Al “TNT” Lassman: What might have been

By Pete Ehrmann on November 7, 2015
Al “TNT” Lassman: What might have been
Lassman had “the most promising heavyweight boxing career since Jack Dempsey’s rise.”

Al Lassman’s dream of winning the heavyweight championship of the world died on a football field 87 years ago this month…

This much is clear: Al Lassman’s dream of winning the heavyweight championship of the world died on a football field 87 years ago this month.

Exactly how and how much the 21-year-old Lassman’s brain was damaged in the November 24, 1928 game between New York University and Carnegie State at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the extent of his recovery and the circumstances of his shocking death two years later, were all subject to much speculation, contradiction and revision at the time.

But not the conviction of people who saw the 6’4”, 220-pound Lassman in the ring that had the gridiron left him unscathed he would have become one of the all-time great heavyweights.

He had “the most promising heavyweight boxing career since Jack Dempsey’s rise,” wrote N.B. Belth of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Prominent New York referee Ed Forbes said Lassman “had everything a heavyweight ought to have, and lots of it.”

Dean of New York sportswriters Grantland Rice flatly declared that Big Al “was coming along when Jack Dempsey was through and Gene Tunney was retiring [and] at that stage I doubt that either could have beaten Lassman,” and that he would have easily bowled over Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Max Baer, Primo Carnera and James J. Braddock, heavyweight champions from 1930-’37.

“He was faster with his hands and feet, he was dead game to the final limit, and he was more of an athlete than any two of them rolled into one,” Rice wrote; later he added that Lassman “would have had an even chance with Joe Louis.”

That’s truly mind-boggling considering that Lassman never had a single professional fight and had only a handful of amateur ones.

He grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and started his ring education at a local gym in his early teens. In 1925, Lassman supposedly slipped out of his prep school dorm window and scooted to nearby Boston, where the national AAU boxing tournament was held each year. He signed up and fought his way to the heavyweight finals, in which he lost a decision to Joseph Woods. Back at school the next morning he accounted for his unexcused absence by saying he’d gone home to be with his ill mother, though a ripening shiner told otherwise.

At New York University the next year Lassman didn’t have to hide his enthusiasm for boxing. The school had an intercollegiate ring squad that competed against teams from West Point, Syracuse and New Hampshire.

After he knocked out four opponents in less than four rounds and won the intercollegiate heavyweight title in his freshman season, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a piece headlined, “Is Al Lassman world’s champ of the future?” The article mentioned that “fight managers of prominence” besieged the 19-year-old Lassman to quit school and turn pro. Among the suitors were Jack Kearns and Jimmy Bronson.

But that would wait, because Lassman was as good on the gridiron as he was in the ring. As an explosive tackle on the NYU eleven he earned the nickname “TNT,” and legendary coach Chick Meehan called him “the greatest ever to pull on shoes.”

Which sport did Lassman like most? No contest.

“Boxing, by far,” he said. “I love to fight. I use considerable more effort in playing football. Football is a hard grind and boxing is a cinch compared to the gridiron game.

“I love the jar and thrill of football,” Lassman added. “Fighting, however, is my first choice.”

His second year as an intercollegiate boxer wasn’t as bombastic as the first, mostly because opponents were scarce. One story went that when Lassman entered an amateur tournament on Long Island, the other heavyweight entrants withdrew en masse.

Granny Rice recalled what happened when Coach Meehan took Lassman to Stillman’s gym one day: “Tex Rickard had a big heavyweight training there who was fighting a semi-final in the Garden. He wanted a workout. Lassman obliged. He stopped the Garden semi-finalist with a short left hook in less than a minute.”

The plan (and expectation) was for TNT to repeat as intercollegiate heavyweight champion in ’28 and then sail through the U.S. Olympic Trials and fight in the Olympics in Amsterdam, Holland. But Lassman suffered a broken ankle playing football against Colgate on October 29 the year before. It didn’t heal properly and additional surgery on the ankle kept him out of the ring his junior year.

