Thomas J. Whelan '33 (Football, Basketball, Baseball)
Tommy Whelan was one of college football’s most electrifying players in the 1930s and arguably the greatest running back in Catholic University history. The Washington Herald reported that Holy Cross Coach John McEwan called him CUA’s “George Gipp,” after the legendary Notre Dame running back who inspired Fighting Irish Coach Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech.
The son of a Manhattan policeman and the youngest of five children, Whelan ventured south from New York’s All-Hallows High School, where he played football, baseball, basketball and ran track. In 1929, playing for the Cardinal freshman team – as all freshmen had to do in those days – “Moose” scored 40 points in six games.
Dutch Bergman, who played in the same Notre Dame backfield with Gipp, became CUA’s head coach the following year. But the Cards’ all-time winningest coach didn’t recognize Whelan’s elusive running ability at first. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder didn’t start until game five against Duquesne. He finally caught Bergman’s eye by scoring a touchdown in each of the season’s final three games. His scoring jaunts averaged 56 yards.
Whelan’s touchdown streak continued throughout the 1931 season, a year in which the Cardinals posted one of the nation’s finest turnarounds, going from 1-8 to 8-1. In a 12-7 victory over N.C. State, he caught an 83-yard TD pass from Johnny Oliver and scored on a 65-yard interception. The next week, in a 20-12 victory at Duquesne, he found the end zone on a fourth-down, 30-yard gallop. The Dukes were coached by Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen.” A week later, Whelan spurred CUA’s 19-6 triumph at Manhattan with a 76-yard TD run.
Whelan, who benefited greatly from fullback Buster Sheary’s blocking, scored 84 points his junior year (1931) to rank third in the East. He was chosen first-team All-District by five Washington, D.C., sportswriters, and the Baltimore Review named him to its All-Catholic Eastern Eleven.
The 1932 Cardinals were one of the most dominant teams in CUA history, going 6-1-1 with five shutouts. They outscored their opponents 123-21, with Whelan providing much of the offensive fireworks. In the season-opening 47-0 win at CCNY, he threw a 22-yard TD pass, had a 65-yard kickoff return and scored on a 10-yard run.
The following week, the Cards welcomed reigning three-time Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Chattanooga to Brookland Stadium. Any chance the Mocs had of winning was greatly diminished when Whelan rushed for an 87-yard TD on the game’s first play. CUA shut out what is now called the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 19-0.
Whelan’s streak of scoring at least one touchdown reached 15 consecutive games before being stopped in an 8-0 setback at Holy Cross, the Cards’ only loss of the year. In their final college game, a 25-0 victory over Loyola (Md.) at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Sheary and Whelan rushed for two touchdowns apiece. Both were selected to The Tower’s All-Time Cardinal football first team in 1935.
Whelan was the 1932 team MVP and an honorable mention All-American. According to the 1933 Cardinal yearbook:
“During four years he has dominated C.U. football by his flashy, spectacular broken field running and has won several football games by his thrilling runs. He was a constant threat to any foe of this school.”
Following the season, Whelan, Sheary and end Vinnie Fraatz – fellow CUA Hall of Famers – were selected All-South and played in an All-Star game in Baltimore. CUA’s student newspaper, The Tower, said:
“Tommy Whelan’s name alone is enough to justify [South Coach] Dick Harlow’s choice. In the three years he has worn the Red and Black he has built up a widespread recognition as one of the smoothest running backs that this vicinity has ever seen. He has helped materially to defeat some of the team’s most formidable opponents by his spectacular swivel-hipped dashes, tempered with a change of pace that is rarely seen.”
Coaching and Officiating
In 1933, Whelan played with the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers) and became a close friend of Steelers owner Art Rooney. According to Tommy Whelan Jr., his father sustained a knee injury in that 1932 North-South All-Star game and aggravated it in the pros, eventually ending his career.
After coaching a season at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, N.Y., Whelan returned to CUA as a freshman football coach in 1935. He also coached varsity running backs that year for the Cardinals’ Orange Bowl-winning team.
Whelan eventually became an official in the All-America Football Conference, some of whose teams were absorbed by the NFL. In the 1948 Eastern divisional playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Colts, Whelan made a call that many Colts’ fans think cost its team the game. Some threw bottles on the field to protest, one of which struck him in the head.
According to The Washington Star-News, when a friend rushed up and asked Whelan if he was hurt, he said in his typical dead-pan humor, “No, it was a soft-drink bottle.”
Tommy, Jr., who graduated from CUA’s Columbus School of Law in 1972, asked his father about the play. He said he responded, “‘More important than if it was a good call, it was an honest call. I called what I thought I saw.’”
Whelan, who also played basketball for two years at CUA and baseball for one, was president of the Touchdown Club in 1951 and member of its Hall of Fame. During World War II, because of his knee injury, he was exempt from military duty but was drafted to work for the War Department as a civilian. His boss was former Cardinal teammate Gene Augusterfer.
Whelan and Bergman, who in 1943 led the Washington Redskins to a share of the NFL Eastern Division championship, owned a tavern together on 12th Street northeast, close to campus. From 1951-61, Whelan and former Georgetown basketball star Ben Zola owned Whelan’s, another tavern, which eventually became Whelan Liquors. The business still operates on 12th Street.
Whelan, active in the Democratic National Committee, became an advance man for John F. Kennedy in his 1960 campaign for president. In 1961, he became an administrative assistant to the chief of the U.S. Park Police. Two years later he was assigned to the Department of Commerce Congressional Liaison Office. He retired from the Federal Government in 1972.
Whelan married the former Harriett Dye in 1939. Their other son, Patrick, played football on Syracuse’s 1959 national championship team.
Whelan died June 24, 1974. He was 63.