“All Right” Dwight LeRoux played 9 seasons (1913 to 1922) for the Rock Island Independents beginning in 1913. At the time he retired after the 1922 campaign, many observers proclaimed that he was the finest single-wing tailback ever to play pro football.
Dwight LeRoux (pronounced “lah-ROO”) was born in 1893, in Bald Knob, Arkansas – where the Ozarks meet the Delta. His father sparked his interest in football at age 6, by giving him a football to play with. No matter where Dwight went, his football went with him. He and his Canadian immigrant parents eked out a living on a small sorghum cane farm just north of a bend in the Little Red River.
Every year in late October, Dwight, along with his parents and a few neighbors, would gather to harvest cane. Moving row-by-row, Dwight waded through cane, football in hand, stripping the long prickly leaves from their stalks. With a finely honed machete, he cut the stalks close to the ground and stacked them in bundles to be hauled by wagon to the local sorghum mill.
At the mill, a press constructed of revolving metal canisters acted as rollers that squeezed the juice (called “squeezings”) from the cane. The mill’s power source was Dwight’s favorite mule, Jebediah, walking around in circles pulling a large pole that rotated the rollers. On one side of the press, the stalks were fed into the revolving canisters; and on the other, the crushed stalks were removed. The process extracted the squeezings which flowed into buckets beneath the mill. The resulting juice was boiled down in large pans to a thick, sweet syrup.
On an unusually cold day in October, 1901, Dwight was working the mill, along with his trusted mule, Jebediah. As Dwight fed stalks into the mill, his shirtsleeve became intertwined with the sticky stalks. He tussled with the shirt and cane in a desperate attempt to free himself, all-the-while oblivious to how close he was to the revolving canisters. With Jebediah trotting at full speed, Dwight’s entangled left arm was sucked into the mill and pulverized, right along with the cane.
A Father’s Legacy
Dwight’s father, Lemieux LeRoux, was no stranger to freak accidents. He had been a champion curler for the Royal Montreal Curling Club during the 1883 Canadian Curling Championship Season. During an exhibition match in the 1885 preseason, Lemieux suffered a career-ending injury to his power broom sweeping shoulder.
With a lame shoulder and arm, Lemieux was suddenly out of the curling club. With employment prospects bleak, Lemieux migrated south in the hope of reinventing himself. He and his young bride, Hilda, settled in Bald Knob, Arkansas, where he purchased a small plot of land and planted sorghum cane in the hope of striking it rich making sweet sorghum syrup that would rival the best maple syrup produced in Canada. It wasn’t to be.
Dejected and angry at his personal shortcomings, he was an openly hot blooded, ill-tempered, and abusive parent. Furious that his son’s careless accident left his family shorthanded, he never forgave Dwight. In the years that followed, Dwight feared the approach of the sorghum harvest. His father had to work double-time to make up for the lack of field hands and was quick to temper. He took out his frustration on young Dwight, violently lashing his backside with freshly cut cane. Disarmed, but not defeated, Dwight continued to work the cane fields and the sorghum mill – football in hand.
Rock Island Railroad
Tired of the beatings; and of his mother putting sweet sorghum syrup one everything, Dwight vowed to leave the Bald Knob sorghum farm for good; and in 1913 at the age of 20, he did. Dwight said goodbye to Ole Jebediah, threw his bindle over his shoulder, tucked his worn-out football under his arm, and hiked 12 miles to the Rock Island Railroad station in nearby Searcy. There, he hopped on the first freight train out, not having a care in the world as to where it was headed, just as long as it took him away from Bald Knob.
A week later, the train came to a screeching stop on the largest island on the Mississippi River, Rock Island, Illinois. Dwight hopped off the freight car he traveled on, and began sneaking his way through the Rock Island Freight Yard. When he rounded a car, he was suddenly grabbed around the collar of his shirt and forcefully yanked to the ground.
Towering above him was Dick Liitt, Rock Island Freight Yard Security Chief and head coach of the professional American football team, the Rock Island Independents.
Rock Island Independents
The Rock Island Independents were first formed in 1907 by Demetrius Clements as an independent team with no athletic club affiliation, no social club ties, and no corporate company backing or sponsorship. As a result, the team was named the Independents. They later played in what is now the National Football League (NFL) from 1920 to 1925.
As Liitt observed Dwight bouncing from car-to-car in the yard, he noticed the young man’s ability to deftly maneuver between cars with his bindle and football all in one hand. It just so happened that Coach Liitt was looking for additional players to fill out the roster for the upcoming season and was in need of a tough and elusive single-wing tailback.
Once Coach Liitt wrangled wily Dwight to the ground, he engaged the young man in a direct line of questioning. Impressed by the youngster’s answers – his long journey away from home, tough upbringing, athletic genes, and his ability to get along just fine with one arm, he offered Dwight the opportunity to evade prosecution from the Rock Island Railroad by joining his football team, the Rock Island Independents.
Single-Wing Tailback, “All Right” Dwight LeRoux
At the time that Dwight joined the Independents, both college and professional offenses were a drab scrum of running the ball with only occasional forward passes. In what was then the predominant single-wing formation, the primary ball handler was called the “tailback” and the “quarterback” was used as a blocking back. Most passing was done by the tailback, and then usually only on third down with long yardage to go. Liitt and his coaches, primarily player-coach Walter Harrison Flanigan, needed the right single-wing tailback to run the system properly.
To say that Dwight was not an instant success would be an understatement. Astonished and alarmed by the complexities of the single-wing system, he fumbled frequently when trying to stiff-arm and carry the ball at the same time, could only hand the ball off to one side, had trouble with the quick handoffs, and stumbled over his feet trying to pivot to his left.
