Huddle: Quarterback Nello Falaschi '37 (left) and Broncos who earned a spot in the 1937 Sugar Bowl. Photo from The Redwood.
by Chuck Hildebrand |
On New Year’s Day 1937, a team from a little Jesuit school in the Santa Clara Valley stunned the sports world with an upset that won them the Sugar Bowl. And put their home on the map.

The 47 Santa Clara football players and their entourage weren’t sure what was in store at the other end of the line when their Southern Pacific Bronco Special pulled out of the Santa Clara train station the day after Christmas 1936. But they knew who they were and whence they had come: through a season that, by the end of November, was 7-0 and had them ranked fifth in the Associated Press college football poll, introduced that fall. They beat Stanford, Auburn, and rival St. Mary’s. And on Dec. 4, they accepted a bid to play No. 2-ranked Louisiana State University in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium.

"There was no question we thought we could win the game ...
We were good, and we knew it."

It was virtually a home game for the Tigers; oddsmakers favored LSU 4-to-1. The LSU program had been a public plaything of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long before his assassination in 1935: He’d hired and fired coaches, involved himself in recruiting—even tried to dictate play calls. He devoted enormous state resources to strengthening the university. One result: The LSU line averaged 212 pounds—25 pounds more than Santa Clara’s.

The Broncos were virtually unknown in the football-loving East, Midwest, and South. An AP preview story on the eve of the Sugar Bowl included multiple references to the “Bronchos.” Most Santa Clara players came from first- or second-generation immigrant Bay Area families and regarded their football experiences as extensions of their working-class backgrounds. In the midst of the Depression, few of them could have considered college had it not been for their football skills. They played as if far more than the outcome of a game was at stake.

They also had Coach Buck Shaw. He drilled his men in “moving your feet, keeping your balance, things like that,” said center Phil Dougherty ’37.

They were smaller but faster.

“There was no question we thought we could win the game,” teammate Jesse Coffer ’37 said. “We were good, and we knew it.”

Game on

The teams took the already muddy field in a steady drizzle before a capacity crowd of 42,000 at Tulane Stadium. One surprise for the Broncos: While Huey Long and LSU football were deified in rural Louisiana, the Crescent City was still a Tulane town, and a large segment of the throng was there to jeer LSU and cheer for its opposition. Fans of sister Jesuit school Loyola University of New Orleans were on Santa Clara’s side, too.

At a time before unlimited substitution was allowed, Shaw predicated playing time mainly on defensive skills at three of the four backfield positions. But he had one generalist, Nello Falaschi ’37, who never left the field, and was both the face and the personality of the 1936 Broncos.

Falaschi returned the opening kickoff to the Bronco 41. Teams exchanged punts. A few minutes later, fullback Chuck Pavelko ’37 took a snap from center, feinted left, shook an LSU tackle, and ran 13 yards to the LSU 31. Two plays later, with the ball still on the 31, Pavelko took a snap, pretended to burrow into the line, raised up and flipped a lateral to Falaschi, who then hit wide-open halfback Manny Gomez ’37 with a touchdown pass that gave Santa Clara a 7-0 lead.

Relive the game: Watch the Broncos in the
1937 Sugar Bowl.
Meet the team: See historic photographs.

Not much later, back in possession on the LSU 30, Santa Clara went for broke on fourth-and-12: Bruno Pellegrini ’37 connected with end Norm Finney ’37, who was alone in the end zone. The Broncos were up 14-0. The crowd went wild. LSU landed one touchdown pass just before halftime to narrow LSU’s deficit to 14-7. With his team up, Shaw was concerned about his players being slowed by uniforms and boots now caked in mud. So he put in a call to Loyola.

“When we got to the dressing room,” Al Wolff ’38 recalled, “there were dozens of shoes sent over by Loyola, just scattered around the floor. The coaches said, ‘Find a pair that fits and put ’em on. Then we changed into our practice uniforms for the second half, and we were ready to play again.”

The defense took over in the second half. LSU managed only 44 rushing yards in the game, and went 25 game minutes without registering a first down during one stretch. A 35-yard interception return by Gomez gave Santa Clara the ball at the LSU 15 midway through the third quarter, and on first and goal from the 4, end Frank “Mississippi” Smith ’37 took a handoff on an end-around and scored to give Santa Clara a 21-7 lead. LSU scored on the second play of the fourth quarter but never seriously threatened to score again. The final score was 21-14.

The ride home was a festive one indeed—so much so that, celebrating along the way, a few of the players even spent a night in jail in Juárez.

Seventy-five years later, there are only a few of the ’37 Sugar Bowl Broncos left. Chuck Pavelko, now 96, lives in Del Mar. Al Wolff, now 94, lives in Santa Barbara. Wolff sums up that era so: “Football put Santa Clara University on the map.”

