Joe “The Big Chief” Guyon lay face-first on the ground. Sounds of grown men colliding and grunting like neanderthals surrounded the future Pro Football Hall of Famer as he felt the blood rush to his face in embarrassment. He just missed a tackle to keep up the shutout his team, Georgia Tech, was delivering to Auburn, and he was supposed to be the best player on the field.
Moon Ducote, Auburn’s All-Southern Fullback, made Guyon miss the tackle at the 10 yard-line and was had nobody between him and the end zone 90 yards away.
The Big Chief leapt to his feet and began to maniacally pursue Ducote like he had something to prove.
Guyon always felt like he had something prove.
He was in the sixth grade when he found out he couldn’t continue going to school in 1904. American Indians weren’t considered U.S. citizens until 1924. Guyon had to live with the fact that he would have an uphill climb to face if he wanted to be successful in the world.
Shortly after, he discovered he could do something better than almost anyone else—he had world-class football skill.
Guyon used his talent on the football field to carve a place for himself in this world and football history. Tales of Guyon read like the tall tales of Paul Bunyan. Like hitting a would-be tackler so hard he sent the guy to the hospital, or breaking the great George Halas’ ribs and convincing the ref to give Halas a penalty for it, or making up plays in the huddle during games because the team his team had no playbook.
Something more even remarkable than these gridiron feats is the way he’s been largely forgotten by the sports and Union community. Whenever most people mention Union’s now defunct football team, the first name they mention is Bear Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach. It’s even in the first two paragraphs of Union’s wikipedia page that Bryant got his start as a coach at Union.
The problem with all of this praise for Bryant is that he never actually coached a game at Union. Bryant got his first coaching job at Union in the spring of 1936, but left the job before the season started in the fall to be an assistant at the University of Alabama.
On the other hand, Joe Guyon coached Union’s football team in 1919 and then returned from 1923-1927 to serve as the athletic director and be the “coach of all sports.” That title was not hyperbole: he literally coached the football, baseball, basketball and women’s basketball teams during those four years.
Guyon got his start in a unique place. He was born November 26, 1892 at White Earth, Minnesota as a member of the Ojibwa tribe. At the time, American Indians were not considered U.S. citizens making it incredibly difficult for them to get to college and make something of themselves.
Guyon discovered after the sixth grade his athleticism could get him an education beyond what was normal. He was known for being incredibly kind and friendly, but was quiet at first due to seeming to constantly feel burdened, according to the book “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe,” by Kate Buford.
“It was hard trying to make anything of yourself,” Guyon once said, according to “New York Giants: The Complete Illustrated History” by Lew Freedman. “Sports were on of the few ways a youngster could pull himself up.”
Guyon’s athletic prowess allow him to play college football for Carlisle Indian Industrial School from 1912 to 1913 under head coach Pop Warner.
His natural position was halfback, but for the 1912 season he played on the line as a left tackle because Jim Thorpe, the greatest halfback of Guyon’s time, was on the team. Guyon was positively puny by today’s standards, listed as only 5’11’’ and 186 pounds. It was rare to have players over 210 pounds.
In comparison, Left tackle Michael Oher, famous from the movie and book,The Blindside, is listed as 6’4’’ and 315 pounds.
Though he wasn’t needed for his natural positon, Guyon was too good to not have on the field. The team needed his speed because he could pull(leave his spot to run to the other side of the line and get in front of the halfback to block) better than anyone else.
In 1917, Guyon transferred to Georgia Tech for two seasons where he was a part of one of the greatest teams ever assembled, winning a national championship and outscoring opponents 491-17. It was clear from the beginning of the season the team was special. Guyon’s very first rushing attempt turned into a 75 yard touchdown run according to the “1918 Spalding Football Guide.”
It’s easy to imagine spectators watching the new halfback for the team, heralded as one of the greatest power runners ever, show up and immediately run an opponent over and race off towards daylight as he scores on his first rushing attempt of the season.
During his time at Georgia Tech, teammates and spectators grew to love Guyon for his physical style of play, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to win games and the way he would spook his opponents and encourage his teammates with “blood curdling war whoops.”
“Guyon is the best man I ever coached,” John Heisman, Georgia Tech’s head coach, said according to Lest We Forget 1927. That’s the same John Heisman the Heisman trophy, given to the best college football player each year, was named after.
Guyon went on to have incredible performances that yea and in 1918, his last year with the team. He had to play multiple positions to fill in some holes left by his teammates who graduated. This versatility made him not only a great half/fullback his last season, but he played so well filling in on the line that he was named a first-team All-American tackle.
After his final year at Georgia Tech, Guyon became head coach of Union’s football team and played professionally for the Canton Bulldogs at the same time, winning two world championships with the Canton Bulldogs in 1919 and 1920.
Guyon became a beloved figure at Union because everyone knew he was one of the greatest living football players at the time and because of the way he treated others. He wasn’t another great player that got a coaching job based solely on his accomplishments on the field. He could take players who were small, or had never played the game, and turn them into starters in a season.
“Guyon’s broad smile and absolute reliability are well recognized features of campus life at Union,” according to the writers of Lest We Forget 1927. He used his ability to relate and his experience as a player to look a student in the eyes and say; “You look like a ball player. Come to practice today and we’ll teach you a thing or two.” Those players became lettermen over experienced athletes who had played the game for years. It was that ability to find and coach diamonds in the rough that set Guyon apart.
He left Union after the 1919 season and spent the next four years playing professional football with his friend and former teammate Jim Thorpe in the newly started National Football League, and played professional baseball in the summers.
Guyon and Thorpe became good friends, and Guyon was Thorpe’s best man in one of his weddings. The two went on to be the founding members of the Oorang Indians in 1922, a novelty traveling professional football team that created the first halftime show.
Guyon and Thorpe had to split up for the 1924 season after the Oorang Indians dissolved and Guyon became the athletic director of Union while still playing professional football. During that time the team went 17-21-1 and defeated Memphis, University of Louisville and other teams where the average player was 30 pounds heavier than the typical Union player. During this time period Union didn’t play Division II schools because it didn’t exist. They played schools like the University of Alabama every year, so his record was an impressive feat with such a small school and team.
Guyon’s gift as a coach was finding talent and skill. From there he conditioned his players to be in excellent shape and used his experience playing for some of the greatest coaches of all time, Warner and Heisman, to help him create game plans that focused on execution and effort instead of brute strength.
Guyon was later named to the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. He threw the game winning touchdown pass for the New York Giants to win NFL Championship in 1927 his last year of professional football.
He did all of this despite only receiving a sixth grade education before attending Carlisle in 1912, and being Native American in a country that didn’t consider all American Indians full citizens until late in his career. The way he coached, played and lived could be summed up in that single play he had against Auburn in 1917.
As Guyon started his pursuit of Ducote, a world-class athlete and future professional football player in his own right, he would have to hit a gear of speed no one else possessed just to catch him at the end zone.
Guyon took Ducote down 26 yards short of the end zone and let out a war cry of celebration.