Thursday, January 04, 2007

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.

Muller the Olympian (at right)

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.

11 Comments:

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any guy named "Brick" has got to be intimidating.

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger T. said...

With the contributions that guys nicknamed "Brick" have made to Cal (Clinton "Brick" Morse wrote like half our fight songs) I think we should nickname someone on EACH Cal team "Brick". (On second, thought, maybe not the basketball teams).

Mike "Brick" Tepper?
Lavelle "Brick" Hawkins?
Angie "Brick" Pressey?
Lauren "Brick" Frankowicz?

I can see it.

 
At 10:30 PM, Blogger border crosser said...

my great grandpa saw him play in ann arbor against big blue. he da man

 
At 3:52 PM, Blogger Chris said...

He was my great uncle.. but died a month before I was born. Lots of stories.. wish I could have met him.

 
At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to be his grandson and although I was young had the opportunity to go to a few Cal-Stanford Big Games and hang out with him and meet a few of his friends like Brodie Stephens. I remember sitting on his lap and he would grab flies out of the air. Quick and big hands ! It was an honor to be related to him.

 
At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Graig Muller said...

My name is Graig Muller. Harold (Brick) P. Muller was my grandfather. I never got to meet him. I wish I could have. I have heard that he was quite a football player.

 
At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Dr. John N. Baldwin said...

I never knew Brick Muller, but was so privileged to study chest and heart surgery under H. Brodie Stephens, MD FACS an American Hero in Surgery... (at UCSF from 1961 to 1967)...who caught the famous Rose Bowl pass in 1921. Brodie was like a father to me as a resident at UCSF...he trusted me to assist on his private patients, and when I was 6 years into the program, and ready to go to Vietnam as a surgeon draftee in 1967, leaned over the table and said, "You have become a better surgeon than I ever was, and Vietnam will polish you to perfection. Go do your very best for our boys."
Brodie had been awarded the French Legion of Honour by President Charles DeGaulle for his brilliant work as a surgeon with the CAL group in France during WW II, coming out as a full Colonel. For me, it was a wonderful moment of compliment.
Brodie died of glioblastoma...the worst brain cancer ever invented in about 1978...of note,his wife Jeannie, died of exactly the same cancer four years earlier.
I write this humbly, at age 74 with the open expression that H. Brodie Stephens, the 5 foot 7 inch 140 pound wide receiver on that Cal team became a GIANT among surgeons, and taught so many of us not just "how to do it' but the ethics of being a great surgeon. Love you Brodie. Thank you for all you showed me...hundreds benefitted.

John N. Baldwin, MD FACS
jnbaldwin@mlode.com CAL UCSF 1969

 
At 12:52 PM, Anonymous AVT said...

To Dr. Baldwin, and so many other Old Blues:
The paths across our beautiful campus are deeply-tread, and the earth is packed firm by the weight of so many good people. I'm proud to have made my way across them. I hope I can look back at what I did in my life and say I pounded the dirt just a little bit tighter.
-'06.

 
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