Going into his final year at NYU Lassman was voted captain of the football and boxing teams, and was considered a slam-dunk All-American on the gridiron. The football Violets had lost only once (and racked up 276 total points to their opponents’ 33) going into the Thanksgiving Day game against undefeated Carnegie Tech in front of 40,000 fans. They won, 27-13, but in the fourth quarter Lassman left the field on a stretcher.

It was variously reported that he smacked his head against a bench on a play that swept him out of bounds, that he’d been kicked in the head, and that Lassman and CT lineman Bull Karcis had collided head-on with a sound like “a shell exploding.” He was taken to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh with what was first called a skull fracture.

Three weeks later Lassman was still there, and when rumors swirled about paralysis and brain damage, Fred H. Kury of The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Lassman suffered “a severe bump” that left him “goofy for a long time,” but said now he was “almost completely recovered” and his “stay in the hospital is now more or less a holiday.”

The truth was that Lassman was in a lengthy coma with blood clots on his brain, and Coach Meehan later admitted he’d expected to hear anytime that his star tackle had died.

Lassman finally woke up (reportedly yelling, “They’re on our five yard line now, Chick, but we’ll get ‘em this time!”), and on January 11, 1929, Associated Press sportswriter Edward J. Neil saw him in the New York hospital to which Lassman was transferred “after one of the closest engagements any athlete ever played with death.”

“While Lassman is not paralyzed,” reported Neil, his “entire left side … is numb and hard to control. He cannot remember a single game or happening of the football season, and even more distant events are difficult to recall. His eyes blink constantly.”

“It’s just as though my body was split down the middle,” Lassman told Neil. “Everything on the left side is blank. Only half my mouth tastes things when I eat. The doctors stick pins in my arms, but I can’t feel them. It hurts to think, but I’ll be OK. I’m no creampuff.”

In fact, wrote Neil, the “rather pitiful” Lassman still had “designs on the heavyweight championship left vacant by Gene Tunney,” and told his doctors, “You’ll be buying ringside seats yet to see me fight.”

As Neil left him in the hospital corridor, “the battered warrior leaned his great bulk against the wall and lifted his hands to a fighting pose. ‘A few more months and I’ll be doing this again,’ he said. ‘I wanted to fight this winter. See, I can hook a little with my left. I love this. Football’s all right, but boxing is the greatest game of all.’”

It was a nice pipedream. Over the next few months Lassman was in and out of the hospital as they tried to allay the constant twitching of his left arm and the stiffening of his left hand into “a huge claw.” News stories also noted a “slight impediment” in his speech.

After fluid was drained from Lassman’s brain in June of ’29, it was posited that “if the damage is confined to the surface of the brain … (he) has every chance of complete recovery.” By the following March he had recovered enough, at any rate, to make the newspapers by diving into the Atlantic Ocean off Miami Beach to rescue a young female swimmer in distress.

Four months later, on July 7, 1930, Lassman himself drowned in Long Lake, near Harrison, Maine. Initial reports said he was visiting a boys’ camp run by college athletes he knew, went out in a canoe alone and overturned. It was ruled accidental, but in interviews the owners of the camp left the clear impression that Lassman, despondent about his physical limitations, had committed suicide.

A few weeks later the case was reopened after NYU administrators received an anonymous letter claiming that Lassman actually was employed at Camp Zakelo and was in the canoe with three young campers when it tipped over. Lassman rescued two of the boys, the letter said, and drowned going after the third one (who was subsequently saved by a canoeist from a neighboring camp).

On August 1, the inquest verdict was announced: Al Lassman had died a hero.

Columnist Joe Williams melodramatically envisioned the scene: “The canoe overturns. Three lads are helpless in deep water. (Lassman) had been an expert swimmer. But partial paralysis had killed some of his reflexes. A kick in the head in a football game had sapped his strength, destroyed his stamina — almost had destroyed him. Three might be saved, and the man gives nary a thought to himself. He dives for one; he struggles for another. Two barely conscious boys are flung across the upturned craft. Another waves pitifully to be saved, too. Overexertion has brought back the palsy of the left arm; the body of the man who only two years before had been a physical model grows limp, then taut and sinks. Help comes, and the third boy is saved, too. But darkness throws a pall over the lake, and the fish weave a shroud of weeds for the man who in the moment of extreme danger never gave a thought to himself.”

