The Marx Brothers of Football
The amazing, true story of the Wandering Weevils.
By Michael Finger
NOVEMBER 8, 1999: "Welcome, everyone, to the second quarter of today's great game between the Bradley Braves and the Boll Weevils from Arkansas A&M. It looks like we're ready to play now, and the Weevils have possession on their own 43-yard line. Uh oh wait a minute, folks, wait a minute! All the Arkansas boys have suddenly turned around, and now they've got their backs to the other team. Why, our fellows just don't know what to make of this they're standing up and laughing and -- there's the snap. Holy cow! The Weevil quarterback has taken the ball and now he's turned around! He's running the wrong way with it -- he's racing back toward his own goal line! He's at the 30, the 20, the 10, and -- Great Caesar's Ghost! -- he's been tackled at the 5 by -- can you believe it? -- one of his own players!! Boy oh boy, what a crazy play! They don't call this nutty Arkansas team the Marx Brothers of Football for nothing, no sirree!"
Half a century ago, Arkansas A&M College in Monticello put together a motley squad of football players that made headlines wherever they went -- and they went just about everywhere. A Nevada newspaper called Arkansas A&M "the most unusual team playing football in the United States today," and a Georgia reporter said a match-up with them "was like lightning striking a rainbow." Fans jammed stadiums to see the Boll Weevils play -- not in hopes of seeing a victory, because there were only three of those during the entire 1939, 1940, and 1941 seasons. No -- what they came to see were the bizarre antics and crazy formations of a football team that played the game for the sheer fun of it, and to catch a glimpse of the quiet little coach from South Dakota who brought the Weevils to life.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Stewart Ferguson wore many hats at Arkansas A&M College (now called the University of Arkansas at Monticello, about a three-hour drive west of Memphis). He was the school's dean of men, athletic director, and instructor in physical education, psychology, biology, and medieval history. Back home in South Dakota, he had played and later coached football for Dakota Wesleyan University, becoming the winningest coach in the history of that school. After earning a master's degree from Louisiana State University, he came to Arkansas A&M and was invited to coach the Boll Weevils.
His first season, in 1935, was a coach's nightmare; he lost every game. The school annual that year, ever cheerful, actually pointed to a loss as a highlight of the season: "The Boll Weevils played their best game in the annual Thanksgiving Day classic with Magnolia by holding the Muleriders to a 7-6 victory." At the end of the year, the school president held a public meeting and asked the good citizens of Monticello if they wanted to keep the present football coach. The resounding reply was "NO," according to a manuscript written by Ferguson and filed in the college archives: "I was disgustingly through with the game of football," he wrote. "The game had given me the most intense worry and discouragement of my life. Despite working harder, and I believe coaching better, I could not have had poorer success in any occupation." He continued, "Just thinking about football in the spring of 1935 bored me. That fall the sound of a kicked football gave me a headache, and the smell of pigskin was putrid."
Ferguson resumed his teaching and administrative jobs at the school, and a new coach was hired, who didn't fare much better. After heavy losses in the '36, '37, and '38 seasons, A&M decided to abolish the football program rather than dump more funds into it. But Ferguson had a better idea. Hire me back as the football coach, he told the school president, and I'll get our program back on track. There are just three stipulations, he said: 1) I will get no pay for coaching, 2) I'm not required to win a single game, and 3) I can coach any way I wish. They gave him the job.
Ferguson wasn't as crazy as everyone thought; he just wanted to make football a game again, instead of a business. "I wanted no part of this new kind of football that was developing," he wrote. "Football was no longer a sport in most of our colleges; it was a racket that gambled with the bodies and spirit of our young men."
That autumn, Ferguson posted a typed notice on bulletin boards around the campus; it said simply that any boy who wanted to travel from New York to California should join the football team. As one might expect, the advertisement attracted a rather unusual group of athletes, including a 38-year-old Methodist preacher (who earned the nickname "El Preacho"), the town barber, and a former cheerleader who ultimately became one of the team's best passers. Gymnasts and acrobats also joined the team, but very few bona-fide football players from local high schools signed up.
