Pioneers in Pro Football

Two Indiana County natives, both of whom attended Indiana Normal School nearly a century ago, a nationally recognized today as being among the first few professional football players.  These pioneers of today’s popular sport were John K. Brallier and Lawson Fiscus, credited by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and other researchers as being two of the first six men to get paid for their grid-iron skills in the 1890s.

The year of 1890 brought football to Western Pennsylvania as a team sport, with a number of organized amateur and school teams.  These included the Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh, Western University of Pennsylvania (which soon became the University of Pittsburgh), Indiana Normal and Kiskiminetas Schools, Greensburg and Altoona Athletic Associations, and Johnstown Athletic Club being among the foremost. The first formal football game ever played in Pittsburgh took place October 11 of that year when Allegheny AA played a team organized for the game at Western University.  AAA won, 38-0.

Within a short time, a few outstanding athletes were being paid for their football exploits.  In 1892, William (Pudge) Heffelfinger of Yale, considered the greatest football player of the era, quit the Chicago AC team during the season, was lured by a generous cash offer of the Allegheny Association to play against heated rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club in November, and is now recognized as the first “pro” Fiscus and Brallier were not far behind.

Lawson Fiscus was the older and first of the two Indiana Countians to make his mark.  He was born June 28, 1866, a son of Samuel Fiscus and his second wife Catherine, at the family farm between Indiana and Shelocta, just north of Route 422 at the point where White, Armstrong, and Washington townships meet.  Part of that farm is still owned by grandchildren of Samuel, a staunch Presbyterian also remembered for his service as an elder of Curry Run Church.

Lawson Fiscus

The Fiscus family came to Westmoreland County in the late 1760s, the pioneer moving west being Gerhard (Garrett) Fiscus, whose father sailed from Germany to Philadelphia in 1744.  Garrett served on the first grand jury west of the Alleghenies at Hannastown in 1773.  His son Abraham, a Revolutionary soldier, lived briefly in Indiana County just after 1800 before settling in Armstrong.

William Fiscus, Sr., son of Abraham served in the War of 1812.  Two of his sons, David (born about 1811) and Samuel (born in 1816), were among a number of Fiscus family members who by mid-century were Indiana County residents.  Other Fiscuses became prominent in coming years in Indiana community business and government.

One of sixteen children, Lawson attended Indiana Normal and is believed to have played football there informally, since school records indicate that a team did not represent Indiana until 1890.

In 1891, Lawson and his brother Ross joined the Allegheny team in Pittsburgh. For the 1892 season, Lawson was recruited by Princeton University, where he played guard for the powerful Tigers and achieved fame as the “Samson of Princeton” because of his strength.  Although he stood 5’ 11” and weighed 185 pounds, not big by modern standards, he was an imposing figure in those days.

In 1893, when Lawson was teaching school at South Fork, near Johnstown, he commuted first to Pittsburgh and later in the season to Greensburg to play football.  Although still technically amateur since no salaries were paid, there was at times quite liberal expense money, and “living well on trips” helped to attract former eastern college stars to supplement outstanding local athletes.

In an 1893 game for Greensburg against the highly rated Pittsburgh Athletic Club, the Greensburg Tribune observed that halfback Lawson “Fiscus put up a very good article, repeatedly bucking the centre for very good gains and tackling like a fiend.”

Competition for players among top Pittsburgh clubs and other became more intense by 1894, and Lawson Fiscus was offered twenty dollars a game plus expenses to play for Greensburg Athletic Association.  He played (and at time coached) the powerful Westmoreland County seat eleven for the next four years, joined at times by brothers Ross and Newell.

In 1895, Lawson “won the new hat offered by Brinker Brothers, popular clothiers, for the season’s first touchdown” as Greensburg AA walloped Latrobe YMCA, 25-0, at Athletic Park (where, as renamed Offutt Field, Greensburg High teams still play today).  Earlier that season, John Brallier was paid to quarterback Latrobe, but had left for Washington & Jefferson College by the time of the Greensburg game.

Newspaper game accounts that year frequently citing Lawson’s halfback ability.  In mid-October, he was offered $125 monthly, a princely salary in those days, to join the Duquesne Country & Athletic Club, another top Pittsburgh team.  But money raised locally in Greensburg kept Fiscus from accepting outside offers.

With Greensburg for his final year in 1896, Lawson was particularly outstanding Saturday afternoon, October 17, when the GAA eleven, cited by Pittsburgh papers as “perhaps the best in Western Pennsylvania,” defeated the crack Pittsburgh Athletic Club team, 14-0, for its first win over PAC.  In the first half, Lawson ran thirty yards for one touchdown (then worth four points) and tallied a second near the end of the half.  Later in the game, he ran eighty yards around left end for the third and final school of the game, “one of the longest ever on the field.”  In a return game at Pittsburgh in late November, Lawson’s runs of twenty and thirty yards featured in a scoreless tie.

Ross and Newell Fiscus, Lawson’s brothers, also attended Indiana Normal and played for Greensburg during that time.  Ross, a halfback, in 1897 he became playing coach at Geneva College.  He also attended W&J, and later was a supervisor for a Pittsburgh industrial firm.  Newell, a tackle, became a Presbyterian minister and moved to Seattle, Washington.

