Ira Errett Rodgers
Written by John Antonik
Ira Errett Rodgers is recognized as the school's greatest all-round athlete of the first half century. Born and raised in Bethany, W.Va., Rodgers played high school sports at Bethany College because there were no high schools in the area for him to attend.
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At age 12 and penniless, he hopped a freight train to see Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians play Washington & Jefferson in Washington, Pa. It was from that moment that the young farm boy became hooked on sports.
At WVU he accounted for more touchdowns (66) with runs and passes than any other player in school history to become the school’s first-ever consensus All-American selection in 1919. His statistics would have been even more impressive if more complete records were kept when he played.
As a senior in 1919 Rodgers led the nation in scoring with 147 points on 19 touchdowns and 33 extra points. His 313 points scored were a school record that last nearly 60 years, a testament to his lasting greatness.
Rodgers could throw a football farther than just about anybody, could out-run most, had legs as thick as tree trunks, and was a shifty, elusive open field runner. Rodgers could throw a football 50 yards in the air, which at the time was considered a phenomenal distance considering the size and the weight of the football players were using back then.
He was also famous for fending off tacklers with his left arm while he scanned the field for open receivers. “The only way opponents could grab him was low,” wrote NEA sports writer Harry Grayson in 1943. The problem with that was Rodgers only stood 5-feet-10, which made it nearly impossible to get lower than him.
Rodgers had some of his best games against the best teams in the country. He passed for 162 yards and three touchdowns in a 25-0 upset win over Princeton in 1919. Walter Camp, considered the game’s leading authority of that period, was so overcome by Rodgers’ performance that he asked the team manager if he could meet him after the game. The manager excitedly went into the locker room to retrieve Rodgers, knowing full well what the attention would mean to his career.
“Come out right away, Walter Camp is here to see you!” the manager yelled.
Rodgers continued to slowly get dressed. “I’ll be out after awhile,” he said. “Them alumni are always bothering me.”
When Rodgers finally came out to meet Camp, the sportswriter left impressed. “It would have taken a team of supermen to beat West Virginia because of the great leadership and skill shown by Rodgers,” Camp wrote.
Grantland Rice, another football authority, wrote of Rodgers, “There may be a great all-around football player in America than Rodgers of West Virginia, but no one has uncovered his name as November slides briskly along the autumnal trail. And it is likely no one ever will.”
Rodgers also led West Virginia to a stunning 7-0 upset victory over Navy in 1917, giving coach Gil Dobie his first loss in 12 years of coaching. Dobie took the loss especially hard; he could be seen crying on the field after the game.
Rodgers had other outstanding performances in wins over Rutgers (30-7) and Washington & Jefferson (7-0), the Prexies led by the renowned Fats Henry.
Before Rodgers came to West Virginia, the Mountaineers had beaten Washington & Jefferson just twice in 15 meetings. But with Rodgers in the lineup WVU defeated the Prexies twice and tied them a third time. All three scores against W&J came from Rodgers, including the one that won the 1919 game in Morgantown. Afterward, WVU students carried Rodgers off the field on their shoulders.
Rodgers excelled in other sports, too. He was the first athlete in school history to be named team captain of three different sports (football, basketball and baseball) in the same year. He was good enough on the diamond as a shortstop to be offered a professional contract by the Philadelphia Athletics, but Rodgers was never really interested in professional sports.
He graduated with honors in chemistry in 1920 and was elected to The Crucible, the honorary society in that field. Once as a child, his Sunday School teacher held a contest to see who could learn the most Bible verses. The prize was a pair of ice skates. Rodgers learned more than 500 to beat all comers.
Rodgers became a physical education instructor an assistant football coach for Clarence Spears in 1921, and four years later became the school's head coach when Spears left for Minnesota after the 1924 season. Rogers coached the Mountaineers for six years, leading the Mountaineers to an 8-1 record in 1925 and an 8-2 record in 1928 that included the school’s only victory over Pitt’s Jock Sutherland.
Rodgers also coached a team of civilians during the war years in 1943, 1944 and 1945 when regular coach Bill Kern was commissioned in the Navy Pre-Flight program. In addition, Rodgers coached baseball and golf while continuing to serve on the physical education staff up until a year before his death on February 22, 1963.
He compiled a 41-31-8 record in football and a 204-208-3 mark in baseball. Rodgers was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1953. He is also a member of the West Virginia Hall of Fame.
His jersey number 21 was retired along with Sam Huff’s before the 2005 Pitt football game. The road leading to West Virginia’s football complex is named Ira Errett Rodgers Drive.