An overlooked NFL giant: Joe Guyon

The latest addition to my series of 1955 Topps-style All-American college football cards is Joe Guyon, who starred at both Carlisle and Georgia Tech in the 1910s. For many years I’d had an interest in Guyon because, besides being a collegeiate gridiron star and an NFL Hall of Famer, Guyon also had a very successful minor league baseball career.

   Georgia Tech didn’t have any players in the original 1955 Topps All-American set, which I thought was a shame, since I’m sure the creative types at Topps could have worked up a great logo based on the team’s unofficial nickname of the “Ramblin’ Wreck.” I’ve done my best to come up with something appropriate.

   There is so much more to Joe Guyon’s story that I can fit into 90 words on the back of his card, so I’m going to use up a bit of ink to present it here.

   Because he spent his early collegiate career and his entire professional career in the shadow of Jim Thorpe, the name and fame of Joe Guyon are little known to today’s fans and collectors.

   Like Thorpe, Guyon was a two-sport star who parlayed awesome athletic abilities into a life away from the White Earth Indian reservation near Brainerd, Minn., where he was born O-Gee-Chidah (sometimes translated as “Big Brave”) into the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe on Nov. 26, 1892. His English name was Joseph Napoleon Guyon.

   Also like Thorpe, Guyon was never saddled with what would today be considered the offensive nickname of “Chief,” that was ubiquitously applied to virtually every Indian athlete in his era. A sportswriter or two, with a nod toward Mark’s Twain’s villain in Tom Sawyer, tried to make “Indian Joe” stick on Guyon, but it never really caught on.

   He began his collegiate career under coach Pop Warner at the Carlisle (Pa.) Industrial Indian School in 1912. At 5-10 and 195 lbs., he was a crushing blocker as a tackle for his teammate Thorpe. The team went 12-1-1. When Thorpe left the school, Guyon took over for him at halfback for the 1913 season. Carlisle was 11-2-1 that season, and both Walter Camp (Collier’s magazine) and the International News Service named Guyon a second team All-American. Guyon also ran track at Carlisle; the school had no baseball team at that time.

   From 1914-16, Guyon attended Keewatin Academy, a private boys’ school that split its term (and sports seasons) seasonally between Prarie du Chien, Wis., and Ponce Park, Fla. Guyon spent his time at Keewatin bolstering his grades to make himself a better candidate for the major universities.

   While on his way to visit a North Carolina school that had offered him a scholarship, Guyon stopped in Atlanta where his older brother Charles, himself a football star at the Haskell Institute and Carlisle, was an assistant under football coach John Heisman at Georgia Tech.

   Guyon decided to matriculate at Tech. He became part of Heisman’s “Dream Team Backfield,” and when he wasn’t carrying the ball himself, he was clearing the way for others. Ralph McGill, Atlanta sportswriter, said of Guyon, “They could follow that big fellow and run to glory because he cleared the way, and I mean he cleared it!”

   Another writer said, “Survivors of the teams Tech played in those days still shudder to recall the multiple impacts when Guyon blocked or tackled them, and he could punt more than 60 yards consistently, place-kick from midfield and pass with the best.”

   Georgia Tech went 9-0 in 1917, outscoring its opponents 491-17. In an 83-0 defeat of Vanderbilt, Guyon ran for 344 yards in just a dozen carries. Later that season, against Carlisle, Guyon played only the first quarter as his old school was humiliated 98-0. Georgia Tech was named national champions in 1917 and Guyon was honored as halfback on two of the major All-American teams of the day.

   With a 6-1 record, Georgia Tech won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship in 1918 and Guyon was named a tackle on Frank Menke’s first syndicated All-American team.

   Even after Guyon was nearly 20 years removed from the collegiate football scene, McGill wrote in 1935, “There is no doubt in my mind that Joe Guyon is the greatest football player the South ever saw.”

   Guyon left college in 1919, at the age of 26 (eligibility standards were different then), accepting Thorpe’s invitation to join the Canton Bulldogs, a professional football powerhouse in the Ohio League, which was a direct ancestor of today’s NFL.

   With a 9-0-1 record, Canton won the 1919 league championship. In 1920, Canton became a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, which became the National Football League in 1922.

   In 1920, Guyon, Thorpe and the Bulldogs finished eighth, at 7-4. Unfortunately, statistics for the NFL’s early seasons are not available, so it is impossible to quantify Guyon’s performance or make valid comparisons to other pioneering pro stars.

   We do know, however, that he is credited that season with a 95-yard punt.

Guyon remained paired with Thorpe in four more NFL backfields between 1921 and 1924. They played with the Cleveland Indians in 1921, the Oorang Indians (a traveling team of Native Americans sponsored by a championship dog breeder) in 1922-23 and the Rock Island Independents in 1924. Surprisingly, those teams had a combined NFL record of 12-23-2, with only one winning season, a 5-2-2 record at Rockford.

