Whitman Athletics Hall of Fame Inducts Five Football Stars from Five Decades

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Five football stars from five different decades were inducted into the Whitman College Athletics Hall of Fame during a recent banquet on the Whitman campus. The banquet and induction ceremonies were two of many events held as part of the first Whitman Football Reunion held since the sport was discontinued in 1977.

The list of new inductees includes Royal “Tubby” Niles (Class of 1914), who was recognized as the greatest fullback of his era in the Northwest, and Walfred “Wally” Holmgren (Class of 1930), a three-time All-Northwest Conference end who played in the East-West Shrine game in San Francisco.

Also inducted were George Sullivan (Class of 1958), a running back who made the Associated Press Little All-American Team; Gary Jones (Class of 1968), an All-Northwest Conference player as both a linebacker and offensive lineman; and Mike Levens (Class of 1971).

The Whitman Athletics Hall of Fame inducts a new class in the spring of each year. An additional class of inductees was honored as part of the football reunion.

More information about latest inductees follows: 

Royal "Tubby" Niles '14 

When Royal F. “Tubby” Niles died in 1920 from the tuberculosis and influenza he contracted while serving with U.S. forces in France during World War I, the Portland Oregonian eulogized him as “one of the gamest and greatest fullbacks that ever played in the Pacific Northwest.”

A year after his death, an anonymous donor gave Whitman what became known as Niles Trophy Cup. Beginning with the 1921 season, when All-Northwest tackle Ben Comrada was the first recipient, the Niles Trophy was given annually to the Whitman football player who best embodied the inspirational and leadership qualities that Niles exemplified.

Niles arrived at Whitman in the fall of 1910, a few months after graduation of legendary Vincent Borleske, and quickly established a regional reputation as an unparalleled running back and punter. As was custom in that era, major newspapers and coaches selected their own all-star teams, and Niles as a freshman was tabbed by University of Washington coach Gilmour Dobie as his All-Northwest fullback.

As a junior, Niles led Whitman to a quick start with a 20-0 victory over Oregon and a 30-0 drubbing of Washington State. At season’s end, the Oregonian newspaper named Niles to its All-Northwest team for a second straight year. The newspaper described him as a “wonderful punter and drop-kicker, stellar line bucker, sensationally fast … a combination off all other fullbacks in the Northwest.”

As a senior, Niles salvaged a long season when his 90-yard kickoff return sparked Whitman to a win over Montana. The Oregonian again named Niles to its All-Northwest Team, noting simply that he has “so much more native ability than any other fullback.” 

Walfred “Wally” Holmgren ’30

As a pass-catching end, Walfred “Wally” Holmgren earned All-Northwest Conference honors in each of his final three seasons.

A two-time winner of Whitman’s Niles Trophy for leadership and inspiration, Holmgren capped his football career by becoming the first Northwest player chosen for the annual East-West Shrine game in San Francisco. According to Shrine game press reports, Holmgren starred on defense and caught a 15-yard pass that triggered a long touchdown drive.

A two-sport athlete who also starred in basketball, Holmgren was a key contributor in 1928 to what was a magical calendar year for Whitman. The Missionaries won NWC titles in all five of the major sports in existence at that time – football, basketball, baseball, track & field and tennis. Whitman, which won its four NWC football games that fall by a combined score of 159-25, did not lose a single game, match or meet in the other sports.

After playing on two state basketball championship teams for Walla Walla High School, Holmgren led Whitman to NWC roundball titles in his final three seasons. Coach R.V. Borleske wrote as follows in the college magazine:

“On defense the outstanding man is Wally Holmgren. I believe without doubt he is the outstanding defensive man on the coast today.”

Holmgren also played on the San Francisco Olympic Basketball Club that placed second in 1930 A.A.U. national tournament in St. Louis. After Whitman, he worked as a machinist at Boeing until his retirement in 1969. He died in 1983.

George Sullivan ’58

As a senior captain, George Sullivan wrapped up a stellar four-year career in which he gained more than 2,200 yards as a running back. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a senior while scoring eight touchdowns in seven games. He was named Northwest Conference Back of the Week after sparking a Homecoming victory with 129 rushing yards and a 37-yard TD pass reception.

Winner of Whitman’s Niles Trophy and a unanimous choice for the All-NWC First Team, Sullivan also capped his senior season by earning a spot on the Little All-American Second Team, and by being named to the Little All-Northwest First Team for a second straight year.

Sullivan got off to a strong start as a junior, running for 275 yards in his first two games, which put his name at the top of the national small-college rushing statistics. Sullivan, noted the coach of one of Whitman’s first two opponents, is “one of the finest running backs I’ve seen in years.” He was second in the NWC in rushing that season, gaining 773 yards on 4.6 yards per carry. He earned Honorable Mention recognition on the Little All-American Team and was named to the All-NWC Second Team.

Slowed by injury as a sophomore, Sullivan still finished with more than 400 rushing and was named to the Little All-Northwest Second Team. He also received all-conference Honorable Mention kudos in each of his first two seasons.

Before entering private business, Sullivan coached football at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School, winning one state title and two city league crowns. 

Gary Jones ’68

Gary Jones, who excelled on both sides of the ball, made his most notable mark as a linebacker, arning a spot on the Associated Press Little All-American Second Team as a capstone to his senior season. At the time he became only the second three-time winner of Whitman’s Niles Trophy for inspiration and leadership, and he was also named to the NAIA District I and Little All-West Coast teams.

While Jones made his greatest contributions at linebacker, he also played center on offense. As a sophomore he earned All-Northwest Conference Honorable Mention recognition at both positions. He also received Honorable Mention laurels that season as a center on the NAIA District I Team and as a linebacker on the Little All-West Coast Team.

Following an outstanding junior season, Jones was honored as a first-team linebacker and second-team center by both the NWC and Little All-Northwest teams. The sports editor of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin praised Jones as “unquestionably the most outstanding player in the conference, and probably one of the best linebackers in the country.”

Whitman coach Roy Thompson, after watching Jones play his final game, had this to say: “I’ve never had a kid hit harder or do a better job.” A politics major and Whitman student body president as a senior, Jones later served in the Peace Corps and graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1973. 

Mike Levens ’71

Mike Levens, an All-Northwest Conference standout at two positions, capped his senior season by becoming only the third football player to win Whitman’s Niles Trophy (leadership, inspiration) for a third time.

As a senior running back, he bounced back from an early injury to finish fourth in the NWC in rushing, running for 141 yards in his final game. He led the conference and NAIA District I in scoring and was named to the Little All-Northwest First Team.

Levens had his best offensive season as a junior, when he led the conference in both rushing (99 yards per game) and scoring (10 touchdowns), and when the Missionaries romped to a share of the NWC title with records of 4-2 and 6-3 overall. He scored four times in the first half of a 60-7 thrashing of Willamette, finishing that game with 171 yards on 22 carries while scoring five TDs (matching the NWC single-game record). He topped 100 yards in three other games, one of which was a 151-yard outburst against College of Idaho. He earned first-team honors from the NWC, NAIA District I, and Little All-Northwest teams.

As a sophomore, Levens earned NAIA District I First-Team honors as a linebacker. He was named NWC Defensive Back of the Week in early October that season after making an astounding 31 tackles and assisting on 16 others in a single game.

After Whitman, Levens was one of the last players cut from the Dallas Cowboys training camp. He joined the Walla Walla Community College football coaching staff in 1973 and served as its head coach from 1988 through 1997.

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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; holden@whitman.edu