Reflections from the Dome

A young Joe Savoldi. Probably from his sophomore year, 1928. (Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

A young Joe Savoldi. Probably from his sophomore year, 1928.
(Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

 

“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, go to www.dropkick.com

 

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 for the Berrien County Record in September 1992.

'Tis the season for a good football yarn.

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 stuff of 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 secrecy.

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 Milan, 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 location on 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 Savoldi?

"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.

Many believe this backfield to be the greatest in Notre Dame history. (Courtesy of the University of 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.

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, too."

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 body.

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 toughest opponent.

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 Pennsylvania in 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 Kansas cornfield.

He too was history.

 

World Champ and World War II in black market Italy.

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 the 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 Thin.

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 Cardinals.

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.

Professional wrestling beckoned.

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 in Buchanan.

I got him on the phone a couple of days ago. He’s living in retirement I beautiful Carmel, California, now. But Thelma, his wife of 61 years is gone. He misses her. He was a carpenter for 45 years.

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 him through Evansville, Indiana.

Lois Poole was a bank worker in nearby Henderson, 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 Holmes, 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 pre-war digs.

(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.

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 crown.

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 Michigan State. He now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, an antique dealer after a successful career as a GM dealer.

Joe in action with his signature “Drop Kick” move.

Joe in action with his signature “Drop Kick” move.

Joe toured the world and wrestled in several capitals of Europe. He went on to Australia and 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 in 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 citizen.

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 German.

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 Salerno, Anzio, Naples and Rome.

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.

One of Joe’s fake wartime ID’s using his alias.
(From the J.G. Savoldi collection)

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 from behind.

Their ranks 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.

Mick Burke 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 Galway, Ireland, in the early 80’s he remembered Jumping Joe vividly. It was their first mission to Italy --  an attempt to hijack the entire naval fleet with the help of an agent of dubious loyalty named Marcello Girosi. Burke wrote:

Running down the page, my eye stopped abruptly focused on a familiar name: Joe Savoldi. “Is that Jumping Joe Savoldi? The old Notre Dame football player?”

“Yes. Turned professional wrestler. Born in Italy. Came to this country at age twelve.” “You know him?”  “No. But I read the sports pages.”

Savoldi was 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.

Meanwhile Joe’s 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 Holmes, Florida, she has to rely on Mick Burkes’s 1984 account in his book, Outrageous Good Fortune: 

In Washington, Girosi and Savoldi were kept apart.

Savoldi knew 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.

The 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 arrive in North Africa, four days hence.

When they reached National 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 Atlantic.”

A stripped-down RAF bomber out of Prestwick, Scotland, flew 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 Italy.

Joe in his jump suit in wartime Italy.
(From the J.G. Savoldi collection)

Thus did 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.

In Harbert, 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.

Into Sicily under cover of Patton’s landing. Onto 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 hijacked.

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 Cleveland on June 10, 1947. Gentleman Fred disabled Joe with a small bag of pepper. There was an inquiry.

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 Henderson, 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 University of Evansville across 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 Indiana University in pursuit of a master’s degree but stopped short of dissertation.

“He was the most beloved teacher at 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 teaching.”

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 Henderson.

(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 Sligo, 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.)

 

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