Nobody better: James ‘Rabbit’ Bradshaw was Nevada’s first football star

The 1920 football game between Nevada and the University of California, Berkeley on Mackay Field with the Mackay Training Quarters in the background.

The 1920 football game between Nevada and the University of California, Berkeley on Mackay Field with the Mackay Training Quarters in the background.

James “Rabbit” Bradshaw’s final act in front of University of Nevada football fans was a showstopper.

The school’s first superstar and the greatest player pound-for-pound to ever wear silver and blue showed them something they would never forget. And he left them breathless.

Bradshaw, playing his last home game at Mackay Field, settled under a University of Utah punt late in the afternoon on Nov. 5, 1921.

“A beautiful kick dropped plumb into Bradshaw’s hands eight yards from the Nevada goal line,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported. “He tucked the ball under his arm, dodged two Utah men and then ducked and dodged for half the length of the field until he had even outdistanced his teammates. With but two Utah men in his way Jimmy gained speed and with a quick turn dodged the last Utah man.”

Bradshaw’s punt return for a touchdown put the finishing touches on a 28-7 Nevada win “in the best game of football played on the local field since Clarence Mackay dedicated it to the memory of his father and mother,” the Gazette wrote.

“No jackrabbit dodging bullets ever ran faster or dodged more,” the Gazette reported. “A snake would have broken its back had it tried to follow the Nevada quarterback on his 92-yard run through the entire Utah delegation.”

It would be Bradshaw’s final touchdown at Mackay Field, capping off an unforgettable, program-changing three-year career.

The run, though, was just the prelude to a fitting ending. After he scored on the punt return Bradshaw, the Gazette reported, “placed the ball between the goal posts and sat down on it.”

Nobody in Nevada football history ever deserved a moment of rest more than Bradshaw.

“This play of Bradshaw’s stands far above anything ever seen on the local field,” the Gazette wrote. “It was a great run that brought the crowd to its feet and made the hills resound with cheer after cheer.”

If you listen closely up on North Virginia Street you still might hear the echoes of that cheering almost a century later. That’s how much James Bradshaw transformed Nevada football forever from 1919-21.

Standing just 5-foot-8 and weighing all of 135 pounds, nobody in silver and blue has ever done it better. Little Jimmy Bradshaw, wearing his leather helmet with no facemask, was Nevada’s first athletic giant.

“Bradshaw is a little tyke who weighs only a few ounces more than a bubble,” was how the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram described him in 1922.

That bubble put Wolf Pack football, all of a dozen years old when he first came to the university in 1919 from the Illinois heartland, on the map. Bradshaw, still one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks to ever play at Nevada, captured Nevada’s and the nation’s imagination for three years. He was one of the first great stars in the history of the sport of football and he did it in the era before the internet, television or even radio was available to spread the word of his pigskin prowess.

Bradshaw gave Nevada football a national identity and also helped popularize the sport from coast to coast as much as anyone in the history of the game.

Yes, even University of Illinois and Chicago Bear Red Grange.

“Red Grange’s longest run of his career was spent chasing Rabbit Bradshaw,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1926.

Bradshaw, who was born in rural Missouri in 1898, came to Nevada with new coach Ray Courtright in 1919 after playing one year for the University of Illinois’ second team (freshman and reserves). Courtright discovered Bradshaw while he was coaching Pittsburg State in Kansas from 1915-17 when Bradshaw was a Kansas high school star.

The timing of Bradshaw’s and Courtright’s arrival in Nevada couldn’t have been more perfect. The university, like the 55-year-old state of Nevada, the rest of the country and world, was more than ready for a new, refreshing start in 1919. Just the year before, after all, the nation was coming off a year that suffered through a flu pandemic that ravaged the country and also had to endure the final year of World War I, a war that forced the university to put the football program on hold for an entire season in 1918.

It didn’t take long for Bradshaw to make an impact on the Nevada football team. The lefthander won the starting quarterback job in summer camp.

