1931 Dover Football | Commemorating Don Foutz
My grandpa Don Foutz died when I was four years old.
Growing up in a town where some branches of my family stretch back seven generations, I’ve been blessed with all the holidays, birthdays and everyday moments I shared with my mother’s parents, and my dad’s mom. But with my father’s father, I only have the fragments of memory.
For instance, there’s an early morning scene, after spending the night at their house on Cross Street in Dover with my brother, Dan. Grandpa is standing in the doorway of his bedroom, or perhaps the bathroom across the hall. He has a washcloth in his hands. He runs it in steaming water. Wipes it across his face, screws it into his eyes. “What are you doing, Grandpa?” I ask. He looks at me. “Getting the sleep out of my eyes,” he explains. It’s a novel concept to me, at 3. “Here,” he says. “Hold still.” And playfully swipes the washcloth across my face.
There are Christmases. A Thanksgiving, probably. They never had to knock. Just came on in. Perhaps to the aroma of sausage souffle in the oven. The music of little boys ransacking stockings hung from the banister. “Danny!” he exclaims in a deep, grizzled voice, noticing my brother. “Come here, Danny.” He finds a chair and watches us, playing beneath the lit tree.
I remember visiting him, toward the end. When he was hospitalized near Washington D.C., undergoing experimental treatment for oat-cell carcinoma. It was a big trip. To the beach, I think. And maybe to see my great aunt Doris — his sister — too. Or I could be mixing things. It was a big hospital. Elevators. That kind of thing makes an impression on a kid, but I don’t recall seeing him.
There was his funeral. I only remember walking around and around and around. Restless with toddler inattention and bottomless energy. The adults tended to other things.
Later on, stories of him made their indelible impression. Little things. How he put ketchup on his eggs and potatoes. Subjected my father to liver and onions as a kid (which we, in turn, were subjected to). Worked such a repetitive job in the steel mill (is there another kind?) one arm grew larger than the other. Was a fan of jazz music, and an elegant dancer. And stories of his football career.
Recruited by Ohio State
As the legend went, Grandpa was recruited by the mighty Buckeyes and joined the squad in Columbus. But they lined the fields with real quicklime in those days. And when, on a bang-up play, Grandpa was tackled at a yardline marker and got the stuff in his eyes, he was blinded, and his playing career was ended.
This is what he told my dad himself, later in life, or what Dad heard somewhere else. Memories fade. But my point: for years, Grandpa was tight-lipped about his playing days at Dover and afterward.
As the posts in this series show, Don Foutz had been a standout on Dover squads as far back as his 1929 sophomore season, in which he averaged well over 40 yards a punt and boasted several boots of 60 yards or more, including a 70-yarder against Newcomerstown. That game also saw his breakout as rusher and receiver, as he scored 2 TDs rushing and took a 40-yard reception in for another TD, in addition to a PAT he ran in.
In another story that qualifies as family legend, my grandpa Bob Ley, four years behind Don in school, remembers, as a wee middle schooler, watching the star footballer whose son his daughter would eventually marry skying punts from where the library stands in Dover now, across the street from the high school, over the school building and onto the block where St. Joseph’s Elementary stands today. Of course, we heard all of this much, much later.
In his junior season of 1930, Grandpa Foutz saw increasing action as halfback and passer, and his heroics against rival New Philadelphia in the season’s final contest — an early TD run and fourth-quarter TD pass — won the game 13-7 for Dover and the conference title.
His 1931 season cemented his status as electrifying runner, crafty punter and backfield captain. He notched 11 TDs rushing, 1 passing and 10 PATs kicked, giving him the county scoring title (though the official newspaper record somehow only gave him 10 TDs rushing — the passing TD didn’t count for his recorded 70 points). He set a school record for rushing yards in a single game, with 209 against Uhrichsville, then broke it with 220 against New Phila, a mark that would stand for another 63 years.
And yet, when teammates such as Trevor Rees, and Don & Dale Godfrey, and Doc Kelker departed for college, Don Foutz stayed home. As Rees achieved All-American status as a Buckeye, and Kelker and company in 1932 and ’33 surpassed the achievements of the 1931 Crimsons, Foutz remained in Dover. Until 1936, when the call family came.
A telegram, from Dover alumni and legendary Ohio State assistant football coach, Ernie Godfrey, instructed: “DON PLEASE COME COLUMBUS FOR INTERVIEW IMMEDIATELY RELATIVE ENTERING OHIO STATE THIS MONTH HAVE JOB FOR YOU”
At the time of his recruiting, the Buckeyes were coached by Francis Schmidt. They were in the midst of beating Michigan four straight seasons. The annual end-of-season meeting had just begun. The band would perform script Ohio for the first time in October in a game against Pittsburgh.
