College football has a long and colorful history.
Johnny Football, the Boz, Neon Deion, Joe Willie Namath, Byron “Whizzer” White and Slingin Sammy Baugh are names that bring a grin to most college football fans. Touchdown Jesus, Georgia’s hedge rows, the Big House, “The band is out on the field!”, Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary, Auburn’s miracle field goal return and Kenny Wheaton’s interception all play into college football’s lore.
But before Marcus Mariota was leading the Ducks into the inaugural College Football Playoff, before Oregon State’s Giant Killers shut down the Juice, before Army’s Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, before Grantland Rice wrote poetically about Red Grange and well before the birth of the NFL and the first Heisman Trophy winner there was Yale’s Tom Shevlin.
Known to Central Oregon history buffs as the man who created the Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company and built the Shevlin-Hixon mill in 1915, Shevlin was an A-list rock star of the early 1900s, his athletic and romantic adventures covered in papers across the country.
An imposing 6-foot, 195-pound end, Shevlin helped Yale to a 42-2-1 mark between 1902-05 and was a four-time All-America selection. In 1905, his senior year, Shevlin led the Elis — the school didn’t adopt its current Bulldogs nickname until much later — to a 10-0 record and a share of the national championship.
(That undefeated 1905 squad is considered one of the greatest ever, shutting out nine of its 10 opponents while outscoring teams 227-4.)
An impressive all-around athlete, Shevlin lettered in baseball and track as well as football — at one point he also held the world record in the hammer throw — and was said to be one of the best collegiate boxers in the country.
But what seemed to catch the press’ attention more than Shevlin’s athletic exploits was his playboy attitude. The son of a wealthy timber baron, Shevlin was a real-life Jay Gatsby — 20 years before “The Great Gatsby” was penned. He raced his “$15,000 French automobile” throughout New England while in college, dressed in nothing but the highest fashion — The New Haven Register estimated he spent $17,000 one year on clothes — and may or may not have had an engagement broken off because he became “too prominent in a certain social circle” during a trip to Europe.
After graduating from Yale in 1906, Shevlin came to Bend and spent six months exploring the timber potential of the area. That trip eventually led to the Shevlin family purchasing land and smaller timber companies in Central Oregon, which paved the way for the future Shevlin-Hixon mill.
Even with his athletic days behind him, Shevlin couldn’t stay out of the headlines. He would occasionally return to Yale to coach his old team before big games, sometimes relieving the current coach of his duties in the middle of the season.
“Shevlin has been called upon by Yale teams for assistance more than once when the coaches in charge were making failures of the work,” The Bulletin wrote in 1915.
With the construction of the Shevlin-Hixon mill nearing completion in November 1915, Shevlin was called back to his old campus in New Haven, Connecticut, to take charge of the “Yale eleven” before their last two games of the year against Princeton and Harvard.
“Pep a-Plenty Shown When Tom Shevlin Came to Town,” New London, Connecticut’s The Day newspaper wrote in a headline once Shevlin arrived. “Old veteran comes out of the West and grips Yale squad with a Kaiser-like rule,” the paper wrote.
The Elis topped Princeton 13-7 but lost to Harvard 41-0 in Boston, a defeat which secured their first losing record in school history. Even worse, Shevlin caught a cold he couldn’t shake, which eventually turned into pneumonia. He died, more than 100 years ago in December 1915 at the age of 32 in Minneapolis. Shevlin left behind an estate worth approximately $3.5 million to his wife and two children.
Shevlin’s legacy was guaranteed in Bend when in 1919 the Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company donated the land that would eventually become Shevlin Park. Later, in 1954, Shevlin was a member of the second class inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“A sportsman, a leader, a friend, always at the front with a dominant personality that compelled attention and success,” is how football coaching legend Walter Camp described Shevlin to The Associated Press after his death. “Into life, as into football, he carried that personality and it always stood him in good stead.
“Yale will miss him,” added Camp, the namesake for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award given annually to the top collegiate football player in the country. “Football and sport will miss him, but above all a host of friends will feel a deep sense of personal loss that nothing can replace.”
By Beau Eastes for the Deschutes County Historical Society
A version of this article first appeared in The (Bend) Bulletin in 2015.