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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Bulldog Turner

by Clay Coppedge

Legendary pioneer football player Bulldog Turner, officially listed as Clyde Douglas Turner, didn't draw his first bit of notoriety carrying a pigskin but from carrying a calf around a football field for photographer Jim Laughead who popularized the old posed "action" shots of football players flying through the air for his camera.

Laughead paid a visit to the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys in Abilene 1938, just about the time Turner was fixing to get kicked off the team for general rowdiness that extended beyond the gridiron. In pure Laughead style, he had the players dress up in cowboy hats and chaps and do some ridin' and ropin' for the camera. Yes, it was cheesy, but it was 1938 and that's the way publicity machines ran in those days.

The Hardin-Simmons publicity man was a journalism professor named Clarence Herschel Schooley, who made getting Bulldog Turner some notice a major priority. He got into the spirit of the Laughead's photo shoot by producing a 350-pound calf and asking if any of the players were strong enough to pick it up.

As Laughead told the story to Sports Illustrated in 1964, "A kid named Clyde Turner, who was about to be kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons, yanked that calf up off the ground and took off running around the field with it. He must have lapped the field six times with that calf on his back. I went back to Dallas and wrote about how Bulldog Turner was a Little All-America. I made that up, of course. Nobody had ever heard of him. But the picture got on the wires, and Hardin-Simmons got 6,000 clippings of it from newspapers. The clips cost a penny apiece and nearly busted the school's budget. They couldn't kick Turner off the team after that."

Bulldog Turner was born in Plains, Texas in 1919. He came to football late, after his family moved to Sweetwater, and Clyde, as he was still known, found out that the more he played for Sweetwater Newman (the same school that had produced Sammy Baugh) the more he liked it. The more he played, the more people noticed how good he was. But at Hardin-Simmons his list of admirers didn't extend far beyond his teammates and battered opponents. The picture of Bulldog carrying a calf around the football field went viral when the Associated Press distributed it to newspapers all over the country. For whatever reason, America fell in love with the football-playing cowboy carrying a calf around the field for fun and laughs.

The school decided that maybe Bulldog could stay in school after all, since he had made the school and its football team semi-famous. But Bulldog didn't stick around Abilene for long. The Chicago Bears drafted Bulldog Turner in 1940 (so did the Detroit Lions but that's another story) and he went to the big city seeking his fame and fortune. He found the former but it was fleeting and the latter would elude him in the way that opponents only wished they could.

Bulldog started for the Bears as a 21-year old rookie in 1940. He went on to be named to the All-Pro team six times. That era's Chicago Bears, one of the greatest in NFL history, won five divisional titles and four NFL championships while Turner played for them. In the five NFL championship games in which he played Turner had four of his 17 career interceptions.

In those early days the players wore leather helmets and you had to practically commit a felony to get penalized for unnecessary roughness. And the players played both ways. And on kickoffs and punts. On offense, he was considered the best center there ever was. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966 he was just the eighth lineman to be so honored.

Yet, despite all of this, he was not nearly as famous as other players of his era like Baugh, Red Grange, Sid Luckman and Bronko Nagurski. Those guys got to carry, throw or catch the ball. They scored the touchdowns. All Bulldog Turner and his fellow linemen ever did was make the touchdowns possible. The great sportswriters of the day - Red Smith, W.C. Heinz and John Lardner among them - wrote epic prose about the skill players and their thrilling exploits with the ball but made scant mention of the blockers. Such anonymity was, and largely still is, the lonely lot of the lineman.

That oversight was corrected last year when Texas Tech Press published Michael Barr's "Remembering Bulldog Turner: Unsung Monster of the Midway." The book traces Turner's life from the barren expanse of West Texas to the bright lights and bars of Chicago and back to Texas where he settled into the relatively quiet life of a rancher near the community Pidcoke in Coryell County with his wife Gladys. The NFL exploded in popularity in the decades after his retirement but the league quickly forgot about Bulldog Turner, who was trying to make ends meet on his $440 Social Security check.

Gradually, time took its toll on the old timers, the ones who first began making pro football the game it is today. Dick "Night Train" Lane died penniless in an Austin nursing home. Stories began to appear in the press about the plight of these old timers, and five years before he died, in 1993, the NFL players union managed to secure pensions for the game's early players. The $960 a month that Turner got came in might handy for the old football player, who got his shot at history by carrying a calf around a football field so many years before and made the most of it.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" April 4, 2015 Column


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