The pain of Wittenberg captain Wilbur “Wib” Etter was so severe many feared he had separated a shoulder or broken a collarbone. The stakes far outweighed the risk of further injury.
It was Nov. 25, 1920 — Thanksgiving Day — at muddy Zimmerman Field in Springfield. The 7-0 Lutherans, as they were known at the time, were in a scoreless battle with 5-0-1 Denison. The winner was to stake claim as Ohio Athletic Conference champion.
Etter, regarded so highly he was once compared to Ohio State All-American Chic Harley, had intercepted a pass early in the fourth quarter and injured his shoulder when he collided with the Big Red’s quarterback on the return. He remained in the game.
The ensuing Lutherans drive stalled and time was running out. The Wittenberg defense, with Etter at safety, was dominating — Denison had but one first down — and the Big Red faced third-and-10 from its own 40-yard line with five minutes left.
Denison wasn’t settling for a tie. Halfback Red Stone assumed the triple threat and hurled a pass, hoping desperately it would fall into the arms of a teammate.
Etter had other plans. He intercepted the ball on his own 47, bum shoulder and all. The
6-foot, 170-pounder then took an end run 35 yards to the Denison 18 on the next play from scrimmage.
The momentum gained had all but evaporated when Wittenberg lined up for third-and-9. Etter then was tackled for a loss, but a Big Red penalty led to an automatic first down.
Etter, who also completed 7-of-13 passes and had a 35-yard TD negated due to a penalty earlier in the game, made his second chance count, as the Lutherans bulled to the 1 following three Etter runs.
All-Ohio right tackle Bill “Dutch” Trautwein turned to Etter in the huddle. The well-built 235-pounder and future Ohio University basketball coach spoke with conviction as he said, “Follow me as far as you can and then go over the top.”
Trautwein was true to his word and the Denison wall gave way as Etter took the single-wing snap, stepped on Trautwein’s back and leaped into the air. The crowd of 4,000 held its breath while the referees peeled away the mass of humanity.
The ball was three inches over the goal line. The deadlock was broken. Etter kicked the conversion — the 322nd point of his 19-game career — and the Tigers held on for a 7-0 victory.
The third consecutive unbeaten season gave Wittenberg unmatched recognition. One well-known powerhouse asked Lutherans coach Ernie Godfrey to play a non-league game in 1921, but the offer was turned down immediately. It was Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish — the 1919 national champions.
Wittenberg hasn’t slowed down since.
Now known as the Tigers, the school trails Mount Union 728-727 as the winningest program in NCAA Division III history. Wittenberg also has five national championships, but toiled in relative obscurity until the speedy and elusive Etter put it on the map.
For his efforts nearly 100 years ago, the 1917 Wadsworth graduate will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 12 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.
The small-school ‘Chic Harley’ Wilbur George Etter was the youngest of Charles and Cora Etter’s four children. Some sources claim Wilbur was born in 1900 — his birth certificate was lost in a fire — but his World War I draft card lists his birthdate as May 9, 1899.
The family was well known. Charles was on the Wittenberg board of directors for 31 years and in 1919 raised the equivalent of $2.9 million in today’s money to rebuild Wadsworth’s Grace Lutheran Church, of which he designed the signature stained-glass windows. He was minister there for 40 years and made national headlines when he died while giving a sermon in 1935 as the organist played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
It didn’t end there, as Cora’s father, William Wible, owned land on the Gettysburg battlefield near the junction of the peach orchard and wheat field. Wible gave guided tours of the area throughout the 1880s and ’90s and eventually transferred 58 acres to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.
Many of Wilbur’s individual athletic exploits at Wadsworth are unknown due to high school sports coverage being in its infancy. Etter earned three letters apiece in football, basketball and baseball and set a then-Medina County record with six touchdowns against Kent Roosevelt in 1915 — eight years before fellow Medina County Sports Hall of Famer Erastus “Tunk” Simmons of Medina scored an Ohio-record 78 points against Spencer.
The 1916 Red and White football team went 8-1 with Etter as a starting halfback, and the basketball team he captained went 8-3. He graduated with 23 others.
Etter followed in his older siblings’ footsteps and enrolled at Wittenberg in the fall of 1917. He was ineligible to play sports as a freshman per NCAA rules — a stipulation lifted temporarily two years later due to WWI — but the Springfield News touted his class for its vast potential after the bullied freshmen challenged the varsity to a scrimmage and won 14-0.
