50 GREATEST GOLDEN BEARS - #1 - HAROLD "BRICK" MULLER#1 - HAROLD "BRICK" MULLER - END (1920-1922)
Most accounts of Brick Muller start with his hands. We've never seen a picture that confirms it, but many believed that Muller had the biggest hands of a man his size (6'2"/210) they had ever seen. The football that was used in the Prohibition era was much bigger and rounder than the one used today, which in part accounted for the lack of passing. It was reported that Muller could wrap his fingers almost entirely around this bigger ball, allowing him to throw more effectively than his rivals and catch passes with one hand.
Andy Smith saw this up close when Muller and his freshman teammates pounded the varsity in scrimmages; he had seen it up close when scouting Muller as a senior at Oakland Tech. No doubt the Cal coach couldn't wait for Muller to hit the practice field in August of 2000, when he became eligible for varsity play. But first there was the matter of a boat trip to Antwerp, Belgium.
You see, Muller was also a track star who had won state titles in the broad and long jumps and finished third in the high hurdles as a senior in high school. On the encouragement of Cal track coach Walter Christie, Muller trained to Pasadena and qualified for the US Olympic Track & Field team in the high jump. The year was 1920 - a time when most Olympians were upperclassmen or even college graduates. And yet the unheralded college freshman captured the silver medal with a jump of 6'3". He had just turned 19 years old.
Brick returned with his hardware to Berkeley, and helped lead Cal to one of the greatest seasons in college football history. Muller started both ways immediately - catching passes, running around end, and savaging opposing ball carriers with ferocious tackles. It's not for nothing that the Brick Muller award today goes to Cal's most valuable defensive lineman, because Muller was a beast along the line. Of course, Smith took note of those hands, and featured Brick frequently as a passer who surprised defenses and opposing fans with the long, low spirals he could manage with the rounded football.
The Bears outscored their opponents 424-14, but remained an unknown commodity to the east coast sportswriters who dominated press coverage of the game. Thus, Cal entered the 1921 Rose Bowl as a decided underdog to mighty Ohio State. Ohio State took the opening kickoff, and Brick Muller took over the Rose Bowl. On the first series he drilled Buckeye back Pete Stinchcomb, forcing a fumble on OSU's 28 yard line. On the next play he took a short pass and threaded through defenders to set up a Pesky Sprott touchdown run: 7-0 Bears. On the next series he again forced a Buckeye fumble, though he recovered this one. Then came a play that became Rose Bowl legend.
QB Charley Erb called for the "dead man's play," a favorite trick play of Andy Smith's that required some advance preparation. It called for Archie Nisbet to fake an injury and hobble around with his teammates after the previous down. The Cal backs stood hands on hips as Nisbet edged closer to where the football sat. In a flash he bent down and lateraled it to Pesky Sprott, and the play was on. Ohio State reacted quickly to Sprott's run around end, but then the halfback stopped and lateraled across the field to Muller. Cal's end was now well behind the line of scrimmage, at about his own 45 yard line.
The Ohio State defense and the Rose Bowl crowd were puzzled by the play - what would Muller do so far behind the line? What he did became headline news in newspapers across the country the next day. Rather than run, he heaved the ball higher and farther than anyone had ever seen a man throw a football. Ohio State had committed no deep defenders, and the Buckeyes watched in awe as Muller's pass traveled over their heads to fellow end Brodie Stephens, who caught it on the goal line and walked in for a 14-0 Cal lead. Muller was credited with a 53 yard pass, though witnesses claimed the ball actually traveled 70 yards in the air on the diagonal. Not impressed? It was such an unexpected feat that Ripley's Believe it Or Not featured it in one of their popular newspaper serials.
That play broke the Buckeye spirit, and Cal coasted to an easy 28-0 win that put west coast football on the national map. Muller was named the game's MVP - in addition to the touchdown pass he completed two other throws, caught two passes for 33 yards, made countless tackles on defense and punt cover, and recovered three fumbles. The Bears were 10-0, and national champions.
Over the next two years, Cal would continue its unbeaten streak, tying only in the 1922 Rose Bowl against Washington & Jefferson. Muller's play continued to gain headlines and demoralize opponents. After the 1921 season, in which he was slowed by a serious leg infection, he became the first player west of the Mississippi to be named a first team All-America, by both Walter Camp and the Helms Foundation. In his finale at Cal, he helped the Bears crush Stanford 28-0 by starting off the scoring with a memorable catch and run through Indians defenders. He was again named a first-team All-America.
Professional football was in its infancy in the early 1920s, and Muller concentrated on getting his degree and attending medical school. He was lured back to the game twice - first in 1925 when a group of San Franciscans conceived of a new post-season all-star game pitting stars of the west against their better-known eastern counterparts. Despite not having played a game in more than two years, Muller was the star of the first East-West Shrine game. He also won national notoriety for catching a ball thrown from atop the San Francisco Telephone building in a pre-game publicity stunt. In 1926 Muller played for one season for the Los Angeles Buccaneers of the NFL, who promptly folded.
Probably better that Brick Muller chose to be a physician in the long run. In those dark days of pro football barnstorming, the NFL would have only diminished his legend. At the half-century mark, Muller was named to the all-time All Star college teams by the Helms Foundation and AP. He was a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame when it opened its doors in 1951.
As a physician, he became a distinguished family doctor and, eventually, an orthopedic surgeon who served as team physician for California athletics and the 1956 US Olympic team. Those massive hands that had once enveloped a football found better use delivering babies and mending the bones and joints of his patients. Brick Muller died on May 17, 1962.