“The opening kickoff. The
ball rose end overand soared
and fell to the receiver, who
took it on the run at
his own 5 and broke with his
blockers up over the
20, straight at Joe Savoldi.
The runner, with no
room to maneuver , went into a
hip-swinging shift to
try to get around Savoldi. And
Joe never faltered,
reflex rather than thought
telling him when to
launch his thick body through
the air, telling him
at what point the ball
carrier's shifting dance he
would hit, arms wide and ready
to wrap the target at
the instant of impact. He hit.
Savoldi and the
ball-carrier hit the ground,
and Marchy Schwartz,
closing in fast, dove over the
top of them to avoid
piling on. Then Savoldi was up,
clapping his hands,
lining up, ready for the next
play, and all was as
automatic to him now as a
single step in an
intricate dance he's known most
of his life. He had
learned Rockne's lessons well."
From The New York Times
J.G. Savoldi, Joe’s grandson, was
instrumental in the preparation of this newsletter. J.G. is the
authorized licensing agent for Joe Savoldi and is writing a book on
his grandfathers amazing life. For more information on Joe’s career,
Editor’s note from
Irish Legends: There are some repetitions in the material presented
in the columns below. This is understandable because the authors are
retelling Joe’s life story. However, I think each article is unique
in its own way and provides a different perspective on Joe’s life.
The Reflections From the Dome
column this month is an interesting article written by John McHugh
Record in September 1992.
'Tis the season for a good
Ever since I was a kid I've
always held a library card. No matter where I was in the world -with
a spare moment- I've always headed for the nearest library. There
I've perused everything from want ads to sports scores to local lore
and I've never come away without a fix - that is, a little more than
I came with.
Along the way I've met some
librarians in places like Carnoustie, Scotland; Sligo, Ireland;
Belfast, Northern Ireland; Cambridge, England; and Skokie, Illinois;
not to mention London (a private one, can you imagine?) and Dublin
(Trinity College). Now I find myself beholden to three more members
of that gracious global sorority: Merry McCort-Pirkel of New
Buffalo, Carmen Foster of Three Oaks and Marilyn Roth of Bridgman.
Just recently I found myself
traversing the familiar triangle between New Buffalo, Bridgman and
Three Oaks libraries on the trail of the now half-legendary Jumping
Joe Savoldi, quite possibly the greatest football player ever from
around here and the star fullback on arguably the greatest Notre
Dame team of 'em all. What I learned I owe to these sleuths of the
stacks and Ed Drier, the Three Oaks butcher and a legend in his own
right. Remember him in 'Prancer?"
'Twas Ed who first told me a
story of Jumping Joe and his 15 minutes of fame. Actually Joe
Savoldi's seasons in the sun spanned a couple of decades and are the
Hollywood movies. "
He's dead now. And, ironically,
there aren't many around who remember the Golden Boy who came out of
tiny Three Oaks, dazzled them under Notre Dame's Golden Dome against
a gray October sky, and went on onto become wrestling champion of
the world. His exploits off the gridiron and outside the ring are
also the stuff of legend. Not to mention his wartime escapades in
Italy -still cloaked in
But there are those few upon
whom he left an indelible impression. Ellis Williamson was one of
them. He lives over on
Willard Street. He's 80 now
and it's been over 60 years. But he still shudders at the memory of
the hit he took from Jumping Joe in high school. Ellis thereupon
quit football and found his true calling, firefighting, less
jarring. He was massive, recalls Ellis.
Jumping Joe, even in high
school, was a big 'un. His muscles, according to accounts of the
time, he credited to an impoverished childhood in
Italy. He was
forced during World War I to tote heavy ammo crates for the army at
age 11 to supplement the family budget.
The Savoldis must have been an
industrious lot when they got to
America. By the time
young Joe was in high school the family drugstore occupied the
Elm Street where McGuire's
Pub now stands. Joe's graduation class boasted only seven males -and
15 females. The year was 1927.
