When ‘Automatic Jack’ wowed Wheaties fans
All pro football long snappers – along with Lucy Van Pelt, the world’s most famous holder of the ol’ pigskin – owe a little something to “Automatic” Jack Manders, the star of a Wheaties newspaper ad with more words than the Gettysburg address.
Born in 1909 near Milbank, South Dakota, and later a University of Minnesota Hall of Famer, Manders is credited with erasing the drop-kick from pro football and scoring the first points in the first National Football League post-season game.
That was in 1933, long before The NFL Game That Revived Roman Numerals came along.
“Until shortly before his time, extra‐point and field‐goal attempts were made by drop‐kicking. Manders developed a facility at kicking the ball while it was held by a teammate,” his 1977 New York Times’ obituary tells us.
At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds and a Wheaties star in the making, Manders owed only about 20 pounds to the famously formidable bulk of Bronko Nagurski, who preceded Manders at Minnesota before they became teammates in the first NFL championship game in 1933.
The pair combined to rush for just under 800 yards during the ’33 season. Pro Football Hall of Famer Nagurski never rushed for more than 600 yards in a season by himself.
It was the height of America’s Great Depression, but NFL owners decided to hold a “world championship.” Never mind that there were only 10 professional teams, all in America, and one of them was the Portsmouth Spartans. The Spartans later became the Detroit Lions, overcoming a move of about 300 miles from Ohio to an entirely different state.
On a mid-December day at Chicago’s Wrigley Field before a reported 26,000 fans, Manders kicked first- and second-quarter field goals to put the Bears ahead of the New York Giants 6-0. His Bears ultimately came from behind with less than two minutes to play to win 23-21.
Manders kicked three field goals in that game, led the league in field goals four times and got the “Automatic” nickname for drilling 76 extra points without a miss.
He was a natural for Wheaties.
So, he was featured in a 1939 full-color newspaper cartoon that depicted his invincible exploits. Entertainment was scarce then. News came in morsels rather than a blizzard. It takes little imagination to envision kids and adults reading every word of the exploits of Automatic Jack.
In the ‘37 title game, Manders scored touchdowns by rushing and receiving, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass.
Although he died in 1977 at age 68, his name surfaced on sportscasts after the New York Jets’ Keyshawn Johnson matched that feat in a 1999 divisional playoff game.
And who knows? Had it not been for Manders, perhaps Sunday newspaper comics of later years would not have featured the long-running gag drawn by Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz. A Minnesota lad himself, Schulz made it automatic that Lucy Van Pelt would always yank that football just as good old Charlie Brown was about to lay a sneaker into it.
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