His speed was also called into question. When another player called him “slow as molasses”, Dwight (for obvious reasons) took exception and challenged the man to a fistfight. Observing the altercation from the sideline, and always wanting to extract toughness out of his players, Coach Liitt instructed the men to fight and fight fair. With one arm tied behind his back, Dwight’s insulter fought – and lost – to Dwight. This served as an example to the rest of the team of what true toughness looked like. Despite his unquestionable toughness, Coach Liitt abandoned his plan and moved Dwight to tight end.
At the start of the 1915 season, Walter Flanigan became the coach of the team and resumed the effort to make Dwight into a single-wing tailback, and this time the tutoring paid off. In a mid-season start against the Dubuque Braves, Dwight displayed a magical slickness as he led the Independents to a 74-0 onslaught. Dwight rushed for 437 yards and 8 touchdowns, and passed 4 times for 103 yards and 1 touchdown – all to the right, while carrying the ball in his only arm, his right. From that point forward, Dwight was affectionately known as “All Right” Dwight LeRoux.
The Bald Knob native not only provided the Independents with big seasons under his right arm and leadership, but he became a big-play and a big-game man as well. While “All Right” Dwight is most remembered for his single game performance in the 74-0 rout of the Braves, he was individually more brilliant in many other games – on many occasions, single handedly bringing his team back from the jaws of defeat.
The Road to the NFL
During his tenure, Flanigan promoted “All Right” Dwight, who he often referred to as his “right hand man,” and the Independents by scheduling two games in 1917 against the Minneapolis Marines. By playing the Marines, who were considered one of the toughest teams in the Midwest, the Independents gained national attention. Rock Island lost to the Marines by a score of 7–3. However they were defeated by a wider margin, 33–7, in the second game at Minneapolis. Always keeping things in perspective, when Dwight was asked by a reporter after the game if he needed another hand in the backfield, Dwight responded, “Yes, a left one.”
In 1919, the club hired Rube Ursella of the Marines to serve as a player-coach. Ursella brought several other Minneapolis players with him. These new players would later help the team receive an invitation to join the NFL. In the 1919 season, the Independents lost only to the Hammond Pros, led by George Halas.
Flanigan then challenged the Canton Bulldogs to a “championship” game, offering a $5,000 guarantee if they would come to Rock Island for the game. But Canton, which had already won the “Ohio League” championship by defeating their arch-rivals, the Massillon Tigers, turned down the offer.
It’s likely that Canton’s Jim Thorpe and Ralph Hay learned that Rock Island’s game against the Akron Indians had drawn only 1,700 spectators and skeptical that Flanigan could deliver on his $5,000 guarantee, they declined the offer.
However the Independents still had defeated the Columbus Panhandles 49–0 and the Indians 17–0 that season. In 1919, prior to the establishment of the National Football League, they claimed to be “Champions of the USA.”
Along with his right-hand man, “All Right” Dwight, Flanigan eagerly joined the new American Professional Football Association (renamed the National Football League in 1922). They were both present at the September 17, 1920, meeting at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile dealership which established the league. Flanigan made his team a card-carrying charter member of the league and he was named to a committee charged with framing the league’s constitution.
On September 26, 1920, the first game featuring a team from the APFA was played at Douglas Park. Behind another “All Right” Dwight performance, the Independents were victorious as they defeated the St. Paul Ideals 48–0.
Although the single-wing formation had been used many years before “All Right” Dwight joined the Independents, he was central to their successful use of this style of play because of his game-sense and power right performances. Perfecting the single-wing offensive scheme of fakes, men in motion, and quick hitting runs, Dwight added the dimension of accurate downfield throwing.
Dwight’s career came to a premature end during the 1922 season, the Independent’s first season in the newly formed NFL. In a late season game against the Dayton Triangles, Dwight was running to his right when he was pressured from his blindside. Without a left arm to fend off the defender, he was driven hard into the ground. The devastating tackle destroyed his only arm, breaking both the ulna and radius bones beneath his elbow.
“All Right” Dwight was carried off the field as a victor. The Independents won the game in Dwight fashion, 43-0. Dwight had rushed for 197 yards and 3 scores and threw for another 79 yards and 1 touchdown. The crowd – fans of both the Independents and Triangles – ushered the broken star off the field with the dull sound of unified one-handed clapping (later called the “All Right Cheer”) – a fitting tribute to the greatest single-wing tailback to ever play the game.
Numbers and Accomplishments
During his career, Dwight rushed for 8,037 yards and 101 touchdowns. In a non-passing era, he completed 57.8% of his passes for 3,689 yards and 17 touchdowns with 23 interceptions. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. If his career stats were compared to those who played their entire careers in the NFL, his yards per attempt would have ranked third all-time, behind only Otto Graham (8.6) and Sid Luckman (8.4).
Grantland Rice, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, and known as the king of the Gee-Whizzers, once said in reference to Dwight’s years at Rock Island, “You had to be there to realize how “All Right” Dwight was. He was a charismatic hero, half the arm, but all the charm.”
In retirement Dwight was passionate about helping other disabled football players. He mentored the one-legged running back, “Hoppin” Harry Hyde, club-footed kicker Jimmy “Boots” Butler, and the one-eyed defensive tackle, Billy “Cyclops” Topps.
He later became a sought-after tutor and instructor for universities wishing to install the single-wing formation as an offense. He could be heard on many a practice field shouting his trademark instructions to players learning his system: “DO IT RIGHT!”
Not a bad career for a one-armed sorghum cane farmer from Bald Knob, Arkansas.