Renowned author and Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins once dubbed the college football phenomenon “Saturday’s America.” Perhaps that realization, unexpressed though it would be for many years, impelled a small group of men to gather on Saturday afternoons during the winter, spring, and summer to talk about their beloved pastime – the game of football. Five of these gentlemen – Tom Whelan, George “Bulger” Lowe, Mark Devlin, Dan O’Connor, and “Bunny” Corcoran – had been members of the 1919 Canton Bulldogs. Jim Thorpe was also a member of that Canton team, which had paid the $25 entry fee to the American Professional Football Association along with outfits from Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Rochester.
In the autumn, of course, these five football men and their fellow club members, who included Joe McKenney, Bill Ohrenberger, Bill Stewart Sr., D. Leo Daley, Bill Ormsby, and Swede Nelson, were intensely engaged in the gridiron game itself, coaching and officiating high school and college contests throughout New England.
In 1932, the sportsmen made their association a formal one. They established the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston and elected George Lowe its first president. At first, membership was limited to 50. Meetings were at the headquarters of the Boston Athletic Association. In 1939, President Joe McKenney led a drive to broaden the criteria for membership. All who loved sportsmanship and fair play, exemplified not only in football but also in all other athletic pursuits, became eligible to join. The members agreed that the club’s primary mission was to promote amateur football so as to instill and nurture the ideals of citizenship, leadership and sportsmanship.
Joe McKenney knew well the meaning of sportsmanship. A legendary player and coach at Boston College, he was one of the field officials in the fabled “Fifth Down Game” between Cornell and Dartmouth. In that 1940 contest, Cornell had inadvertently been allowed an extra down that made the difference in the Big Red’s initial margin of victory. When the mistake came to light, Cornell agreed to relinquish the ensuing score, a selfless move which cost the team the game and its top national ranking, but earned it a permanent niche in the annals of selfless and honorable competition.
Several landmark venues have been the scene of Gridiron Club events: the Lenox, Kenmore, Copley Plaza, Sheraton Needham, and Burlington Marriott Hotels; Fantasia’s Restaurant in Cambridge; Lantana in Randolph; Montvale Plaza in Stoneham; and Caruso’s Diplomat in Saugus.