Elmer Layden is not a household name nowadays. However, back in the early 1920s, he was a quarter of the famed Notre Dame Four Horsemen. These guys were one of the most famous College football backfields of all-time. Elmer’s participation with the Four Horsemen started him on the path to fame and glory, ultimately leading to him becoming the First NFL Commissioner. To get a better understanding, we have to take it all the way back to the beginning.
This is where we stop the DeLorean this week. The date is May 4, 1903. Layden was born on this date in Davenport, Iowa. His full name was Elmer Francis Layden. As with most heroes of the podcast, Elmer was an All-State legend in Iowa in High School. His position was the fullback. The fullback position wasn’t quite the same back in the early 20th century as it is today. Back then it was more of a focal point. Now we’re lucky to see a fullback on the field.
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Layden used his fame as a fullback to enter Notre Dame in 1921. As a Freshman for the Fighting Irish, Elmer was relegated to backup duty where he had to share reps as a quarterback with Harry Struhldreher. By his Junior year, Layden was given full control of the fullback duties for what would ultimately become the famous Notre Dame Four Horsemen. This group of players would form one of the most famous backfields in American Football History. The other members besides Elmer Layden were Jim Crowly, Don Miller, and Harry Struhldreher. These 4 men were an unstoppable force on the field.
Grantland Rice is credited with coining the nickname – The Four Horsemen. He is one of the most influential sportswriters in history. It was perfect timing for Rice to be around, as he wrote of myths and legends in sports during an era that was called “The Golden Age of Sports”. They sure did break the mold with Grantland Rice. I talked about Grantland giving the nickname Galloping Ghost back in the Red Grange episode. Do you remember that episode and the captivating poem written by Red Grange? Well, guess what, that game occurred on the exact same day as the game that led to the Notre Dame Four Horsemen.
That day was October 18, 1924. On this day, Grantland Rice changed the way people looked at football forever more. I say this is easily one of the more important dates in sports writing history. The Galloping Ghost poem was an inspiring performance from an individual player. However, Grantland’s depiction of The Four Horsemen was of a group of men that just bowled over the opposition. The poem went as such:
“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they were known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These were only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowly, and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice of Polo Grounds this afternoon” ~ Grantland Rice
Now talk about painting a picture of legendary proportions. Chew on this. Back then there was no national television, let alone local television to be able to watch football games from the comfort of your living rooms. These people had to rely on broadcasters and newspapers to help them paint a picture in their minds. If Grantland Rice just said “well, some dudes scored more points than the other ones” then I don’t think football would have been as much of an alluring sport. Instead, we had this sportswriter talking of godlike actions of 4 individuals on a gridiron, and he called them the Notre Dame Four Horsemen.
The team and fans had fun with it, as well. There’s even a neat picture of the Notre Dame Four Horsemen literally sitting on horses in their football gear and holding the pigskin. I thought this was really cool.
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Back to Layden, his Senior year was in 1924. At the time, he was the heaviest of the Four Horsemen, at 162 pounds. That’s a fullback – the heaviest of the bunch – at only 162 pounds. It sure was a different time back then, but then again, they had to play both ways. For fun, here’s an article from 2016 listing the smallest player at every position. Knute Rockne summed up his running ability with the following quote.
“He developed a straight-line dive that made him one of the most unusual fullbacks in football” ~ Knute Rockne
His college career culminated with the 1925 Rose Bowl. This game was against Stanford. All the way across the country, players for Stanford heard of the legendary Notre Dame Four Horsemen, so I imagine they were shaking in their cleats. What would they do to stop the offensive firepower about to be thrown their way? However, the game went a different way. This time the defense showed up in force, and Elmer Layden had a game for the ages.
Elmer scored his first touchdown on a 3-yard plunge, which was typical of the Four Horsemen from Notre Dame. The other 2 touchdowns he scored was not in the typical Horsemen fashion. He had 2 interceptions returned for touchdowns. One went for 60 yards and the other went for 78 yards. This came as no surprise to the team because Layden led the Fighting Irish in interceptions that year. Overall, Elmer had a good ride while at Notre Dame. The teams he was on ended with a 27-2-1 record. Not bad.
Professional American Football was starting to become more popular in 1925. Elmer played for a couple of years, but he didn’t have a major impact. Many of the sources I saw stated Elmer played for 3 professional teams. One of the teams mentioned was the Brooklyn Horsemen, later to be named the Brooklyn Lions. I wonder if the reason they were called the Horsemen was because of having 2 of the Notre Dame Four Horsemen on the team.
The other teams that Layden played for were the Rock Island Independents and the Hartford Blues. It was a game with the Hartford Blues that was often highlighted as a big deal. Layden was reunited with his college buddies to bring back the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and ride one last time together. This time the game was the Hartford Blues vs. Cleveland Bulldogs. All-in-all Layden’s professional career was short-lived.
