Though he started playing sandlot football in his early teens, he yearned to play professional baseball, but hand-to-eye coordination was about the only athletic gift he lacked. At Yale he began boxing and won the school's championship. He even sparred with the great Gentleman Jim Corbett, who sometimes used the school's faculties for training.
At 190 to 200 pounds in his prime, Pudge was big for a football player of his era, and his strength, combined with startling agility and quickness, made him a terror on both sides of the ball. Those who saw him claimed that he revolutionized line play: On offense he "pulled" out of the line to lead a play around the end in a style that evolved into Vince Lombardi's "Green Bay sweep" in the 1960s. And on defense he perfected the art of stutter-stepping around would-be blockers to nail a ball carrier in the backfield.
Though there are no films of Pudge on the field, he competed in enough exhibition games over the years to leave plenty of eye-witnesses to his prowess. In 1912, at age 45, he returned to New Haven to play a few downs in an exhibition against the Yale varsity team. According to Grantland Rice, he "almost wrecked a big Yale line. He was then the fastest running guard on the field." After the game, he gave a demonstration of the fine points of blocking and tackling to eager Yalies. Twenty years later, he played the first half of a charity game in Minneapolis against former college players and received a standing ovation. Chet LaRoche, chairman of the National Football Hall of Fame, said that "no one would ever have dreamed of referring to him as 'ex- football player.' He never retired."
Hef lived just long enough to write his memoir, This Was Football. Though out of print for more than half a century, it's a terrific read and lives up to the billing that Rice, who wrote the forward, gave it: "It takes you back to the misty canvas-jacketed era, brings roaring across the gridiron in all their glory the delightful likes of Pa Corbin, Snake Ames, Lonny [Amos Alonzo] Stagg, Gil Dobie, Hurry-Up Yost, Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurksi, the Four Horsemen, Ernie Nevers ... Well, all of the immortals."
This Was Football is more than just Pudge's recollections. It recalls a time in American sports culture still vividly felt but only dimly remembered. His kind of football, he said, was "red-meat football," and he was convinced that "There ain't much to being a football player, if you're a football player."
In many respects Pudge's view of football is eye-opening. A man who gave his life to the game passionately believed that college football players didn't need and shouldn't get special favors—they should be treated the same as all other students. He was absolutely against lowering scholastic standards for athletes. Football, he once told Rice, "is nothing more than a great game and not deserving of the hysteria and wildness it often creates."
He died in April, 1954, and did not live to see the publication of his book. Rice, in eulogizing him, used a line written by an unknown poet more than 63 years earlier: Linger, oh, linger, Heffelfinger." No one knows who chose the inscription of his headstone, but it was probably Pudge himself: "Here lies a football player."