Jumping Joe delivered the class
oration titled -I kid you not - "Quo Vadis ltalia (Whither bound
Italy)?" It could have
been in ItaIian, for as the local newspaper noted:
"The subject must have been an
interesting one for him and he showed considerable oratorical
ability in the presentation. He seemed to feel deeply the message he
brought forth." Hmmm?
At Notre Dame awaiting Jumping
Joe was another legend, the inimitable Knute Rockne. The Rock had a
question of his own for the raw talent from Three Oaks: Quo Vadis
"Straight up the middle," came
the reply. And Rockne was on his way to back to-back undefeated
seasons and two national championships in 1929 and 1930. Purists
among the subway alumni point to that team as the greatest.
this backfield to be the greatest in Notre Dame history.
(Courtesy of the
Notre Dame Archives)
There was fiery little Frankie
Carideo at the helm of Rockne's modernized T formation with Marty
Brill and Marchy Schwartz on either side and Jumping Joe at
fullback, all 207 pounds of him. A dream backfield, if there ever
was one, and the measure of their flying feet made Notre Dame's
heart begin to beat. The stands resounded with roars to give the
ball to Savoldi.
Often as not, Jumping Joe on
his jaunts was behind All-American guard Bert Metzger. Metzger
tipped the scales at 155 pounds. That's right, 155 pounds. There
were times, according to witnesses, when Jumping Joe ran right over
everything in his path, including Metzger. "How could I ever forget
him," Bert was heard to remark years later .
Truth be told, Jumping Joe's
grid prowess was fueled by more than headlines that season of '29.
Carideo was observed on several plays hissing something in his
buddy's ear before handing him the ball. Time after time the one
Italian was seen hissing in the other's ear as the Irish roared to
the national championship.
Twas only when the season was
over that Jumping Joe felt at liberty to reveal the ominous message,
Carideo threatened to cut his heart out unless he made a gain every
time he handed him the ball, Joe grinned.
The Little General, Frank Carideo.
“I couldn’t take a chance with little Frank
Carideo. He's a pretty hotheaded guy -- there's no telling what a
crazy little Italian would do when he's mad. "I know -I'm Italian,
Off the field also had its share of 'merriment,
too. "Savoldi," Rockne would yell. "Is there anything dumber than a
dumb Italian?" "Two dumb Swedes," was Jumping Joe's customary retort
and the two legends would erupt in laughter. Knute was Norwegian and
so the story may be ethnically apocryphal.
Jumping Joe also made the headlines at home
that year when he went belly up in a snow bank just north of New
Carlisle with a carload of other kids -six passengers in all,
including sister, Inez, and brother, Clem. The paper said they were
on their way to the theater in
South Bend. On New Year's Eve?
Somewhere along about this time the Italian
stallion nipped off and got married -a clear violation of University
rules of the day. Some time later the "People's Choice at fullback"
as he was known, nipped off and got divorced -an even clearer
violation of the rules imposed on the 3,172 members of the student
But there is little evidence that the
happy-go-lucky Italian felt any strain during that glorious season
of 1930. He started ahead of Moon Mullins - no small feat in itself.
He happily lugged the pigskin everywhere Carideo told him to go
through the first six games. Carnegie Tech would prove to be the
But it was the Navy game which provided the
historical snapshot. It was the game selected to dedicate the new
Notre Dame stadium. The Notre Dame shift was still in vogue. Carideo,
Schwartz and Brill all shifted right. Jumping Joe was left
immobilized, his body going one way and his arms swinging the other
- and his legs crossed. As the old
Chicago Sun recalled in 1943:
“Subsequently he got straightened out; took the ball, bolted through
tackle and was off for a long touchdown run. Only the Navy safety
man was left with a chance, and Carideo was racing to clear him out
of the way. Just as Frank drove forward for the block, Savoldi
decided to veer between the Midshipman and Carideo. To get through,
he had to knock both men down, a requirement which did not cause him
so much as a broken stride."
