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'Nevermore' Will There Be Such a Rich Family Tradition of Sports and Service: The Poes of Princeton

When it comes to the twin traditions of athletic prowess and military service to one's country, few families can surpass the relatives of Edgar Allan Poe.

When Bill Belichick was drawing up his game plan for the American Football Conference championship game with the Baltimore Ravens, his eyes most surely had “all the gleaming of a demon that is dreaming.” Bill’s teams have established a winning tradition for professional football that will be difficult to match.

Still, whatever that particular game’s outcome, the New England Patriots have to go a long way to match the sporting, cultural, and military traditions of the relatives of Edgar Allan Poe.  Edgar was born in Boston in 1809 and died in Baltimore in 1849. “The Raven” was his most famous poem. Published in 1845, it gave Baltimore’s current professional football team its nickname.  

But “back in the day,” college football was king, and the mighty Harvard and Yale elevens perennially fought for national supremacy. The special nemesis of both the Crimson and the Elis were the Tigers of Princeton. And the most renowned of the athletes who played for Princeton were the six Poe brothers, all sons of Edgar’s cousin John Prentiss Poe. They all played football in college, and three of them served with distinction in World War I.

John graduated from Princeton in 1854. He later became attorney general of Maryland. From his “full paternal quiver” he sent all six sons to his alma mater. They were:

Samuel Johnson Poe, Class of 1884. He played halfback for the Tigers in 1882-83. He was also an All-American lacrosse player.

Edgar Allan Poe, Class of 1891. Probably the best known of all the Poe boys, he was the country’s first All-America quarterback, chosen in 1889, when Caspar Whitney of Harper's magazine selected the first All-America college football team. Edgar was captain of Princeton the team as a junior and as senior.

One story goes that after Princeton beat Harvard 41-15, a Harvard man reportedly asked a Princeton alumnus whether Poe was related to the great Edgar Allan Poe. The Princeton guy replied, "He is the great Edgar Allan Poe.'"  The younger Edgar Poe graduated Phi Beta Kappa and later served as the Attorney General of Maryland from 1911 to 1915. 

John Prentiss Poe, Jr., Class of 1895.  Perhaps a typical “third child,” with both a reckless courage and a generous nature, he was a star halfback on the football varsity and class president. When he flunked off the team the next spring, his whole class turned out at Princeton Junction to see him off. He was readmitted in the fall, played even better, but again had to leave for academic reasons.  This time he did not return. He set off on a series of adventures, coaching football at other colleges and working as a cowpuncher, gold prospector, surveyor, and soldier of fortune.

When World War I broke out he hastened to England and "took the King's shilling'' as a private in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He later applied for transfer to the infantry and was assigned to the 1st Black Watch. That famous Scottish infantry regiments was known to the Germans as the “Ladies from Hell” because of their ferocity and the kilts they wore.

John was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 of 1915. He was with a detachment carrying bombs to another regiment and was part way across an open field when he was struck in the stomach by a bullet and killed. He was buried there, between the German and British lines, and relatives were never able to locate his grave.

His portrait, showing his stocky figure with the kilts and bonnet of the Black Watch, hangs in Madison Hall; it was given by the Princeton Alumni Association of Maryland. Poe Field, provided in his memory by classmates and friends, is used for lacrosse and intramural athletics. The John Prentiss Poe Football Cup, given by his mother, is Princeton's highest football award. Now known as the Poe-Kazmaier Award, it goes annually to the member of the varsity football team who has best exemplified courage, modesty, perseverance, and good sportsmanship.

Neilson (Net) Poe, Class of 1897.  He played in the backfield in 1895 and 1896, and later came back and coached. In World War I he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s American Expeditionary Force, the “Rainbow Division.”  He was wounded in a 1918 battle in which his commanding officer was killed. Neilson took command and safely entrenched his men for 24 hours while suffering a bullet wound to the stomach and several shrapnel wounds. He was later awarded the French War Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross.

His coaching at Princeton spanned 20 years between the World Wars. He was in charge of the scrubs, who today would be known as the Scout Team. They were called “Poe's Omelettes'' because "they were good eggs who were beaten up.''

Arthur Poe, Class of 1900, was another All-American. He scored the deciding points in two consecutive victories over Yale. In 1898 he ran ninety yards for a touchdown and the only score of the game. Newspapers reported that he had recovered a Yale fumble, but Poe said that he had grabbed the ball from a Yale halfback's arms, that he had a clear field and a ten-yard start for the goal line, and that he had never felt happier in his life.

In the 1899 game, with less than a minute to play, and with the score 10 to 6 in Yale's favor, Princeton recovered a fumble on Yale's 30-yard line. It was getting dark and time was running out. The only feasible strategy was to kick a field goal, then worth 5 points, but Princeton's two drop-kickers were out with injuries. Arthur Poe volunteered to try a drop-kick even though he had never kicked in a college game before. He dropped back to the 35-yard line, and (the newspapers said) made a perfect dropkick. Arthur’s version was different, however, He wrote:

"The pass from center came back perfectly which is more than anyone could truthfully say for the rest of the play. . . . The ball bounded a little too high off the ground as I dropped it and I got under it too much, raising it high into the air almost like a punt. It came down just about a foot over the crossbar and about a yard inside the upright. I wasn't sure it was good until I turned to the referee and saw him raise his arms and heard him say `goal.' . . . Then everything broke loose. . . . All I remember after that was being seized by a crowd of undergraduates and alumni who rushed out onto the field, and hearing my brother Net shout: `You damned lucky kid, you have licked them again.'''

Gresham Poe, Class of 1902, was a substitute on the Princeton varsity in 1901. He was in a field artillery unit in the U/S. Army during the war.  Gresham wasn’t quite the athlete that his older brothers were. He was inserted late into the 1901 game against Princeton to return a punt, and he received a loud ovation from Princeton fans. The Elis won that game 12-0, but they were prepared for yet more Poe family heroics against them too.

In 1899, the following poem by Booth Tarkington was read at the victory celebration. Gresham was just an incoming freshman at the time. In this poem, Eli Yale is addressing the Princeton Tiger:

``’Sir,' I said, `All Poes are gone --

Johnson, Edgar, Neilson, John;

Arthur with the toe on which

Winning goals are kicked galore.

Tell me, tell me, gentle Tiger,

Is it possible there are more?'

`Stop!' the Tiger cried, `there's Gresham,

Getting ready to refresh 'em --

Don't forget him. I implore.'''

 

Finally, we should note that Edgar Allan Poe’s son, Edgar Junior, also graduated from Princeton and fought for his country in World War I. He never played football, but he too carried on the tradition of service of that admirable family. He was a U.S. Marine lieutenant and was severely wounded, but survived.

So I ask – when will there be a New England football family that matches or surpasses the traditions of football prowess and military service of the Poes of Princeton?

Most likely – Nevermore!

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