While such a lineup -- or lack of one -- might dismay other coaches, it didn't faze Ferguson. A sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat said that posting that notice pretty much ended Ferguson's duties anyway, since "this quiet little upsetter of pigskin traditions doesn't bother much with coaching." That's not quite true. He taught the team basic rules and fundamentals, and even offered some handy inside tips, like this one: "As for blocking, the best way in the world to block is to step on the other guy's toes." The rest of it was up to them; Ferguson admitted, "I have lost confidence in my ability to tell the boys what to do on defense, and after all, it's their responsibility." In a national story for Collier's magazine, Ferguson declared, "Tackling? We never teach it -- it just makes them tackle-shy. Besides, it would spoil our jersey-tackling and arm-grabbing, which are something extraordinary." Collier's also noted, "On the theory that a running attack needs blockers and blockers are likely to get wounded, there is no running attack."
To save money on uniforms, Ferguson gave his players salesmen's samples, so it wasn't unusual to find each player wearing a different color jersey -- or even wearing the same colors as the opposing team, if they felt like it.
A Philadelphia sportswriter who covered one of the team's rare practices described it as "the likes of which have not been seen outside the recreation periods of the State Insane Asylum." A Little Rock reporter didn't even see that much activity: "The Boll Weevils conducted their spring practice by jumping on the college bus and riding around the campus. There were no casualties."
The 1939 season began with a game against Louisiana Tech in Ruston, Louisiana, which the Weevils promptly lost. That was simply a warm-up for things to come, as the "Wandering Weevils" quickly honed their peculiar style of play in game after game. One of their favorite formations was something they called the swinging gate. At the snap of the ball, the entire line, standing shoulder to shoulder, would swing around with the center acting as a hinge. "It almost never makes any yardage," said Collier's, "but they love it."
Collier's reported that another popular formation was the whirlwind play, "which consisted of the team milling around the ball carrier in ever-widening circles until the whole outfit got so dizzy they just sat down. Net gain: nothing."
During one game, the halfback jammed the ball between his legs and hopped down the field on his hands. In another game, one of the ends flipped a complete somersault after catching a forward pass. On still another occasion, one of the backs took a hand-off and seemed to be heading for a touchdown, when he suddenly stopped and flipped the ball to a nearby referee, telling him, "Here, you carry it a while. I'm tired."
Still, something strange happened during the first season: The Boll Weevils actually won two games, defeating the South Dakota School of Mines 26-7 and shutting out Northwest Mississippi College 28-0. "Something must have gone wrong," team members moaned to Collier's. In future schedules, Ferguson refused to play those schools, complaining that they were surely incompetent.
The Weevils wandered across America in a big green-and-white bus they called the Green Dog. One year alone they traveled more than 10,000 miles and visited 17 states. In one three-week period they played games on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts -- still traveling by bus.
Because of their schedule, most of the players were away from school for weeks at a time, so Ferguson taught classes along the way and arranged "educational" outings along their paths. A list compiled by the school includes such interesting accomplishments as "visiting more than 200 colleges and universities, passing through most of the states in the Union, visiting the New York World's Fair, talking with Betty Grable, touring most of the Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields," and even -- lucky fellows! -- "meeting Postmaster General James A. Farley and eating dinner with the mayor of Cleveland."
By this time, the national media had carried wild tales of the Boll Weevils across the country, and dozens of teams were eager to play them. After all, they were almost guaranteed a win and a packed stadium. For the 1940 season, Ferguson selected opponents in 10 states, and the Weevils further refined their zany "act." Frank Carson Jr., living in Monticello today, was a back on the 1940 and 1941 Boll Weevil squads. He recalls, "All our plays were wild. We'd do just about anything to excite the crowd. One time we were playing Bradley Tech in Peoria, Illinois, and we borrowed a bicycle from somebody and started sending substitutes into the game on the bike."
