Early All-American football player was a Chippewa Indian born and raised in North Dakota
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of William "Birdie" Jennings Gardner, an All-American football player who later became a crime-fighter tasked with taking down Al Capone.
A man considered one of the best football players of the early 20th century was an Ojibwe Native American from North Dakota. In 1930, the great Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne listed William Jennings Gardner on his all-time, All-American football team for Collier's magazine. Not only was Gardner an outstanding football player, but he was also a lawyer, a military officer during World War I, a college football and basketball coach, and an elite prohibition enforcer who was selected by Eliot Ness to be one of his original “Untouchables,” recruited to bring down Al Capone's empire.
William “Birdie” Jennings Gardner was born on Jan. 23, 1884, in Towner, to George and Anastasia “Annie” Seice Gardner. Birdie's father was half-white, half-Objibwe, while his mother was Ojibwe. Birdie grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Soon after the U.S. Indian Industrial School Boarding School at Fort Totten opened in 1891, he and his younger brother, George, attended school there. While in school, Birdie excelled in all sports.
Birdie’s father died on May 25, 1894, and, in 1898, Annie married Joseph Rolette, an interpreter on the reservation. William “Birdie” Gardner is referred to as William Rolette in a few sources. After completing his education at Fort Totten in 1904, he became a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At Carlisle, Gardner lettered in football, basketball and track. The school was considered a national powerhouse in football under the coaching of Pop Warner. The Carlisle Indians finished the 1903 season with an 11-2 record, defeating the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern and Georgetown. Warner then left Carlisle in 1904 to take over coaching duties at Cornell and, as Warner’s replacement, Carlisle hired Eddie Rogers to be the new head coach.
Gardner and Rogers were very close, with Rogers becoming Gardner’s mentor. The mothers of both men were Chippewa. Rogers had been a star football player at Carlisle before attending the Dickinson School of Law to become an attorney, and Gardner would follow in his coaches’ footsteps. In 1904, the Indians finished the season with a 10-2 record, outscoring their opponents 347 to 44. At the conclusion of the season, Rogers left Carlisle to become head coach of the St. Thomas Cadets in St. Paul, Minn.
Since Carlisle was a year-long facility, students needed to apply for leave if they were to be away during the summer. In the summer of 1905, Gardner applied for leave to go home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation to apply to West Point. It is apparent that nothing materialized with that application. I strongly suspect that he also played some baseball that summer because, during other summers, Gardner applied for leave to play baseball. It is reported that some the of teams he played with were teams in Devils Lake; East Liverpool, Ohio; and Staunton, Virginia.
In 1905, George Woodruff came out of retirement to coach the Carlisle Indians for one season. From 1892 to 1901, he was the coach of the University of Pennsylvania football team that compiled a record of 124-15-2. The 1905 Carlisle team finished the season with a 10-4 record, outscoring their opponents 354 to 44. “Two of the losses were to professional (football) teams.” In 1905, Gardner’s younger brother, George Gardner, entered Carlisle and became a member of the football team. In 1906, Carlisle hired Bemus Pierce, a Seneca Native American from Erie County, New York, to be their new coach. Pierce had been a star player for the Indians from 1894 to 1898 and was an assistant coach for Carlisle in 1904. With Pierce at the helm, the Indians finished the 1906 season with a 9-3 record and outscored their opponents 244 to 40.
After three years at Cornell, Warner returned as head coach of the Indians in 1907. It was also at this time that Jim Thorpe first became eligible to play varsity football at Carlisle. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Indian Nation would later be ranked by the Associated Press as the “greatest athlete from the first 50 years of the 20th century.” The forward pass had been legalized only one year earlier and Gardner, as an end on offense, became the recipient of many of the quarterback’s passes at Carlisle. It has been written that Gardner, with direction from Warner, played an instrumental role in crafting the first effective passing offense.
In 1907, the Indians finished with a record of 10-1 and outscored their opponents 267 to 62. Warner described his team as “nearly perfect, but was upset that Walter Camp had left Gardner off his All-American team.” Camp, who is considered the father of American football, annually published America’s All-American teams. He was able to atone for his 1907 oversight when, in 1917, he named William Gardner to his “All-American Service Eleven” for Gardner’s outstanding football playing while serving in the military during World War I.
At Carlisle, Gardner not only excelled in football, but he also played basketball and, as a member of the track team, “set a school record for the half mile.” During the 1907 season, Gardner began law school at the Dickinson School of Law, which was also located in Carlisle.
Following his graduation from Carlisle in 1908, Gardner was hired as head football and basketball coach at the DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky. While at the school, Gardner completed his classes at the Dickinson Law School in 1909 and in 1910 he was admitted to the Louisville bar.
In 1912, Gardner was hired as director of athletics at Otterbein College, now Otterbein University, a private college in Westerville, Ohio. In that capacity, Gardner coached both football and basketball teams. His football team had a disappointing 1-9 record, but his basketball team went 8-5 which, percentage-wise at .615, remained the school’s best record until 1969.
Gardner was later hired as athletic director at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, but resigned in August 1915 when the school’s athletic department went into debt and could not pay him. Gardner contacted the administration at Carlisle to see if they could help him secure employment at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. While he was in Detroit, the U.S. became involved in World War I and Gardner enlisted in the Army on May 15, 1917. Although he was 33 years old, Gardner had kept himself in excellent shape and would soon reemerge as one of the country’s best nonprofessional football players.
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen will conclude the incredible story of William "Birdie" Jennings Garnder next week.