Lawson continued to teach school, moving to the “coal patch” community of Madison in Westmoreland County where he also got into merchandising as the operator of a company store.  In 1900, he married Ada Shumaker of Madison, where he established a reputation as a stern and effective disciplinarian in a tough mining town, undoubtedly helped by his football reputation.  From there, Lawson moved to the developing railroad own nearby at Youngwood, where he operated stores (one of which burned down in 1914), and from 1928 until 1945 served as that community’s highly respected police chief.

Lawson Fiscus died in 1949 in his eighty-third year, remembered by old timers as a rough and tumble football player who did not retreat when action in the scrimmages became roughest.  He knew little of the national recognition that was to come his way for his pioneering football achievements, and did not actively seek the glory that he had earned.

John Kinport Brallier, who did receive considerable national recognition during his lifetime, was born at Cherry Tree, December 27, 1876, the son of Dr. Emanuel Brallier, a physician, and his wife, Lucy M. Kinport Brallier.  John’s paternal grandparents were from Alsace-Lorraine in Europe, accounting for the French-sounding name.  The Kinports were prominent in Cherry Tree life, operating some stores in addition to other activity.

John’s father, Dr. Emanuel, was a native of Belsano in northern Cambria County.  He taught school at Cherry Tree, then enlisted in the Army and fought throughout the Civil War, including being present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.  He received his medical degree in March 1868, and began practice at Cherry Tree.  Dr. Brallier served as president of the Indiana County Medical Society in 1879, as a director of the Cherry Tree Male and Female College, secretary of the public school board, and organizer of the Cherry Tree Scientific Lecture Club.

As a boy, John, one of six children, worked at one time in a glass factory.  His first recollection of football was in 1890, at the age of thirteen, when he played for the West Indian Public School team.  In 1892, as a sophomore, he was captain and right halfback on that team, whose other members were ends “Keno” Moorhead and “Crocky” Lockard, tackles “Cinderella” Hammers and “Mercy” Wiggins, guards Bill Griffith and Thad Bash, center Chris Repine, backs Bert McCluskey, Bill Sweeny, and “Howdy” Balentine; and subs Ed Mack, Frank Wood, and Bert Russell.

The year of 1893 saw the youthful athlete, while still attending the public high school, also matriculating at Indiana Normal – “so I could play on the team,” he explained.  That team, John Brallier later pointed out, “was a good rugged team with an inspiring captain in Feit, but worked under a big handicap, faculty objections that the game was too rough and should be abolished.”

Brallier quarterbacked that squad, which won three of four games.  His teammates were ends Dinsmore and Keim, tackles Story and Gourley, guards Stewart and Keener, center Feit, backs McCartney, Reed, and Samson; other squad members Pounds, Hill, Johnson, and Carson, and manager Gordon.  Left guard Alex Stewart was the father of movie star Jimmy Stewart.

For 1894, the Indiana faculty decided to emphasize football more, bought new uniforms, and arranged a better and tougher schedule of colleges and teams of former college players.  Coaches and faculty members also played on the team.  Coach Campbell, formerly of Harvard, was a guard.  Professor Wright, the other guard, had played at Haverford.  Professor Carter was a tackle.  In addition to Brallier, holdovers in 1894 included Feit, Samson, Reed, Keener, and Gourley.  Other squad members were ends Settlemeyer and captain Scott, tackle Barnhart, halfbacks Leitzell and Noble, and Matthews.

The fourth game that year was a 28-0 loss to Washington & Jefferson College, but Brallier was outstanding.  E. Gard Edwards, the W&J coach, wrote to John: “Your work at quarter in the W&J-Indiana game was very much commended by the onlookers.  We want such a man next year, and if you have any idea of going to college, even for a short time, it will be in your interest to let me know at once, so I can go to Indiana to see you.”

After further correspondence during the 1894-95 winter, Brallier agreed to go to W&J “if all expenses are paid for the entire year.”  The young football star graduated from Indiana Public High that spring and was awaiting the start of college when something happened thirty miles away at Latrobe that was to have an effect on the rest of his life.

Prior to 1895, Latrobe’s only football was pickup teams of boys home from school or former college players in the area.  That year, Latrobe YMCA decided to organize a team and play a formal schedule.  Several days before the first scheduled game, quarterback Eddie Blair, a University of Pennsylvania student when also played baseball for Greensburg, discovered that a prior baseball commitment prohibited his participation.

Latrobe manager Dave Berry had heard of Indiana Normal quarterback John Brallier.  He contacted the nearly nineteen-year-old youth at his Indiana home and offered him expenses to play for Latrobe.  John was not particularly anxious to get involved, anticipating his entrance into W&J shortly.  Finally, Berry offered ten dollars a game plus expenses for that and other games, tempting to a lad of his age.  Although the family was in satisfactory circumstances, John’s father had died in 1889, and he was conscious of his widowed mother’s task with five children.

The young quarterback arrived in Latrobe the night before the game and practiced with he team under a street light.  He later said that on his arrival in that community, “It was a thrill seeing my first paved street.”

