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Survival for the Rock Island Independents during WWII meant playing exhibition games. The lower-paying game and less dedication to norms set the stage for the story of Marjorie 'Rosie' Aberson. The following story comes from Marjorie's best-selling book, They Call Me Rosie.
After a perfect 1942 season, all eyes were on the Chicago Marauders to continue their dominance. Boston was floundering and both New York teams had nowhere to play home games. With few contenders, hopes ran high for another championship season in Chicago. In Rock Island, however, players were being drafted into service or leaving to play for other professional leagues. The AFA was offering big money and had lured many famous players away from the NAFL. The better pay and more reliable schedule in the AFA made the league attractive to players young and old. Despite this and other obstacles, Coach Holland fielded twenty players for the team, drawing on talent from retired players and nearby college teams.
Chicago, meanwhile, was dealing with their own problems. Two exhibition games had been canceled for various reasons. Without games, income shrank. The front office would claim that Chicago needed at least one game to properly prepare for the season ahead. The truth of the matter was that they were not scheduled for enough games to play the season. The NAFL had set a six game minimum for teams to qualify for the championship game. Big money awaited any team in other pro leagues willing to schedule a game with Chicago. Due to their undefeated season the previous year, no team appeared willing to take them on. Strapped for cash, the Rock Island Independents would agree to a game and a date was set.
Welcome to Moline
Coach Holland had neglected to say that Darby field held only 5000 fans and that he didn't have a full team. With such a small stadium, the ticket receipts wouldn't come close to covering Chicago's costs. If Chicago would win by more than a seventy point margin, the NAFL would declare the game ineligible for the purposes of completing a season. Coach Morris of the Marauders had no other offers for a game. He would later say that he planned to limit his own team to thirty-five points. For Coach Holland, the Independents needed this game to stay in the existence and build a future of his fledgling team. How he convinced Chicago to travel to Moline is an enduring football mystery.
Coach Holland told the lineman to rotate 2 players every quarter to play both offensive and defensive line. Eddie, a fullback, would be the emergency QB. Holland hoped for one more player, but none could be found until that fateful night when he took the biggest gamble of his career.
He asked his wife to call on Marjorie at work the next day. Marjorie was doing factory work while her husband was serving overseas. She and Mrs. Holland worked in the same factory and talked frequently. Coach wanted to offer her money to help the team practice for the Chicago game. Marjorie was keen on the idea and the three of them began to work. Holland introduced her to the team as a placeholder so that the other 20 players could focus on the strategy for the upcoming game. Another assistant served as the center for kicking practice. Marjorie proved effective and consistent. The kicker, Chance Holloway, was a lanky nineteen year old that lied about his age to play football. With him and Marjorie, the team would take the field with twenty-two players, the league minimum for a game.
The team was apprehensive at first with Holland's plans, but they grew in confidence as they became comfortable with a pass-heavy gameplan. Eddie chose to play both fullback and linebacker. The Independents also practiced a few gimmick plays in an attempt to fool the Marauders famous defense. Marjorie would later write that everyone on the team was resolute. "The boys," she wrote, "believed that their victory was as inevitable as the Allied forces."
September 20, 1942
The day of the game came. The radio broadcasters set up. The Marauders gathered their reserve players on the far sideline and Rock Island lined up for the kickoff.
Chicago was surprised by the Independents' tough defense. The Marauders didn't score until late in the 3rd quarter on a 2 yard TD run. This was the first score of the game for either team. After a successful extra point, Chicago took a 7-0 lead.
Early in the 4th quarter, Rock Island answered with a touchdown of their own on a breakaway run by Eddie for a 43 yard TD. The kicking team took the field and the Chicago defense reacted in disbelief. Marjorie would say that she thought that they were gawking at Chance as he weighed 125 pounds soaking-wet. The team lined up for the extra point and Chance was able to split the uprights. All was not well on the field, though, as a Chicago player took it upon himself to teach Marjorie a lesson. After the play, he ran up and knocked her down hard. He chuckled to himself as he left the field.
Marjorie dusted herself off and walked over to him. Staring directly into his eyes she said, “Now that didn't do anything, now did it?”
Before the Chicago player could react, his teammates walked him off the field as the entire Rock Island team rushed on to protect Marjorie. She would later write that the team's support was much appreciated, but was entirely unnecessary.
Late in the 4th quarter, Chicago marched downfield, but had to settle for a field goal, taking a 10-7 lead. The weariness of the Independents was beginning to show as players had begun to shuffle between plays. Chicago had put in fresh players in an attempt to expand their lead. The exhausted Independents battled on.
A fumble on Chicago's next drive gave the ball back to the Independents with enough time to tie the game. With only a minute left, they lined up for a field goal after three failed attempts to make the 2 yard run for a touchdown. Coach Holland pulled Marjorie aside and told her to run the Haymaker. She nodded and trotted in with the Chance.
Chicago fans had made it clear that the Independents would be lucky to walk off the field. It was later revealed that a fan was so upset by Marjorie's presence of the field, that he planned to rush the field with a baseball bat if she returned. Several Rock Island fans pinned the man under the grandstand for the last minute of the game.
Marjorie would write that all she felt in that moment was that she was going to slug a certain Chicago lineman right in the jaw if he tried anything. She wasn't that emotionally involved in the game, she was there for a little extra money to buy a couple chickens for eggs. Still, she had no plans to suffer a fool. As the saying goes, "A fool knows only after he's suffered."
Rock Island's Last Gasp
She wrote in her book that the snap went towards her face. The Chicago nose tackle had gotten the best of the center, causing a terrible trajectory. She stood up to catch the ball, took two steps back and threw a lob just over the defender to Eddie standing alone in the end zone. Rock Island players ran immediately to the sideline to protect Marjorie as she left the field. Now up 13-10, Coach Holland had Rock Island return to line up in a running formation for the extra point. Marjorie wasn't on the field. Beyond these established facts, exactly what happened after that touchdown is disputed to this day. She wrote in her book that she turned to walk off the field only to be met with a celebration of fans and teammates.
By other accounts, there was an unconscious referee, two injured Chicago players, ten fans arrested, and a hoarse radio announcer croaking over and over, “Can you believe it?” At some point in the confusion, a stray dog took the football off the field. Retrieving the ball took about twenty minutes. Ultimately, the point after attempt was not successful and Chicago had 45 seconds to come back for the win. As the Chicago offense steamrolled down the field, it appeared their victory was assured.
One what would be the last play of the game, Rock Island called a desperate blitz. Their gamble paid off as Chicago's quarterback was pinned behind the line of scrimmage. The game ended with a Rock Island victory and the story of Rosie the quarterback was born.
The Rest of the Story
Rock Island made it through the rest of that season finishing with 3-4 record. The Marauders went on to claim another championship.
Marjorie never took the field again. She got the chickens she needed and went back to work the next day. Her husband returned from the war and her experience in professional football was soon forgotten for thirty-seven years. In 1981, Marjorie penned They Call Me Rosie to address the myths that had built up around her and to relay the actual events of the game as she remembered them. The NAFL would honor her in 2020 by inducting her into the Hall of Fame. The league commissioner pledged equity for women in all levels of football.
Marjorie "Rose" Aberson, number 21 for the '42 Rock Island Independents remains the only woman inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.