Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Glenn Killinger won the starting quarterback position for his performance in a 14-7 victory over Dartmouth in Penn State’s first-ever homecoming game on October 9, 1920.

Glenn Killinger won the starting quarterback position for his performance in a 14-7 victory over Dartmouth in Penn State’s first-ever homecoming game on October 9, 1920.
Eberly Family Special Collection, Penn State University Libraries, used with permission

Pennsylvanians who remember Glenn Killinger (1898–1988) often envision the legendary coach of West Chester State Teachers’ College football and baseball teams during the decades that spanned 1933 to 1970. His name often comes up in conversations about Paul “Bear” Bryant as one of the two unbending football minds who led the North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters to one of the nation’s best records in 1944, a year that also witnessed some of the worst fighting during World War II. What has been missing for so long, however, is the story of how Killinger rose to athletic superstardom as Penn State’s first All-American and Hall of Fame quarterback during a time when clouds of an earlier war hung over intercollegiate football.

Like many teenage boys in the early 20th century, Glenn Killinger, known as “Killy,” wanted to become a professional athlete. As a beneficiary of a middle-class German and Scots-Irish family in America, with a father who managed a popular hardware store in the Allison Hill district of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Killy played every sport imaginable: football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, bowling, ice skating, swimming and handball.

Killy’s attention was drawn most to football. He was too skinny and brittle to have an impact on his high school football team. Despite his diminutive size as a freshman – 5 feet 1 inch, 120 pounds – he never gave up on his dream. His athletic hero, Jim Thorpe (1888–1953), had much to do with his passion for football. The Harrisburg lad first witnessed Thorpe’s talent in a game played between the Carlisle Indian School and Villanova College at Island Park (present-day City Island) in Harrisburg on October 2, 1912. He watched in awe as Thorpe scored three touchdowns and dropkicked seven extra points in an easy 65-0 victory.

Killy wanted to be just like his hero. His efforts, however, were futile. He was cut from his high school football team every year except his senior season in 1915, which happened to be the worst team in Harrisburg Technical School’s history. He later conceded to friends, “I was the worst player on the worst team Harrisburg Tech ever had.” He graduated in June 1916 without a plan for the future.

 

Called “Shrimp” by his teammates, Glenn Killinger was the worst player on his football team at the Harrisburg Technical High School. He is in the middle row, sixth from the left, in this image of the 1915 football squad.

Called “Shrimp” by his teammates, Glenn Killinger was the worst player on his football team at the Harrisburg Technical High School. He is in the middle row, sixth from the left, in this image of the 1915 football squad.
Todd M. Mealy Collection

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Killinger found employment at the Harrisburg Pipe and Pipe Bending Co., which made products used for submarine construction. He initially wanted to serve in the war, but he was too young for the draft and his parents forbade him from volunteering.

In the fall, Killinger enrolled as a metallurgical engineering major at the Pennsylvania State College. He attended football practice on the first day of fall camp hopeful he could make the freshman team. “I had the chance to look at each player’s size as the team ran onto the field,” he told Charles Henry years later in a 1961 interview. “I also had an opportunity to watch a hard tackling scrimmage.” After seeing that, he confessed, “I walked away from the field and had no further desire to obtain a uniform that year.”

Killinger paid his own way to college at Penn State. War demands, however, hit student life pretty hard. After Uncle Sam had conscripted hundreds of students, college officials elected to end the school year in mid-April.

By summer, Penn State’s entire varsity football team, including its head coach Dick Harlow (1889–1962), was lost to military enlistment. Every starter had either been sent off to the Western Front or to one of the officer training camps along the Eastern Seaboard. No one could guess when the war was going to end, yet the volume of college-aged enlistees multiplied during the summer of 1918. An estimated 40,000 students already left American colleges during the first 12 months of the war to enter active duty. The government feared that the pace of enlistments would leave the Army without skilled personnel and capable officers. “Keep the boys in college!” became the War Department’s rallying cry that summer.

 

Induction of the Student Army Training Corps at Penn State, October 1, 1918. More than 1,750 faculty and students are shown taking the oath. Eberly Family Special Collection, Penn State University Libraries, used with permission

Induction of the Student Army Training Corps at Penn State, October 1, 1918. More than 1,750 faculty and students are shown taking the oath.
Eberly Family Special Collection, Penn State University Libraries, used with permission

In July 1918 the War Department announced the establishment of a new division of the Army to consist of college undergraduates, the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). This military training program aimed to keep students in college by offering free tuition and a fast track to officer training school. SATC took control of college curriculums, making previous majors of study nearly obsolete while altering course material to educate students about the war aims set out by the government.

There was another problem plaguing America’s war effort: the physical health of its soldiers. Selective service figures in the summer of 1918 showed that one-third of the young men drafted were rejected for being physically unfit. “What a pity!” said the Navy Department’s newest athletics division commissioner Walter Camp (1859–1925), the foremost authority on football, adding, “Exercise develops your engine, makes you supple, quick and active.”