In early ’31, the Carnegie Hero Fund commission’s deliberations on whether to award a posthumous medal to Lassman were tabled after a statement signed by the parents of 22 boys at Camp Zakelo the previous summer (including those in Lassman’s canoe) and published in the Boston Post maintained that Lassman’s own negligence had caused the accident and his death.

A year later a study hall at NYU was christened the Al Lassman Memorial Room. Lassman was inducted into the NYU Hall of Fame in 1974.

In a 2002 memoir, Dr. Michael J. Lepore, pioneer in gastroenterology who attended at NYU in 1926, recalled Lassman as “one of our great heroes” and “how sadly we watched this magnificent human being reduced to the life of a permanent cripple. We thought it was an awful price to pay for supremacy in a sport. Still, if it had not happened then, and had he gone on to become a professional boxer, sooner or later brain injury may or may not have occurred.”

It wasn’t much of a consolation prize, and the last part is sadly open to question today, but in 1944 TNT Lassman achieved another kind of supremacy when Grantland Rice wrote: “From all the might-have-beens of sport so far as fame and fortune are concerned, I put Al Lassman in the Number 1 spot, since the heavyweight champion is still the main post of competition.”

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  1. Your Name 08:12am, 11/08/2015

    Regarding Ms. Greymont’s comments, I want to reiterate how important it is to tell these stories. Sports fans in general, and boxing enthusiasts in particular, have very short memories. Thank goodness for the likes of Pete Ehrmann who bring these onetime athletic heroes alive again, not only by describing their sporting exploits but also examining their lives.  I know Mr. Ehrmann is a modest man, but his stories leave indelible impressions on the readers, in addition to having significant historical value. I can’t thank Mr. Ehrmann enough for these “treats"s and am so glad that Ms. Greymont came across this story. Reading Ms. Greymont’s enthusiastic response was as rewarding as reading another Ehrmann classic.

  2. Eric 08:27pm, 11/07/2015

    Irish…I never realized how much I loved the Eighties until now.

  3. Victoria Greymont 07:52pm, 11/07/2015

    In 1933 the Ringe Scool Gymnasium in Cambridge was named after Al Lassman.

  4. Victoria Greymont 07:47pm, 11/07/2015

    Thank you Pete Ehrmann!  I am so happy to have come across your article. Well done.
    Peter, you wrote “I hope his kin are made aware of this excellent story.”  I am kin. I am Al’s great niece. My father is his nephew. I have Al’s belongings. Including boxing medals and NYU sweater and other belongings. I would love to learn all I can about Al.  I want to know his whole story. There is no family left to tell it.

    Eric, you don’t have to believe, others know.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 03:32pm, 11/07/2015

    Here’s something to make someone on this site other than myself feel ancient….I just read a piece on another site written by someone who mentioned in passing that they were not alive in the Eighties…like that was a long time ago for Christ’s sake!

  6. peter 12:30pm, 11/07/2015

    A sad story, but a good read.  Pete, your poignant story brought this valiant, talented soul back to life. I hope his kin are made aware of this excellent story.

  7. Eric 07:57am, 11/07/2015

    You have to take these stories with a grain of salt. Former New York Jets lineman, Joe Klecko, supposedly was a very good collegiate boxer and trained at Smokin’ Joe’s gym in Philadelphia while attending Temple University. Years ago, they had a NFL Toughman Contest and Klecko faced off against Dallas Cowboy lineman Randy White in a boxing match. A small clip of the match can still be seen on Youtube. I had heard stories of what a good boxer Klecko was and that he sported a record of 25-1 in college. Wasn’t impressed at all with his showing against Randy White. Klecko probably had as much chance at making it in the ring as Joe Frazier would have had at making the Jets as a starting fullback. Now the Da Preem and football might be a different story.

  8. Bob 05:05am, 11/07/2015

    Wonderfully written, but incredibly sad story. My guess is there is some sort of plaque in his honor at NYU. Thousands of people have probably walked by it and paid it no mind. This story should be posted next to it. TNT squeezed a lot of living into a very short and ultimately tragic life. Thanks for bringing Mr. Lassman to my attention.

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