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What it means to be a Hawkeye
Kirk Ferentz and Iowa's Greatest Players
By Lyle Hammes, Michael Maxwell, Neal Rozendaal
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Lyle Hammes, Michael Maxwell, and Neal Rozendaal
All rights reserved.
Erwin "Erv" Prasse
Offensive End In Memoriam 1937–1939
Editor's note: Erwin "Erv" Prasse was the captain of the 1939 Ironmen, the most acclaimed team in school history. Although he passed away in 2005, his wife of 63 years, Norma Prasse, was gracious enough to share her memories of Erv.
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Unfortunately, I did not get to see Erwin play. I can watch a few CDs that I've gotten. But I was just a girl back home, I guess, and he was so busy with his three sports — they went one right into the other — he really didn't have a lot of social time. The three sports that he played were so consecutive, he'd get himself into trouble with the football coach. He played baseball, and they wanted him out for spring training. I remember him telling me he told [coach Eddie] Anderson he wasn't coming out for spring practice, and Anderson said, "You're not gonna what?" And Erv said, "No, I can't. My baseball team is doing good, and I gotta be there for 'em." So he did not get in too good with the coach on that score. Plus, he needed a few extra credits — that's why he went a few extra semesters, to finish up and get his degree.
We got married in February 1942, right after he graduated from the university. Erv was 6'2" when we got married. He weighed about 185. If he got over 200, he didn't like that; he felt he was too heavy because he was always active. Even at 87 years old, he was still very thin. His friends would say, "How do you keep so fit?" He'd say, "I just keep movin'."
Erv actually was not Catholic when we got married. At that time, you were not allowed to be married in church if you married a non-Catholic. So he always used to tell everybody, "Oh, we got married in the latrine over at the rectory. We could hardly fit in there," because my family was very large, you know. But he always kidded about that. And then after we were married about 20 years, he said, "I may as well be what you are. I like it." So he did turn Catholic. He was a good person; he didn't need to do that, because that was never a problem for us. I think he was Lutheran, but he made his confirmation, and that was the end of it.
He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, and he went right from college with another young man from the university to talk to Branch Rickey for a tryout. Well, the friend who went with him got sick to his stomach he got so nervous. And I guess Branch Rickey didn't care for people who couldn't keep their heads and their stomachs together. Erv said his friend never got a contract from them.
Erv was offered a bonus of $2,000, I think. He was given $1,000 and then he was also nominated to play on the College Football All-Star Team. But Branch Rickey told him that he was under contract to him now, and he couldn't do that. Rickey said if he played, he'd lose the other thousand. $1,000 was a lot of money back then, so he opted not to play. He didn't play in that All-Star Game; he wasn't allowed to. He did play with the basketball All-Stars, though.
Branch Rickey told him, "You're not a second baseman. You belong out on the field." I think because of his speed and his size, Rickey thought he would be a good outfielder. He was tall, and when they ran laps in college, he'd beat [Nile] Kinnick. And he did catch a quite a few passes from him, so he was good on his feet.
Erv played minor league baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was in Triple A with the Cardinals. And he loved it; he loved baseball the best. He said, "It takes more brains to play baseball than any other sport." But he never did get to the majors. When he came back from the war, he was too old, and his arm was not perfect anymore.
After he came out of the service, he played one season with the Oshkosh All-Stars, the basketball team, which was in the NBL at that time. After he saw how poorly he played, that was the end of that, but he did play one season with them. Actually, he played two years of basketball before the war and one season after the war, so they counted six years of professional basketball. As a consequence, he got an NBA pension, because he played before the war and after the war, and they were nice enough to pay for that. They allowed him to get a pension for that for six years because he was gone to war for three years.
He did not really want to go to war. I was pregnant, and we had just gotten married, and he said, "I'm going, but I'm not going until they tell me I have to." We were married in February of 1942, and he left in July.
He went in as a buck private, but he soon went to officer training school once they saw his qualifications. And because he could play basketball and do all of the things that he could do, they made use of that, too. He would be the manager of the team wherever he was. There was always a colonel who liked to watch sports, so that way he got noticed a little more than maybe someone else. He put out; he was always willing to do what he had to do.