“Bradshaw, a knowing and aggressive man from the University of Illinois, possesses all the necessary qualifications for a good quarterback,” the Gazette reported the week before the first game of the season against the University of California freshman. “He shows he is deficient in no branch of the game.”

The sport of football at the university gave way to rugby for nine seasons (1906-14) and then returned for three uneventful and frustrating years (1915-17) before Bradshaw and Courtright, a former Oklahoma University star, arrived.

Courtright, the school’s athletic director and only head coach, allowed the first black player in school history (Artur James, a backup lineman) to put on a uniform and play. He instilled discipline. And he brought a lightning bolt of excitement to the Nevada desert.

Nevada lost its first game of 1919 against the Golden Bears freshmen in Berkeley 13-7. But even in defeat the afternoon was a success for the new coach and quarterback.

The game, after all, ended suddenly and mysteriously when the Pack had the ball on Cal’s 5-yard line. Bradshaw “earned considerable praise in the handling of the team,” the Gazette wrote.

The team took off after that opener. Nevada then whipped a Nevada alumni team, 32-0, and the Stewart Indian School, 54-0, the next two weeks. Beating a group of out-of-shape alumni and a glorified high school (Stewart had some players of college age) was expected.

It was the following week, though, that Northern Nevada truly discovered James Bradshaw. The Sagebrushers (the team wasn’t known as the Wolf Pack until the 1922 football season) demolished the Mare Island Naval Base, 102-0 at Mackay.

Official statistics of the game (and of Bradshaw’s entire Nevada career) are not available but it was estimated by the local newspapers that Bradshaw scored six or seven touchdowns that day.

“Rabbit Bradshaw was feeling so good that he made about half the touchdowns,” the Gazette reported.

It took Bradshaw exactly one amazing game to become the greatest runner in school history, according to the Gazette.

“Without a doubt Rabbit Bradshaw is the greatest backfield man ever seen on Mackay Field,” the newspaper wrote. “He ran through the entire sailor team so often to a goal that it was monotonous.”

The 102 points were a school record. It was more points than the Pack scored in 10 of its previous 12 seasons.

“He is small, chunky and fast with a disconcerting rabbit-like way of dodging, backtracking and hurdling that makes him hard to get hold of as a twenty dollar gold piece,” the Gazette wrote.

The Nevada crowd (the school in 1919 had only about 425 students and the city had just 12,000 residents) fell in love with Rabbit.

“Bradshaw went back in the game in the last quarter to the cries of the bleachers to make the score 100,” the Gazette reported. He scored a touchdown on the game’s final play.

Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, the Sagebrush men destroyed Pacific 132-0 the following week. Pacific never had a play of as much as 10 yards and never crossed the Wolf Pack 40-yard line. A line of automobiles stretched across the west side of Mackay Field on a cold and windy day as fans witnessed the highest scoring game in school history.

It is likely Bradshaw set a number of school records in the 132-0 win, though official statistics have been lost to history. The only thing the Gazette reported was that Bradshaw returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

The California Bears freshman team came to Mackay for a rematch of the season opener the following week. The Sagebrushers did not come close to triple digits on the scoreboard but did pull off a stunning 13-12 win. Bradshaw recovered a fumble, had six runs of 10 or more yards and tossed a 32-yard pass. Al Reed blocked a Cal kick and fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown.

The game, once again, ended suddenly and mysteriously and, perhaps, fittingly with Cal on the Nevada 3-yard line.

Nevada finished a ground-breaking 8-1-1 season by beating UC Davis twice (called the Davis Farm in 1919), Santa Clara once and tying St. Mary’s 0-0. Bradshaw had two touchdowns against Santa Clara.

“He proved himself a matchless field general,” the Gazette reported.

Nobody was calling for the return of rugby after the 1919 football season.

“This is the first time the football team has paid for itself with a surplus left over,” the Gazette reported.

