Gus Sonnenberg: Football Star, Champion Of The World

Marquette MI Monthly – October, 2000
By Joan Oberthaler

The score, “Marquette 211 – Opponents 7,” is written proudly on the picture of the Marquette (Mich.) High School football team, of which Gus Sonnenberg was a member. The year was 1915, and the team was declared the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) champions.

An Associated Press dispatch from Boston reads:

“’Dynamite Gus’ Sonnenberg, Dartmouth tackle in 1920, taking up professional wrestling, disposed of his first three opponents in a total time of four minutes and twenty seconds.”

“Sonnenberg Gets Another Chance at Lewis’ Title,” a 1928 headline declares.

“Gus Sonnenberg Still Unconscious in Hospital” is another headline of one of the hundreds of newspaper articles saved in a scrapbook by my aunt, Mrs. Minnie Koepp, of Marquette, now deceased, about my great uncle, Gus Sonnenberg, who became heavyweight wrestling champion of the world in 1929.

Gustav Sonnenberg, the oldest son of Fred and Caroline Sonnenberg, was raised on a farm in Green Garden, Michigan, went to a little country school, and later went to live with an older sister to attend Marquette High School.

Gus’s football career began at Marquette High in 1912. That year he played right guard on the gridiron and the following season, he held down the same position.

Then came 1914, when E.D. Cushman came here to become Marquette High’s first full-time physical education instructor. “Cush” promptly switched Gus to tackle, a change that paid dividends immediately.

In 1915, with Sonnenberg’s work at tackle a big factor, Marquette High won its first U.P. Championship, undefeated for the first time in history. They won six games, scoring 211 points to their opponents’ 7.

Aside from his accomplishments on the football field, Gus also starred in basketball and was a member of Marquette’s first U.P. Championship team during the 1915-1916 season.

After his graduation in 1916, Gus was offered scholarships at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, but he decided on Dartmouth.

He arrived in September. It was said that he came clumping into Dartmouth college with a battered violin case under one arm, a book of Browning’s poems under the other, a cap perched on his scalp, and wearing a pair of pants that looked like the back legs of an elephant. Just a few weeks later, the news came that for the first time in five years, the freshman class was victorious in the traditional football rush, which takes place between the freshman and sophomore classes at Dartmouth.

At the crack of the gun, Captain Gerrish, of the varsity, tossed a football into the two awaiting classes, and the fight for possession of the ball was on. After forty-five minutes of mad scrambling, Sonnenberg, a candidate for a tackle position on the freshman football team, succeeded in ascending the Webster Hall steps and presenting the ball to Captain Gerrish.

That was only the beginning of Sonnenberg’s rise to fame at Dartmouth. He won not only a regular tackle position on the freshman team, but also a place on the Eastern All-Frosh team.

As the football season started in 1917, Gus was back in Marquette, holding down the fullback spot for the Northern State Teachers College squad. That year, under coach L.B. Gant, Northern had a successful season, losing just one game.

Gus also played on the Teachers’ 1917-1918 basketball team, and in his spare time, coached the Normal high school team.

On January 1, 1919, Sonnenberg accepted a position as coach of Escanaba High School.

The 1919-1920 season found Gus back at Dartmouth holding down a regular tackle position.

In 1920 the sports writers association of the East picked Sonnenberg and George Gipp of Calumet for that group’s All-America Team. It was the first time a Marquette athlete was chosen on any All-America team and also the first time two U.P. players were chosen on the same squad.

Gus transferred from Dartmouth to the University of Detroit where he starred during the 1921-1922 seasons. He graduated with a law degree.

During his college days, he had some rather remarkable experiences. One year he blocked nine punts and all of them, except one, would have been good for touchdowns. Once in a game at Franklin Field, Philadelphia, he booted the ball eighty yards in the air for the longest kick ever made at the University of Pennsylvania’s field.

Sonnenberg played in the infamous Coaldale, Pennsylvania game. Sonnenberg explained, “There was great spirit in Coaldale. The local gamblers were backing the team to the last penny, betting even their homes and shirts. Why, I saw $60,000 in cash on a blanket on the sidelines. Well, we beat them 10 to 7. It was a terrible game. After it was over, the crowd mobbed us. They threw stones at us as we ran for our special train. We got on the train and dropped to the floor to escape the rocks that smashed nearly every window. As the train of thirteen cars pulled out of the town, they commenced to shoot at the cars. Of course, we were all on the floor, but one fellow was wounded in the eye by a shot.

