South Dakota

Rose Bowl Running Back

Penn Backfield
Penn Backfield

I was about twelve and devoted to every kind of sport; I played basketball and baseball at every opportunity; I listened to college football; I was a Cleveland Indians fan; I knew the entire roster of the Minneapolis Lakers. So, when one day I overheard a visiting aunt say, “Well you know, Ben Derr played in the Rose Bowl,” I was dumbstruck. My first thought “I doubt that.” No one in this little town could have done anything as stupendously incredible as play in the Rose Bowl. If my aunt had claimed that Ben had led the invasion of Normandy, or that he had invented penicillin, I would have been less impressed. The Rose Bowl?

Ben was a good looking businessman, about the age of my father, living in my very small hometown (pop. 220) in eastern South Dakota. He ran a local grain elevator and lumberyard which he had taken over from his father. A soft haze of cigar smoke filled his office and he was often on the telephone checking grain prices in Minneapolis and Chicago. This was an off
Derr at Penn
Derr at Penn

ice was where important business was conducted, or at least that is what I imagined.
But it seemed most improbable that someone living in my hometown where I knew every house, every building, every person, could have played in the Rose Bowl. I doubted that he even played football. We did not have a football team at the high school and I didn’t even know anyone who played that sport.

I was, however, a big fan of the college bowl games. I listened to every bowl game played on New Years Day: the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl. Perhaps my aunt was thinking of some homecoming game played right here in South Dakota and somehow got it turned around in her mind. And if he did indeed play in the Rose Bowl what was he doing here in my hometown I wondered. Didn’t those kind of athletes end up living in Minneapolis or Chicago or Los Angeles?

Well, the truth is that Ben Derr did play in the Rose Bowl; he played for Penn against Oregon in 1916. Not only that, he

played professional football—in the era of Jim Thorpe, of all things.

A year ago I happened on a website that listed every professional football player in history, and there I found the name Ben Derr. He was listed as a player for the Chicago Titans. I followed that up with research into the University of Pennsylvania records and a phone call to his daughter. Sure enough, Ben had played in the Rose Bowl. His personal journey took him from Turton, South Dakota to Mitchell, South Dakota, to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, and on to the University of Pennsylvania where he starred on the football team. He served in World War I and eventually came back to Turton to run his family’s business.

As I mentioned, my hometown was as about as small as towns can get and Ben Derr seemed to me an ordinary business man. I had no idea that this local man, the man who ran the grain elevator and lumberyard carried these amazing experiences with him.

One can imagine that many other men an
Derr Article
Derr Article

d woman of the midwestern United States quietly harbor experiences of this calibur. wants to hear about these stories and share them with the world.

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Author: evm staff-Jim on 03/10 2008
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Posted by: Anonymous on March 29 2008
It was played in Pasadena, I have newspaper clippings. It was the beginning of the end of Mr. Derr's academic career. The team trip was a couple of weeks, by train, and the athletes didn't study a whole lot. I guess that problem is not as new as people think. Brian Smith- Ben's Grandson
Posted by: Norbe on March 25 2008
Hi, Jim To the best of my knowledge, this game was played somewhere on the East Coast. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena did not open til around 1921-22. Norbe
Posted by: evm staff-Jim on March 12 2008
So glad to get your comments on Ben Derr. We are eager to get additional information and to be corrected when necessary. I was a young man/boy in Turton when Ben was there. Why didn't I get up the nerve to ask him about his experiences. He had a brother that was killed in World War I, I believe.
Posted by: Anonymous on March 12 2008
Hi, James Glad you were able to chase this down. I knew Ben Derr played in the Rose Bowl, but couldnt find enough info. The game was actually played Jan 1, 1917. The score was Ore 14 Penn 0. I believe it was the first game actually played in Pasadena's Rose Bowl.

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