Bradshaw was clearly the best value in the country.

“The smashing attack of the Nevada eleven was a revelation to me,” Santa Clara coach Bob Harmon said after the game, “and stamps it as one of the most aggressive football machines of the west. I was particularly impressed with the work of Bradshaw. In action he reminds me of the great Paddy Driscoll (a star at Northwestern just a couple seasons before).”

Bradshaw was named to William Hahn’s All-Coast First Team after the season as the quarterback. The team was made up of players also from Cal, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon and St. Mary’s.

“The outstanding backfield star I saw this season was Bradshaw of Nevada,” Hahn wrote. “He is the best broken-field runner in the west and compares well with the best in the country.”

Nevada in 1919 outscored its opposition 437-32 in the single most dominating season in school history. Courtright, who also coached basketball, baseball and track (Bradshaw stood out in all three as well as tennis, where he was a Reno city champion), stabilized the program and established a level of excellence not seen before and has rarely been duplicated since up on North Virginia Street.

“The Nevada system of football coaching as designed by Coach Courtright is taken from the best systems in the country,” the Nevada Appeal wrote in January 1922. “Courtright has been responsible for a great improvement in the condition of athletes in this state. A new era has dawned for our student athletes.”

The Rabbit’s final two seasons at Nevada in 1920 and 1921 were filled with even more dramatic moments, highlights and praise.

In a 47-7 win in 1920 over an American Legion team from San Francisco, a group made up of former World War I soldiers, Bradshaw tossed a touchdown pass, scored twice on runs and his “open field running was responsible for several touchdowns,” the Gazette reported. “He seemed good for, five, 10 and 20 yards every time.”

He had two 40-yard runs, two 20-yard runs and threw a touchdown pass to Ed Reed in a 79-7 loss to Cal in Berkeley in October 1920. The Wolf Pack also lost at USC that season 38-7 but Bradshaw stood out.

“He is as fast as a wireless (wireless telegraphy was popular in 1920), as tricky as an Apache, as greasy as a bucket of lard and hard to hold with bare hands as a moist catfish,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. “The visitors had a surprise package in the backfield with ‘Bullet’ Bradshaw. He is of BB caliber which tears large holes in an enemy. He is a steel-jacket athlete which whistles through the air and pierces keenly. At all times he was Pandora’s box of woes to be wished upon USC.”

No Nevada athlete, maybe no athlete anywhere, has ever been praised as much after a 30-point loss.

Bradshaw battled through a shoulder injury in 1921 but that didn’t stop him from establishing himself as one of the most dynamic players in the country.

Bradshaw, who also served the team as the punter, kicker (almost all kicks were drop kicks), kick and punt returner throughout his career, scored three touchdowns in a 54-0 season-opening victory over Agnetian (now the University of San Francisco). But Nevada lost its next three games against Pacific Fleet, California and St. Mary’s, scoring a total of 25 points combined in the three games.

Bradshaw played well in the 14-13 loss to Pacific Fleet, scoring a touchdown on a 2-yard run, turning in runs of 20, 35 and 40 yards and completing a pass for 40 yards. He played the 51-6 loss at Cal while wearing a plaster cast on his injured shoulder. But he did have runs of 15 and 35 yards in the game and tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass. It was the first of four touchdowns scored on the California varsity that season.

Nevada then won three of its last four games (it tied the other) to finish with a 4-3-1 record in 1921 (19-8-3 in Bradshaw’s three years).

Bradshaw had runs of 50 and 60 yards against Utah State and electrified the Mackay crowd in the final home game of the year against Utah with his 92-yard punt return. Bradshaw’s Wolf Pack career ended with a 14-14 tie at Stanford.

“Jimmy Bradshaw, playing his last game for the blue and white, closed his career in brilliant fashion,” the Gazette reported.

Bradshaw had a 60-yard touchdown run to tie the game. His 12-yard touchdown catch, on a pass from Reed, opened the Nevada scoring.