The nation was in need of physical regeneration; therefore, programs like SATC were created to both educate college males about combat necessities and to whip them into physical shape. By war’s end, more than 3 million men were playing either intercollegiate or intramural sports in SATC’s massed athletics system.

Although intramural sports at minimum were mandated by SATC, intercollegiate football was hardly a wartime guarantee. In July, a panic developed among coaches, players and fans after Harvard, Yale and Princeton, college football’s trendsetters, announced they were likely going to cancel their 1918 football seasons. Discussions among various athletic directors, university presidents and officials from the War Department were held in the final month of the summer, but the decision to carry on with the season was ultimately left in the hands of individual colleges regardless of what the Big Three decided.

 

Student Army Training Corps march in a drill near the Armory Parade Grounds at Penn State.

Student Army Training Corps march in a drill near the Armory Parade Grounds at Penn State.
Eberly Family Special Collection, Penn State University Libraries, used with permission

Killinger and a brooding public had to wait until August 27 to hear that Penn State would continue with its football season. The deciding factor for college officials was the hiring of Hugo Bezdek (1884-1952), former head coach at the University of Oregon, as director of massed athletics and head football coach to replace Harlow. Bezdek was to collaborate with SATC officers to design a curriculum that incorporated competitive sports into the physical training of every student at Penn State. “I think that athletic sports are essential to the vitality of a nation,” Bezdek asserted to a group of reporters after signing a contract with Penn State officials. “The Germans are enduring and they are strong, but they lack the life, the vivre, the élan, the ‘git up and git’ of the Americans.” Bezdek suggested that the Germans spent too much time at hard labor, while competitive athletics gives Americans “dash, go.”

With nothing but reserve players and walk-ons, Killinger, now 5 feet 8 inches and 170 pounds, made the team as a backup quarterback. Penn State was so depleted of talent that the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, the chief newspaper covering sports for University of Pittsburgh, Penn State’s biggest rival, gloated, “the [Penn State] college eleven faces wreckage.”

The first game against Bucknell was scheduled for October 19 at Beaver Field. Earlier in the month, the spread of a deadly influenza virus had become a global cause of concern. Those sick with the flu usually ran fevers that ranged 100 to 104 degrees. Germs blocked air passages that caused those stricken with the sickness to slowly suffocate to death as blood and other fluids filled their lungs. The rapidity of the virus’s diffusion was alarming. Nearly 530 soldiers and 8,000 civilians had already died of the flu in Pennsylvania alone.

It was not until after Penn State was settled into its locker room, before the opening kickoff against Bucknell, that state officials cancelled the game. Killinger recalled, “the team was leisurely dressing when Bezdek called a meeting and notified us the game was cancelled by the U.S. Health Authority due to the serious national flu epidemic.”

No one knew if Penn State would actually get to play a game during the 1918 season. Killinger’s hometown newspaper, the Harrisburg Telegraph wrote, “If State College ever gets going, coach Hugh Bezdek counts on our old friend, W. G. Killinger, the Harrisburg Tech radiant, to do wonders for his team.”

 

Killinger was the recipient of nine varsity letters at Penn State between 1918 and 1921. He earned three each in football, basketball and baseball. Courtesy Killinger Family

Killinger was the recipient of nine varsity letters at Penn State between 1918 and 1921. He earned three each in football, basketball and baseball. Courtesy Killinger Family

Killy’s debut as a college football player finally arrived on November 2 in a game against the Wissahickon Barracks Midshipmen. Though the game ended in a 6-6 tie, fans felt Penn State delivered a “splendid performance.” Wissahickon owned a weight advantage of 15 pounds to the man and carried a roster of experienced football players.

However determined Killinger was to help his team face off against the mighty naval branch from Cape May, New Jersey, his fragility showed as he was forced to leave the game in the second half when he suffered three cracked ribs. The injury kept him out of the November 9 game against Rutgers, a team that featured Paul Robeson (1898–1976), later to become a famous theatrical singer and pioneer for racial justice. With Killinger on the sideline, Penn State suffered a 26-3 drubbing.

Within nine days, World War I came to an end. While terms of the November 11 armistice would be finalized later, a jubilant President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, “Everything for which America fought has been accomplished.” While all draft calls were immediately halted, Killinger and thousands of others were told to remain in SATC until December 21, at which time every cadet would receive an honorable discharge.

The end of the war meant that Killinger would not see combat, let alone attain the rank of captain. As he acknowledged in his memoir, the fact that he did not get a chance to serve was something he always regretted. At the time, however, Killy could only set his sights on getting healthy enough to play in Penn State’s next game against interstate contender Lehigh College. The team from Bethlehem was considered a major college program in 1918, as well as one of the best teams in Pennsylvania.

Penn State gave up a score to the host within the first five minutes. Fortunately, the extra point was missed. Before the end of the first half, Penn State lineman Ralph Henry scooped up a blocked punt and ran it in for a touchdown. Killinger then dropkicked the go-ahead extra point, which turned out to be the difference in the game.

Killy was the star of the game for Penn State. In addition to the dropkick he converted in the first half, he kicked punts, threw forward passes, returned punts, and ran off tackle enough times to control the clock. The game ended in Penn State’s favor, 7-6.

