James “Blue” Bonner, one of the most feared and talented football players ever to grace the Coaldale, Pennsylvania, gridiron, “could run like coal coming down a chute and was twice as hard to stop.” So said Blue’s legendary Coaldale Big Green coach, James H. “Casey” Gildea.
Formed 99 years ago in 1912, the Coaldale Big Green, one of the most successful football teams in anthracite coal region history, was led by a bevy of stars, but none was more colorful or powerful than halfback/fullback “Blue” Bonner. Winning the Curran Cup, which was emblematic of anthracite coal region football supremacy, in 1921, 1922, and 1923, “Blue” and the Big Green helped to pioneer what is today’s National Football League.
“Blue” Bonner was the Big Green’s best ball carrier whose favorite weapon was a hip movement that sent would-be tacklers flying. He was once rated as one of “the very best men playing football in the country” by Robert W. Maxwell, the namesake of today’s Maxwell Award which is given to the best football player in the United States. Coach Gildea also once said: ȁGiven a college education and the coaching college football men receive, Blue’s name would rank with that of Jim Thorpe and a few others as the greatest backs of all time.”
A journalist, Joe Devire, who covered the Big Green games in 1924 said of Bonner, “He is the most colorful player in independent football circles, built like a warrior, one of the most feared athletes on the gridiron. Bonner never went to a college, but he has played against stars of great colleges and has shown them things about football that they never knew existed."
According to Gildea, "Blue hit men so hard that they just didn't get up. He seldom used his hands to tackle, but used his hips and body, just like he blocked. When he ran the ball, his legs went up and down like pistons, almost touching his chin…Usually, whenever Bonner was absent from the lineup, the Big Green lost.”
The few remaining sports news articles of games played way back then herald Blue’s exploits:
--“Famous Coaldale team, with Blue Bonner, registers easy win 42-0…With Blue Bonner back in the lineup, Coaldale worked in stone-crushed fashion sweeping Chester before it in every play…The work of Melley, Herring and Bonner’s end running featured the game.” (10/1/1923)
--“Frankford awaits Coaldale Invasion. Blue Bonner in lineup. Blue Bonner, 37 years old and still the daddy of them all among the football heroes upstate, is playing a wonderful game again for Coaldale this year. Blue seems rougher and faster than ever, and is certain to prove a problem for the home team.” (10/30/1923)
--“Blue Bonner, the star halfback of Coaldale, upheld his reputation of a great line-plunger by his big gains (in 14-14 tie with Shenandoah).” (1/11/1921)
--“Coaldale defeats Gilberton Eleven 13-7…Coaldale made it six more in the second quarter on pretty end runs by Blue Bonner and Giltner, one of Bonner’s end runs being for 25 yards…(Later) Bonner hurled his bulk against the line for an 18-yard gain and a first down.” (12/9/1921)
--“Blue Bonner’s eleven rode roughshod over Conshohocken 52-0 today…Coaldale outclassed the visitors, scoring at will.” (10/6/1924)
--“Coaldale defeats all-star aggregation…Bonner played a great game both on offense and defense, a 25 yard run being one of the features he contributed to the excitement…it was not until Bonner intercepted a forward (pass) and ran 35 yards to a touchdown that the game was on ice.” (12/11/1920)
--“Coaldale victor in season wind-up (over Pottsville Maroons 14-10)…The fourth period touchdown was due to Blue Bonner’s rampageous plunge through the left flank of Pottsville’s line.” (12/11/1922)
According to Casey Gildea, “In private life Blue was just as popular as (he was) on the football field.” Casey related an incident to prove his point: “During a Big Green game at Atlantic City, an opponent named Whitey Thomas landed a punch which broke Blue Bonner’s nose. Years later Whitey was in a hospital with cancer and told his wife that one of the things in his life that he always regretted was that he never got to apologize to Bonner. Blue heard about it and not long after he was at Whitey’s bedside. He said Whitey actually did him a favor because his nose had been broken before and he was always bothered by loose cartilage. The fresh break cleaned out the cartilage, Blue said, and the nose never bothered him again. Whitey later told his wife that the best tonic he had while in the hospital was the visit from Blue Bonner.”
“Blue” Bonnera rampageous running back, built like a warrior, as powerful and as hard to stop as coal coming down a chute, the daddy among football heroes, feared by opponents, compared favorably to the great Jim Thorpe, called the most colorful player in independent football circles, and as popular in private life as he was on the gridironis truly a Coaldale superstar and legend.
Submitted by: Mike Panchura
Sources: The Valley Gazette, and http://coaldalehighalumni.homestead.com/files/Big_Greens.html