“Another game, in Shenendoah, found the gamblers losing and they came on to the field in a rush and refused to get off the field so the game was postponed and all bets were off.”

Following his graduation, he was sought by many pro teams, including the Green Bay Packers. He signed with the Columbus, Ohio Tigers. Later he played with the Detroit Panthers and Providence, Rhode Island Steam Rollers.

Gus was picked as “all-professional” tackle by the managers and owners of the league. One night he went with a newspaper man to see a wrestling match. The newspaper man said, “Why don’t you get into this game? It’s as easy as pro football anyway, and there is more money.” Gus, just recovering from two broken ribs, thought nothing could happen to him on the mat like the riot that followed the clash in Coaldale.

Before long, “Dynamite” was the nickname given to him as a new wrestler. He was described as five foot seven inches tall, weighing 200 pounds, possessing extra large feet, the chest, arms and shoulders of a bull gorilla, not very much neck, and a round face.

Other descriptions said he looked just as good in his green trunks as he did in a tuxedo. He used excellent English, speaking in a deep baritone, danced well and played a great game of bridge.

In his wrestling matches, Gus let his head hit his wrestling opponent with great force, and as the man went down, he would nail him in the stomach with another head-on smash. As for Sonnenberg’s “flying tackle” and the rule book, inasmuch as he used his hands as well as his head, it couldn’t be barred under “butting.” Sonnenberg’s constant habit of playing football without a helmet had been great training for his wrestling game.

It was not long before Paul Bowser, the Boston wrestling trainer, got in touch with Sonnenberg. A match with Wayne Munn was scheduled, and if Gus won that match, he would give up professional football for a career in wrestling.

Sonnenberg was seventy pounds lighter than Munn, and nearly one foot shorter. Gus threw his huge opponent twice, once in a minute and nineteen seconds, and again in twenty-five seconds. This was the twenty-eighth consecutive match Sonnenberg had won, having not been defeated since he started his new career on the mat.

Gus Sonnenberg had the heavyweight wrestling championship of the world in the palm of his hand when an unexpected and disastrous accident sent him to the hospital. On June 29, 1928, he had tossed the champion, Ed “Strangler” Lewis for the first fall with his famous flying tackle. His head butted Lewis in the stomach, and the champion was lifted from his feet with the flying tackle and slammed to the mat. The time of the fall was thirty-seven minutes, thirty seconds. Lewis was out for five minutes.

The crowd of 10,000 fans went wild at the Boston Arena. Gus was sure to win. Never had such a wrestling match been staged. Sonnenberg had sailed into Strangler’s stomach with his bullet-like head so many times that many thought Lewis would not be able to re-enter for the second fall.

When Lewis, still all but helpless from the battering he had received, returned to the ring for a second round, Sonnenberg, amid cheers that rocked the arena, started out for a second fall. With blood in his eyes, he butted Lewis around and it looked like sure victory for Gus. Suddenly Gus went sailing into a whistling flying tackle, missed his target, and shot like a bullet at least fifteen feet through the ropes, beyond the row of reporters, landing on his head on the concrete floor of the arena. He was picked up unconscious. The crowd was thunderstruck! He was given fifteen minutes to return to the ring and continue the match, but at the end of that time he was still unconscious and Lewis was given the fall and the match.

Sonnenberg was examined by physicians and found to be suffering from a concussion. He was taken to Trumbull Hospital.

Sonnenberg had been a great drawing card, attracting immense crowds every time he had battled. Sonnenberg received $7,500 for his work and Lewis $15,000, the highest sum every paid a champion matman.

The story of Gus Sonnenberg, however, is more than one of human strength, and speed. He brought to wrestling the color and dash of American football. He promoted his first show in Boston at the old Grand Opera House. The gate was $85. On January 4, 1929, 20,000 people jammed the Boston Garden and paid $75,000 to see the “Strangler” Lewis vs. “Dynamite” Gus Sonnenberg show.