 

Penn State’s football team finished the 1921 season 8-0-2. The backfield, featuring Pete Redinger, Killinger (back row, second from the left), Joe Lightner, George Snell and future All-American Harry Wilson, was considered the nation’s best.

Penn State’s football team finished the 1921 season 8-0-2. The backfield, featuring Pete Redinger, Killinger (back row, second from the left), Joe Lightner, George Snell and future All-American Harry Wilson, was considered the nation’s best.
Courtesy Killinger Family

The heroics made Killinger a celebrity in his hometown, where the Harrisburg Telegraph boasted, “The local lad then made history by booting the oval squarely between the posts for the one point that meant victory.”

Killinger and his teammates felt a deep sense of accomplishment that day. No matter how ugly they played, or how many breaks went in their favor, the green and battered group from State College had defeated a better team.

One game remained on the schedule: a Thanksgiving Day match with archrival University of Pittsburgh, who carried with them a 31-game win streak. The 3-0 Panthers were coached by legend Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner (1871–1954), who had been recruited in 1915 from the Carlisle Indian School to bring winning ways to the Steel City. All of Warner’s teams at Pitt had won mythical national and East Coast championships. His 1918 team had yet to yield a point, having already defeated Washington and Jefferson 34-0, Pennsylvania 37-0 and the nation’s top ranked team Georgia Tech 32-0.

Playing in a sea of mud helped Killinger’s team jump out to an early 6-0 lead when a poor punt gave Penn State the ball at the 18-yard line. After a few off-tackle runs by Killinger placed the ball at the 4-yard line, fullback Frank Unger bruised his way in for the touchdown. They were the first points scored against Pitt in almost two full seasons. Fans who were well aware of the handicaps placed upon Penn State during the season considered the score “a moral victory.”

There was another dimension to the touchdown. The points meant that Penn State completed a record of having scored in every one of its games. The milestone, as insignificant as it appears, was a bright light in an otherwise difficult wartime adventure. It was a feat that no other football team enduring the same disruptions over the course of 1918 had accomplished. The celebration was short-lived as the host dominated the remainder of the game. Pitt scored four unanswered touchdowns for a 28-6 victory.

Penn State finished the year 1-2-1, with both losses coming to top-20 teams. They were only one point short of a .500 record. The setback to Pittsburgh left Killinger in a strange state, sore and sour because of the loss, but strangely confident about the future. What amazed him was how a nondescript raw collection of young men could have showed glimpses of talent against much more hardened opponents that fall.

The Golden Age’s foremost football authority, Walter Camp, selected Glenn Killinger for his All-American first team in 1921. Killinger’s

The Golden Age’s foremost football authority, Walter Camp, selected Glenn Killinger for his All-American first team in 1921. Killinger’s career record as a football, basketball and baseball player at Penn State was 109-17-5.
Eberly Family Special Collection, Penn State University Libraries, used with permission

Regardless of whether mass athletics won the war, the endless stream of military drilling mixed with athletic competition shaped a resiliency that helped Killinger overcome a significant size disadvantage only to emerge as the nation’s best college football player during his senior campaign in 1921 and the most popular athlete in the history of Penn State upon his graduation.

Before he received his diploma in a small ceremony on January 31, 1922, Killinger had earned nine varsity letters: three each in football, basketball and baseball. Killy and his graduating Class of 1921, the fledging group that cut their teeth on the gridiron during World War I, is the most successful athletics class in the history of Penn State. They played in 131 career football, basketball and baseball games at Penn State between 1918 and 1921. Their collective record is an astounding 109-17-5.

As captain of those teams, Killinger led with a combination of genius and elusiveness. Dressed in his wool jersey, heavy canvas pants and high shoes, he emerged as America’s first great dual-threat quarterback. Killy led three different Penn State teams to a combined 24-game no-loss streak that ran from 1919 to 1921. As of this publication, the record still stands at Penn State.

Shortly after his last college game – a 28-7 victory over the University of Washington on December 3, 1921 – Killinger became Penn State’s first quarterback named to Walter Camp’s First Team All-American roster. Proud but naturally coy, Killinger told his hometown newspaper, “[It’s] very nice to get an All-American place, but a good bit of it was luck.”

It is true that Killinger developed an erudite approach to the game and that he possessed gridiron skills that few others matched. There is honesty, however, in his comment about “luck.” There may never have been an All-American named Glenn Killinger if there were no World War I.

Killinger’s life beyond Penn State reflected the kind of toughness and courage first hardened by military training in 1918. Before his retirement a half-century later, he played for the New York Yankees and New York Giants, wrote a book about football, trained pilots during World War II, and worked as head football and baseball coach at several colleges. He earned many accolades, including induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. The honors are tributes to an unbending leader who modeled athleticism and personal responsibility in his approach to life.

 

Todd M. Mealy resides in Lancaster County where he teaches at Penn Manor High School and is a football coach at Lancaster Catholic High School. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming War Seasons: W. Glenn Killinger, the Golden Age of Sports at Penn State, and the Birth of the American Hero.