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Sport Scene Zimmerman's football days Fall football remembered

Winter 2005 • Volume 11, Issue 1

Observations: Gene Zimmerman’s football days
by Jerry Rapp ’42

During the summer months, we get an interesting mix of retirees and high school volunteers sitting around the escort desk at Methodist Medical Center.

So it was no surprise on a recent morning when, for some reason, we mentioned Gene Zimmerman’s football-playing days at Bradley, and one of the young fellows perked up.

“Bradley played football?” he said, with a surprised look on his face.

And it dawned on us; here is a whole generation that has never heard of the glory days of Bradley football. Zimmerman ’32, a veteran of our escort corps at age 90, may well be the last remaining football player of 1930-31-32. But, as he admits, the better Bradley teams came before and after that time.

The first “glory era” of Bradley football began with the expansion of Bradley Polytechnic Institute to a four-year college, and the arrival on the Hilltop of A.J. Robertson in 1920.

Robertson, a graduate of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and the University of Montana, came to Bradley by way of Kansas State Teachers College at Hays, Kansas, and signed on to coach football, basketball, and baseball. He was still doing all three shortly before his death in 1948. He also served as athletic director, lined up his own schedules, and carried a full teaching load as head of the physical education department. No wonder he remains a legend at Bradley to this day. [Robertson Memorial Field House is named in his honor.]

At 6 ft. 3 in., Zimmerman was a “lanky” left end who had never played football. The sport was far beyond the means of his high school in Roanoke.

Logically, the best of the freshman moved up the following years to join the varsity, coached by Robertson and assisted by John “Dutch” Meinen, a legendary combination in Bradley annals.

“We didn’t have offensive and defensive specialists in those days,” he says. “You just played ’em both. We played old-fashioned football.”

“We didn’t have much protection,” he says of the equipment. “Our uniforms were kind of laughable. We had shoulder pads that we strapped on, but they were light. Our helmets were very thin, just leather with a little padding. We had a lot of injuries.”

“By 1932, we weren’t doing very well,” he recalls with a smile. “I don’t remember the record, but we won very few games. We played in the Little 19 Conference, and there were some good teams in there. However, when I was a senior we made the news because one Saturday afternoon we got red-hot and dumped one of our biggest rivals, Millikin from Decatur. That made our season.”

“The game back then was a lot different than it is today,” he says. “Not as fast, not as aggressive. Just a different type game.”

Yes, young fellow, they did play football at Bradley.

Seventy-three years of it, before acting-president Dr. Martin Abegg, speaking for the trustees, announced in December of 1970, that the sport was being eliminated from the school’s athletic agenda. The football obituary noted a 73-year record of 308 wins, 240 losses, and 32 ties.

T-shirt with BU Football undefeated on the front and back.

Chris Matera ’07, a mechanical engineering major
from Valparaiso, Indiana, sports a t-shirt paying tribute to
Bradley’s football history.
The t-shirt is sold at the Bradley bookstore. Go>