Stop No.6 in the Irish victory parade that year
was a 60-20 drubbing of
Philadelphia. It would be Jumping
Joe Savoldi's last game for the Irish. The ax fell that weekend soon
after the good Fathers of the Holy Cross learned of Joe's noxious
nuptials. As a magazine writer of the era put it: “Joe had not only
gotten married, which was against the University's rules, but he had
gotten divorced which was against the University's religion.”
At the University of Notre Dame the name of
Jumping Joe Savoldi was history- the devalued kind.
"He was the big punch, the one they were all
afraid of,” mourned Rockne later that week...Mullins may be just
about as good but he is brittle. He gets hurt too easily. Hanley
will be good offensively but he is green. Howard is fine on defense
but he does not work into our offense so well."
If you cock your imagination just a little to
the, southeast, you can just about make out the staccato delivery
echoing down the decades: “No, Savoldi's loss hasn't got me licked.
It was a costly example but it proved to the world that we have some
rules here at Notre Dame and that we enforce them."
Months later Rockne's plane crashed into a
He too was history.
World Champ and World War II
in black market
So Jumping Joe and the Notre
Dame parted company at the pinnacle of gridiron success. Joe was the
All-American Golden Boy from tiny Three Oaks . The Fighting Irish
went undefeated in 1929 and 1930 and arguably were their greatest
team. Knute Rockne was there coach.
Such were the heroes of the
Great Depression. They romped across the devastated landscape with
abandon and drove the gloom and doom of Wall Street off the front
pages. The little Catholic school from the hinterlands took on the
powerhouses of the Eastern Establishment and returned triumphant to
South Bend week after week to the
roars of alumni who never set foot in the classroom.
It was against this backdrop
that Jumping Joe set out for
Chicago after being dismissed for
violating the marriage rules at
South Bend. Awaiting him across
Lake was another legend, George S. Halas,
owner of the Chicago Bears and a founding father of professional
football. Jumping Joe signed on the dotted line for a reported
annual stipend of $10,000, an unheard of sum in those days—and for
many years to come. It was said of Papa Bear many years later, that
he tossed nickels around like manhole covers.
Despite his departure from
Notre Dame under a cloud Jumping Joe would always hold the school in
highest regard and maintained close ties with the coaching staff
from his Harbert home for years.
Rockne, of course, was gone. He
died in a plane crash in a
Kansas cornfield in 1931.
“Rock was the greatest
inspiration I ever had and some day I’d like to write a story about
him ,” Savoldi told sportswriter Jim Enright some 30 years later.
“I’d title it The Rockne I Knew – My Friend Through Thick and
Not much has apparently been
written about Savoldi’s years in a Bears’ uniform but it is recorded
that Halas went to the mat with the fledgling National Football
League in signing Jumping Joe in contravention of the 1926 Rule he,
himself, formulated. (A ballplayer had to wait for his class to
graduate before turning pro.)
“His coming to us was somewhat
of a miracle,” exulted Papa Bear. Joe Carr, NFL president, failed to
see the miraculousness of it. He fined the parsimonious Halas $1,000
for orchestrating the “miracle.”
Jumping Joe found himself in
the same backfield with Bronco Nagurski and Dick Nesbitt that
partial season of 1930. He played only three games at the end of the
season and appeared in a post-season exhibition against the
Red Grange was the Bears’ high
scorer with 37 points in 1930 and end Luke Johnson caught four
touchdown passes, second highest in the league. The Bears showed a
year-end profit of only $,695.93 on gross revenues of $155,294.69.
Jumping Joe would have to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Meanwhile the Depression had
taken its toll in Three Oaks. The Savoldi family fruit business and
drugstores went belly up. Younger brother Clem decided to pull up
stakes in Three Oaks and let the family west. They ended up in
California. Clem returned soon
thereafter to get married and take a position with Clark Equipment
I got him on the phone a couple
of days ago. He’s living in retirement I beautiful
California, now. But Thelma, his
wife of 61 years is gone. He misses her. He was a carpenter for 45
He remembers the glory days of
his older brother vividly.
