There are two dates and a dash on everyone’s gravestone. The dates are the easy part of doing family genealogy, its reading the dash on the gravestone. The dash is not long or short, nor has high or low points, thus leaving everyone’s life looking the same. It is when we start examining someone’s dash we will find the story of their life.
Joe Kraker was born in 1896 in Virginia Minnesota. Virginia is located in northern Minnesota on the Iron Range and simply known as The Range. The mining of iron ore on The Range is the first raw step in the making of steel for the United States steel industry. Joe is the first-generation son of immigrant parents for Slovenia. His birth, life, and death all took place in Virginia, but part of his “dash in life” took place outside of Virginia Minnesota.
Back in the mid-1940’s, Joe sat down and wrote his life story on tablets and scrolls of register paper. He titled his book of tablets and scrolls “One Man’s Story”. In 1991 his daughter, Fran, and also my mother-in-law, assembled the writings and had them bound into a book in Joe’s handwriting, and gave the book out as a Christmas gift to all of Joe’s grandchildren. Joe passed away in 1958 before any of his grandchildren were born, so this book is our window looking back on their grandfather’s life. Many things were talked about his life. Football, politics and insurance sales, and today’s the story is about football.
Joe loved the game of football. As he wrote in his book, “I’d would rather play football than eat.” He played football in high school, on city teams in northern Minnesota, in the Canadian Football League, and in the National Football League. These were the early years of football when padded plastics and helmets were not used to cushion the hard blows. The men of men played this rough game and some losing their lives due to the internal injuries sustained on the field of play. In 1924 Joe traveled to Rock Island Illinois to play for the Rock Island Independence of the National Football League. The National Football League was formed in 1920 under the name American Professional Football Association. The American Professional Football Association was renamed the National Football League in 1922. Joe would play with and against future Hall of Famers of the NFL, and most notably Jim Thorpe.
Joe’s book doesn’t go into many details of his days on the Rock Island Independence team. The one comment he does say is that his time was too short. His career was cut short when in practice another player, Duke Slater, kicked him in the hand and broke his finger thus ending his NFL career. But never the less, he was a member of the Rock Island Independence of the National Football League.
As I have done research on the Rock Island Independence team to learn more about the team and fill in some of the blanks of Joe’s playing days, I came across the website Rock Island Independence. I started looking thru their information and noticed a photo of the team. I recognized the photo and started reading the names of the players. The photo was of the 1924 team and Joe Kraker’s name wasn’t attached to the photo. I went back and found my copy of the photo where Joe had listed the names and positions of each player. I scanned in my photo and sent the photo to “Contact” on the website. A few days later I received an email back from Simon from the website. He stated he thought the names were wrong but it was the best information he had at the time. He continued and told me he was putting my photo on the website so all the names would be correct. The other thing I found on the website was a link to the Vintage American Football. I started reading their website and found they had just started playing vintage football in 2015. Simon and I exchanged a few more emails and a few more photos. In one of those emails was an invite to come to Rock Island and watch the 2017 vintage football game. It didn’t take much arm twisting being I have a daughter and her family living in the Quad Cities.
One day Simon sent me an email of the game announcement flyer of the game. On the announcement was two photos I had sent to Simon. Jim Thorpe and Joe Kraker graced the announcement. I forwarded the announcement to the Kraker clan and asked if anyone would be interested in attending the game. It didn’t take my mother-in-law too long to respond to the invite. Here was her chance to see her father’s sporting love and played the way he played the game. For other family members, it was a little more difficult to make the game. With the game being played at 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and a 6-hour drive home after the game left a midnight bedtime. For me and Laurel, we vacationed the day from work so we could make the drive home on Monday.
We drove to the Quad Cities on Saturday morning chauffeuring Fran to the big game. Saturday night Simon had a meet and greet at a local bar in Rock Island. Players of the game and family members of former players would be there on Saturday evening. We had a wonderful time meeting another daughter of a past player. We met others who have been doing research on the Independence teams. I showed Joe’s old football pictures to the others and it brought an excitement to them. One of the pictures was of Joe’s high school playing days. The second was his playing days in the city leagues of northern Minnesota. The third was of Joe when he played in Saskatoon in the Canadian Football League. One of the gentlemen said he was going to contact one of his friends who does research on the Canadian League and see if he has any information to share. After visiting for a few hours, we headed back to my daughter’s home and got ready for the game on Sunday.