“He opened the eyes of the coast critics (the sportswriters) and they unhesitatingly gave him credit for being the shiftiest runner and backfield player on the coast,” the Gazette wrote.

Film of Bradshaw’s eye-opening 60-yard run for a touchdown at Stanford was then shown at the Grand movie theater in Reno three days later.

“Watch 400 feet of the best football pictures ever shown in Reno,” the advertisement in the Evening Gazette said. “Watch Nevada’s varsity support their already world famous quarterback.”

The week after the Stanford game Bradshaw received a gift in the mail, addressed to him at the university.

“The note was signed ‘Santa Claus,’ reported the Nevada State Journal. “The package contained a high-priced 21-jewel watch with a solid gold case. The note was sent by ‘one who watched him play all year and who took this means of expressing appreciation of the work done by him at Stanford.’”

After the season Bradshaw was named an Honorable Mention Walter Camp All American. He was also named to the All-Western Eleven by Malcolm McLean in the Chicago Evening Post.

“The Nevada star, while not a large man, is quick as a flash and a wonder on running a team,“ McLean wrote “He is one of the greatest open field runners in the country and almost beat the Palo Alto men all by his own efforts.”

Veteran Reno sports writer Ty Cobb, who was too young to cover Bradshaw as a player at Nevada, reported numerous times that Bradshaw was responsible for 5,307 all-purpose (running, passing, returning) total yards of offense in his three-year career. That number, though, was merely an estimate and is likely far short of what Bradshaw actually accomplished. It still, however, would rank Bradshaw in the top 10 in school history.

Bradshaw’s football career, though, didn’t end with the completion of his Nevada eligibility. Throughout the decade of the 1920s Bradshaw, along with Red Grange and others, popularized the sport of football on both coasts during the infancy of the NFL.

Bradshaw, who began a high school coaching career in Redwood City, Calif., in 1922, played for the San Francisco Olympic Club and other Bay Area teams in the 1920s. Bradshaw, without question, was among the first (if not the first) true professional football star in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two decades before the San Francisco 49ers debuted in the All America Football Conference and the Cleveland Rams of the NFL moved to Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t carry the Rabbit’s shoes and neither could Red Grange,” said former University of Washington star George “Wildcat” Wilson in 1957. Wilson was a former barnstorming teammate of Bradshaw’s throughout the 1920s.

“He was the toughest, gutsiest, most able guy I ever saw,” Wilson told the Gazette. “Once we played five games in 11 days and he was in there for every minute of action.”

Bradshaw’s San Francisco Tigers beat Grange’s Chicago Bears in 1926, 14-9 in front of 20,000 fans at Kezar Stadium.

“Red Grange is an artist of the gridiron but Rabbit Bradshaw stole his canvas, his palette and most of his brushes,” the Oakland Tribune reported after the game.

Grange chasing Bradshaw during that game was captured by photos that appeared in both Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapers. Bradshaw, who also played safety, picked up a Bears fumble near his own goal line and scampered 48 yards with the ball until Grange dragged him down. He also returned a punt 33 yards in the game and intercepted two passes, one thrown by Grange.

The Kezar fans came to see Grange (the equivalent to baseball’s Babe Ruth, boxing’s Jack Dempsey, tennis’ Bill Tilden and golf’s Bobby Jones in the 1920s) but Bradshaw gave them a show.

“If Rabbit had worn Red’s big number 77 that day Grange never would have been missed by the crowd,” the San Francisco Examiner reported.

Grange did gain some measure of revenge against Bradshaw in October 1926 at Yankee Stadium in New York, beating Bradshaw 6-0 in the mud as 18,521 looked on. The New York Daily News, though, reported that “the best dashes for the San Francisco Wildcats were credited to Bradshaw, who had a 40-yard punt return.”