Jumping Joe signed on the
wrestling circuit for $1,000 a bout. Clem estimates that Joe could
have turned $20,000 a month in his best years.
And why not? He was the golden
boy from Notre Dame with 207 pounds of muscle strapped to a 5’ 11”
frame topped by a full set of flashing white teeth and enough waves
in his jet black hair to leave every female in the arena seasick.
He broke a few hearts outside
the ring, too. That is, until 1932 when the wrestling circuit took
Lois Poole was a bank worker in
Kentucky. She stepped out for a
Coke, noticed a wrestling poster promoting Jumping Joe Savoldi’s
bout in nearby
Evansville. A year later she was
Mrs. Jumping Joe Savoldi. She would remain so for 41 years.
I talked to her by phone in
Florida over the weekend.
Nope, Hurricane Andrew hadn’t
touched their little island community and yes, she’d be glad to talk
about Jumping Joe, her former spouse. She remembers him fondly.
They built a great house in
Harbert with Joe’s ring earnings.
The Savoldi’s have been
stonemasons in Bergamo, Italy, before coming to this country and the
whole family pitched in to erect a monument to their pride and joy
among the dunes. Uncle John, the greatest mason of them all, was in
charge. Stone was hauled in by railroad and dragged up the dunes by
horse. Clem earned 33 cents an hour as carpenter on the job. The
house took three years to build and cost $55,000 –no mean figure for
(Two years ago, Clem stopped in
to see how his handiwork has withstood the test of time. After more
than 50 years he pronounced himself satisfied with the job that they
had done. Film critic Roger Ebert, the current owner, had the house
restored recently under the watchful eye of architect John Chipman)
Joe at the peak
of his wrestling fame.
(From the J.G. Savoldi collection)
By 1933 the gods of wrestling
had ordained that Jumping Joe was ready for the world heavyweight
crown. He was matched against Jim Londros, the Golden Greek, at the
Chicago Stadium. Jumping Joe pinned Londros and walked off with the
Nope, he didn’t by others. An
investigation ensued and Joe was asked what manner of hold he had
used on the champ
“Hell, I didn’t have a hold on
him…he had a hold on me.”
Opps! It would appear that some
of what the good Fathers of the Holy Cross had taught him at Notre
Dame had, after all, rubbed off on Jumping Joe. But the truth cost
him the crown. A quick rematch and Londros snatched the title back.
Jumping Joe then toured
Canada on a
“we-wuz-robbed” ticket and raked in the dough.
Meanwhile his only son was born
back in Harbert. He was baptized Joe III and would one day go on to
letter in four sports at St. Joseph High and in track and field at
State. He now lives in
Alabama, an antique dealer after
a successful career as a GM dealer.
Joe in action
with his signature “Drop Kick” move.
Joe toured the world and
wrestled in several capitals of
Europe. He went on to
New Zealand. He jumped
in the ring with the greatest of ‘em. Gorgeous George was known as
George Wagner when Jumping Joe first noticed him. Boxer Primo Canera
was now a grappler, Jack Dempsey was refereeing on the wrestling
circuit. That would appear to have been where the money was.
The Savoldis lived in
Paris for a year. The winds of war
were beginning to blow when they set off to tour
Italy. They stopped off
Bergamo. Joe was fearful of
drawing the attention of Mussolini away from the train schedules.
There was a good chance that he would be detained as an Italian-born
Lois and Joe made it out of
Paris before the Germans marched
in. Jumping Joe had seen enough. It was gut checking time again.
Wild Bill Donovan, the legendary colonel with his Fighting 69th
in World War I, had been charged by President Roosevelt with setting
up the Office of Strategic Services for action in World War II
Europe. Jumping Joe Savoldi was a natural for the clandestine
service—wrestling was an excellent cover and he spoke several
dialects of Italian fluently, along with French and a smattering of
Col. Donovan slotted Jumping
Joe for action in
Italy. The fighting
Italian disappeared into O.S.S. Special Operations. They were the
bunch who didn’t have desks and you jumped English style: one
parachute at 600 feet.
