tiger” by Marty Mule’ about the great G.E. “Doc” Fenton. Previous stories this week have been about the 1907 and 1908 seasons.
Excerpt from the book Eye of the Tiger by Marty Mule’
“Doc” was his name and football was very definitely his game.
It’s a name that will live as long as his game is played at LSU.
George Ellwood “Doc” Fenton was an extraordinary athlete with matinee idol looks. Known as the “Artful Dodger” on the fanciful sports pages of the day, and at other times called “the Kandy Kid,” Fenton was universally known as “Doc” because his father traveled as a singer with an old time Indian medicine show.
Doc Fenton put LSU on the football map.
The legend of LSU’s first football great has grown with time, but hear what his contemporaries said of him: “When the ball was snapped,” said Coach Mike Donahue, whose great Auburn team of 1908 lost to Fenton and the unparalleled Bayou Bengals of ’08, “he was capable of rushing off in any direction. He was the consummate football player, born to run. He lived and loved the attacking side of football.”
“I saw Jim Thorpe,” said Troy Middleton, LSU president in the 1950s, “but Doc Fenton was a better player.” Mississippi A&M (now State) coach Fred Furman, who not only lost the recruiting war for Fenton but two games in large part because of him, said Fenton was the “greatest quarterback I ever saw on the field.”
At the time, LSU had been fielding a team for less than two decades. And apparently the way Fenton got into a Tiger uniform would set off alarms in the offices of the NCAA these days. But it was the way things were done then, during this period when Southern schools went North for coaches as well as players, and as far as LSU was concerned, one player in particular: Fenton.
Fenton’s career began with St. Michael’s College in Canada and continued at Mansfield Normal in Pennsylvania where he played four years at end. You have to wonder about the eligibility rules of the day when you have Fenton recalling that after four seasons at Mansfield, he had offers from LSU and Mississippi A&M.
“I guess you could say I was one of the first of the boys from the Pennsylvania coal country to come down here to play football,” Fenton said in 1958. “I got all the fundamentals playing rugby in Toronto. I learned how to kick on the run, and I learned how to operate in an open field.”
He chose LSU for two reasons: a slick-talking coach named Edgar Wingard and the nickel beers in Baton Rouge. When Wingard, a Pennsylvanian, recognized Fenton’s fondness for a brew on a visit to Louisiana, he reminded Doc of the blue laws back home, as well as in Mississippi.
Wingard went about building his team around Fenton, whose background in rugby and soccer made him a dazzling broken-field runner. Since linemen carried the ball as much as backs in those days, Wingard kept Fenton at end, using him on a variety of reverses, along with double and triple laterals.
Other than a trip in which LSU played – and lost – two games in two days to Texas and then to Texas A&M, Wingard’s carefully recruited team improved as the season wore on, all the way to the season-ending game with Baylor. The Bears were prohibitive 5-1 favorites.
Fenton got the ball on the opening kickoff, and instead of returning it, he sent a 60-yard punt downfield. A surprised Baylor player fumbled the boot, and LSU’s Les Stovall picked it up and trotted across for a touchdown in the game’s first 17 seconds. The Tigers went on to win 48-0 as the bookies committed hari-kiri.
That was the game which sent LSU to Cuba on Christmas Day, and a 56-0 massacre of the University of Havana.
That show-no-quarter football conquest was a harbinger of things to come in 1908 – a season like no other in LSU annals.
Wingard moved Fenton to quarterback, which meant the 165-pounder would be handling the ball on every play. With Fenton at quarterback, which he at first resisted, LSU produced one of the finest teams of football’s early era. For decades afterward, it was the standard by which every other Tiger team was judged. It probably still should be.
LSU, which averaged an unheard of 180-pounds and with equally unmatched speed, must have been viewed as a team of supermen in 1908, a season of almost incomparable glory.
Consider this: The Tigers, in an era of the five-point touchdown, were actually close to achieving “point-a-minute” status. LSU scored 442 points in 450 minutes, and surrendered only one touchdown in their 10-0-0 season. Even a safety LSU gave up was hardly earned. It came at Auburn, and Fenton said, “I was kicking from behind my own goal, and an Auburn tackle broke through to block it. The ball was bouncing around, so I picked it up and was getting ready to run it out when a fan reached over the rope and cracked me over the head with a cane. It knocked me cold.”
LSU that season was a team the likes of which had never been seen in Dixie. Jim Halligan, a pioneer football official who worked all of the Tiger games that memorable season flatly maintained in an interview with Peter Finney of the New Orleans States-Item almost a half century later that the 1908 Tigers was the finest team ever to come out of the South. “They had the lateral pass down to perfection,” Halligan said. “All of the backs were big, fast, triple-threat men who handled a football like a basketball. Fenton’s knack of kicking on the run was fantastic. All of them were masters of the change of pace, stiff-arm, blocking on the run.”
The Fenton Era came to a close with a 6-2 record in 1909, with Doc saying of John Mayhew, the new LSU coach, who was a 1906 All-American halfback at Brown: “He spent his time trying to prove he was a better broken field runner than me.”