Baylor Football and the 1919 Hurricane

by John Tanner IV | February 18, 2019

One hundred years ago, a 150-pound freshman named John Tanner III enlisted to play football for the Baylor Bears.

The move was somewhat comfortable for Tanner, a student who had lived his first year of life in the attic of Burleson Hall as the infant son of religion professor John Tanner II. He was also fortunate to be welcomed by President S.P. Brooks who had assisted Tanner’s widow with her husband’s funeral at age 31 and her own burial in 1908.

Young Tanner’s educational future was aided by university tuition assistance, a busboy job in the girl’s cafeteria, and later, a football scholarship.

Tanner’s hometown was listed as Corpus Christi, Texas where he had lived in a cabin on the beach with the Z.C. Taylors, his adoptive parents. The Taylors had been the first career Baptist missionaries to serve in Brazil. But Tanner’s hometown was to make national news that summer following his freshmen year.

A mammoth hurricane and flood destroyed the entire city, killing over a thousand citizens without warning. Four of the five occupants of the Taylor home drowned during the night of September 14th. Tanner himself floated 20 miles on a railroad tie in the darkness with 30-foot waves crashing around him.

That fall Tanner returned to Baylor and was asked to describe his experience in chapel. Many years later, Coach Frank Bridges confided that he had dropped in on that service and heard the testimony of his young team member. He admitted that he had determined that day to give Tanner a try at first team running back.

Football was different in the early 1920s. The ball was wider. Safety padding was minimal. Participants played both offense and defense. Play consisted of “singlewing” running similar to rugby. At Baylor, football players were considered ruffians. Some were veterans of WWI. Tanner was told by one of his professors that his Dad would have been ashamed of his son’s football participation.

Tanner went on to lead his team to Baylor’s first SWC football championship, playing their first postseason bowl-type game against Boston College in Boston. The team traveled by train from Waco to Massachusetts and back.

He also lettered in baseball, pitching alternately with Ted Lyons of Chicago Cubs fame. He also competed in track successfully as a javelin competitor.

Tanner was elected permanent president of the Class of 1922 and is a member of the Baylor Hall of Fame. He was a trustee at Baylor Hospital and was a Baptist deacon and men’s Bible teacher at E. Grand Baptist Church in Dallas.