The Nesser Brothers were a group of football playing brothers who helped make up the most famous football family in the United States from 1907 until the mid-1920s. The group consisted of seven brothers who worked for Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Columbus, Ohio and who were later used as the foundation for the Columbus Panhandles of the "Ohio League", and later the National Football League, when the club was founded by future NFL-President Joe Carr in 1907.
The brothers' father, Theodore, was born on January 20, 1850, in a small town in Germany called Kirsch, near Trier, Alsace-Lorraine, which was the border region between Germany and France. He eventually got a job with the German railroad as an apprentice boilermaker. Soon afterwards the German government, which operated and controlled all the railroads, sent him to Metz, where he worked for twelve years as a boilermaker.
In 1870, at the age of twenty, he fought with the German army in the Franco-Prussian War although he did not care for the fighting. After the war, around 1873, Theodore met Katerina Steinbach, and the following year the two were married and wasted no time in creating a large family. the couple eventually had eleven children. The first of the football-playing Nesser Brothers were born in Germany: John (1876) and Phil (1880).
By 1881 Theodore had grown weary of constant the wars in Europe and looked to give his family a fresh start in the United States. That year he signed a contract to work with the Pennsylvania Railroad in exchange for boat fare. He was forced to leave his family behind, until he could raise enough money to send for them. He also agreed to work for three years to help the railroad develop improvements to its locomotive firebox.
The railroad sent him to Dennison, Ohio, to start working. By 1882 he had finally saved enough money for Katerina and the five children to make their way to America. He eventually designed the steam engine that would be used by the railroad the years to come. However when the railroad tweaked his design to get around his patent in 1887, Nesser quit and started a plumbing business in Columbus. While in Columbus the Nesser family continued to grow with five more children were born including football players: Fred (1887), Frank (1889), Al (1893) and Ray (1898).
Seven of the eight Nesser boys eventually followed their father to work as boilermakers at the Pennsylvania Railroad. The brothers did backbreaking, muscle-straining work for 10 hours a day at the shops of the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. However they always rushed through their 1 hour lunch break so they could practice football for 50 minutes before they returned to work. In the event of the rain, they played euchre.
None of the brothers attended college, however they were offered various scholarships. On brother, Frank, was offered a chance to go to Notre Dame but chose to get married instead. Meanwhile Phil was a math genius who never had any formal education beyond the fourth grade. Ted was a football genius and is credited with originating several plays: the triple pass, the criss-cross and the short kickoff, which became popular plays at the college level.
In 1907, Joe Carr resurrected and reorganized the Columbus Panhandles, a professional football team that recorded its first season in 1901 but disbanded in 1904 due to financial hardships. With his experience as a sportswriter and a sports executive in baseball, he was ready to make his mark on football, the sport he truly loved. However if his team was to succeed, he needed an attraction. That led Carr to build his team around pro football’s most famous family, the Nesser brothers. Eventually six brothers would play for the Panhandles. Carr used the Nesser brothers as the backbone of the Panhandles, and the football-playing family remained in that role for nearly twenty years.
Because most of the team’s players were employed by the railroad, they could ride the train free of charge. Because of this perk, Carr was able to schedule mostly road games, eliminating the expenses of stadium rental, game promotion, and security for the field. This perk combined combination with the Nesser brothers, made the Panhandles a major attraction in the early days of professional football. The Nesser brothers were bigger and stronger than most of their opponents. In their prime, they averaged more than 210 pounds apiece, in an era in which the average professional lineman weighed about 180 pounds.
The Nessers were a huge draw everywhere they went. During a game against the Detroit Heralds in Navin Field (later renamed Tiger Stadium) in 1916 the team drew 7,000 spectators, even though the Heralds hiked their ticket prices from $1 to $1.50 only for games against the Panhandles and Jim Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs. The brothers were written up extensively in out-of-town newspapers, but barely received notice in their hometown of Columbus. This fact is due to the focus of Columbus fans on the Ohio State University football team. They had little interest in games played by railroad workers. As a consequence, the Panhandles never achieved much of a hometown following.
Ted's son Charlie also played briefly for the Panhandles in 1921. At the time Ted was a player-coach for the team. This led to the only time in NFL history where a father and son played together on the same team. The 1921 Panhandles team reported featured six Nesser brothers, a son (Charlie Nesser), a nephew (Ted Hopkins) and a brother-in-law (John Schneider) on the team. Four of the brothers retired as players after the 1921 season, including 46-year-old John, who held the record as the NFL's oldest player until it was later broken by George Blanda. Meanwhile Al continue to play until 1931.
There were 12 children in the Nesser family. Ironically the only boy who didn't play football was Pete, the largest of the Nesser brothers, who weigh in at 350 pounds. The game just did not appeal to him. He worked as a boilermaker for the Pennsylvania Railroad for a remarkable fifty-seven years, starting in 1890 at age thirteen, and continuing until his retirement in 1947. Pete died on May 29, 1954, at the age of seventy-six.
Meanwhile the football career of Raymond, the youngest of the brothers, remains somewhat of a mystery. It seems he only played in few games with his brothers, but he did appear in photos advertising the Panhandles. He didn’t follow his brothers into the boilermaker trade, either; instead he became a police officer for the city of Columbus. Raymond died on September 2, 1969, at the age of seventy-one.
The Nessers also played for a little for the Massillon Tigers, Akron Indians, Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Shelby Blues, Cleveland Panthers and the New York Giants. Ted, the first Nesser to make money at football, played for Massillon's state championship team in 1904, 1905 and 1906. Older brother John also played for the Tigers, in 1905, before Carr formed the Panhandles in 1907. Meanwhile, Al won two NFL Championships with the Akron Pros (1920) and the New York Giants (1927). Frank was usually recruited by Peggy Parratt to play for his Akron Indians.
The Nessers were not restricted to playing only football. In addition to football Phil was a champion hammer thrower. Meanwhile Fred was a professional boxer who was considered a legitimate contender for the heavyweight title, held by Jess Willard. However in 1915, a broken wrist ended his boxing career. Frank was also a star baseball player who never ranked below third in batting in the Ohio State League and the Southern Association during his six years as a pro.
Columbus has no plaques or monuments to the Nessers or a street named after them. In 1987, Fred's daughter Vera tried to get the city to name a street after the football pioneering brothers, however her request was rejected. A display recognizing the Nessers' contributions to pro football is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although none of the brothers have been formally inducted into the Hall.
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- Lahman, Sean (2008-08-12). The Pro Football Historical Abstract. ISBN 9781592289400. http://books.google.com/?id=k84pD-r7L0MC&dq=Al+Nesser+football.
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- A Colorful Game: Names are in the Book
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- PFRA Research. "Let's Play Two!: 1913". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association): 1–5. http://www.profootballresearchers.org/Articles/Tigers_Pounce_Again.pdf.
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- Forgotten NFL Family: the Nesser Brothers of Columbus, Ohio
- ↑ Hunter, Bob. "Forgotten NFL Family: the Nesser Brothers of Columbus, Ohio". Columbus Dispatch (Ohio). http://www.daytontriangles.com/nessers.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-04.