Carole Smith Duncan said on Feb 27, 2012

My father was Frank "Mississippi" Smith. He died November 16, 1999 in Napa Valley California. The following was the eulogy given at his funeral:

Back in my foot loose and fancy-free days in San Francisco, I used to tell all my friends about my dear old dad. I did it so much that my friends would say, "Don't get her started on her dear old dad!" It has occurred to me that, in recent years, I have not told my new friends about his story, so I ask you to indulge me just once more while I tell you about my dear old dad. I especially address this story to the grand children and great grand children of Frank "Mississippi" Smith.

Today you receive your inheritance. It is an inheritance that is richer than anything monetary you may receive. He bequeaths to you his noble character, his sense of humor, his patriotism, his fidelity, his honesty and most importantly his Faith. These virtues run in your family, now it is up to you to nurture them in your selves. Please take these words that I am about to tell you and place them in your hearts forever, and pass them on to your children. In this way you will keep the legend of "Mississippi" Smith alive. On grandpa's side of the family, our family lineage can be traced back to such historical notables as Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of New York, General George H. Thomas, a Union officer during the civil war, who gained fame and the nickname "The Rock of Chickamauga" by the defense of his position during the battle of Chickamauga. This battle is said to have been the turning point in the civil war.

Grandpa's grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian—her name was Cherokee Anna Smith. Grandpa was the seventh child in a family of twelve. He was born and raised in the little town of Picayune, Mississippi. From the stories he told, his boyhood rivaled that of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.

Grandpa's family was quite poor; his father earned a living as a carpenter and a farmer. Once his father made him a shoeshine kit to help earn a little extra money. He would take his shoeshine kit to the local barber in Picayune and polish shoes. He had a raccoon in a cage to attract customers. Grandpa mastered the shoeshine rag—he got to where he could pop a boogie-woogie rag that not only shined the shoes of his customers but also made them feel like dancing as they walked away. We used to beg him to shine our shoes when we were young just to see him get into that rhythm.

His musical talents did not end with the shoeshine rag, he could also play the harmonica beautifully. Many a night we fell asleep as he played "Red Wing" on his harmonica. It was during the great depression that grandpa decided to heed Horace Greeley's advice to "Go west young man." He sewed a twenty-dollar bill into the lining of his coat and hopped on a freight train headed for California; he traveled with the hobos. He had an aunt, who lived in San Luis Obispo, who had a farm and needed his help.

When he reached Arizona, he was kicked off the train. This was during the Dust Bowl and the California borders were closed. Nobody could get into California unless they could prove that they had a job. So grandpa took the $20 and used it to spruce up. He got a job working for a watermelon farm shipping watermelons into California. Actually the owner of that farm took a liking to grandpa and offered to send him to college, but he refused the offer and said, "If I go to college, I will go on my own!"

When he got to Los Angeles, he left the watermelon business and headed for San Luis Obispo. There he worked for his aunt. San Luis Obispo had a small town football team, so grandpa joined and would play football after work. One day, while he was playing football, a scout from the University of Santa Clara offered him a football scholarship to go to Santa Clara. So without a cent, with nobody to advise him, he enrolled in the Mission university.

He worked at gas stations and waited on tables to help him through college. It was at this university that grandpa received the gift of Faith. He said that in class one day, Fr. Kern pulled down a chart on which was a picture of a big tree. The roots and the trunk of that tree were the Catholic Church, the branches were the other Christian religions. Coming face to face with that tree, grandpa instantly converted.

The coach at Santa Clara was Buck Shaw, who was a student of the famous Knute Rockne of Notre Dame. By the way, Buck Shaw was the first coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Now grandpa was on a road that was to quickly lead him to fame and just as quickly to obscurity again. It was at this time that media named him Frank "Mississippi" Smith.

There was an interesting article recently in the SF Examiner that explained the atmosphere of College football during the 1930's in the Bay area. Santa Clara and St. Mary's were every bit as powerful as Notre Dame. They traveled all over the country to play their games. College football was the No. 1 entertainment of America. The biggest event in the San Francisco Bay area every year was the Santa Clara—St. Mary's game, which was held at Kezar Stadium. It was always a sellout. At that time it was equivalent to the Super Bowl.

On Jan. 1, 1937, Buck Shaw took his team to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl. Grandpa had his own rooting section because so many of his family were able to be there. Uncle Pat told me that he was big stuff that day because he was allowed to sit on the bench with the team during the game. 42,000 fans watched as Santa Clara, who was a 13 point underdog led by Nello Falaschi, Phil Dougherty, and Frank "Mississippi" Smith, defeated second ranked LSU, 21 - 14.

