By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Few people are still around who witnessed Elmer (Buck) Peaspanen’s feats as an athlete and coach.
But members of the committee that chooses the members of the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame learned of them and chose him for that august body in 2011.
“He was certainly one of the greatest all-around athletes in Ashtabula County History,” said Peaspanen’s youngest son, John, who will follow him into the ACTC’s Hall of Fame this year. “After college, he became possibly northern Ohio’s top football coach.”
Buck Peaspanen’s organized athletics’ career began in 1927, when he attended Grand River Academy in Austinburg with the sole intention of playing varsity football as a freshman.
He returned to Ashtabula to play for the Harbor Mariners the following year, and became a star halfback, linebacker, defensive back and punter. Peaspanen’s efforts helped Harbor win the Lake Shore League championship in 1931. In addition, Peaspanen excelled in track and field at Harbor.
Peaspanen won an athletic scholarship to Ohio University, beginning in 1931. In addition to lettering for four years as an offensive halfback and defensive back, Peaspanen was one of the best punters in the country, averaging more than 46 yards as a junior and senior.
He was also a standout in track, throwing the javelin, shot put and discus. In 1935, he broke the Ohio University and American record in javelin with a throw of 218 feet. He qualified for the 1936 Olympic team but couldn’t compete when he tore a shoulder muscle while throwing the javelin. He held the Bobcat javelin record from 1935 to 1966.
“An interesting note about his javelin record is that the javelin he threw was a huge 8-foot long birch wood javelin,” his son, John, said. “For years now, modern javelins have been around 5 feet long, much lighter and made of various metals.”
Many years, later, while watching John throw the shot and discus for Mount Union in 1966 at the All-Ohio meet at Kent State, Elmer coached the Ohio University javelin thrower for an hour. Then the javelin thrower broke the school record, still held by Elmer, that very day.
In addition to football and track, Elmer was also a great heavyweight wrestler for the Bobcats. Weighing 195 pounds, he qualified for the 1936 Olympics.
“Thor Olson, his Hall of Fame wrestling coach at OU, told his daughter, Darlene Buck, that Elmer Peaspanen was the greatest all-around athlete of his time,” John Peaspanen said.
Baseball was another sport Peaspanen excelled in. From 1928-1936, he was a star pitcher on an area semi-pro team.
After graduating from OU, Elmer played pro football with the Cleveland Rams of the American Football Conference in 1936. But when the Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to join the NFL, Elmer gave up pro football. Salaries for the sport were notoriously poor in those days.
So Peaspanen began his teaching-coaching career in 1937 at Freedom High School, now part of the Ravenna School District in Portage County. There, as head football coach, he won several Portage County championships with two undefeated teams.
“Most of his best players were farm boys; thus, he often helped them make hay and do their farm chores so they could be on his team,” John said.
From 1940 to 1943, Elmer got out of teaching and coaching to help his brother Dave run the family dairy farm. Then, in 1943, he accepted the backfield coaching job at Alliance. That led to a return to Ashtabula County, when he accepted the head football job at Conneaut, where he stayed for four years and led some outstanding teams, including an undefeated 1947 Lake Shore League championship team.
He moved on to take the head coaching job at Harbor in 1949 and 1950 before moving on to become backfield coach at Warren Harding. The coaches there were presented gold watches when they defeated state power Massillon.
He returned to Conneaut as head coach in 1954 and ran a very successful program there until 1962. The 1956 and 1957 Conneaut squads were special, going undefeated in 1956 and losing only once in 1957. In those years, Conneaut couldn’t get into a conference, so it played a tough independent schedule against teams in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The state-ranked and undefeated 1956 team ended long winning streaks by Cleveland St. Joseph and Carrollton.
Elmer Peaspanen’s overall head coaching record was 104-52-2 (.666), seven-plus wins per season. A great teacher and coach, he introduced the T-formation to Ashtabula County in 1944 and was probably the first coach in the area to have his players lift weights. In fact, some of the weights he used were homemade barbells and dumbbells he and his brother Dave welded together.
For most of Peaspanen’s years at Conneaut, legendary Andy Garcia was an assistant in football, while Elmer assisted Garcia in basketball. They both coached track successfully. In 1956 and 1957, another county legend, Gene Gephart, assisted Elmer and Andy. From 1958 to 1962, Frank Farello assisted Peaspanen and Garcia.
Among the players he coached were some of the county’s best ever: Harold Ladner, Jim Heittiko, Larry Ogren, Jim and Paul Dombrowski, Bill Skippon, Fred Monda, George “Cowboy” Snyder, Bill Lacey, Tom Batta, Bob (“The Toe”) DiPofi, Leo Mucci, Vinnie Rose and many more. In addition, he coached his oldest son, Tom, from 1958-1960.
Elmer Peaspanen concluded his coaching career as his son John’s backfield coach in 1972.
“It was an honor to coach with my dad that year,” John said. “I learned more that year than any other in my football career. Dad was loved by all his players and deserves this long-due Hall of Fame honor.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.
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