Back home in Harbert, Lois
received a telephone call: “Our friend is all right” was all the
caller said. Joe was in
North Africa. Ahead lay
For the duration of the war,
she was to hear it again and again:
“Our friend is all right.”
Our friend’s cover is blown
Jumping Joe Savoldi went to war
in the most unconventional fashion. The Italian boy from Three Oaks
who matriculated in football under Rockne at Notre Dame, played for
George Halas’ Chicago Bears and nipped off with the World
Heavyweight Wrestling Crown in 1932 was now in the super secret
Special Operations branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
One of Joe’s
fake wartime ID’s using his alias.
(From the J.G. Savoldi
He had been
hand picked by Col. William (Wild Bill) Donovan, himself a legend
from World War I, who was charged by was charged by President
Roosevelt with carrying the war to the Germans behind the lines in
Europe. Donovan, a most unconventional
espionage boss, picked a most unlikely bunch to harass the enemy
included such unlikelies as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Sterling
Hayden, from Hollywood, Henry Ringling North of Circus fame; Percy
Wood from the Chicago Tribune; Michael Burke, former quarterback at
Penn; and of course Jumping Joe Savoldi whose home was in Harbert
when he wasn’t on the road wrestling.
would stay with the espionage game well after the War’s end,
eventually slipping into position as CIA station chief for
Eastern Europe at the height of the cold war.
(Gary Cooper played him in the 1948 movie, “Cloak and Dagger”). In
his memoirs, penned from retirement in
Ireland, in the
early 80’s he remembered Jumping Joe vividly. It was their first
Italy -- an attempt to
hijack the entire naval fleet with the help of an agent of dubious
loyalty named Marcello Girosi. Burke wrote:
the page, my eye stopped abruptly focused on a familiar name: Joe
Savoldi. “Is that Jumping Joe Savoldi? The old Notre Dame football
professional wrestler. Born in
Italy. Came to this
country at age twelve.” “You know him?” “No. But I read the sports
brought in from a training site. He was build like a gorilla and
moved as lightly as a leopard. His wrestler’s face had been mashed
against the ring canvas a thousand times. He was enthusiastic; I
thought he would be perfect. He would terrify Girosi and maybe the
entire Italian fleet.
wife Lois, was back in their home up in the dunes in Harbert
awaiting word of her wrestler husband who had dropped out of site
weeks earlier. She was told nothing of whereabouts and activities.
Even today, from here home in
Florida, she has to rely on Mick
Burkes’s 1984 account in his book, Outrageous Good Fortune:
Washington, Girosi and Savoldi
were kept apart.
the profile of his assignment but he did not yet know Girosi’s
identity. (Brother of the Italian Admiral.) Jumping Joe would
travel as a civilian on military orders, “to entertain troops with
wrestling exhibitions,” and he was not to appear to have any
connection with Girosi and me until after we arrived in
North Africa, even though we would be flying
in the same aircraft.
afternoon before our departure I met Savoldi in Q Building, gave him
his travel documents, instructed him to report to the Military Air
Transport Service…I remembered the apocryphal stories about Joe when
he played fullback for Knute Rockne: his memory for plays was said
to frail they were diagrammed on the leg of his football pants. So I
carefully repeated his instructions not to acknowledge me until we
North Africa, four days hence.
Airport Jumping Joe was
already there in a hanger boisterously signing autographs for about
100 GIs. Girosi whimpered and moaned all the way to Gandar in
Newfoundland. The pilot
threatened to put him off the plane before heading out over the
Atlantic. “I can’t have the sonofabitch die
on me over the
RAF bomber out of
the group under cover of darkness into
Marrakesh in the Atlas Mountains
of Morocco. All except Jumping Joe spent the night in a tent. The
lad from Three Oaks was installed in the Winston Churchill suite at
the famous Mamounian Hotel.