Two years later, in 1928 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Bradshaw had an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown in a win over Grange’s New York Yankees. The year before, though, Grange’s promoter, C.C. Pyle, tried to sign Bradshaw to play with Grange but it never happened.

“Grange only wants Rabbit Bradshaw added to his squad and he guarantees to defeat a team of Benny Friedman (one of the greatest quarterbacks in the 1920s), Ernie Nevers and George Wilson,” Pyle told the Los Angeles Examiner in 1927.

“Bradshaw is a demon of a player,” the Examiner wrote.

Bradshaw’s Olympic Club beat the Hollywood Generals 28-7 in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Los Angeles in early January 1927.

“He gave the greatest exhibition of all around brilliance ever seen in a local pro game,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “He whistled through the Hollywood Generals like a Texas tornado.”

“Fired by a spirit that never ebbed and taking his tumbles with a contagious smile the little fellow squirmed his way into the heart of the biggest crowd in Los Angeles this season,” reported the San Francisco Examiner.

In another game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., in 1922, the Olympic Club had him wear a different number than was listed in the program so that the opponent, Multnomah of Portland, Ore., would not know it was him.

“The ruse didn’t fool anybody for long,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The illusion vanished the first time they fed Bradshaw the ball. Nobody in the world runs quite like Bradshaw and few play football as well as he does.”

Bradshaw scored three touchdowns in the 20-0 victory. “He is a runner to shifty that he can run east to west and score a touchdown when the goal posts are located north and south,” the Times reported.

Bradshaw, who was a member of the 1920 Nevada team that was the first from the mainland United States to ever play a game at Hawaii, also played in Honolulu in 1925. He drop-kicked five extra points and rushed for 260 yards and passed for 75 more in a 41-0 Olympic Club victory.

“Bradshaw gave the greatest exhibition of individual prowess on a gridiron ever seen in Honolulu,” the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported in 1925. “He was a wonder player on a wonder team.”

Bradshaw’s high school coaching career took him to California and Kansas City and back to California. As the head coach in Santa Cruz, Calif., he coached future Nevada star and Reno High long-time coach Bud Beasley. It was at Bradshaw’s urging that Beasley attended the University of Nevada.

“I remember we had an intrasquad game (at Santa Cruz) and Jimmy was our coach but he played with the second team in the scrimmage,” Beasley told Ty Cobb of the Nevada State Journal in 1987, after Bradshaw died at the age of 89. “He took one kickoff and went through the entire varsity team to the end zone. When he got to the end zone he turned around and shouted, “Everyone, now,” meaning everyone on both teams now had to try and tackle him. Well, he took off again and continued back through the entire 21 players and went to score in the other end zone.”

Bradshaw, who went on to become one of the greatest Fresno State Bulldogs head coaches in history with a record of 59-18-5 for eight seasons in the 1930s and 40s, always remained loyal to the University of Nevada. He would show up to speak and participate in numerous university functions from the 1930s through the ‘80s and was in the first class of the Nevada Hall of Fame in 1973. He was also honored at the first Wolf Pack Governor’s Dinner in Carson City in 1969 and was named to the school’s All Century team in 1999.

John Cahlan was a Nevada student when Bradshaw was scoring touchdowns for the Sagebrushers. Cahlan later became the editor of the Nevada State Journal and Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“Rabbit Bradshaw was shy until he donned a Nevada uniform,” Cahlan told the Nevada State Journal in 1957. “Then he was a raging tiger. Nobody heard of him until he came to Reno but he hadn’t been here two months before the whole west coast started singing his praises.”

Rabbit Bradshaw taught Northern Nevada to dream. And cheer. And fall in love with Nevada football.

Maxwell Stiles of the Los Angeles Mirror wrote in 1957 . . .

“Bradshaw is the only man I have ever seen who could do a tap dance on a football field without moving in any direction for a few seconds, defy you to tackle him and then go scooting away like a scared rabbit.”

Nobody has ever done it better.


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