the oldest son of Fred and Caroline Sonnenberg, was raised on a farm
in Green Garden, Michigan, went to a little country school, and later
went to live with an older sister to attend Marquette High School.
Gus's football career began at Marquette High in 1912.
That year he played right guard on the gridiron and the following
season, he held down the same position.
Then came 1914, when E.D. Cushman came here to become Marquette
High's first full-time physical education instructor. "Cush" promptly
switched Gus to tackle, a change that paid dividends immediately.
In 1915, with Sonnenberg's work at tackle a big
factor, Marquette High won its first U.P. Championship, undefeated
for the first time in history. They won six games, scoring 211 points
to their opponents' 7.
Aside from his accomplishments on the football
field, Gus also starred in basketball and was a member of Marquette's
first U.P. Championship team during the 1915-1916 season.
After his graduation in 1916, Gus was offered
scholarships at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota,
but he decided on Dartmouth.
He arrived in September. It was said that he
came clumping into Dartmouth college with a battered violin case under
one arm, a book of Browning's poems under the other, a cap perched
on his scalp, and wearing a pair of pants that looked like the back
legs of an elephant. Just a few weeks later, the news came that for
the first time in five years, the freshman class was victorious in
the traditional football rush, which takes place between the freshman
and sophomore classes at Dartmouth. At the crack of the gun, Captain
Gerrish, of the varsity, tossed a football into the two awaiting classes,
and the fight for possession of the ball was on. After forty-five
minutes of mad scrambling, Sonnenberg, a candidate for a tackle position
on the freshman football team, succeeded in ascending the Webster
Hall steps and presenting the ball to Captain Gerrish.
That was only the beginning of Sonnenberg's rise
to fame at Dartmouth. He won not only a regular tackle position on
the freshman team, but also a place on the Eastern All-Frosh team.
As the football season started in 1917, Gus was
back in Marquette, holding down the fullback spot for the Northern
State Teachers College squad. That year, under coach L.B. Gant, Northern
had a successful season, losing just one game.
Gus also played on the Teacher's 1917-1918 basketball
team, and in his spare time, coached the Normal high school team.
On January 1, 1919, Sonnenberg accepted a position
as coach of Escanaba High School.
The 1919-1920 season found Gus back at Dartmouth
holding down a regular tackle position.
In 1920 the sports writers association of the
East picked Sonnenberg and George Gipp of Calumet for that group's
All-America Team. It was the first time a Marquette athlete was chosen
on any All-America team and also the first time two U.P. players were
chosen on the same squad.
Gus transferred from Dartmouth to the University
of Detroit where he starred during the 1921-1922 seasons. He graduated
with a law degree.
During his college days, he had some rather remarkable
experiences. One year he blocked nine punts and all of them, except
one, would have been good for touchdowns. Once in a game at Franklin
Field, Philadelphia, he booted the ball eighty yards in the air for
the longest kick ever made at the University of Pennsylvania's field.
Sonnenberg played in the infamous Coaldale, Pennsylvania
game. Sonnen-berg explained, "There was great spirit in Coaldale.
The local gamblers were backing the team to the last penny, betting
even their homes and shirts. Why, I saw $60,000 in cash on a blanket
on the sidelines. Well, we beat them 10 to 7. It was a terrible game.
After it was over, the crowd mobbed us. They threw stones at us as
we ran for our special train. We got on the train and dropped to the
floor to escape the rocks that smashed nearly every window. As the
train of thirteen cars pulled out of the town, they commenced to shoot
at the cars. Of course, we were all on the floor, but one fellow was
wounded in the eye by a shot.
"Another game, in Shenendoah, found the gamblers
losing and they came on to the field in a rush and refused to get
off the field so the game was postponed and all bets were off."
Following his graduation, he was sought by many
pro teams, including the Green Bay Packers. He signed with the Columbus,
Ohio Tigers. Later he played with the Detroit Panthers and Providence,
Rhode Island Steam Rollers.
