Largely forgotten due to the passage of time, Fort Covington native William “Big Bill” Palmer is one of the most successful athletes ever born in the North Country. And yet the period during which he reached remarkable heights at two levels of the same sport lasted just over two years. Even more surprising is that he played on a team still recognized today as legendary in the world of college athletics.
Born in 1875 to William and Catherine Palmer on a Fort Covington farm in northern Franklin County, New York, Bill displayed unusual athletic ability at a young age. At fairs, Fourth of July celebrations, and Field Days, his name was always prominent among those participating in sporting events.
He graduated from Fort Covington High School in the late 1890s, and at age 21 was a star player for the town’s baseball team. In fall 1897, he entered the Potsdam Normal School, where his talents led to a baseball title and loads of praise for his high level of play on the football field. In fall 1899, he enrolled at Clarkson School of Technology (also in Potsdam) for two years. For the Tech eleven, he was a prolific running back, a tough lineman, and a superior tackler, exhibiting great strength, speed, and energy.
While at Clarkson, he also played at times for the city football team of Ogdensburg, where he became a fan favorite. In late 1899, when Ogdensburg lost to Syracuse, one of the best teams in the country, Palmer delivered a standout performance. After the game, he received an unusual request from the Syracuse players, who asked him to join their team. In the weeks following, he received similar offers from several top colleges.
But Bill remained at Clarkson, where he was known as a superb all-around athlete, proficient in baseball, football, track, lacrosse, wrestling, boxing, gymnastics, and skating. In those days, when the division between professional and amateur sports was less defined, teams of all sorts—college, semi-pro, and professional—often played each other. When Clarkson played against the Ogdensburg city team in fall 1900, Palmer represented the Techs in a losing battle. After the game, he turned down an offer to sign with Ogdensburg, remaining instead at Clarkson, where his outstanding play and tremendous speed were deeply appreciated. (His recent 100-yard-dash time of 10.5 seconds was just seven-tenths of a second off the existing world record.) Palmer went on to letter there in baseball, football, and track. During the 1900 season, he also coached the Potsdam Normal Junior football team.
He played baseball for the Potsdam town team in 1901, but in fall joined the famous Watertown football squad. How he arrived there was a tale repeated for decades, and occasionally replayed in newspapers. The story goes that scouts were looking for quality players, and while watching Palmer play for Clarkson, “They saw him stroll down the field, carrying four members of the opposing team on one leg and the rest on the other. The scouts gasped and telegraphed home.”
Watertown won the championship of northern New York that year, a title that carried great weight in the football world, where their respected opponents included All-Rochester, All-Syracuse, Athens (Pa.), Hobart College, Schenectady, and the Troy Laureates. Throughout the season, Palmer was a three-way threat as a fierce tackler on defense, a hardy running back who could crash the line or speed around the end, and a lauded placekicker, punter, and kickoff man. Fans marveled at his speed, sometimes displayed when he punted and was still the first man downfield to tackle the receiver.
Bill was also as tough as they come. In a noteworthy winning performance against Buffalo before 5,000 fans at Watertown, he played fullback and kicker and made a key fumble recovery, all while ill with a serious throat infection and a temperature of 104 degrees. A reporter for the Watertown Daily Times wrote, “His successes here were due to his great punting and ability to tear any opposing line in shreds.” Different sources cite different teams as national champions that year, including Watertown, but no playoffs were held to determine the official standings.
In early 1902, Palmer was working in Chester, Massachusetts, when the call came to rejoin Watertown’s football team in the fall. Before he accepted the offer, word arrived that the most lauded college football coach in the country, Fielding “Hurry-Up” Yost, wanted Big Bill to join the Michigan Wolverines. This wasn’t just any team: during the previous season, they were 11–0, outscored their opponents 555–0, tied for the Big Ten title with a conference record of 4–0, defeated Stanford 49–0 in the Rose Bowl, and were national champions. It was a truly historic performance. And now they wanted Bill.
Less than a week before opening day, Palmer joined the Wolverines, and just two weeks into the season, the Detroit Free Press said of the newcomer, “He bids fair to prove a wonder” (meaning he was off to a great start and promised to get even better). Listed at 5 feet 8 to 5 feet 10 and 190 to 200 pounds, Palmer was further molded into shape by Michigan Trainer Keene Fitzpatrick, who called him “the fastest heavy football player in the country.” Besides playing on the offensive line, usually at left tackle, he also ran the ball at times despite the presence of two established stars in the backfield. Palmer scored five touchdowns on a team that, like the 1901 squad, became legendary, outscoring their opponents by an incredible 644–12, winning the Big Ten Conference title, and capturing the national championship.
Years later, fellow Michigan lineman Dan McGugin, who played immediately alongside Palmer, became head football coach and athletic director at Vanderbilt University. An astute judge of football talent as a coach and former player, McGugin assessed his teammate’s talents in a letter to his old friend. “I have always felt you were perhaps the most powerful man I ever saw in football clothes.” As president of the National College Coaches Association, McGugin was quoted in a speech as saying, “William S. Palmer of the Michigan 1902 football team was the strongest, fastest, and most deadly tackle of any player I have ever seen in a football game.”
After Palmer’s performance at Michigan, some newspaper writers called him the best lineman in the country. Several years later, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote, “Bill Palmer was a physical freak. He was built like Samson of old. He was of average height, but such was the width and circumference of him that he looked no more than six inches over five feet. His legs were like the trunks of trees…. The mighty deeds he did there are inscribed for keeps on Wolverine annals. ‘Hurry-Up’ has had many good men since … but he tells his cronies that he never had a more usable, tractable, ambitious, or more bloodthirsty human battering ram than this same old Bill Palmer.”
Next week: Same star athlete, different national stage.
Photos: 1901 Headline; 1902 Headline; Michigan vs. Minnesota game, 1902, in which Palmer started at left tackle and also scored a touchdown (Wikipedia)
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.