Monday, Dec. 2, 2013
|Christian Keener "Red" Cagle|
The 1920s were the “Golden Age of American Sports.” No other period produced more celebrated heroes: Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Walter Hagen and Red Grange. But no one rode the decade’s wave of fame farther than Southwestern Louisiana Institute’s Christian Keener “Red” Cagle. From a Beauregard Parish cattle ranch in 1921 to the cover of Time Magazine in 1929, from playing before faculty and fellow students at Girard Field in 1922 to leading Army against Navy before 110,000 in the dedication game of Soldier Field in Chicago in 1928, Cagle traveled farther, faster than anyone. Farther, but not longer. His moment ended with the decade in 1930 when he resigned from West Point just weeks before his graduation. But by then Cagle had earned his place in the College Football Hall of Fame.
A new book from UL Press, Game Changers, The Rousing Legacy of Louisiana Sports, by Marty Mulé returns Cagle to his rightful position among Louisiana’s sports legends. (See our books coverage on Page 52 for more on Game Changers.)
When Cagle arrived on campus in 1922, SLI was a 21-year-old school hidden away in a town then smaller than Bogalusa. By the time he graduated Cagle had put Lafayette on a map that included New Orleans and even New York City.
In his first game with the freshmen against Tulane, Cagle returned two punts for touchdowns. The Bullpups held opponents scoreless that season, and by the end of the year Cagle had moved up to varsity.
Cagle’s breakout year was 1923, and his best game was against LSU. In Fighting Tigers Pete Finney wrote, “The afternoon belonged to a sandy-haired youngster who, some on-lookers believed, seemed to pass with either hand. No one knew it at the time, of course, but they were getting their first look at Keener “Red” Cagle.” He completed 22 of 33 passes that day for 233 yards. Only a touchdown in the final four minutes allowed the Tigers to escape, 7-3. SLI’s newspaper, The Vermilion, reported “the fans never saw anything to equal it…After the game every Southwestern player and booster was carried off the field by LSU students.”
At 5’10” and 175 pounds Cagle was more elusive than fast as a runner, proficient at returning kicks and “plunging” into the line. In 1924 he averaged 12.3 yards per carry. But he excelled even more as a passer. That same year he completed 53.9 percent of his passes for 859 yards with a ball bigger, heavier and rounder than today’s football.
His reputation began to spread. Writing in the New York Sun, John B. Foster, at the time a leading sports authority, proclaimed Cagle’s statistics “a world’s passing record” and suggested “he would easily make All-American if he was playing for a Western or Eastern team.” The Times-Picayune, by then regularly carrying accounts of SLI’s games, described what had come to be expected: “In a recent game against Louisiana Tech [Cagle] went back 20 yards for a high pass from center and zigzagged behind the line, finally shooting a fifty-yard pass for a touchdown.”
In four years at SLI, Cagle scored 235 points (including returning 10 kickoffs for touchdowns), a record not broken until 1989 by Brian Mitchell. In his three full seasons with the varsity, he led the Bulldogs to an overall record of 20-7-1, two LIAA championships, and was twice elected captain of the football team. Not surprisingly, before he graduated he was voted The Most Popular Man on Campus.
Graduation in the 1920s did not exhaust a college player’s eligibility if he was willing to enroll in the U.S. Military Academy. That special circumstance along with the assistance of SLI President Edwin L. Stephens and Coach T. Ray Mobley enabled Cagle to receive an appointment to West Point and begin another four-year cycle as a college football star — this time on the biggest stage of all, New York City. From 1926-29 Cagle was Army’s best player.
Grantland Rice later wrote that Cagle “could handle the halfback slot on anybody’s all-time eleven.” For three years Cagle was a consensus All-American, fulfilling “sports authority” Foster’s assessment three times over. In 1929 he won Player of the Year, the precursor of the Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile back in Lafayette, The Vermilion observed: “The grit and determination with which he is coming out makes Southwestern hearts burst with pride.”
While football always seemed to come effortlessly to Cagle, the rigorous demands of being a West Point cadet did not. Cagle’s 1929 cover story in Time Magazine more than suggested as much, “The famed young man has always found it difficult to grasp the inward significance of mathematical and other studious problems.” The article, in retrospect, also implied he was lonely, “He is quiet, retiring. He brought a drawl but not much rambunctiousness with him from Louisiana.” He was a long way from home, he was under tremendous pressure on and off the football field and … he missed his wife. In 1928 he had secretly married his SLI sweetheart Marion Haile from New Roads in a clear violation of the West Point Honor Code.
When news of his marriage finally broke in May 1930, Cagle offered his resignation. Then, as now, when a hero fails to live up to the public’s expectations there is a price to pay. In Cagle’s case he was not allowed to graduate, lost his commission, and was forced to endure recriminations literally from coast to coast. He fled to Mississippi A&M (later State) then, as now, a place of relative solitude, to coach during the 1930 season. He soon returned to New York to play first for the Giants and then the football Brooklyn Dodgers for several years. He remained a featured attraction for fans, but life as a professional football player paled in comparison to the collegiate glories he had known. Along with John Heisman and others, he founded the New York Touchdown Club. He eventually entered the insurance business.
On Dec. 26, 1942, Cagle died at age 37 in New York from a fractured skull after falling down icy subway steps. He was buried in the Haile family grave site in St. Mary’s Cemetery in New Roads. In 1975 Marion Haile Cagle was buried next to him. She never remarried.
Christian Keener “Red” Cagle was a member of the second class inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In commemoration the Alumni Association and the Alumni “S” Club of Southwestern Louisiana Institute erected a monument in his honor. It now stands just inside the southwest gate at Cajun Field.
It’s worth a visit.
John Mikell believes energy-efficient air conditioning and football are the keys to Louisiana’s future. He lives near Grand Coteau.