Five other members of the undefeated 1920 team are in the Wittenberg Hall of Honor. Four were inducted alongside Etter in the inaugural class of 1985:
• Godfrey was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972 mainly for his work as an Ohio State assistant from 1929-62.
• Trautwein compiled a basketball coaching record of 135-61 at Ohio and led the school to the NIT title game in 1941.
• Guard Bill Lange compiled a 219-144 basketball coaching record at Muskingum and North Carolina. He also coached the professional Cleveland Rosenblaums in 1923 and led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Elite Eight in 1941.
• Guard Raymond Detrick was 161-89 with nine Ohio Athletic Conference titles in 13 years as basketball coach at Ohio Wesleyan.
• Quarterback Earl Burgner, hall class of ’86, played two games for the for NFL’s Dayton Triangles in 1923.
They all took a backseat to Etter during his time at Wittenberg.
The uniqueness of Etter’s debut will never be matched, as the first month of the 1918 season was canceled due to the Spanish Flu pandemic that eventually claimed between 50-130 million lives worldwide. The Lutherans were simply looking for a game, and extended an offer to play the Dayton-based 42nd Aero Squadron on Nov. 2.
The invitation was accepted on one condition: No spectators were allowed. The U.S. was at war and needed to ensure its future soldiers could head to Europe prepared and, more importantly, healthy.
Wittenberg played anyway at empty Zimmerman Field and won 42-0 behind Etter’s three TDs and two conversion kicks.
Etter scored 12 points in a 19-0 win against Denison a week later. It was expected to be the last time Etter appeared in a Wittenberg uniform because he was recommended for officer’s school prior to the season.
Etter missed a 21-0 win over Ohio Northern, but returned when the officer school classes at Camp Grant in Washington, D.C. were mysteriously canceled. The Lutherans then defeated Kenyon 3-0 on Etter’s 35-yard field goal to finish the year 4-0 and unscored upon.
With the pandemic all but over and Etter no longer required to train for war, in 1919 Wittenberg picked up where it left off. The Lutherans began 3-0-2 despite losing two-time captain Lawrence Lentz to a broken leg and crushed Otterbein 58-0 on Nov. 8 behind Etter’s two punt returns for touchdowns, passing TD and 28 total points.
Etter was expected to be named to the All-OAC team following the season, but his performance at home against Ohio cemented his place as a legend.
Etter finished the 33-7 victory with four touchdowns, including an untouched 65-yard run in which he started right, cut back and fished his way through the line. He also returned one of his two interceptions 70 yards to set up his dagger-driving score in the fourth quarter.
All of this was accomplished with torn ankle ligaments, thus prompting the Harley comparison.
“Etter’s open-field work was dazzling and wonderful,” the Springfield News wrote. “His playing against Ohio University stamps him as the best halfback in the Ohio Conference.
“Critics have been comparing him to Chic Harley, the Ohio State team’s All-American halfback, but, as great as Harley is, Etter was his equal — if not his superior — Saturday.”
The season ended with a 61-0 victory over Ohio Northern. Etter scored 25 more points, giving him 77 over the final three games and 116 on the year.
“Etter, Wittenberg, is the greatest halfback in the conference,” OAC official Earl Prugh wrote. “He is fast, elusive, has a beautiful change of pace, can punt 50 yards on average, drop kicks or place kicks and is an ideal man in the interference.”
There was little questioning Wittenberg was expected to go undefeated again in 1920. The hyped senior class led by Etter embraced the pressure.
Etter began slow with two conversion kicks in a 20-0 win at Butler, but scored six touchdowns, including from 75, 85 and 100 yards, and kicked nine conversions in an 81-0 victory over Defiance.
Hiram stood little chance in the next game, when Wittenberg won 82-7 behind Etter’s 58 points. He scored eight touchdowns, including a 101-yard punt return, and added 10 extra points.
All statistics remain school records 94 years later.
Wittenberg moved to 5-0 with 17-0 and 13-9 triumphs over Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati, with Etter missing the second half of the former after sustaining a severe concussion via a kick to head — years later he said he “came to” while driving home after the game. Etter single-handedly kept the Tigers undefeated by scoring all 19 points in a 12-point win against Ohio Northern.
Etter had one more high-scoring game left with 30 points in a 42-0 win over Otterbein, setting up the thrilling finale against Denison.