He was on a mission in a little town of Julich, up in northern Germany. They had to cross the river and find out how deep it was and how fast it was. They were pretty close to the German lines. As a matter of fact, he took a boat over one night. He climbed up the hill on the other side and heard the Germans talking. He understood German, so he got the heck out of there. He had learned German at home from his parents. When you went to school, you talked English, but up until that point, they talked German at home. Years ago, that's just the way it was when you were an immigrant. He found out he couldn't speak it as well as he thought he could, but he did understand the phrase, "What was that?" So he got out of there, but when he went back to the other side of the river — like I say, they weren't too far from the Germans — he was hit by shrapnel. He was on the other side behind a house, and the shrapnel hit his right arm. Had it not been where it was, it would have killed him, because his arm protected his heart. It hit his arm bone high above his elbow.
He was taken back to England, and he recovered and then went back to Germany again. They kept him over there managing baseball teams, anything to keep the soldiers busy, because there were so many over there. They were desperate to get all those boys home, but in the meantime, they had to be entertained while they were there. Pro sports was the best thing the officers above him could think of, and so that's what he did. He managed whatever they figured up — baseball teams, basketball teams, anything to keep these guys busy so they wouldn't get into trouble. You know, when they finally did come home, they came back by boat. They weren't flown home at all. He came back on a banana boat. He said he thought they were going to lose each other in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
After he came home from service, it took us about eight or nine years to save the money to buy a house, because, you know, the Army doesn't pay well. He went in in July, and I think it wasn't until November before I got the first paycheck. I was without husband and money all that time, and I never thought of complaining or doing anything. I lived with my parents. I went back to my own home until he came back from the service. At that time my father had died, so he took over helping my mom for a while until we got some money together, and then we moved out here to Naperville, Illinois. That was 53 years ago.
We had 10 kids. I'm one of 10 myself, so I wouldn't trade what I've got in my life for anything, and he said the same thing. You learn a lot from each other. We had 10 children — boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy. Five and five. None of my children played college sports. It's hard to compete with a prominent parent. They all tried it, but none of them were as good as he was.
He would fix everything around the house. That's why I miss him so much — when something breaks, I never had to call anybody in to fix it. He would look at it and maybe consult a few people, but if it was wood, he would fix it. He fixed a lot of antique furniture that my kids had broke, and other people would call him to see if he could put something back together, which he loved doing. He was kind of a craftsman who learned just doing it by himself for the love of it.
He donated his football suit to the University of Iowa Hall of Fame. He put it out there along with a stained-glass lamp shade that he made for Bump Elliott. Bump Elliott donated it to the Hall of Fame. Erv also donated a football from the Notre Dame–Iowa game, so that's out there, too.
He always kept in touch with the Ironmen. They had a 20-year and a 25-year reunion. They were a very great bunch of guys, nice people. They had nice wives, in most cases. The key is that there was only about 27 of them, and not all of them played as much as the others. So many of them played the whole game. And then there were some on the fringe who were very nice, and they'd come, and we'd always have a good time.
Dick Evans and Erv were very close. They were both from Illinois and the Chicago area. They knew each other in high school, and they went to college together. Dick later went into the coaching field, which Erv did not want. They used to play basketball against each other at different times. Oh, they had so many leagues. Back then, sports were tough, and it was what you did with your time.
Dick always was a very nice person. He had very blond hair, so he was kind of known as "Whitey." And when blacks became more integrated in the sports field, Erv would always yell at him if he ever saw him anywhere, "Hey, Whitey!" Dick would get so mad and say, "Don't call me that anymore! That's not proper!" So they'd laugh about that. Erv would always tease him by continuing to call him Whitey. He said, "I don't care what anybody says. You're Whitey to me."
It's not a heck of a lot of fun growing old, but I have lots of very good memories, and that's what it's all about. We did everything we wanted to do, and I think that's quite a nice thing to be able to say about your life — that you did things the way you wanted to and things worked out good.
Erwin Prasse was the captain of Iowa's 1939 Ironmen team and was named a second-team All-American that year. He caught three touchdown passes from Nile Kinnick against Indiana in 1939, which set an Iowa Stadium record that lasted for 66 years. Prasse was just the fifth Hawkeye to earn nine athletic letters at the University of Iowa, lettering three times in football, basketball, and baseball. He helped lead Iowa to two Big Ten baseball titles in 1938 and 1939 and was the baseball team's MVP in 1938. Erwin Prasse was one of 10 football players inducted into the University of Iowa's Hall of Fame in their inaugural class in 1989.CHAPTER 2
Henry "Hank" Vollenweider
I was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa. When I was young, my friends and I would go out swimming by the river in the summertime. We used to go tramping in the woods, trying to catch groundhogs. One time we saw a trap, pulled it out, and guess what? We got sprayed. We'd caught a skunk! That was my childhood.
