When Alabama’s football team beat George Washington 39-0 on Oct. 5, 1935, a vacationing high school boy couldn’t wait to tell his father about a sensational halfback he had seen play for the Colonials.
That’s how much Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans impressed the son of Tim Mara, owner of the NFL’s New York Giants.
“If I am remembered for nothing else,” Wellington Mara said years later, “I’d like to be remembered for discovering Tuffy Leemans.”
Because Leemans went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Giants, it’s the sports moment judged the greatest in GW history.
“You know, it’s quite a feeling to think that you now belong among the best football players of all time,” Leemans said of his HOF election, according to his obituary in The Washington Post. “Money can never take the place of what a man achieves. If I had to give a speech right now, I’d bust out crying.”
It started with a three-year career with the Colonials from 1933-35. Born in Superior, Wis., Leemans played one year at the University of Oregon before transferring to GW.
The Colonials had gained national attention by playing top competition, starting with Alabama in 1932. The Colonials lost, 28–6, but beat Iowa, 21–6, and tied Oklahoma, 7–7, that year.
Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans arrived the next year and led the Colonials to a 17-9-2 record in three seasons. He also set school career records for total yards (2,382), most points (103) and most rushing attempts (490) that still stood when GW dropped football in 1966.
Leemans was also named MVP of the 1936 College All-Star Game, a series discontinued in the 1970s that pitted college players selected by fans against the NFL champion.
He impressed observers during the all-star team’s scrimmages, breaking off several long runs, making two open-field tackles and batting down three passes in the secondary.
“A pug-nosed, curly-haired halfback streaked up and down the gridiron leaving in his wake All-American players clutching at flying heels,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s George Strickler, according to a history of the College All-Star Game. “And the general impression that experts who ignored Tuffy Leeman of George Washington during the last three years were guilty of gross neglect. He reported to the All-Star coaches unheralded by national publicity.”
Leemans was heralded after helping the collegians to a surprising 7-7 tie against the Detroit Lions, earning MVP honors over All-Americas such as Bill Shakespeare of Notre Dame and Jay Berwanger of Chicago.
Berwanger was the first player selected in the first NFL Draft in 1936. Leemans was the 18th player selected, by Mara’s Giants. Leemans became one of the finest backs in the NFL. He ran, kicked, passed and played what would now be free safety on defense in the days of 60-minute football.
He played eight seasons, including the Giants’ 1938 NFL championship, scoring the first touchdown in a 23-17 victory against the Green Bay Packers.
Leemans finished his career in 1943 as the Giants’ player-coach and later was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1930s.
That’s how a school in Washington, D.C., renowned for its success in basketball and soccer and which hasn’t played football in 50 years has a former player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I was a kid who used to work the iron ore boats on vacation from high school,” Leemans reminisced during his Hall of Fame induction in 1978, a year before he died.
“I also worked as a fireman shoveling coal. But I was of hardy, Belgian stock and that early hard work helped me as a football player. I have achieved everything I ever wanted. I am a happy man.”
Wellington Mara, the man credited with discovering Leemans, was a happy man for another reason.
In 1937, a year after Leemans graduated from George Washington, George Preston Marshall moved the Boston Redskins to Washington.
“It’s a good thing the Redskins didn’t move to Washington until 1937,” Mara said, “or we could never have gotten Tuffy.”
On the cover and middle: Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans played football for George Washington from 1933-35 before a Hall of Fame career with the New York Giants. (Courtesy GW Athletics)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Coastal Carolina (update) and Florida International
• Tuesday: Fordham and Furman
• Wednesday: Gardner-Webb and George Mason
• Thursday: George Washington and Grand Canyon
• Friday: Green Bay and Harvard