Gus was picked as "all-professional" tackle by
the managers and owners of the league. One night he went with a newspaper
man to see a wrestling match. The newspaper man said, "Why don't you
get into this game? It's as easy as pro football anyway, and there
is more money." Gus, just recovering from two broken ribs, thought
nothing could happen to him on the mat like the riot that followed
the clash in Coaldale.
Before long, "Dynamite" was the nickname given
to him as a new wrestler. He was described as five foot seven inches
tall, weighing 200 pounds, possessing extra large feet, the chest,
arms and shoulders of a bull gorilla, not very much neck, and a round
Other descriptions said he looked just as good
in his green trunks as he did in a tuxedo. He used excellent English,
speaking in a deep baritone, danced well and played a great game of
In his wrestling matches, Gus let his head hit
his wrestling opponent with great force, and as the man went down,
he would nail him in the stomach with another head-on smash. As for
Sonnenberg's "flying tackle" and the rule book, inasmuch as he used
his hands as well as his head, it couldn't be barred under "butting."
Sonnenberg's constant habit of playing football without a helmet had
been great training for his wrestling game.
It was not long before Paul Bowser, the Boston
wrestling trainer, got in touch with Sonnenberg. A match with Mayne
Munn was scheduled, and if Gus won that match, he would give up professional
football for a career in wrestling.
Sonnenberg was seventy pounds lighter than Munn,
and nearly one foot shorter. Gus threw his huge opponent twice, once
in a minute and nineteen seconds, and again in twenty-five seconds.
This was the twenty-eighth consecutive match Sonnenberg had won, having
not been defeated since he started his new career on the mat.
Gus Sonnenberg had the heavyweight wrestling
championship of the world in the palm of his hand when an unexpected
and disastrous accident sent him to the hospital. On June 29, 1928,
he had tossed the champion, Ed "Strangler" Lewis for the first fall
with his famous flying tackle. His head butted Lewis in the stomach,
and the champion was lifted from his feet with the flying tackle and
slammed to the mat. The time of the fall was thirty-seven minutes,
thirty seconds. Lewis was out for five minutes.
The crowd of 10,000 fans went wild at the Boston
Arena. Gus was sure to win. Never had such a wrestling match been
staged. Sonnenberg had sailed into Strangler's stomach with his bullet-like
head so many times that many thought Lewis would not be able to re-enter
for the second fall.
When Lewis, still all but helpless from the battering
he had received, returned to the ring for a second round, Sonnenberg,
amid cheers that rocked the arena, started out for a second fall.
With blood in his eyes, he butted Lewis around and it looked like
sure victory for Gus. Suddenly Gus went sailing into a whistling flying
tackle, missed his target, and shot like a bullet at least fifteen
feet through the ropes, beyond the row of reporters, landing on his
head on the concrete floor of the arena. He was picked up unconscious.
The crowd was thunderstruck! He was given fifteen minutes to return
to the ring and continue the match, but at the end of that time he
was still unconscious and Lewis was given the fall and the match.
Sonnenberg was examined by physicians and found
to be suffering from a concussion. He was taken to Trumbull Hospital.
Sonnenberg had been a great drawing card, attracting
immense crowds every time he had battled. Sonnenberg received $7,500
for his work and Lewis $15,000, the highest sum every paid a champion
The story of Gus Sonnenberg, however, is more
than one of human strength, and speed. He brought to wrestling the
color and dash of American football. He promoted his first show in
Boston at the old Grand Opera House. The gate was $85. On January
7, 1929, 20,000 people jammed the Boston Garden and paid $75,000 to
see the "Strangler" Lewis vs. "Dynamite" Gus Sonnenberg show.
Another article states.... "Two of the most surprising
things about Sonnenberg were his strength and speed. He launched his
tackle at the most unexpected moments and from almost any angle and
position." The tackle which really cost Lewis his crown came as a
bolt from the blue. The Strangler had brought his locked arms up under
Gus's chin, not only snapping the challenger's head back but lifting
him off his feet and dumping him heavily on all fours near the ropes.
Strangler leaped forward to clamp on the finishing headlock.
