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Remembering perfection: Belmont Abbey’s 1938 football was unblemished and nationally-acclaimed

By Richard Walker

Eighty-two years ago, Belmont Abbey College had one of the most statistically-perfect football seasons in college history.

How perfect?

A 1938 Charlotte News clipping and photo highlights Belmont Abbey coach Howard “Humpy” Wheeler and the many Ohio natives that aided the Crusaders’ unbeaten, unscored upon team.

The Crusaders of legendary coach Howard “Humpy” Wheeler, Sr., had a 9-0 record and outscored their opponents by a collective 273-0 margin.

That’s not a misprint.

No one scored a single point on the Abbey defense.

The Crusaders were so impressive that in the days when polls determined national champions at the major college level and junior colleges like the Abbey at the time simply made claims for national titles, controversy reigned in newspaper columns coast to coast.

Four days after routing Campbell 47-0 in the Crusaders’ finale played at the old Gastonia High School stadium that is now a parking lot beside Ashley Arms Apartments on Garrison Boulevard, Wheeler and assistant coach Joe Schwerdt told a reporter for The Charlotte Observer they “hoped to arrange a post-season classic and were willing to play anywhere from Maine to California.”

Unfortunately for the Abbey, Pacific Coast Junior College Conference officials later in the week refused to sanction a game between the Crusaders and their league champion Modesto, Cal., Junior College. And an agreement for a game with another junior college power, Tennessee Wesleyan, couldn’t be reached.

It was a time when college football held only five sanctioned bowl games for major college teams – the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Tex., the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla., the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Cal., the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, La., and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Tex.

While a national champion was voted upon before the bowl games – No. 1-ranked Texas Christian and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Davey O’Brien took that honor – TCU’s Sugar Bowl win over Carnegie Tech closed out an 11-0 season and the Horned Frogs’ were widely considered national champions.

Tennessee, which beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, also finished 11-0 and was ranked No. 2.

Belmont Abbey’s success was such that The Burlington Times-News compared it to No. 3-ranked Duke. A Times-News headline of Nov. 29, 1938 wrote “Belmont Abbey in Duke Class” in reference to the perfect defense both schools had in their respective regular seasons.

Duke had gone 9-0 in the regular season, won the Southern Conference title with a 5-0 league record while outscoring its opposition 114-0. The Blue Devils would lose a game and their perfect defensive mark a month later in a 7-3 Rose Bowl defeat to Southern California.

For the Abbey, its perfection was part of a 25-game unbeaten streak that began in 1936 and lasted until the second game of 1939. The only blemish in that 24-0-1 stretch was a 13-all tie against Boiling Springs Junior College (renamed Gardner-Webb in 1942) in an Oct. 23, 1937 game that also marked the Abbey’s first home game played at Davis Park.

The 1938 Crusaders’ season featured five blowout wins over North Carolina Junior College Conference teams – Lees-McRae (14-0), Boiling Springs (20-0), Presbyterian (90-0), Wingate (32-0) and Campbell (47-0). (In 1958, Presbyterian of Maxton and Flora Macdonald College of Red Springs combined to form St. Andrews College of Laurinburg.)

Only the Lees-McRae and Presbyterian games were played in Belmont as the only other two “home” games were played in Gastonia on a schedule that featured four games against senior college freshman teams at East Carolina, N.C. State and The Citadel in addition to a game at Armstrong Junior College in Savannah, Ga.

The 19-0 win in the opening game at East Carolina set the tone for the season. It was followed by wins over Lees-McRae, N.C. State (14-0), Boiling Springs, The Citadel (18-0), Presbyterian, Wingate, Armstrong (19-0) and Campbell.

Standouts for the team included 14 players who were named all-state in coaches’ voting at season’s end. And in an era of one-platoon football in which all 11 players participated on offense and defense, the fact that 14 Crusaders were honored speaks to the team’s extraordinary depth and how much its reserves playing time.

Captain Larry Visnic was an all-conference tackle who left the Abbey to play a four-year St. Benedict’s of Kansas and later became Gaston County’s first NFL player; Visnic was an eight-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 1943, played three seasons for that franchise and was a member of the Giants’ 1943 and 1944 NFL runner-up teams.

Other first-team selections were end Ed Bradley, quarterback Joe Cuffaro and fullback Walt Pawloski. Second-team selections were end Danny Moore, tackle Earl Fesperman and center Earl Marshall. And honorable mention selections were end Norm McDonald, tackle John Birkner, guard Jimmy Roan and backs Frank Modra, Bernie Perznowski, Bob Kupsky and Al Matthews.

Pawloski was the top scorer with 12 touchdowns. Matthews had five, Cuffaro and Fred Volleman four each and Modra three. Kupsky and Tony Sikish had the most extra points with six apiece.

In the 2009 Belmont Abbey Michael P. Reidy Athletics Hall of Fame, the entire 1938 team was inducted when three living members – Martin Gass, John Golden and John Kabas – represented the team. In addition to being on the football team, Charlotte natives Kabas (president) and Gass (vice president) were part of Belmont Abbey student government.