We have heard many stories of that game and a certain play that grandpa was involved in. I used to think there might be a little exaggeration. However, one day grandpa came back from a Santa Clara reunion with a videotape of the 1937 Sugar Bowl game. Then we saw that all those stories were true, especially the ones about that unusual play. The coach wanted to give grandpa a chance to score a touchdown in front of his family, so he was given the ball and got just a few yards from the goal line. Then he was tackled but instead of falling to the ground, he was lifted up. Grandpa threw the ball over his shoulder and Nello Falaschi grabbed it and went in for the touchdown, which won the game for Santa Clara. Grandpa went in for the point after.

Instead of coming back with the team he stayed in New Orleans with his family. It was a very sad parting at the station, but one person, Lionel Rodgers, said to him, "If you ever get out to California again, come to Vallejo and my dad will give you a job." A short time later, grandpa showed up in Vallejo at the Rodgers Bottling Company looking for a job. He met the secretary, Avril Rodgers and fell in love. They were married in 1939.

Grandpa was filled with sage wisdom. Once, when talking about his fame he told me, "Fame comes quickly and leaves quickly. When it is ready to go, if you try to hang on to it, it will ruin your life."

Grandpa was always a faithful husband and good father. He had the most delightful sense of humor, which always thrilled us, and sometimes it would get us into trouble. Once, one of his daughters got a big red F on a paper in the eighth grade. She was told to take it home and have her parents sign it, so she handed it to grandpa to sign. He signed it and never said a word to her about the big red F. She handed it in the next day and the nun said, "I thought I told you to have your parents sign this!" A closer look at the paper revealed that after the big red F he had simply put rank. The nun did not believe that her father did this but she did say, "Take this home and have your mother sign it this time!"

In business, both Grandpa and Grandma were known not only for their honesty, but their generosity. I have heard several stories of how they worked with customers who were having a difficult time establishing their businesses. Grandpa's favorite pastime was his vegetable garden. It was a pastime that benefited many families with an abundance of vegetables. The vegetable legacy continues to this day, and the garden is still referred to as Grandpa's Garden.

Grandpa nurtured his Faith. It did not always appear that he was a man of prayer. I will tell you just one story that shows the power of his prayers. As you all know, he was a cattleman after he retired from the beverage business. He often grew his own hay to feed his cows. Once, he planted the front field with alfalfa. When it was ready to be cut, he left it to dry for a few days. The reason for this is that there cannot be moisture in it when it is baled or there could be the possibility of spontaneous combustion.

The hay was perfect and set to be baled on Monday. On Sunday morning, a huge storm was rolling in. If it rained on his field of alfalfa, he would have lost the entire crop. So he gathered his sons, called the man who baled hay, and got everyone working. The first bale of hay came out of the baler and grandpa sat on it all day. The boys worked for hours, as soon as the bales came out, they were being picked up and taken to the barn. It rained to the North, the South, the East and the West and I mean right across the street. But not one drop of rain fell on his field until that last bale was placed in the barn. The man who did the baling said to grandpa, "Boy, somebody up there must really like you," and his answer was, "I am building a high pressure system up there with prayer."

The quality of grandpa's character was manifested to us many times during these last ten years, when he began to very slowly return to God all the gifts that God had given him. His sight, his memory, his ability to walk. etc. were all given back to God without one word of complaint. Not once in all this time did anyone ever hear him complain. Whenever he was asked how he felt he always answered, "Tolerable."

Grandpa taught us how to live well, but more importantly he taught us how to die with grace and dignity. His greatest achievement in life was that of being a faithful husband and good father. This was most apparent on the day that he died, as he was surrounded by all of his family who were praying the rosary for him. His last words before he slipped into unconsciousness were, "Jesus, I love you."

I would like to say to you mom, we know how hard you worked to help pop. On behalf of the whole family, I thank you for the example you have given us. Your brother Clifford also did the same thing. You spent yourselves completely for your spouses. This certainly shows the great character that is indicative of the Rodgers family. Mom, in a day that has grown cynical of such things as fidelity and love, you and your brother have put new meaning to the words.

Now, that you have heard the Legend of "Mississippi Smith," can't you just see St. Peter, up there at the pearly goal post, in his black and white stripe shirt. Grandpa is coming in for the biggest play of his life and St. Peter raises his arms like this.

Winter 2012

See all articles from this issue


My fight, my faith

As secretary of defense in an age of budget austerity, Leon Panetta '60, J.D. '63 has to make sure the Pentagon doesn't break the bank and that the nation doesn't break faith with the men and women who serve.

Bronco Battalion

What does it mean for a Jesuit university to be home to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps? Seventy-five years after ROTC came to Santa Clara—and 150 years after officers were first trained on campus—a few answers are clear.

Mission Matters

Going global

A $2 million grant creates a year-long fellowship program—with students taking part in a global network of socially conscious businesses.

Bribes, bombs, and outright lies

Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow comes to campus—and shows that ethical issues raised in the Trial of the Century remain as vexing today as they did when spittoons lined the courthouse floor.

Alumni Arts

Let me lay it on you

Hot Tuna is back with their first studio recording in 20 years.