|Football's Living Legend
James Ailinger, '25, the NFL's oldest living alumnus, plans to keep on going as long as he can
Dr. James Ailinger certainly didn't seek out his new celebrity status. At 96, the Buffalo native and 1925 UB dentistry graduate had already lived a rich life full of more professional and personal accomplishments than a more ordinary person might experience in three or four lifetimes.
"I was just kind of taking things easy down here, until this damn thing hit and tipped over the apple cart," he says, with a hint of a smile flashing across his rugged, tanned face.
This "damn thing" was the letter he got last fall from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, informing him that he had become the oldest living alumnus of the National Football League. Since then, he's been profiled in newspapers in South Florida and Buffalo, interviewed by NBC and even treated to free haircuts by his barber. This fall, he'll be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame along with another fellow who's fairly well known in football circles former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy.
Ailinger could just as easily qualify for any number of other halls of fame. There's dentistry, of course, plus football coaching, officiating, sports management the list goes on and on.
"Throughout his life, he has always set a terrific example for getting the most out of your ability and taking care of yourself," says longtime friend Robert E. Rich Sr.,
B.S. '35, chairman of Buffalo's Rich Products Corporation, who played for Ailinger during the years he worked as an assistant coach at UB. "Why, at 96 he can do things better than many men in their 70s."
But it is Ailinger's experiences in pro football he played one season for the
Buffalo All-Americans in 1924 that have brought him back into the limelight. For a man of his age, he can tell stories about those days with remarkable clarity.
"After I graduated, they called and asked how I'd like to play for the pros," Ailinger remembers on a sunny spring afternoon in his Boca Raton, Fla., home. "I had started my dental practice, but I saw that I could make as much money playing football for half a day as I could in almost a whole week practicing dentistry."
The team offered him the then-princely sum of $50 per game.
"It didn't interfere with my dental practice," Ailinger continued. "We'd practice from 10:30 to 11:30 on Sunday mornings, go have lunch and then play football." In one memorable weekend, he played three times in four days a Thanksgiving contest in Cleveland, followed by games in Philadelphia on Saturday and New York on Sunday.
The $150 he made that weekend, plus everything else he earned as a player, helped Ailinger achieve a very important goal paying back a loan from UB that had enabled him to finish dental school. It seems that as a UB football player, basketball player, dental student and all-around big man on campus, minor details like tuition payments sometimes escaped him.
"The dean called me in one day and asked, 'Don't you ever read the signs in the stairway? All tuition must be paid by
October 15.' This was about November 15," Ailinger says. "I asked him, 'Which tuition are you talking about, this year's or last year's?' He just howled!"
The dean, the legendary Daniel H. Squire (1869-1935), subsequently helped to arrange a $1,300 loan for Ailinger. Thanks to his pro football earnings, Ailinger paid it off in short order and gave the university another $1,300 for scholarships, to boot.
That event marked the end of Ailinger's student career at the University of Buffalo. It had begun in 1920, when he was recruited to play football at UB after starring on Buffalo's Hutchinson High School team. The recruiting process was a great deal more casual in those days. As Ailinger tells the story, he had gone to the university one afternoon to make sure he had sufficient credits for admission to dental school. While on campus, he ran into Art Powell (1884-1969), the football and basketball coach. "He took me up to the dean's office, and they decided I could get in that fall. I kicked off for UB on the first day of the new Rotary Field."
When Ailinger first hit the turf at UB nearly 80 years ago, the rules of the game were very different. For one thing, he and his teammates played without face masks, although they did wear shoulder pads and knee pads. Also, they played the entire game: "We didn't have any substitutes. We played hurt," the former team captain recalls. "We didn't even realize how tired we were getting."
One of Ailinger's fondest memories stems from a game against Thiel College of Greenville, Pa., at Rotary Field. Playing center, he set out to punt the ball from Thiel's 42 yard line. He drop-kicked it, then watched in amazement as the ball sailed through the uprights for a field goal. "It was the only time I ever scored," he says. "The record stayed on the books until 1950."
"It didn't interfere with my dental practice. We'd practice from 10:30 to 11:30 on Sunday mornings, go have lunch and then play football."
That particular milestone came in 1922. Ailinger would mark dozens more in a life during which, as he puts it, "There wasn't a time when I wasn't busy with two or three things."
Busy? The word comes across as a considerable understatement.
Ailinger practiced dentistry on Delaware Avenue until he retired at the age of 88. He taught children's dentistry at UB, where he held a position as an associate professor from 1935 to 1960. He also worked for the university as an assistant football coach and assistant basketball coach. And he amassed a remarkable record as a college football official, working 425 games between 1925 and 1960 and serving as president of the Eastern Intercollegiate Athletic Commission. He even refereed games at Sing Sing state prison in Ossining, N.Y.
He also built quite a reputation as a sports promoter and manager. Recruited in the 1940s by the late Lou Jacobs to become general manager of the Buffalo Hockey Club of the American Hockey League, Ailinger impressed his boss by doubling attendance at the games, in part by giving away tickets to local employers, who could then reward war-time staff for good work habits.
"I actually paid for the buses to bring them in from Toronto and Hamilton," he recalls. "After they'd gone to three games, they were hockey fans for life."
He remembers the early days of the Ice Follies and Ice Capades, too, and can spin tales of contract negotiations with the
superstar of her day, three-time Olympic Champion Sonja Henie.
Ailinger even seriously considered a foray into politics but only briefly.
"They wanted me to run for president of the city council, and then for mayor," he says. "But I said, 'Why? I'll be out of the mayor's office and a broken-down politician at 41!' I was only interested in being a dentist."
Despite his stated desire to be "only" a dentist, Ailinger also played the role of
devoted husband for 67 years, until his wife Helen died in 1988. He married his current wife, Eleanor, five years ago. A distant cousin with whom he reconnected after he moved to Florida, she's about 10 years his junior. "Just a kid," he calls her.
These days, Ailinger says he continues to do "pretty much what I want to do. Today I slept until half past 8. Then I walked in the pool. I do that two or three times a day. That's where I get my exercise.
"We just take it easy," he says, describing his daily routine. "We had a little party last night until about 8 o'clock. Then everyone went home and went to bed."
He chuckles and smiles again.
"I've done everything I've wanted to do. I don't have any secrets [to longevity]. I never drank a lot. I took care of my body. I had a hell of a heart attack in January, but after eight days I pulled out all the tubes and said, 'I'm going home.'"
He leans back in his chair, looking more robust than some men half his age.
"I just plan to keep on going as long as I can."
Here's hoping he wears that "oldest living NFL player" mantle for many more years to come!
Leon M. Rubin, who grew up in Ohio not far from the Football Hall of Fame, is a writer in Boca Raton, Fla.