   The two were also close off the field, with Guyon serving as best man at Thorpe’s wedding.

   Some sources indicate Guyon also played with the APFA Washington Senators and the independent Union Quakers of Philadelphia in 1921, though those affiliations are not mentioned in Guyon’s official NFL Hall of Fame biography.

   Thorpe and Guyon’s football paths diverged in 1925, Thorpe remaining at Rock Island with Guyon moving on to the Kansas City Cowboys in 1925, suffering another losing (2-5-1) season.

   If he played pro football at all in 1926, Guyon played for independent teams. In 1927, in their third year in the NFL, the New York Giants signed Guyon. Playing guard tackle, blocking back and tailback and doing the punting, Guyon helped the Giants to an 11-1-1 record and the NFL Championship. “I did everything except sell programs,” Guyon said.

   Guyon’s engagement with the championship Giants was his last in the NFL. Though not yet 35, it was reported that a baseball injury prevented his return to pro football. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.

   Prior to joining the Canton football team in 1919, Guyon was reported by The Sporting News to have been playing independent baseball in Minnesota and North Dakota. He was given a trial by the New York (baseball) Giants late in the 1919 season, but failed to make the club and, though he played minor league ball for 12 seasons, never played an inning of major league ball.

   Late in 1919, Guyon signed his first pro contract with the Atlanta Crackers of the then-Class-A Southern Association. The Sporting News’ Atlanta correspondent, who wrote under the byline of Lynch, lauded what he called the surprise move by team owner Charley Frank to acquire “Georgia’s star football and baseball player.”

   Lynch wrote, “Although it has been known locally that the popular college player would sign with some professional team for the 1920 drive, it was believed here the offers of several major league clubs, known to have been made to him, would prove so successful that efforts of local magnates to secure his services would prove futile.”

   Guyon traveled a bit during the 1920 season. He book ended the season with Atlanta. Early in the year he was put on waivers and claimed by Little Rock. He was joined on the Travelers, who were also a Southern Association team, by Native American players William Wano and Moses Yellow Horse. In July, Guyon was put on waivers by Little Rock and Atlanta reclaimed him.

   Guyon initially refused to report back to Atlanta and played for a time with Winder in a Georgia outlaw league. By the end of the season he was back in Atlanta. The SABR Minor Leagues Data Base shows Guyon also found time to play a handful of games in 1920 with Augusta, of the Class-C South Atlantic League. Overall, Guyon’s batting average for 1920 was just .233 with one home run.

   For the offseason, Guyon joined the Georgia Tech football coaching staff, reportedly commuting each weekend to professional engagements with Canton.

Guyon spent the 1921-23 season in Atlanta’s outfield. He hit .309, and once the lively ball made its way to the Southern Association, his home run output jumped to 11 in 1922 and 10 in 1923. He had never previously hit more than one home run in any season.

   Speed was Guyon’s principal weapon. He stole more than 200 bases in his minor league career, including 45 with Atlanta in 1921. Four times he scored more than 100 runs.

   It was back to Little Rock for Guyon in 1924, where he hit .346. He spent the 1925-28 seasons with Louisville, batting a nifty .350 and helping the Colonels to American Association championships in 1926 and 1927.

   He played only 25 games for Louisville in 1928, injuring his knee when he ran into an outfield fence in May. That ended his hopes of making the major leagues, as well as his pro football career.

   From 1928-31, Guyon was head baseball coach for the Clemson Tigers, with a combined 42-36-3 record.

   In 1931, Guyon returned to professional baseball at the age of 38 as a playing-manager for the Anderson/Spartanburg Electrics of the Class-D Palmetto League, batting .315. He jumped a couple of classifications in 1932, managing Asheville of the Piedmont League (Class B). He hit .364 that season in 66 games.

   In the offseasons, Guyon coached high school football at St. Xavier in Louisville from 1931-33, with a 16-7-2 record. Guyon’s final engagement in pro ball was as playing-manager of the Fieldale Towlers in the Bi-State League, a Class-D circuit in Virginia and North Carolina. At the age of 43 he was still able to hit .265 in 33 games.

   Overall in 12 minor league seasons, Guyon hit .329.

   Following his playing days, he lived for a time in Harrah, Okla., and from 1954-62 in Flint, Mich., where he was a bank guard. A fellow Georgia Tech alum who knew Joe Guyon after his playing days, Joseph P. Byrd III, said of Guyon, “Though a terror on the football field, off the field Joe was a gentleman, light-hearted, bright, animated and witty.”
   He returned to Louisville in 1968 where he lived out his days, dying there a day after his 79th birthday.   
Bob Lemke is the editor of The Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards. Reach him by e-mail at: scbcguy@yahoo.


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