Carson also remembers the Weevils "would rather throw the ball than block and run with it. If we were about to get tackled, we'd find somebody to throw it to." In one game, the Boll Weevils marched all the way to the 3-yard line, then made up a complicated play that involved 19 laterals -- most of them backwards. When it was over, they were back at their own 3. A sportswriter noted, "This never failed to produce a nifty loss."
Certain "star" players began to attraction attention on their own. An end named Lawrence "The Stork" Lavender would often come on the field dressed in tails, scarf, top hat, and white gloves. Another player, a fellow named Bix Stillwell, regularly wandered away from the game and played the drums with the other team's band.
Once, when the Weevils had a rare chance to kick for an extra point, the kicker raced toward the football, but missed it and booted the guy holding it, who cartwheeled along the ground into the end zone. The referee, a stickler for rules, would not give them a point for this. And in a muddy game in Missouri, the Weevils splashed onto the field wearing rubber flippers and called signals in the huddle by quacking.
During all this commotion, Coach Ferguson would usually sit up in the stands munching on peanuts. The New York Post believed that "every game finds [the Weevils] surprising Ferguson with plays he's never seen before, even in nightmares." The coach himself admitted, "Much of the time, I just sit back, watch, and wonder what they are going to do next.
Coach Ferguson declared the 1941 Boll Weevils "my worst team yet." He had reason to be proud, because they went on to lose every game -- sometimes by rather convincing margins like 67 to 0. By the end of the season, opponents had run up 493 points against the Boll Weevils' 18 -- and the Weevils weren't happy to have those 18. In a game against Bradley Tech in Illinois, the Weevils yanked one of their players off the field and pretended to beat him senseless because he had the audacity to gain yardage against the other team. In another game, the Weevils couldn't find two of their players -- not that it really mattered anyway -- because they had wandered off to the press box and were using the public address system to serenade the crowd with their creaky rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."
The team wasn't that awful, of course; sometimes they had to work hard to lose. "Just when we were on the lip of the enemy goal and about to score," halfback John Scritchfield told Sports Illustrated in 1971, "we'd go into our 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' formation. That is, the whole team would fall flat, or one of our punters would whirl and kick the ball back downfield."
The scores didn't matter, anyway. "We'll trade a laugh for a touchdown any day," said Ferguson, and his ideas caught on. The New York Times declared, "If other coaches would follow Professor Ferguson's coaching philosophy, football might be returned to the sanity of its early days." Collier's said the Boll Weevils "were one of the best attractions in football." Not everyone agreed. Plenty of coaches thought he was making a mockery of their sacred sport. And what was the joy in winning if the other team wasn't really playing hard -- and if the crowds kept cheering the losers? But then, maybe the Weevils weren't the losers; as Ferguson once said, "When you play for the fun in a game, how can you lose?"
The Marx Brothers of Football lasted only three years. World War II pulled most of the able-bodied players from campuses across the country, and many never returned. Today, almost all the standout Boll Weevil players have died. Coach Ferguson himself joined the army in 1942. After the war, he didn't return to Monticello. Instead, he went back home to South Dakota, where he got a job coaching football at Deadwood High School.
Ferguson died there in 1956; he was 55 years old. In a story that he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, he said, "When my players talk with their children -- I want them to say, "That Coach Ferguson was sort of a damn fool -- didn't care much whether he won or lost. But, boy -- the times we had and the things we saw."
After more than half a century, the Wandering Weevils were in the spotlight once again. On Saturday, October 23rd, the University of Arkansas at Monticello paid tribute to the surviving members of Ferguson's famous team during the school's homecoming celebration. A number of players attended, along with Edith Ferguson, the coach's wife. Craig McTurk and Marcus Bastida, two filmmakers from California, were in Monticello that weekend to produce a documentary about the Boll Weevils' reunion.
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