Commentary

O'Brien made up for size with versatility

TCU quarterback played both ways, kicked, punted, all the way to 1938 title, Heisman

Updated: October 6, 2011, 3:48 PM ET
By Jeff Miller | Special to ESPNDallas.com

Davey O'Brien stood 5 feet, 7 inches tall and tilted the scales to 150 pounds when quarterbacking TCU in 1938.

He may have been a smidge taller and slightly heavier in cleats and pads, but O'Brien certainly would never be confused with a hulking, menacing product like Chuck Bednarik -- hailed as pro football's last "60-minute man" more than two decades later.

Davey O'Brien
AP PhotoTCU's Davey O'Brien receives the 1938 Heisman Trophy from Walter P. Holcombe, president of the Downtown Athletic Club. O'Brien was the first player to win a national championship and the Heisman in the same season.
But O'Brien's own versatility in leading the Horned Frogs to the national championship, as recognized by the Associated Press, made him the biggest man in college football that 1938 season as winner of the Heisman Trophy.

"He was so little, you wouldn't even see him," TCU teammate and end Don Looney, 95, once said of O'Brien. "Sometimes I would be running, and something would just tell me, 'Here it comes.' And the ball would fly right into my hands."

In the 75 seasons in which the AP has crowned a national champion and a Heisman Trophy has been awarded, 13 players have won both in the same season. O'Brien was the first to do so.

He died in 1977 at age 60. Since 1981, major college football's top QB has received the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award.

O'Brien led the nation in passing and total offense in 1938, guiding TCU to an 11-0 finish. But he also was the Frogs' place-kicker and punter and played in the secondary and returned kicks, to boot.

That about covers it.

"I don't think he sat out very many plays," said the Heisman winner's son, David O'Brien.

TCU's recent football success can be called a renaissance because of what the Frogs achieved in the 1930s behind O'Brien and his quarterbacking predecessor, Sam Baugh, who led TCU to the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl following the 1935 and 1936 seasons before O'Brien took over behind center as a junior. O'Brien led the nation in passing in 1937 and finished second in total offense as the Frogs went 5-4-2, winning only half of their Southwest Conference games.

O'Brien and the 1938 Frogs experienced no such frustrations. Well, maybe one: They dropped from first to second in the AP poll in mid-November behind Notre Dame. But a week after TCU's regular season ended, the Irish lost at USC. The Associated Press named its national champion before bowl play back in the day and so crowned the Frogs.

In TCU's 15-7 Sugar Bowl victory over Carnegie Tech on Jan. 2, 1939, O'Brien displayed his prolific skills. He threw a touchdown pass, kicked a field goal and made a late interception to clinch the win.

His coach was even knocked out by his passing prowess.

Frogs skipper Dutch Meyer would typically watch his team from a wooden folding chair in the bench area. Following O'Brien's high, sailing passes, however, once proved problematic to the coach, according to Looney.

"Davey threw a pass to me, and Dutch leaned back in his chair watching it fly," Looney recalled a few years ago. "It was so high, his chair fell over backwards. He hit his head and was out cold."

O'Brien played two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, ranking among the NFL's passing leaders. But he walked away from the pro game to join the FBI.

That's not to say he stopped firing downfield. O'Brien became a standout on the bureau's pistol team.

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