I went to Dubuque Senior High School and graduated from there in '38. I played football, basketball, and track. When I graduated, I was an all-state football player, and I had won two events in state track hurdles. I won the state championship in the high hurdles in 1937 and in the low hurdles in 1938. Believe it or not, I had visions of getting into the 1944 Olympics. Whether I would have made it or not, I don't know. Anyway, I had fun dreaming about it.
One reason I went to Iowa was because George Bresnahan was the hurdles coach, and I ran hurdles. He was a coach in the '32 Olympics, and George Saling from Iowa had won a gold medal in hurdles in the Olympics. As a freshman, I felt Coach Bresnahan would help me quite a bit. Of course, they didn't have a very good football team at that time. The old motto was, "Minnesota 50, Iowa Fights." I don't know what the meaning was, but that's what they used to say. Anyway, I went out to Iowa mostly because of Coach Bresnahan.
There were no scholarships. If there were, I never heard of them. If you wanted to go to school, you either paid or worked. I worked like all the other boys for 35¢ an hour to pay off my tuition, because all of us at that time were pretty poor. Tuition cost $65 a semester. We cut grass, dug holes, laid pipe, watered the grass, killed weeds, you name it. We'd do just about anything for 35¢ an hour. I worked in a restaurant, too. I washed the dishes, pots, and pans, and then I waited on tables later, for three hours or for three meals. It wasn't bad. Shucks, we were kids; we all enjoyed it. It was fun.
We lived up in the Field House. That's where we slept in the summertime, on the third floor. We used to call it the Boar's Nest. We had all the athletes together — football, baseball, track — and the coach made us work out in the gym all the time there. It didn't cost us a cent. With the university closed [for the night], they dished out for the athletes. Every day we'd get a change in towels so we could take showers. Yessir, we didn't have to send our clothes back to Mom to wash. We used the athletic department's shorts and T-shirts and socks. We were as rich as we were poor. We didn't have money, but we didn't need it. We had our own fun, our own enjoyment.
In the fall of '38, I did not go out for freshman football. I wanted to compete in indoor track, and I felt I could do better by focusing on track. In those days, the football freshmen were meatballs. They never played a game. They were just practice players on defense for the varsity, and I didn't want that. I wanted to have my chance, too, so I stayed with track in the fall.
Then '39 came, and I went out for football. In Dubuque, there's a college called Loras that used to be called Columbia College. Eddie Anderson was a coach at Columbia College when I was growing up. When I was six, seven, eight years old, I lived about three or four blocks from Columbia College. While he was coaching, we used to go down there and play on the grass; we'd steal a football so we could play on the sideline. Back then, Anderson didn't know who I was, and I didn't know what he was. He was a good friend of Don Ameche. Ameche married a girl from Dubuque, and whenever he could, Don Ameche used to come and sit on our bench when we were playing. Bob Feller used to come, too, and sit on our bench. They were awfully, awfully nice people.
As I say, I started football in the fall of '39. I played halfback and fullback. James Murphy, Bill Green, and myself were considered the fullbacks. We were quite loaded, so I didn't expect to play. But I enjoyed playing football. Plus, we got the training table and got something to eat!
My great call to fame, I guess you might say, would be in the game against South Dakota. South Dakota was the first game that we had in '39. Anderson started me in the second half, and they kicked the football to me! And guess what? I was scared and I ran. That was the start of the second half, and that was the first time I touched the football. I caught the ball on the 8-yard line, and gosh, I was scared. I ran 92 yards for a touchdown and set the stadium record. That put us up 34–0. That stadium record lasted for 10 years. Anyway, I enjoyed it; I used to water that grass in the summertime.
That is my only claim to fame for the 1939 team. However, I did play a number of games that year. Of course, I was a substitute. The fellas ahead of me were one year ahead of me in playing time because they were either upperclassmen or they had played during their freshman year. I was just a lowly sophomore, but I had fun. I played in just about all the games in 1939.
I played linebacker on defense. You played both ways back then. People asked me, "How'd you like your leather helmets?" I said, "They were good for one thing — to keep cotton." At that time, you didn't have face masks or guards. At the top of the helmet, there was some elastic stuff, and behind it we used to put cotton. If your nose bled, you took the cotton out, put it up your nose, and kept on going. Those were the days. You played with your nose runnin' or not. If you came out of the football game, you couldn't go back in for the rest of the quarter. So there were very few substitutions. You played until you cracked your arm or something. But it was fun.
Excerpted from What it means to be a Hawkeye by Lyle Hammes, Michael Maxwell, Neal Rozendaal. Copyright © 2011 Lyle Hammes, Michael Maxwell, and Neal Rozendaal. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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