After his playing days, Layden moved into the coaching. This was fitting because his mentor was legendary coach, Knute Rockne. Layden’s first stop on his coaching journey was at Columbia College, where he amassed a record of (8-5-2). He then coached at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA for the next 7 seasons. Here Layden had a record of (48-16-6).
With the success he had, and the dismal season Notre Dame experienced in 1933, Elmer was called upon by his Alma Mater to turn the Notre Dame football team around. I believe this is an understatement because the 1933 Notre Dame season was horrible for the Fighting Irish. In fact, it was the worst in school history to that point, with a record of (3-5-1). For this season, Hunk Anderson was the coach and Jesse Harper was the Athletic Director. It was said they “resigned,” but let’s be real.
We all know what happened. They were canned, and the school would call for one of the members of the Notre Dame Four Horsemen to ride again. Layden was hired to fill both roles. He was the head football coach and the Athletic Director. During his tenure with his Alma Mater, he had a much better success rate than his predecessors. Layden’s record as the coach was (47-13-3). He officially turned around the Notre Dame football program to help the rise to power near the level of the time of the Notre Dame Four Horsemen.
First NFL Commissioner
He accomplished so much in his playing and coaching days, the NFL put Layden on notice. In 1941, it was getting to the point where owners and administrators of the NFL believed the league would be best served if a person was put in charge with “sweeping powers”. Elmer Layden was the man for the job, so the NFL plucked him away from his Alma Mater to become the first commissioner of the NFL. He was officially given the post on March 1, 1941, and he moved the league office to Chicago.
The contract given to Layden was for 5 years initially. Little did he or anyone in the league, realize he would be the commissioner during World War 2, and he would have to help the league weather the storm on the home front. A recent episode covering The Steagles with Matthew Algeo explained how the NFL was very close to closing the doors. Layden played a major role in keeping the league together, and he was also responsible for suggesting the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merge that season back in 1943.
He also presided over many rule changes to improve the chances of the league surviving, some of which helped transform the game into what we know it as today. Rosters were dwindling due to the war. One of these major rule changes was for the first time in 1943, helmets were considered a mandatory piece of the uniform. To you and me, it seems trivial. However, at the time, this was not necessarily the case. The other thing that is common for us that was implemented was free substitution. Two items that helped revolutionize the game into what we know it as today; player safety and specialized roles for players.
Then World War 2 ended in 1945. There were 638 total players from the NFL that served for their country, and 21 of these men were killed in action. The NFL was still alive, getting past the uncertainty of wartime football. Elmer Layden was the man with supreme authority as the first commissioner of the NFL, playing a major role in saving the league from possibly shutting the doors forever.
With his stamp left on the league, he would depart for the next journey of his life, similar to every other part of his career. He left while he was on top. Layden initially signed a 5-year contract. In January of 1946, according to an article from the New York Times, Layden dropped a bombshell in the league meeting. Instead of re-upping his contract, he decided to resign, effective immediately.
Administrators and owners for the league were shocked. They even offered him a position in an advisory role for an indefinite period at the same salary he earned as the first commissioner of the NFL, which was reported $20,000. Layden was not interested in this offer, turning it down and revealing he had accepted an offer as president of the Shippers Car Line Corporation in New York.
Elmer Layden was officially replaced by Bert Bell as the commissioner of the NFL on January 11, 1946. The end of a successful career in football at all levels. A clip from the same New York Times article summed up his leadership style, which I believe was essential and served as the glue during the tumultuous times for the league during World War 2:
“Yet in spite of the high voltage that drove him and a worrying disposition that caused him to lose considerable weight during football campaigns, Mr. Layden was rarely known to lose his temper. To players and acquaintances, he was always calm and courteous. In his coaching he chose reason, rather than sentiment, to stir teams” ~ New York Times
After working for the Shippers Car Line in New York, Layden entered the railroad equipment business. Then he worked for the General American Transportation Corporation of Chicago starting in 1957. Beyond work and football, there were some other pretty cool things Layden was involved with. I saw he had a board game named after him. The one specifically was called Elmer Layden’s Scientific Board game from 1936.
He was also an actor. In 1931, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame were united once again. This time they were depicted in a movie called “The Spirit of Notre Dame“. Layden was also on the Ed Sullivan Show and a TV series called We, The People. Hey, why not capture the legend of the Four Horsemen and toss them on the big screen, right?
Elmer Layden is not a name that pops out on the paper, nor does it ring a bell with most football fans. He was, however, part of one of the most famous backfields of all-time, the dominating Notre Dame Four Horsemen. He took his Alma Mater, Notre Dame, out from the cellar and put them back on the pedestal as a coach. Then he was whisked away to become the first commissioner of the NFL during a time when a steady force with “sweeping powers” was needed to keep the league together. For these accomplishments, Elmer Layden deserves to have his name echoed in conversations about the history of American football.