Despite the ravages of the cancer that would take his life in two months, Ben Lee Boynton made the long and difficult trip to Boston for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 4, 1962.
The triple threat hero was born in 1898 to a Waco judge and his wife. Although a four-sport (football, basketball, baseball and track) star, he truly excelled on the gridiron. Known around his hometown and ultimately the state as “The Waco Wonder,” he dominated Texas high school football in the second decade of the twentieth century.
The only schoolboy standout, who could hold a candle to Boynton, was Bo McMillin of Fort Worth’s Northside High. When the two finally met in the state finals, a standing-room-only throng watched the evenly matched elevens battle to a 6-6 tie with Ben Lee and Bo scoring touchdowns for their respective teams.
When the time came for Boynton to choose a college after graduation in 1916, everyone presumed he would pick one of the charter members of the newly formed Southwest Conference. But Boynton realized that the backwater association could not provide a national showcase for his dazzling talents and opted instead to go back east.
After a thorough search, he settled on Williams College in New Hampshire. Barely a blip on today’s national pigskin map, the Ephs (yes, that’s what they are called!) held their own against top-ranked teams including representatives of the Ivy League, the powerhouse conference of a century ago.
Ineligible for varsity competition as a freshman, like all first-year students in those days, Boynton was elected captain before he even suited up for the 1917 season. His teammates already knew first-hand from practices just how exceptional he was.
Boynton more than lived up to his advance billing leading Williams to its first undefeated season. Against Cornell, he brought the Ephs back from a ten-point deficit for a 14-10 triumph over the national champions from two years earlier. He scored the go-ahead TD on an unbelievable run that started with him trapped behind the line of scrimmage, somehow breaking free and outrunning the entire Cornell team to the end zone.
Two Saturdays later, Boynton again made the all-important difference in a hard-fought battle against Columbia. He kicked a field goal to put Williams on the scoreboard and threw a 50-yard pass for the touchdown that sealed the victory.
Following a tie with Wesleyan, the only blemish on the Ephs’ perfect record, Boynton contributed all three TD’s in the finale versus Amherst.
During the exciting course of Boynton’s rookie season, students and fans gave him a new nickname. “The Waco Wonder” became “The Purple Streak,” the primary school color. He was also named to the International News Service All-America team, a first for a native Texan and the first of many such honors to come.
After appearing in the 1918 season opener, Boynton was called up for military service in World War I. But he was back at Williams in time for the 1919 campaign.
Meanwhile, Bo McMillin was having quite the career himself at Centre College. He, too, had left the Lone Star State for greener gridirons taking with him five other high school stars to the tiny Kentucky college with an enrollment of 300.
With their Texas nucleus, the Praying Colonels blossomed into the giant killers of college football. In 1920 McMillin and company had given Harvard, the undefeated Rose Bowl champs, the shock of their lives playing The Crimson dead-even before running out of steam in the second half.
Moments before the opening kickoff in the 1921 rematch, McMillin in his strong Texas drawl advised the referee to pay close attention saying something to the effect of “you’re not going to believe your Yankee eyes.”
When the final gun sounded, the Harvard faithful could not fathom what they had seen. Only a single touchdown had been scored, and that was by Bo McMillin on a 32-yard scamper that left the Crimson crowd speechless. Ninety-nine years later, Centre’s unthinkable conquest is still rated as the biggest upset in college football history.
Boynton had already moved onto what passed for professional football the previous season. He had been at his very best his senior year, leading all eastern collegiates with 141 points in a mere seven contests. And along the way he was hailed as an All-American by nearly everybody who produced the imaginary lineups.
Boynton risked life and limb for four years in the National Football League, which was having chaotic growing pains after its creation in 1920. The two teams he played for say a lot about the struggling state of the league. The Frankfort Yellow Jackets and Buffalo All-Americans soon disappeared. However, in the opinion of his peers and historians, the Texan ranked second only to Jim Thorpe as the greatest pro player of the period.
Ben Lee Boynton may have lived longer, if he had skipped that trip to Boston in 1962. But “The Wonder” and “The Flash” refused to let cancer keep him from receiving in person one last honor: the first Texan inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
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