Joe in his jump suit in wartime
(From the J.G.
Jumping Joe go to war. The Burke party was soon aboard PT boats
headed for the Italian coast. McGrergor Project, as it would be
known, was under way.
Lois Savoldi got a terse message by phone: “Our friend is all
right.” Her letters to Joe went out in a diplomatic pouch. For the
duration she would hear the same message again and again as here
husband’s activities paralleled the course of the Italian Campaign.
Sicily under cover of Patton’s
Salerno ahead of the fabled
armored divisions. Bypassing
Anzio with its horrors, though
Naples and into
Rome. Jumping Joe never talked
much about his wartime activities. Lois remembers that he
experienced “the usual” nightmares afterwords. Brother Clem recalls
that all Joe brought back from the war was a revolver and a silence
impervious to the years.
“He took some kind of oath and
he stuck to it” an acquaintance of the period recalls.
In any event, Jumping Joe had
his cover blown on mainland
Italy by a chance
meeting with a Chicago Tribune war correspondent.
He recognized the All-American
from the unbeaten 1929 and 1930 Fighting Irish teams and cabled back
to a story saying so. Even today widow Lois’ voice takes a hard edge
at the memory.
“How that dispatch ever got by
the censor, I’ll never know.”
But Joe’s ability with
languages and native appearance was not to be wasted. He passed
easily for an Italian when sent to the Army’s Provost Marshall’s
office for undercover work. He was credited with breaking up a
massive black market ring in
Naples. The hijacking of military
truck down by the Ponta Della Maddalene was driving the Army nuts.
Ace plainclothesman Joe Savoldi went native and the hijackers were
Jumping Joe returned to the mat
before the cessation of hostilities but he was subject to recall at
any time. He was still a headliner at war’s end. He went at it with
Gentleman Fred Bozik in
June 10, 1947.
Gentleman Fred disabled Joe with a small bag of pepper. There was an
Gentleman Fred was disqualified
at the subsequent hearing. At the same hearing Promoter Jack Ganson
sought permission to dump an alligator into the ring with the
contestants in his next bout.
And so it was that Jumping Joe
began his passage into obscurity. He was signed in
Lakeside for a
Feb. 3, 1950 bout
by Promoter Ray Fabiani. That show featured Jim Londros, the Golden
Greek; Primo Canera, ex-heavyweight boxing champ; and the legendary
Jack Dempsey as referee at the Chicago Stadium.
By now his Golden Boy looks
were gone, said widow Lois. Joe’s hairline had receded. Arthritis
had begun to plague him and the good things in life were proving
costly. The family moved to
Kentucky, to be near Lois’ ailing
mother. They sold the mansion in Harbert. But Jumping Joe Savoldi
was far from finished.
He enrolled at the
the river in
Indiana for the few
credits he needed to teach at Henderson High. He chose
science – giving lie to the rumor that he was too dumb to
remember his assignments on the football field in
South Bend. He taught five
days a week. He enrolled at
pursuit of a master’s degree but stopped short of
“He was the most beloved
Henderson” recalled Lois. “He
loved it. He had found his true calling at last.”
“He used to say the only thing
he regretted was that he wasted all those years before getting into
And they reciprocated. Inside
the entrance to Henderson High they erected a plaque to his memory.
Jumping Joe Savoldi died
January 24, 1974.
He was buried in
(Editor's note (Berrien
County Record): John McHugh has been a newspaperman for more
than 25 years. The high points include stints with the Chicago
Daily News and Chicago Today. He prefers to forget his
indentured servitude in TV. McHugh hails from
Ireland. He is
indebted to a stewardess for teaching him English on the plane. His
other handicaps include 12 on the links, shortsightedness on the
slippery slope and an unshakeable conviction that the
United States will run
out of listeners by the year 2000.)