The Fantastic Day and Strange Tale of Art Smith

Rockne’s teammate created quite the stir on and off the field

By Jim Lefebvre
Forever Irish
www.NDFootballHistory.com

Art SmithJPG

When Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer threw for five touchdowns and ran for a sixth Saturday to lead a 42-30 victory at Pittsburgh, it was reported that his six TDs tied a modern record for Notre Dame.

But one ESPN college football highlight show featured a graphic with the all-time bests. And there it was:

Art Smith        1911    7

That’s right. More than a century ago, a fellow named Art Smith scored seven touchdowns in a game for Notre Dame – a record that stands today.

So who was this Smith, and why haven’t we heard more about him? If he scored seven TDs in a single game, he must have had a noteworthy season and career, right?

Well….

What we know is that Art Smith established himself as something of a football star at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Smith won a letter in 1909 and was known for his “open field rushing.” He set his sights on a larger stage, and enrolled at Notre Dame the following year.

The 1911 Notre Dame varsity had its share of talented backfield candidates. Sophomore Charles “Gus” Dorais looked very sound as the quarterback. A stable of outstanding runners – many of them track stars – manned the other spots: Alfred “Dutch” Bergman, Alvin “Heinie” Berger, Joe Pliska, Ray Eichenlaub, Bill Kelleher. At left end, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound sophomore, Knute Rockne, worked his way into the starting lineup.

Coach John Marks’ men opened with easy victories over Ohio Northern (32-6) and St. Viator (43-0). Next up was a challenge from home-state foe Butler. On a rain-slicked Cartier Field, Smith entered the game as a sub and helped spark a late run that broke open a close game and resulted in a 27-0 victory.

The opponent the next Saturday, Oct. 28, was originally scheduled to be DePaul, but a conflict in dates wiped out the game. Another Chicago contingent, Loyola University, hastily agreed to fill the spot on Notre Dame’s schedule. It was clear from the start that the visitors were sorely outmatched.

The result: “The most severe drubbing handed a visiting team in years…one continued round of dashes up the field and down…affording Coach Marks an opportunity to judge the ability of various candidates in action against strangers.” When it was over, Notre Dame had scored 14 touchdowns (then worth five points) and 10 goals-after for a total count of 80-0. All 30 Notre Dame men dressed for the game participated.

“All of the candidates who played in the backfield conducted themselves in a manner worthy of honorable mention,” said one report. “Art Smith furnished a sensation by several long runs, and also earned a niche in the hall of fame by scoring seven of the fourteen touchdowns. Miller kicked goal after the last touchdown by Smith, secured on a 75-yard sprint in which excellent dodging ability was displayed.”

Smith added two of the goals-after, for a total of 37 out of Notre Dame’s 80 points. Truly a memorable day. Yet, the performance did not earn him a spot on the traveling squad to Pittsburgh the next week. The 20 players who boarded the train at South Bend included all the regulars, and not Smith.

What sparked Smith’s outstanding running that one day in October, 1911? Well, one might speculate that he was running from something that happened a few weeks earlier.

In the Minneapolis Morning Tribune of Nov. 27, 1911, shocking headlines told of a previously unreported scandal:

Girl Student Elopes

With Football Player

Gladys Van Nest, West High

Scholar, Married Sept. 2

In Hudson, Wis.

Bride, Only 15 Years Old,

Won After Short

Summer Courtship

Keeps Secret From Parents

–Father Would Annul Ceremony

It turns out that Gladys Van Nest was from a proper and prominent Minneapolis family, her father John H. Van Nest being a former president of the Minneapolis city council.

The report said of Art Smith: “The husband is a shining light on the Notre Dame football team. He is 18 years old and had been spending his summer vacation in Minneapolis when he met Miss Van Nest. They were introduced by a cousin of the girl, and had been acquainted but a few weeks before their marriage took place. Mr. Smith left the next day to pursue his studies at Notre Dame.”

That’s right. The young couple apparently borrowed Mr. Van Nest’s automobile on Sept. 2, drove to the Wisconsin border, took the ferry across the St. Croix River, obtained a marriage license in Hudson, Wis. (known then as a place for quick marriages) and were wed by a Protestant minister, Rev. John Fisher. After the ceremony, the couple returned to Minneapolis, had a picnic, after which Smith drove Van Nest home to her parents, and prepared to board the train back to South Bend.

On the marriage application, Smith claimed to be 21, and from Osseo, Minn. Van Nest’s age was listed as 20. The county clerk who issued the license later admitted he was suspicious, “and required young Smith to make affidavit that he and the girl were of age…the county judge admitted that he received a fee of $5 for giving them permission to side-step the Wisconsin law.”

Nearly three months later, the newspapers got wind of the story, and it remained atop the headlines for several days, with a number of details added to the narrative.

One dispatch, from South Bend, said that Smith denied marrying Van Nest:

“Arthur W. Smith denies that he eloped and married Miss Gladys Van Nest of Minneapolis last September. The denial was made when the authorities of the University of Notre Dame summoned the young man before them. Smith, who lives at Corby Hall, has been attending school regularly. He spoke of knowing the supposed bride intimately, explaining that their parents were close friends.”

However, in the next day’s report, a Tribune reporter spoke with Smith at Notre Dame “by long distance telephone” and Smith “repudiated a statement borne by a dispatch last night saying he had denied the marriage. He admitted that he had eloped to Hudson with Miss Van Nest…When told it was reported here that John Van Nest, father of the girl, was considering starting annulment proceedings, Smith said it was “all right” with him.

“Leave everything to ‘Old John,’” Smith said over the phone. “’Old John’ will know what to do. Anything he does is all right with me. If the girl wants the marriage annulled it’s all right with me; anything they do is.”

The paper reported that Smith had been confined to his bed on campus “with a broken collarbone, received in the Notre Dame-Wabash football game Nov. 18.” Smith denied “that he had told the university authorities that he had not been married. He refused to say whether he had been called before them.” But one way or another, his time at Notre Dame was to end.

The Van Nest family’s reaction to the secret marriage was one of shock. An older sister, Rachael, said she was astounded by the news. “I hadn’t the least idea that such a thing had taken place…I have not met Mr. Smith more than three or four times. I recall that he and Gladys went on a few automobile rides, but never imagined that they would run away to get married…This was the first time father and mother knew of it and it has almost broken their hearts. Gladys could not have realized what she was doing.”

The same could probably be said of Art Smith.

One thought on “The Fantastic Day and Strange Tale of Art Smith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s