Latrobe won that famous game played Tuesday afternoon, September 3, by a 12-0 score over Jeannette.  Brallier played well and kicked both goals after touchdown.  He played against Altoona, September 14, despite the apprehension of the W&J team manager who three days earlier wired him, “When are you coming. Want you at once – badly. Wire.”

John promptly won the W&J varsity quarterback position, and first played for the Prexies in a 32-0 triumph over Denison University, September 28.  A newspaper account stated that “Brallier, the little quarterback, is already a prime favorite.  Besides handling the ball well, he is a ‘squirmer’ of no mean merit, and keeps in the push all the time, making excellent tackles.”  Another newspaper said that “W&J have a little wonder in quarterback Brallier.”  John kicked three goals after touchdown, also, and was awarded a fine rocking chair by a Washington furniture store as the game’s best all-around player.  The ’95 W&J team won six, tied Penn State, and lost only to Pittsburgh Athletic Club.  After the season, John returned to Latrobe to play in a second game against Greensburg AA.

Before the 1896 season rolled around, John Brallier had nine different offers from schools, colleges, and athletic clubs, to play football.  Both W&J and Latrobe wanted him to return.  His services were also sought by West Virginia University, Grove City College, Kiskiminetas School, Indiana Normal, Johnstown AC, Allegheny AA, and Pittsburgh AC.

He accepted the West Virginia offer, wanting to continue his education and “the inducements were better than other schools could offer.”  Later, he wrote that “unfortunately, the football management got into financial difficulties and could not take care of their men as promised.”  Brallier and two others left after four games, one with Geneva and three with Lafayette, had been played.  He had captained the team, coached by Princeton All-American “Doggie” Trenehard.

The series with Eastern power Lafayette was unusual since three games were played on successive days at Fairmont, Parkersburg, and Wheeling.  Lafayette won all three, after which Brallier accepted a Latrobe offer to become quarterback and coach.  With him, the Westmoreland County team won a big victory over Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt) and recorded 38-0 and 29-0 conquests of Indiana Normal.

John Brallier entered the U.S. Army, May 11, 1898, but had the good fortune to be stationed in the local area during football season.  He signed a contract with Latrobe for $150 and expenses for the season.  After three games, he joined the Pittsburgh AC team in mid-October for an increase in salary.  When that team’s season was over, he returned to Latrobe for a final game with Greensburg.

In the fall of 1899, John received a “flattering offer from the University of Pennsylvania to play quarterback.”  After briefly helping to coach Indiana Normal, he set out for eastern Pennsylvania.  But “on arriving in Philadelphia, they decided I had played so much professional ball that their amateur standing would be at stake.  Penn was trying hard to get Harvard on their schedule, and Harvard had refused on the grounds that some of Pennsylvania’s players were not of amateur standing.

He toured that city’s dental schools and decided to attend Medico-Chirurgical College, from which his older brother was graduated the year before. (Ironically, it later became part of the University of Pennsylvania.) Although John had planned to give up football for studies, pressure from the football coach and squad members changed that.  Brallier served as captain and quarterback of the school’s undefeated 1899 team, which wound up with a win over rival Jefferson Medical College when “a grand run of 90 yards by Captain Brallier just three minutes before time was up saved the day for Medico-Chi,” according to a news account.

Prior to the 1900 season, John had “a very flattering offer from the University of Maryland to take up the coaching position.”  He refused it, stating, “I was well situated and did not want to make any more changes as it interfered with my school work too much.”  At this point in life, he was almost twenty-four years old.  He captained another undefeated team at Medico-Chi in that fall’s regular schedule, and in 1901, his final year at Medico-Chi, the team he captained for the third year in a row lost only one game.  In addition to being a football star, and receiving much notice in the Philadelphia newspapers, he also played on the school’s basketball team.

With his dental diploma in hand, he turned down pro football offers for the fall of 1902 from Franklin and Oil City in northwestern Pennsylvania, and declined an offer to become an assistant to a prominent London (England) dentist.  Instead he opened his office at Latrobe, and rejoined the local team as a player-coach.  Among the games that fall were a scoreless tie with Indiana Normal and a 22-0 triumph over the Indiana First Regiment team, on which John’s brother played right tackle.  That deadlock with Latrobe was the only game the Normal eleven did not win that season of ten played.

In 1904, Dr. John Brallier married an Indiana girl, Bess Garnette Moorhead.  He retired as a player in 1907, but continued to coach local teams.  He also served twenty years as a school director, from which he retired in 1931.

After World War II, when Latrobe and Canton were among the communities competing for the planned Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dr. Brallier was given lifetime pass No. 1 for National Football Hall of Fame, Dr. Brallier was given lifetime pass No. 1 for National Football League games in recognition of his early pro status.

After retiring from dental practice, he spent part of his time in Canada and Florida.  When he died, September 17, 1960, in his eighty-fourth year, he left behind a fame for his early pro football exploits that is remembered today.

Both Lawson Fiscus and Dr. John Brallier have been inducted into the Westmoreland County Sports Hall of Fame, but their real origins were in Indiana County.