A Hollywood Tale


Okay, imagine if you will a Hollywood movie script about a 1931 college All-American and social butterfly who rises to NFL ownership and secretly works for the FBI spying on Nazi planners during World War II. The leading man in this football espionage story is known as “Shipwreck” Kelly, a wealthy, good-looking athletic playboy with an appealing personality and very well connected with the social elite.

As our story goes, “Shipwreck” earned his nickname after one-upping an old sailor also named “Shipwreck” who back in the 1920’s earned a reputation by sitting atop flagpoles. Our “Shipwreck” does one better when he climbs a flagpole and somehow manages to stand on top for a few minutes. It was strange behavior, but it was a strange time.   


Now, fast-forward a year in this silver screen script and envision our flagpole-climbing football hero in New York City playing pro football with let’s say, the New York Giants. Ever the playboy, the only thing our leading man enjoys more than football is the exciting nightlife that only New York has to offer. Although he’s a good football player, playing in the NFL just isn’t enough for this flagpole and social climber. So, when he learns that an NFL team in Brooklyn might be for sale, “Shipwreck” partners with a teammate and purchases the fledgling franchise.

Now of course, like every good script, we need love interests to make it more marketable, so “Shipwreck” becomes a regular at all the hotspots in New York and is frequently seen with showgirls and the daughters of wealthy bankers. But, for our story even that isn’t enough. So, let’s add say a former Olympic figure skating star to the plot and give her part ownership of the franchise and make her the first female owner in the NFL.  Now that’s a story. But there’s more.

After a few years dabbling in the NFL, our star, “Shipwreck,” now married to a very wealthy and well-known debutante, decides to use his social connections to do undercover work for the FBI. Now, stay with me here, it gets complicated. At this point, the U.S. is very much engaged in World War II. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (pictured below), in a stroke of genius, realizes that “Shipwreck’s” social status gives him entre to gatherings in foreign countries like Argentina. Hoover determines that “Shipwreck” can infiltrate the large German social circles that exist there and covertly gather pertinent information which he can then pass on to the FBI. Our football hero happily agrees and becomes pro football’s first spy.


Alright, I know it doesn’t sound like an Academy Award winning film and probably reads a like far-fetched crazy story that only bad Hollywood writer could dream up. But, the amazing thing is, it’s all true. Or at least “Shipwreck” said it was all true.

You see, John “Shipwreck” Kelly was a halfback with the New York Giants in 1932.  In 1933, he and Giants teammate Chris Cagle purchased the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers where the duo continued to play.  Their partnership lasted just one year before Cagle sold his interest to Dan Topping. Now here’s the part that’s tough to substantiate. Shipwreck, in a great interview with writer Dick Whittingham in his book What a Game They Played, claims that in 1940 – after Shipwreck was officially out of football – his former partner Topping married Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie and sold her half his interest in the team. As for the spy part, Shipwreck produced a letter from J. Edgar himself to substantiate that claim.  Heck, maybe this isn’t such a bad movie script after all.

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Written by: Joe Horrigan