“He hits the line with terrific force, can skirt to the ends with speed, tackles effectively, punts for an average of 45 yards and can drop kick an occasional goal,” the Plain Dealer’s Henry Edwards wrote.
Etter was named captain of Prugh’s All-OAC team following the season. Etter also was the heavy favorite to receive a new Templar car as the top player in the state — Ohio State excluded — but the panel of sportswriters selected Allen Snyder of undefeated Wooster in a surprise decision.
According to results in the Springfield News, Etter finished his career with 45 touchdowns, 46 conversion kicks and three field goals for 322 points, a total that was not surpassed by a Wittenberg player until 2000. He scored in 18 of 19 appearances and still holds the OAC record for points in a game (58 vs. Hiram).
Wittenberg outscored opponents 615-46 with Etter in the lineup.
Etter also was a multi-year starter at guard for the Lutherans basketball team. He averaged a modest 2.6 points per game — the equivalent of 6.1 today — as Wittenberg went 13-3 his senior year. However, his ballhandling and defensive abilities — the Lutherans allowed a mere 15.6 points per game — earned him a spot on the All-OAC second team.
The Lutherans were 1-11 Etter’s freshman season, but went 34-11 with him on the roster.
Ironically, his secondary sport became his best once he entered the coaching ranks.
The NCAA announced during the 1920-21 school year that athletes who missed time for WWI training could apply for a fifth year of eligibility. Etter’s case was denied, but being a statewide star had its perks.
High schools lined up to secure his services as a teacher/coach. Etter spurned them initially in 1921 to coach Wadsworth’s football team to a 7-1-1 record and teach history at the high school.
Less than a month after the season ended, he played in a charity football game pitting the “Rainbow Squad All-Americans” against former Ohio State players called the “Starbucks.” One of his teammates in the 16-0 victory was two-time Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe, while Harley played for the Starbucks.
Etter’s job status changed when another teaching/coaching offer stood out. It was from Woodward out of immensely powerful Toledo.
No one at the time could beat the competition in Northwest Ohio, especially in football. Scott was national champion in 1922 and shared the repeat with East Cleveland Shaw in 1923, while Waite took the crown in 1924.
Etter taught math at Woodward and coached football, basketball and baseball despite the school having neither a football field nor gymnasium. From 1922-26, he compiled a 20-17-1 mark on the gridiron, highlighted by an impressive 13-9 loss to Scott in ’24, but basketball was where Woodward shined.
Woodward went 55-14 in Etter’s five seasons. It reached the city championship in three consecutive years and won the title in 1925.
“Woodward is the perfect champion,” Toledo Blade editor Dick Meade wrote. “It is without question the cleverest club in Toledo, one of the best we have ever had. It had no luck in its conquest. It reached the peak by fine team spirit, condition, consistent play and gameness.”
According to his 40-page autobiography, football offered Etter another opportunity when he tried out for the NFL’s Toledo Maroons in 1922 or 1923. A quarterback and halfback, Etter was paid roughly $375 over five games before leaving the team because, in his own words, the lesser-paid and jealous linemen refused to block with maximum effort.
Etter stepped down from his coaching posts to become Woodward’s fulltime athletic director for the 1927-28 school year — the move coincided with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth the previous April — and the basketball team won its first official Toledo City League championship.
He left the school in the summer of 1928 to head the youth and athletic departments at Collingwood Presbyterian Church in Toledo. Its youth membership increased from 320 to 900 due in large part to Etter getting kids “off the streets” and into the church’s athletic programs.
The new job also allowed Etter to officiate high school basketball and football games, an aspect of sports he enjoyed debating later in life. The respect he gained eventually led to him officiating Big Ten and OAC football in the 1930s.
Etter then worked in the personnel department at Owens-Illinois Glass, now a Fortune 500 company. In 1938, he became industrial relations director at River Raisin Paper Company in Monroe, Mich., where he oversaw a 14-week strike and successfully won a negotiation against Jimmy Hoffa, who demanded Etter’s workers join the Local 299 Teamsters Union.
Etter spontaneously resigned from River Raisin Paper in 1958 and moved to California with his wife Ruth, a preacher’s daughter, to spend more time with their four grandchildren. They lived in Lomita — 20 miles south of Los Angeles — where Wilbur again used his deep connections to find work with the Hughes Aircraft Company.
The devoted family man was an avid fisherman and golfer in retirement. He died in 1986 and is buried in Los Angeles.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or email@example.com.