last beer for Merlin Shea, Irish galloping ghost
From the 3-14-99 Daily
Sparks, Nev., Tribune
month ago, I wrote
of the death of one of the greatest football players ever to wear the
Sparks High uniform. Merlin Shea was a track and gridiron standout
who played on the Railroaders' 1940 and 1941 state championship elevens.
He also participated
in perhaps the most bizarre football game in University of Nevada history.
On October 16, 1943, UN traveled to Utah and beat the Utes or Indians
(they were called both, as well as Redskins).
"'Scat' Backs Clip
Slower Ute Squad" read the headline in the next day's Salt Lake Tribune.
Writer Jimmy Hodgson reported that "the Nevada Wolves sprinted and passed
their way to a 27-19 victory over the University of Utah Saturday in
a free-scoring football show staged before a meager crowd of 4,846 spectators
at the 'U' stadium. Coach Jim Aiken's Wolves, a combination of University
of Nevada and Reno Air Base gridders, flashed down the greensward for
two touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards and cut loose with a brilliant
passing attack to stack up two more as they handed the Utah Indians
their third straight setback," Hodgson wrote.
The combined squad
resulted from having so many young men in military service in the middle
of World War II.
"Utah's strategy Saturday
was to punt and pray for a Nevada fumble," the Salt Lake Tribune account
continued. "Nevada did fumble some of the punts, too, but the safety
men had plenty of time to pick them up and the strategy backfired when
two of those punts were run back through the entire Utah team for touchdowns.
Even with only three minutes to play and trailing by one touchdown,
Utah was still kicking on second down," Hodgson wrote.
"That's poor football,
even in a sandlot league and, even though Utah was dividing the signal-calling
up with a bunch of lads who'd never called 'em before, it was still
extremely poor quarterbacking," Hodgson concluded.
Utah took Merlin Shea's
opening kickoff and punted on FIRST DOWN from its own 35. Shea returned
it 80 yards for a touchdown, all in the first 20 seconds of play. He
"fumbled momentarily on his own 20-yard line and raced almost unmolested
down the west sideline to score," according to either the Reno Evening
Gazette or Nevada State Journal on 10-17-43.
Shea also saved a touchdown
by collaring an interception which was run back to the 12. Utah failed
to convert. Bev Waller of Fallon returned a punt for either 80 yards
(if you believe the Reno papers) or 78 if you believe the Salt Lake
Trib, and caught another pass for a touchdown.
The Utah strategy may
not have been all that bad. The Wolf Pack fumbled three times (one by
Shea, which did not lead to a Utah score) and was intercepted three
times. Utah turned the ball over only once, on an interception. Nevada's
freshman quarterback Jimmy Aiken completed seven of 14 passes for 180
Joe Fitzpatrick, in
a Salt Lake Trib sidelights column, wrote "Coach Jim Aiken certainly
hit the nail on the head when he said that his backfield would consist
of 'pony backs.' Jim Aiken, Jr., clever little tailback and the coach's
son, and Bev Waller are two halfbacks who could win anybody's horse
race, according to a few of Utah's bewildered linemen.
"Big, lumbering Jack
Oklanda, veteran redskin tackle who intercepted one of Aiken's many
passes, was ready to admit that Merlin Shea was a dead ringer for War
Admiral." (For those who may not remember, War Admiral was a famous
thoroughbred who won American horse racing's Triple Crown in 1937.)
"The husky tackle gathered
in the pigskin on his own 28-yard line and went thundering down the
field with Tom Panos at his side," Fitzpatrick wrote.
"Panos blocked Aiken
on the 50-yard line, but Shea, who started from the eight-yard line,
overtook the tiring lineman and hauled him down 12 yards from the goal
line. Big Oak might have hit pay dirt on the play, but he erroneously
decided that his 'snake hips' would be more effective than his weight."
(Deion Sanders-style hot-dogging was apparently not unknown back then.
The chronicles made no mention of the Dirty Bird, huge index fingers
or mascots in hairy suits.)
By the early 1950s,
the university had dropped football. On October 27, 1951, Merlin Shea
played in the second "Eleven Old Men" vs. Nevada game, the only football
contest that year. (The first "Eleven Old Men" contest had been held
The Reno paper the
next day carried a huge photo of future UNR athletic director Dick Trachok
carrying the ball with Shea running up to block for him. One of the
UN defenders in the picture was a kid from Vegas named Myron Leavitt,
recently sworn in as a Nevada Supreme Court justice. The legendary Jake
Lawlor coached the Eleven Old Men to a 0-0 tie.
Merlin Shea and Bev
Waller went on to become Reno police officers, Waller rising to acting
chief before retiring in 1975. Merlin Shea's family still owns Shea's
Tavern and Del Mar Station
on South Virginia Street just south of the Ponderosa Hotel.
If you're out celebrating
St. Patrick's Day this Wednesday, hoist a green beer for a fine man
named Merlin who left Reno and Sparks much better for having passed
Drive safe and sober.
Be well. Raise hell.
Copyright © 1999, 2005,
Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a 30-year Nevadan and
editor of U-News. In 1998
he served as gubernatorial campaign manager for State
Senator Joe Neal, D-North LasVegas.. Barbwire by Barbano
has originated in the Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune since 1988..