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Resurrecting the Memory of NCAA All America Ernest Zeller

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Ernie Zeller

An outstanding high school and college football player, Terre Haute native Ernest  M. Zeller became Indiana State's first NCAA All-American by finishing third in the 1933 NCAA wrestling championships.

The youngest of John E. and Emma (Wernersbach) Zeller's five children, Ernie was born Sept. 1, 1909 at 1919 Beech St. His father was a puddler at an iron foundry and repaired bicycles. He had two sisters, Katie and Margaret, and two brothers, Charles and Elmer. Ernie attended Gerstmeyer High School, graduating in June 1928. He did not play football until his junior year in high school but made an immediate impact. At Indiana State, Zeller excelled on the gridiron under head coaches Walter E. Marks, Roy Goodlad and Arthur Strum. Lauded for his size and speed, he played both offense and defense, Zeller usually lined up at tackle but special plays were designed to use "The Beast," as he was known, as a running back. He also was the team's best kicker. As a junior and senior, he was named to the All-Indiana college team and, in 1932-33, he was recipient of the coveted Bigwood Award in football.

Zeller's participation as a heavyweight in the 1932 NCAA wrestling championship  at Indiana University was notable since Indiana State did not have a wrestling team. Ernie also competed in the 1932 U.S. Olympic trials at Columbus, Ohio, in June, and won three matches. As a senior in March 1933, he wrestled in the unlimited category at the NCAA championships at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He lost a referee's decision in the second round to eventual champion Ralph Teague of Southwestern Oklahoma but garnered third with back-to-back victories over George Wolcott of Lehigh and James Hay of Brown before losing to IU's Robert Jones for second place. Zeller was named an All-American to earn a niche in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at Stillwater, Ok.

In the autumn of 1933, Zeller played for Toronto in the first professional Canadian Football League. The following year he served as player-coach for the  Toronto Aromints of the CFL. In 1935, he wed Mary Elizabeth Reta Conacher of Toronto, sister of legendary athlete Lionel Conacher, "Canada's answer to Jim Thorpe" and voted the best Canadian athlete of the first half of the 20th Century.  Ernie ballooned to 300 pounds to tour the U.S. and Canada on the pro wrestling circuit with icons like Notre Dame football star Joe Savoldi, and George Zaharias. Between 1936 and 1941, he taught history, sociology and physical education and coached, football, track and basketbakk at Robinson, Ill. The Maroons' football squad under head coach Zeller won the Eastern Illinois Conference title in 1941, the year Ernie earned a masters degree in administration from Indiana State. While teaching in Robinson, Zeller frequently attended Indiana State athletic events and usually was introduced and recognized for his feats on the mat and the gridiron. In May 1942, he was ordered to report to the Great Lakes and then to Annapolis for the U.S. Navy School of Instruction. After World War II, Ernie was a football official in Indiana and Illinois while advancing his career as a school administrator. He was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Zeller was principal of Mill Creek High School of LaPorte County and Superintendent of the Butler Township Schools in Dekalb County from February 1952 until June 1966. In retirement, the Zellers made their home at 2912 Schaper Drive in Fort Wayne. Mary died there at age 75 in June 1981. Ernie passed away in Fort Wayne on July 16, 1987 at age 77. The Zellers are interred in a Toronto cemetery. 

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