We took a leisure Sunday morning around my daughter’s home sipping coffee and watching the grandchildren play and taunt one another. Ah, the sounds of an active home. The sky was cloudy with a strong wind out of the west. The air was cold and our winter coats would be needed for the watching the game. Before we went to the game we stopped by the John Deere headquarters campus in Moline Illinois for a visit. This is the site of Jeremy’s office and they have a small museum of equipment of today, and memorabilia from over the past 180 years of John Deere history covering one wall of the museum. Jeremy took us to the building where his office is and showed us the atrium courtyard. It is a wonderful green space for workers to take a break from their work and re-energize themselves. From Deere’s campus we made a short drive and had lunch at a small Mexican restaurant.
Game time was nearing and we all loaded back into the cars for the drive across town to Rock Island. Our first stop was to Douglas Park the site of the Rock Island Independence football team back in the 1920’s. This is the place where Joe Kraker played the game of football. Douglas park was an old baseball park and had a grandstand on the south side of the park. Now the old grandstands are gone and the new field has home plate in the outfield and the homerun fence is in the place of the old grandstand. After a brief stop we made the short drive to Hauburg Estates, site of this year’s game.
We parked the cars and gathered our chairs and blankets and made the short walk to the field. The air was alive with the sounds of a small jazz band playing near the field. The band members were dressed in white shirts, black pants and red suspenders. As the game neared the band ended their music. The emcee took over the microphone and started innerduseing the players. The two teams represented at the game were the Rock Island Independence and the Moline Universal Tractors. He also acknowledged the three daughters of former players at the game. After a few more words about the game it was time for the National Anthem. One of the ball players played the National Anthem on his saxophone. Then it was game time and time for the kickoff.
Both teams took the field and the ball was teed up. The ball was bigger in circumference than today’s football and had rounder points. The kickoff looked very similar as the ball traveled thru the air. The deep man tried catching the ball and it went thru his hands and hit the ground. As soon as the ball hit the ground the referee blew the ball dead. This was a rule in the 1920’s. The receiving team couldn’t advance the muffed ball and the kicking team couldn’t recover the ball. The game would be played as a flag football game to help reduce the hitting between the players. This was a demonstration football game of the 1920’s rules of play. First downs wouldn’t be awarded for advancing the ball 10 yards as they do today. The first downs would happen when the ball was advanced over the 20-40-20 yard lines. The field was shortened for this game but the 1920’s field was 100 yards as it is today, so there would have been one more first down line. Thus a team may have to advance the ball just 1 yard to 19 yards for their next first down.
The play relied on the running game. With the ball having such a large circumstance throwing the ball was difficult. It would be like you trying to throw a spiral with a basketball or a small child trying to throw a full size football. Not to many spirals nor any distance on the throws. Five to ten yard passes were the extent of the passing game. Thus the backfield was filled with running backs. There was a few runs thru the front line but most runs were sweeps around the ends. In the old days I am sure there were more runs up the middle, but with this game being flag football the runs up the middle thru the front line were held to a minimum. With the game relying on the running game, there were very few first downs and low scoring.
The halftime score was MUT-7, RI-0. The players took advantage of the halftime and sipped some water and mingled with their family members in attendance at the game. After about fifteen minutes the start of the second half began. The second half continued with more grinding out the yards on the ground and exchanging the football on downs. As the second half continued the hitting started picking up and the game became more serious about the competition. They were playing for their home town pride. The final of the game was MUT-17, RI-6. As one of the Rock Island fan’s, we were disappointed in the score, but it was fun to watch football 1920’s style.
The one thing I didn’t see was a drop kick. The rules of his game would have allowed for a player to attempt a drop kick with a “no rush” defense. But the game did remind me of my youth playing football in the backyard. We had modified our rules for our field and equalizing play between the boys and girls. Our backyard games had more passing than running, but we did have one first down line at mid field. Dad had a hard time growing grass for a few years, but we enjoyed our time playing the game from after school until dark under a flood light mounted on the house.
As the 100th anniversary of the NFL is fast approaching in the year 2020, I hope the game continues to find followers of its early history. It would be nice to see the NFL do a story on vintage football and how it shaped the early days of the modern day NFL league. It was great to take a look back into the history of football. These were the “men of men” grinding it out on the field playing for the pride of their cities and communities.