ORANGE – There are a number of great football towns in Essex County, like East Orange, Montclair, and Bloomfield, but Orange is another area where people talk about grid legends.
In the early 1990s, running back Terrell Willis was as good as any player in the state. Anytime Willis touched the ball, he was a threat to reach paydirt for coach Nick Varanelli. This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Willis’ final season with the Orange High School Tornadoes.
What most people don’t know, is that Orange was the first town in New Jersey to host a major pro sports team. The year was 1929, four years before the National Football League held its first league championship game (the Bears beat the Giants).
The forerunner of the NFL had formed in 1920, and during the “Roaring Twenties,” the circuit kept changing teams. But by 1929, people who followed football, began to take a great interest in the pro game. Baseball would finally get a run for its money.
In 1929, the pro league consisted of a dozen teams. That group included Green Bay, New York, Frankfort, the Chicago Cardinals, Boston, Staten Island, Providence, the Chicago Bears, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Dayton, and Orange.
Green Bay, under the coaching of Curly Lambeau, emerged as a power for the first time, finishing with a 12-0-1 record. The Giants were close behind the Packers. Orange placed well back in the pack with a record of 3-6-4.
Despite a losing mark, the Tornadoes did attract a fair amount of interest.
One of the top backs for the team was Henry Benkert, who had played his collegiate ball at Rutgers. And at the tackle spot, Orange spotlighted Princeton University grad Robert Beattle. Other top players for the local team included tackle John Law from Notre Dame and back Steven Hamos from Penn State.
Local fans were interested in Orange because other players from the Greater Metropolitan area suited up for the Tornadoes. Columbia University was represented by the likes of quarterback George Pease, end Leon Johnson, and guard Edward Cuneo. Along with Lambeau, the circuit also had some other big-name coaches. They included George Halas of the Bears and Ernie Nevers of the Cardinals.
Green Bay was starting to build a dynasty because the team from Wisconsin also finished first in 1930 and 1931. Prior to the Packers in 1929, the only unbeaten team in the league had been Canton in 1922 at 10-0-2 and Canton again in 1923 at 11-0-1.
Of course, the stock market crashed in 1929 and the next season the franchise in Orange moved to Newark. But after the 1930 season, the team folded. It would be a long time before the Giants and Jets moved to the Garden State, as well as other major pro franchises like the Devils, Nets, and Red Bulls.
“Football was always big in the Oranges area,” said former Rutgers head baseball coach Fred Hill, who was a grid standout at Clifford Scott High and Upsala College.
GRID NOTEBOOK – In 1930, Newark had a dismal record of 1-10-1, even though about half of the 1929 Orange squad was with the team…
The first pro game in the U.S. took place in 1895 in Latrobe, Pa. That was the year Babe Ruth was born… In 1929, the top player in Essex County was Montclair legend Clary Anderson, a guy who became a superb high school coach… In college, Willis sparkled at Rutgers… Green Bay only allowed 22 points in 1929.