Just as Grandpa’s high school scrapbook detailed his on-field exploits, documents tucked into its pages confirmed the legendary story of which he barely — if ever — spoke. The telegram from Godfrey. The 1937 letter to varsity players giving the date to report to spring practice. A confirmation of credits for entrance. And lastly, a withdrawal slip, signed by the Dean and noting his good standing, citing “trouble with eyes” as the reason for his departure from Columbus.
With these revelations, still more questions: What had Don Foutz been up to those four years since graduation? Certainly, the interest of a coach of Godfrey’s stature speaks well of Grandpa’s abilities, that he still would be recruited at 22. Was the “job” Godfrey spoke of in his telegram referring to on-field duties, or employment that would enable Grandpa’s enrollment? And what about the date on the withdrawal slip? It matches the date skilled players were due to report for spring practice in 1937. How did “trouble with eyes” keep Grandpa from suiting up? Was there some other reason? Did he practice, or even play in Fall 1936? And what thoughts and feelings did he carry home to Dover and bear in the years that followed?
These were matters he kept to himself. He didn’t speak of his playing days, or his single-game rushing record. My father would sometimes hear of his dad’s playing days in passing, at the Elks Club, or around town. Grandpa didn’t put any pressure on his sons to play football. Nor did he involve himself in directing their development, or their choice of school or sport. He attended their games, but didn’t prowl the sideline, or insinuate himself in conversations on playing time, or coaching decisions. In short, he kept to himself.
But at least once in the intervening decades, his stellar playing career was brought back into the public consciousness.
Carrying on a Tradition
Autumn, 1961. Exactly 30 years after Don Foutz, the Crimson Flash, bucked through the line and raced around end, pinned opponents deep with towering punts and sent pinpoint kicks through the uprights, another Don Foutz was piling up yardage, and setting his sites on the crosstown Quakers.
My dad’s oldest brother, my uncle Donn, as fullback for the Dick Haines-coached Tornadoes, piled up 941 yards (then second-most in school history) and romped for 15 touchdowns (then sixth-best). He had also had a breakout 3-TD game in his sophomore season, just like his father 30 years before. And he also handled punting duties for Dover.
Just as my grandfather rose to the occasion as spoiler against arch-rival New Phila, Haines made no secret of his formula against the Quakers and so many other opponents that season — he would send Foutz running right at them. Uncle Donn’s teams had already bested the Quakers two seasons straight. And in sealing their third straight victory, Dover reduced the quarterback’s workload each time, going from 9 passes in the 1959 game, to 7 in ’60 and just one pass attempt in 1961. Uncle Donn and his teammate in backfield mayhem, Jerry Bryan, alternated carries and flat out shoved it down the Quakers’ throats to a 16-12 victory.
My father remembers my grandfather and grandmother, Erma, as avid attendees of his older brothers’ football gamesm with seats right on the 50 yard line. Dad would spend autumn Friday nights in the company of his grandfather, Vance Cleveland Foutz, and zone out to Lawrence Welk on the TV and await the news when his parents returned home.
Grandpa’s silence in the midst of his sons’ gridiron exploits is all the more remarkable, considering Uncle Donn’s parallel success. In the article, his quotes seem proud, but humble, a little reticent, even, as if talking about himself is about as appealing as being stuffed for a five-yard loss:
“I don’t throw so good anymore,” he says, tossing a ball around left-handed as the writer looked on.
Another description of his playing days merely details what formations the team ran, never his own contribution. He reserves his longest statement, and his praise, for Uncle Donn:
“A fellow can’t help but get pretty excited watching his son play. Don’s got real good speed and he’s a hard runner but it’s his blocking that makes the difference. We’re real proud of him.”
As a reporter myself, I have to believe that if grandpa had done any self-reflection, or indulged in any glory tales, the reporter would have printed them. Instead, the long lead-in detailing his exploits straight out of the newspaper’s morgue, with Grandpa only contributing the deflecting mechanics-of-the-game quote, and the almost apologetic note on his throwing, followed by the careful praise of his son — “his blocking makes the difference” — reveals to me a personality that is reserved, maybe even wary of the interview and comparisons to his football past.
In any case, the article went into his scrapbook, carefully pasted alongside his own playing exploits. That the existence of this scrapbook came as a surprise, though, is even more evidence of Grandpa’s reticence at drawing attention to his past glory.