But from this seemingly defenseless posture,
Sonnenberg instantly uncoiled and shot from the floor, hitting the
champion squarely a little above the knee. A quick jerk of his powerful
arms, the final flying lunge, and the famous Strangler was flat and
The second fall and the championship was awarded
to Sonnenberg by the referee when Lewis would not, or could not, re-enter
the ring after having been repeatedly knocked through the ropes by
the butts and tackles and Dynamite Gus.
After Sonnenberg's arm was raised as a gesture
of victory, Paul Bowser, promoter of the title bout, came into the
ring and presented him with the coveted $10,000 diamond championship
belt, and announced, "Gus Sonnenberg... The World Champion Wrestler!"
The Championship Match was filmed by the Educational
Film Exchanges, Inc. It contained 1,000 feet of film and most of the
views were closeups…more thrilling action squeezed into those ten
or twelve minutes than in any movie ever seen. The manner in which
Sonnenberg finished off Lewis tells the story of his name "Dynamite."
This thrilling one reel movie was shown at the Delft Theatre in 1929.
Just one year before, Sonnenberg was a professional
football player drawing a few thousand dollars per season from the
Providence Steam Rollers. He didn't know anything about wrestling
and now he was the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world with
$90,000 in the bank.
His mother had pictures of him all around her
living room. On a sideboard a picture of him in a football uniform,
another in the uniform of a member of the Student Army Training Corps,
another of him showing him wearing the $10,000 diamond studded belt,
symbolic of the heavy-weight wrestling championship, and in a corner
one of his violins, waiting for his return home. She said, "Every
time he writes, he sends money home."
His mother, at age sixty-seven, drove to Milwaukee
with her other son Carl, to see her first wrestling match, and last.
She was in agony and couldn't bear to watch. When finally opening
her eyes, she said, "Mein Gott, He'll kill him!" She buried her face
again and was shaking all over. "My heart,"she said, a hand at her
throat, "It's right here." Finally, when it was over, she picked up
her hat, a shapeless pulp from her worried hands, and said, "My boy
Gus, I knew he'd get him. But for all the money in the world, I wish
Gus wouldn't wrestle."
In August 1929, the U.P. hosted a match between
Sonnenberg and Stanley Stasiak, the Wrestling Champion of Poland,
at the Palestra in Marquette. The bout between Sonnenberg and Stasiak
was listed as a "two falls out of three" finish match for the championship
of the world. The match was probably the biggest professional sporting
event the U.P. had ever seen, due largely to the fact that Marquette
was Sonnenberg's hometown and he wanted to give his hometown backers
a real show.
The bout between Sonnenberg and his giant challenger
took place before a crowd of nearly 3,000 people. The spectators got
an hour and nine minutes of thrilling entertainment as Stasiak fought
hard before Sonnenberg finished him with a flying tackle.
Sonnenberg bought the wrestling mat from Ed Butler
of Ishpeming after using it for the bout with Stasiak. He said it
was one of the best wrestling mats he had ever seen. The mat had been
the property of the Ishpeming Theatre for twenty years and now would
be used in all of Sonnenberg's matches. Gus had sustained many infections
from wrestling on the dirty, blood-stained mats that were usually
Gus had trouble on the matrimonial scene. He
married a movie star, known as Judith Allen in 1931, and that marriage
only lasted a few months. He later married Mildred Micelli, who left
him, Gus says, because she was embarrassed by the "shiners" he got
as a wrestler. Gus said, after waiting all evening to introduce her
husband to the girls as a hero, he would come limping and lurching
in after a wrestling bout, sometimes with one eye painfully swollen
and closed, or perhaps both would be that way, or so black and blue
as to be ghastly. One arm might be bandaged and in a sling, and he
didn't look much like a hero. And so a second divorce came.
Gus died September 9, 1944 at Bethesda Naval
Hospital in Maryland, of leukemia. He is buried in Park Cemetery in
Marquette. He was selected for induction into the U.P. Sports Hall
of Fame in 1972.
A champion in a game played by giants, a lover
of poetry, an outstanding performer in professional football yet a
student of the violin, a squatty winner of wrestling rounds yet a
graceful dancer. He wore $150 suits and turned up Panamas, and a big
rock on his finger. That was Gus Sonnenberg, Heavyweight Wrestling
Champion of the World.