John P. Cronin

Inducted: 1973
Born: 05/03/1903
Died: 01/18/1993

“Jack” Cronin played on New England’s first National Football League Championship team and coached football, baseball, and hockey at LaSalle Academy for nearly half a century. He was born in Hingham, Massachusetts on May 3, 1903. Cronin starred at Boston College, where he was a “triple-threat,” excelling in passing, running, and punting. His 60-yard-per-kick punting average was the best in the nation in his senior season. His brother Bill played with him at Boston College. Both brothers joined the Providence Steam Roller professional football team in 1928. The Providence Steam Roller practiced from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to coincide with the extended lunch break for Jack Cronin, who was teaching and coaching at LaSalle Academy.

The Providence Steam Roller played their home games in the Cycledrome, built by Peter Laudatti, who owned the team with Judge James Dooley. The Cycledrome seated 10,000 in the bleachers surrounding a wooden banked cycle track. The oval track steeply banked around the turns but was flatter on the straightaways, barely leaving enough room inside it for a football field. The players’ benches and some seating for fans rested on the track, which ran up against the sidelines. Players tackling or being tackled near the edge of the field frequently wound up in the first row of seats. The stadium included only one dressing room, built to accommodate a few bikers and not the Steam Roller team. The field had a press box and a small area for parking, which was adequate for 1928 when few people owned cars.

With the team record at 8-1-1, the Steam Roller could wrap up the NFL crown with a tie or victory against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, December 2, 1928. The second-place Yellow Jackets stood at 9-2-2 with three games left to play and could not catch up without the help of the Packers. The Providence players came into this contest somewhat worn down by the previous win against Pottsville (Pennsylvania) and only two days of rest after it. Jack Cronin, for instance, had a broken nose to care for. He approached Jack MacKinnon, the trainer at Brown, for help. MacKinnon rigged a primitive face mask for him that somewhat resembled a horse’s blinders over his nose. With this device attached to his helmet, Cronin could play against the Packers. The Green Bay players also had a reason for fatigue, as they were concluding a three-week trip to the East. They had beaten the Giants 7-0 in the Polo Grounds on November 18, been soundly thrashed in Pottsville (Pennsylvania) 26-0 on November 25, and had dropped a rugged 2-0 game in Frankford on Thanksgiving.

The Packers brought a 5-4-2 mark into this contest along with one of the NFL’s best backs, halfback Verne Lewellen. A good runner and defender and the league’s premier punter, Lewellen also was a lawyer and had just been elected District Attorney of Brown County, of which little Green Bay was a part. But regardless of the strengths of the Packers, the crowd of 10,500 at the Cycledrome had every reason to expect their local powerhouse to clinch the NFL title. Both teams blew scoring opportunities in the opening quarter. After Curly Oden shook loose on a punt return and brought the ball down to the five-yard line, Wildcat Wilson tried a pass intercepted in the end zone. Later in the quarter, the Packers drove down to the Providence five-yard line but lost the ball on a fumble created on a tackle by Jack Cronin. The remainder of the first half boiled down to a punting match between Verne Lewellen and Wildcat Wilson. With the score still 0-0, the Packers broke the ice in the third quarter on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Lewellen to Larry Marks. The extra point made the score 7-0.

Facing possible defeat, the Steam Roller took the kickoff and drove 72 yards in 11 plays, with a 23-yard pass from Wilson to Oden scoring the touchdown. Gus Sonnenberg added the extra point. The game ended at 7-7, making the Steam Roller the champion of the NFL. The Yellowjackets lost 28-6 to the Chicago Bears this day, making their two remaining games academic. The Steam Roller finished their season with an 8-1-2 league record, two non-league victories, and the highest honor in professional football. The Steam Roller achieved many firsts in NFL history: it was the first NFL team in New England, hosted the first night game in NFL history, and is the last defunct team to win an NFL championship. Its place in the early evolution of professional football is significant. Many who wore the black and orange uniform played professional football not for the money but for the love of the game and to represent the city of Providence.

Cronin played on the team for three years, retiring in 1930 and returning to LaSalle as a full-time coach. The football rivalry between Cranston (now Cranston East) and La Salle Academy is a storied one. Edward Stebbins, known to just about everyone who ever knew him as “Stebb,” came to Cranston High School as a coach in 1925 and remained there until he retired in 1970. He developed countless numbers of athletes and championship teams. He coached football for 41 years and was head coach from 1936 – 1969. During his tenure, he produced 11 state championships. He was victorious in 1937, 1939, 1940, 1946, 1947, 1952, 1954, 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965. Probably his greatest team was the 1940 squad, which was undefeated, untied, and unscored upon. During his football coaching career, Stebb compiled a record of 210-87-19 and produced over 65 football All-Staters, including George Pulliam (RI HOF in 1968.) One of the greatest honors he ever received was in 1978 when the City of Cranston named the football field at Cranston Stadium as Stebbins Field. Cronin won 12 football, four baseball, and two hockey championships at LaSalle. The athletic field at LaSalle is named in his honor.

Cronin summed up his coaching philosophy in a 1979 interview: “When you’re dealing with a boy at the high school level, there should never be anything done that would hurt his feelings.”

Cronin was also the first director of the Providence Department of Recreation. “In the middle decades of the 20th century, no Rhode Islander made a greater impact on the youth of Providence than Jack Cronin,” Patrick T. Conley, historian laureate, wrote in a July 30, 2022, article for The Providence Journal. Conley had a unique relationship with Cronin. In 1957, Cronin presented Conley with the Outstanding Athlete Award, given to the high scorer in the Providence Junior Olympics. Conley also attended Camp Cronin, a popular summer recreation facility for the city’s youth and senior citizens. In 1961-62, as a member of the LaSalle Academy faculty, Conley got to know Cronin as a friend and colleague.

Jack Cronin was inducted into the LaSalle Academy Hall of Fame in 1970 and The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1973. He died on January 18, 1993. A painting of him hangs in the McLaughlin Athletic Center.

For additional reading:

The Providence Steam Roller by Greg P. Tranter, McFarland & Company, 2024.

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