Another article states…. “Two of the most surprising things about Sonnenberg were his strength and speed. He launched his tackle at the most unexpected moments and from almost any angle and position.” The tackle which really cost Lewis his crown came as a bolt from the blue. The Strangler had brought his locked arms up under Gus’s chin, not only snapping the challenger’s head back but lifting him off his feet and dumping him heavily on all fours near the ropes. Strangler leaped forward to clamp on the finishing headlock.

But from this seemingly defenseless posture, Sonnenberg instantly uncoiled and shot from the floor, hitting the champion squarely a little above the knee. A quick jerk of his powerful arms, the final flying lunge, and the famous Strangler was flat and out.

The second fall and the championship was awarded to Sonnenberg by the referee when Lewis would not, or could not, re-enter the ring after having been repeatedly knocked through the ropes by the butts and tackles and Dynamite Gus.

After Sonnenberg’s arm was raised as a gesture of victory, Paul Bowser, promoter of the title bout, came into the ring and presented him with the coveted $10,000 diamond championship belt, and announced, “Gus Sonnenberg… The World Champion Wrestler!”

The championship match was filmed by the Educational Film Exchanges, Inc. It contained 1,000 feet of film and most of the views were close-ups – more thrilling action squeezed into those ten or twelve minutes than in any movie ever seen. The manner in which Sonnenberg finished off Lewis tells the story of his name “Dynamite.” This thrilling one reel movie was shown at the Delft Theatre in 1929.

Just one year before, Sonnenberg was a professional football player drawing a few thousand dollars per season from the Providence Steam Rollers. He didn’t know anything about wrestling and now he was the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world with $90,000 in the bank.

His mother had pictures of him all around her living room. On a sideboard a picture of him in a football uniform, another in the uniform of a member of the Student Army Training Corps, another of him showing him wearing the $10,000 diamond studded belt, symbolic of the heavyweight wrestling championship, and in a corner one of his violins, waiting for his return home. She said, “Every time he writes, he sends money home.”

His mother, at age 67, drove to Milwaukee with her other son Carl, to see her first wrestling match, and last. She was in agony and couldn’t bear to watch. When finally opening her eyes, she said, “Mein Gott, he’ll kill him!” She buried her face again and was shaking all over. “My heart,”she said, a hand at her throat, “It’s right here.” Finally, when it was over, she picked up her hat, a shapeless pulp from her worried hands, and said, “My boy Gus, I knew he’d get him. But for all the money in the world, I wish Gus wouldn’t wrestle.”

In August 1929, the U.P. hosted a match between Sonnenberg and Stanley Stasiak, the wrestling champion of Poland, at the Palestra in Marquette. The bout between Sonnenberg and Stasiak was listed as a “two falls out of three” finish match for the championship of the world. The match was probably the biggest professional sporting event the U.P. had ever seen, due largely to the fact that Marquette was Sonnenberg’s hometown and he wanted to give his hometown backers a real show.

The bout between Sonnenberg and his giant challenger took place before a crowd of nearly 3,000 people. The spectators got an hour and nine minutes of thrilling entertainment as Stasiak fought hard before Sonnenberg finished him with a flying tackle.

Sonnenberg bought the wrestling mat from Ed Butler of Ishpeming after using it for the bout with Stasiak. He said it was one of the best wrestling mats he had ever seen. The mat had been the property of the Ishpeming Theatre for 20 years and now would be used in all of Sonnenberg’s matches. Gus had sustained many infections from wrestling on the dirty, blood-stained mats that were usually provided.

Gus had trouble on the matrimonial scene. He married a movie star, known as Judith Allen in 1931, and that marriage only lasted a few months. He later married Mildred Micelli, who left him, Gus says, because she was embarrassed by the “shiners” he got as a wrestler. Gus said, after waiting all evening to introduce her husband to the girls as a hero, he would come limping and lurching in after a wrestling bout, sometimes with one eye painfully swollen and closed, or perhaps both would be that way, or so black and blue as to be ghastly. One arm might be bandaged and in a sling, and he didn’t look much like a hero. And so a second divorce came.

Gus died September 9, 1944 at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, of leukemia. He is buried in Park Cemetery in Marquette. He was selected for induction into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.

A champion in a game played by giants, a lover of poetry, an outstanding performer in professional football yet a student of the violin, a squatty winner of wrestling rounds yet a graceful dancer. He wore $150 suits and turned up Panamas, and a big rock on his finger. That was Gus Sonnenberg, heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.


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