Lessons On and Off the Field
Following his return home after his withdrawal from Ohio State, Don Foutz worked as a mechanic and in the steel mill, and remained in his hometown all his life.
He married my grandmother in May 1942, and with her, raised three sons — Donn, Bob and Fred.
He was an avid photographer, and collected jazz records. I am told that at family gatherings — weddings, special occasions — people would stand and watch him dance with my grandmother.
He was a smoker. It’s unusual today, I guess, but as a kid I remember the ashtrays at his house. And his red, sausage-shaped pillow, and his easy chair and the couch he would lie down on. I think I remember a train or slot car set on a table in the basement, and the tools and other things he kept there, and the floor, painted red. I remember the puzzles and wooden blocks and dominoes I’d play with on the carpet of his living room. Maybe he was around then; it feels like he could have been around, but maybe it was after.
Grandpa died Nov. 14, 1980, of lung cancer. I was 4. My brother Dan had just turned 2. My own dad was just 28, six years younger than I am now. I can’t quite fathom that, or the time I’ve benefited from with him that he never had with his own dad.
My dad and his brothers all played football for Dover. Donn was named All-Ohio, and went on to play at Muskingum College, and coached at the high school level for awhile. Bob was honorable mention All-Ohio, and played at Yale. He went on to earn a PhD, doing graduate work at Ohio State, and taught for many years in the statistics program at Virginia Tech, (where I hear they’re developing quite the scrappy football program).
Dad played on the line at Dover, alongside buddies Gary Kimble and Joe Fisher and Rick “Tank” Taylor. He was part of the 10-0 1967 squad — a record of which neither his father or brothers could boast — and might have helped Dover repeat the feat in his senior season if not for an 8-0 blanking at the hands of hated New Phila in the final game. (Haines, as great as he was, may have underestimated the bulldog ferocity, not to mention the old Foutz magic, that might have been unleashed had he just freed a frothing-to-achieve Fred Foutz from the line for a play or two).
Dad didn’t play at Cincinnati, but was third in his family to earn a college degree, an achievement no previous Foutz generation in America — not father, not grandfather, not great-great or great-great-great or great-great-great-great, could claim. Dad couldn’t stay away from other athletic pursuits — lacrosse, basketball, long distance running — and supported his own sons as they tried soccer and swimming and cross-country and track and yes, even Dover football.
According to my father, Grandpa never talked at length about his playing days. But maybe, in its way, that was the greater blessing. He was not full of himself. Not outwardly haunted or obsessed by some sense of tragedy, of why-me, of what-instead. He went about his work — taking on swing shifts at the mill that would sometimes keep him from his sons’ games (he often talked with them about having to miss game time beforehand), but always put bread on the table.
In the 1990s, Dad and his brothers, along with Don’s widow, Erma, established a scholarship in his name, to be offered jointly by the athletic department at the high school and the Tuscarawas County YMCA. His glittering football stats were cited. But given more prominence in the scholarship description were the purposes of the dual awards — for scholarship, and for demonstration of time and service dedicated to the YMCA. You see, Grandpa never pushed football as the ideal, as the must-win, the end-all, the be-all. Instead, developing character. Growing as a man. The YMCA was an import setting, to my grandfather, in which those lessons could be imparted.
He indulged in other loves, and other pursuits for which he found a gift. Maybe nothing, I don’t know, ever compares to the giddy lightness that in your youth accompanies the realization that at this one thing, for a time, nobody can touch you, you are setting the pace and the world can only heave its chests and lunge blindly and fail to catch up.
But life, in its steadfast pace, inevitably does. Time, the wiliest opposition, always scores the final W. And so the greater lesson, to me, isn’t how you live your life when it’s all downhill running, and acres of daylight, and the yardage markers a blur beneath your feet. But how you respond in the long haul. What lessons you impart. And the mark you leave behind.
There’s a lot I’d want to discuss with my grandpa if I had the chance, if I could only have an hour, or a meal, or an evening today. Football, for all the digital ink I’ve spilled over it since late summer, would only occupy a fraction of it. (And I get the sense, for all the mind he paid to it, for the bulk of his life, he’d like that just fine.) No, I’d want to discuss with him what it meant to him to be a man, to live the life he did, what family meant, and his work, and wife, and where he devoted his time. And answer his questions about the same. I have to think, for all the intervening years, and the time we never had, that in a big way, undefinable maybe, but subtle and certain and solid as bones, I am who I am today because of him.