Remembering a Legend: Dr. Charles West inducted into Rose Bowl Hall of Fame

Charles West’s daughter, Linda West Nickens, poses outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with Charles Woodson (Michigan), Mack Brown (Texas), and Cade McNown (UCLA), the other members of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017.

Dr. Charles “Pruner” West ’24, the first African-American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl, was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame Dec. 30, 2017, in a ceremony held in Pasadena, Calif., and attended by West’s daughter, Linda West Nickens, as well as President John C. Knapp, Ph.D., and his wife, Kelly.

The Tournament of Roses presented a decorative trophy platter to Washington & Jefferson College, which made its only Rose Bowl appearance in the 1922 tournament, to commemorate this honor. Nickens accepted the award on behalf of her father, who passed away in 1979.

“This recognition was an honor for Dr. West and the College, and I was proud to accompany his family to the Rose Bowl,” Dr. Knapp said. “He is not only part of W&J’s storied athletic tradition, his life exemplifies our longstanding commitment to academic excellence and community service. His dedication and integrity are still an inspiration to our students.”

The W&J Athletics Department also honored West this year, recognizing him during halftime of the Nov. 11, 2017, football game. Nickens spoke at the ceremony, as did 2017 Tournament of Roses President Brad Ratliff, and Dr. Knapp. Other participants in that ceremony included: Michael Nickens, Dr. West’s grandson; Leo Cablayan, Tournament of Roses Executive Committee member; and the Charles West Scholars. The Charles West Scholars initiative strives to educate, engage, and empower black-identifying students at W&J who have been selected to participate in the program.

The story of the 1922 Rose Bowl has reached legendary status: the improbable tale of a small school from western Pennsylvania that overcame obstacles, made it to Pasadena, and made history in the process.

The game remains the only scoreless tie in Rose Bowl game history. It was also the final Rose Bowl game at Tournament Park in Pasadena before the event was moved to Rose Bowl Stadium, where it is held today.

W&J had the best college football team on the east coast, coming off an undefeated 1921 season, when the Tournament of Roses Association unanimously voted to invite the school to play in the 1922 Rose Bowl. The Bowl game posed a significant challenge: W&J’s opponent, the University of California Golden Bears, was arguably the best college football team on the west coast and was still riding the high after topping Ohio State University in the 1921 Rose Bowl.

Coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale, an athlete in his own right— he was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Redlegs when they played in the 1919 World Series—and led on the field by West, W&J fought the Golden Bears to a historic tie.

West was a phenomenal athlete who normally played halfback for W&J but stepped in as quarterback for the Rose Bowl due to team injuries and illnesses. His athletic endeavors didn’t stop at the Rose Bowl and weren’t limited to football. He was also an accomplished track and field competitor who won the National Collegiate Pentathlon at the Penn Relays in 1922 and 1923, and was named to the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, although he did not participate due to injury. He went on to sign with the Akron Pros professional football team after graduating from W&J in 1924, but then chose to retire from athletics and attend Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

For the next 50 years, West maintained a general medical practice in Alexandria, Va., and his community service outshined his work on the athletic field. Despite encountering numerous instances of racism in the pre-Civil Rights era in both his athletic and medical career, West was respected and highly regarded by his teammates and those who knew him on and off the field. The Alexandria Urban League recognized him for his community service in 1973, and in 1978 he received a Howard University Medical Alumni Association citation for his years of practice. West also received the W&J Distinguished Service Award in 1978.

West was one of four men inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame this year, along with former University of Texas head coach Mack Brown, UCLA quarterback Cade McNown and University of Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. He joins teammate Russ Stein, Class of 1921, in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Stein, the Most Outstanding Player in the 1922 Rose Bowl, was part of the third class of inductees in 1991.

In the News

West’s story, as well as the tale of the historic 1922 Rose Bowl – the only one W&J has played in, and the only one ever to end in a tie – was told by more than two dozen news outlets, including The Washington PostNational Public Radio, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.