The life of Luke Urban sounds like urban myth. It’s not. He really did play football with the Buffalo All-Americans and baseball with the Buffalo Bisons in the 1920s while also coaching football and basketball at Canisius College.
Sound like a lot? Urban is the forgotten man of Buffalo’s forgotten champions, surely the greatest all-around athlete and coach in local sports history. Who else played two professional sports at the same time he was coaching two college ones?
Oh, and Urban was also a goaltender on the hockey team at Boston College – and the club pro at Grover Cleveland Golf Course in the 1930s.
“Luke Urban belongs in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame,” says Jeffrey Miller, author of “Buffalo’s Forgotten Champions,” an account of our original NFL team a century ago. “I put him right at the top of most versatile athletes in Buffalo sports history.”
Urban was a rookie end, playing both ways, on the 1921 All-Americans who won an NFL title only to have it taken away – a tale of woe detailed by Jason Wolf in Sunday’s Buffalo News.
During some weekdays in autumn, Urban would double up on practices – as a player with the All-Americans and a coach for Canisius. Then, on the weekends, he would coach Canisius games on Saturday and play in All-Americans' games on Sundays.
Lucky for him, he didn’t have to go far. The All-Americans played almost all of their games in 1920 (before Urban arrived) and in 1921 (his rookie year) at the Villa, the Canisius football field behind the college’s signature building, Old Main.
(Today that original NFL field is home to the college’s grassy quadrangle and to Christ the King Chapel, so you might say Canisius had its own Touchdown Jesus long before that other school known for its golden dome.)
Things got simpler for Urban in winter, when he had to coach Canisius basketball, and in spring and summer, when he was a catcher for the baseball Bisons or for other minor-league clubs in the New York Yankees farm system.
Urban later played parts of the 1927 and 1928 seasons with the Boston Braves – while still coaching two sports at Canisius – and batted .273 for his major-league career.
The NFL will end its 100th season with today’s Super Bowl, and across that century only about 70-some men have played in both the NFL and MLB.
“I guess you could say Luke Urban was the Deion of his day,” NFL historian Joe Horrigan says, namechecking Deion Sanders, who famously played in the NFL and MLB.
Horrigan grew up in South Buffalo and had no idea when he attended Canisius half a century ago that he was treading on an original NFL field whenever he crossed the quad.
“Luke Urban’s face was as battered as the moon’s,” wrote Charles A. Brady in “Canisius College: The First Hundred Years.” The book adds that Urban “looked as much like an archetypal catcher as, in the naming-the-animals anecdote, Adam said the aardvark looked like an aardvark.”
Brady’s centennial history suggested those who know Urban only from fading photos might “find it hard to accept the stories of his coaching charisma. He had it, though, in spades, having been a blend of Siberian shaman, Napoleonic marshal and Polish Falstaff.”
Urban was born the son of Polish immigrants in 1898 in Fall River, Mass. He was a four-sport star at Boston College – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – and, remarkably, was player-coach of the BC basketball team for his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
He was named All-America in football in 1920, so naturally he joined the Buffalo All-Americans. He played three seasons for them and was named an All-Pro end in each one, though he stood just 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 165 pounds soaking wet.
“Time after time he went through the visitors to make the tackle before they had gained a yard,” reported The Buffalo Evening News after Urban’s first pro game, a 28-0 win against the McKeesport (Pa.) Olympics at the Villa.
As a coach, Urban was an innovator – a pioneer of the spread formation in an era when college and pro teams typically slogged it out in tight formations. His 1923 Canisius team went 8-1, losing only to his alma mater, Boston College, at Braves Field, where he would later play big-league baseball.
All-Americans coach Tommy Hughitt borrowed Urban’s spread formation for a game against the Canton Bulldogs in 1923 because, as The News reported, “Hughitt has watched the Canisius squad use this method of attack so successfully.”
It didn’t work – that game ended in a 3-3 tie – but think of it as a forerunner to the formation that we have come to know as standard in today’s NFL.
Urban would go 46-27-6 in 10 seasons as football coach at Canisius and 68-49 in nine seasons as basketball coach. He returned to his hometown, Fall River, in 1940 and coached football, basketball and baseball at Durfee High School, winning several sectional titles and state championships across 20 successful seasons.
He stepped down as a coach in 1960 but stayed on as the high school’s athletics director until 1967, when the Courier-Express noted his retirement and cited his famed spread formation: “He was far ahead of his time.”
For all of that, Urban also offered a tart sense of humor. The four-sport star once wrote a satirical piece for the Boston College student paper about his favorite sport – catching butterflies.
“This sport brings all the muscles into play,” Urban wrote, “and requires a keen intellect to distinguish between butterflies and golf balls. My next favorite sport is shelling peanuts in the street cars.”
Just think of all the things Luke Urban caught: butterflies, baseballs, hockey pucks – and running backs. Add it all up and this Jazz Age sage is Buffalo’s man for all sports, and all seasons.