Leroy N. Mills and Kicking The American Football
What was it like to be the best canal builder in the 1820s or the best buggy whip maker in 1880? It had to feel good to excel at your craft, not knowing that thirty or forty years down the road, your area of expertise would be tossed aside when something better came.
Leroy N. Mills had no idea a tsunami was coming his way, and neither did his disciples. Still, in his day, he was the foremost authority on the topic captured by the title of his book, Kicking The American Football.
By all accounts, Mills was a fabulous guy. He spent most of his life in Mount Vernon, New York, which sits in Westchester County, just north of the Bronx. Mills spent a year or two at Princeton just before the forward pass became legal, playing on the freshmen team. He lacked the physical talent to make the varsity, but after leaving Princeton, he returned to Mount Vernon and entered the legal profession via apprenticeship.
By 1904, Mills was the volunteer head coach for the Mount Vernon High School team. He not only told the backs how to run the ball but how to kick it, which was half the job for backs in those kick-happy days. Mills studied punting and kicking, breaking them down to their core elements and experimenting with new approaches until he could kick a football unlike anyone else.
His ability to punt the ball became part of his method of attracting kids and coaches to his clinics. Regardless of age, Mills could punt for greater distances than anyone at the clinic and then turned the table by advocating for punting for accuracy, not distance. Mills set up targets in the coffin corners and unerringly knocked them over or stopped punts on a dime.
Mills taught kicking to anyone that would listen. He taught grade schoolers and high schoolers in the New York City area, holding clinics for which he did not take a dime. Still, he remained a regional expert and novelty until Frank Carideo came along. Born and raised in Mount Vernon, Carideo was a two-time All-American quarterback at Notre Dame in 1929 and 1930, which made him Knute's last QB.
Besides his value as a runner and passer, his National Football Foundation biography emphasizes his punting skills:
He stood 5-7, weighed 175, and was known for his signal-calling, passing, punting, and defensive play. Against Army in 1929 he punted 11 times, and 6 times the ball was downed inside the 3-yard line. Against Northwestern in 1930 he punted 4 times in the fourth quarter, and all 4 kicks were downed on the 1-yard line.
Carideo's glow reflected on Mills, particularly after Carideo said Mills taught him everything he knew about kicking.
Requests for Mill's tutoring poured in from all over. He worked with individual teams, spoke at clinics, and continued working with the boys in Mount Vernon. He also began accepting travel expense reimbursements for longer trips, and he published Kicking The American Football in 1932, so kids and coaches around the country could learn his secrets.
Unfortunately, Mills returned to his old stomping grounds at Princeton in October 1938 to instruct the Tigers punters. While on the practice field, he felt ill, was taken inside, and died of a heart attack minutes later at age 55. Condolences came from all over, but Mills was gone, and the football world never saw the likes of him again.
Thirty-some years later, the football tides flowed against straight-ahead kickers and toward soccer sidewinders. After which, the Australian punters staked their claim to America's artificial turf. Had Mills ever seen either approach, he might have adopted their approaches since he sought the best techniques, regardless of their origin, but as a product of his place and time, he worked to improve the accepted techniques.
I am unaware of anyone who had the same impact on how to kick the prolate spheroid as ol' Leroy. If others deserve equal credit, please let me know.
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Tragic story. Makes sense he ran into Mills while at CCNY and interesting that Mills' influence made its way to Dallas.
I wrote about Leroy Mills on my St. Mark's Football History page, as he was coaching Charles Munves at the same time he was coaching Frank Carideo. Munves was the ill-fated head coach of the famous Terrill School for Boys (Dallas, TX) through much of the 1930s. Munves had been the QB at City College of New York and became an expert kicker there. When Munves came to Texas in the mid-1930s, he was the kicking coach at SMU while also coaching Terrill. After serving as a Navy diving instructor during WWII, he got into private business in Dallas selling jewelry. On a business trip to Galveston, TX, in the late 1950s, he went for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico and was never seen again. All of his belongings, including his jewelry samples, were found in his hotel room. His body was never found and the family chose to not publish an obituary.