By Mickey Furfari
For The Register-Herald
There hardly could be anyone to doubt that the legendary Jerry West was the most complete basketball player ever to perform for West Virginia University.
Indeed, that superstar who went on to guide the Los Angeles Lakers through 14 years in the National Basketball Association from 1961 through 1974, was one of the top professional players of the 20th century.
But old-timers would have told you, as they did me, that the late Ira Errett (Rat) Rodgers, class of 1919-20, was the greatest all-around athlete in Mountaineer history.
Walter Camp and other football greats of that era probably would have rated him similarly.
“Rodg,” as he was affectionately called along with various other nicknames, excelled not only as a fullback in football but also in basketball, baseball and golf.
He earned the distinction of being named a sole team captain in football, basketball and baseball as a senior in 1919-20.
Rodgers also demonstrated his amazing athletic ability in the late 1920s when some friends at the old Morgantown Country Club talked him into taking up golf, and the following year he went down to the Greenbrier and won the West Virginia Amateur Golf Championship in his first — and only — try.
He had capped his remarkable football career by becoming WVU’s very first consensus All-America selection in 1919. He was a record-setting fullback who could pass as well as run.
What’s more, Rodgers finished his playing career as the nation’s No. 1 scorer with 147 points on 19 touchdowns and 33 extra points.
He accounted for more touchdowns (66) than any other player in the school’s history up to that time. He ran for 42 and passed for 24 during his four-year career.
His total of 313 points was also a school record for a career until 60 years later, when All-America placekicker Paul Woodside scored 323 points in the early 1980s.
Rodgers, a forward in basketball, also was an excellent shortstop and hitter in baseball. He was a four-year letterman in all three sports.
“If an Academic All-America football team had been selected then, Rodg would have made it,” wrote the late historian Tony Constantine, who saw him perform as a player. “He graduated with honors in chemistry and was elected to ‘Crucible,’ the honorary society in that field.
Rodgers, who came to WVU from “prep school” at Bethany College in his hometown, remained at WVU as a head coach and professor for some 40 years. He coached such stints in football, baseball and golf.
Rodgers died in 1963, a few years after he retired following nearly a full lifetime of distinguished service to his alma mater as both athlete and coach.
In Constantine’s book on the first 100 years of Mountaineer football, he wrote:
“Famous sports columnist Grantland Rice said of Rodgers in late 1919, ‘There may be a greater all-around football player in America than Rodgers of West Virginia, but no one has uncovered his name as November slides briskly along the waning autumal trail and no one likely ever will.”
Walter Ecker, the old University of Chicago great rated as one of football’s best referees, said, “Rodgers is the best football player I’ve seen in two years!”
Princeton coach Bill Roper said after the loss to WVU, “I’ve never seen Rodgers’ equal as a thrower of the forward pass. He is equally good running through the line or around the ends, the kind of runner that takes three or four men to bring down.”
“He throws a football like a baseball, hard and accurate. He can throw a football 50 yards or more, farther than most men can punt.
“On the defense, he is a tower of strength. In fact, I believe Rodgers is the equal of Ted Coy (Yale) and Eddie Mahan (Harvard). In the running, he reminds me very much of Coy, whose rushing made Yale unbeatable in 1907-08-09.”
Constantine added that Roper suggested WVU had reinvented football tactics by demonstrating his powerful weapon the pass can be if properly extended. Roper later adopted the WVU offense to his own.
In 1938, Ray Zimmerman of the Brunswick (N.J.) Home News wrote, “Of all the great players who have opposed Rutgers football teams, Ira Rodgers, shifty West Virginian, heads the list.”
Five years later, when George Trevor picked an all-time team of players who had appeared at Princeton Palmer Stadium from 1911-42, he named Rodgers the fullback.
Trevor noted that only Rodgers could have kept John Thomas of Chicago off the team.
Rodgers was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1953. He also is a charter member of both the West Virginia and WVU Sports Hall of Fame.