Jack “Soapy” Shapiro: The Smallest Player in NFL History
NFL players are known for their combination of impossible size and athleticism. These days, even kickers and punters are apt to be physical specimens. Although such physicality in the game has evolved over time, the sport has traditionally attracted rugged athletes, there are exceptions to every rule. The smallest player in NFL history was fullback Jack “Soapy” Shapiro, who was a diminutive 5-feet and one-half inch, and weighed in at 119 pounds.
Shapiro’s parents and his seven siblings emigrated to the United States from Russia, and upon settling in New York City had Jack in 1907. Despite the fact that he played at around 85 pounds, he started for his high school football team for three years at Evander Child High School in the Bronx. His father earned $9 a week as a handyman, while two brothers chipped in with odd jobs to help the family make ends meet. He later recalled that his mother gave him a liver sandwich and 20 cents every day for subway fare, with enough left over for some French fries and a Coca Cola.
Size wasn’t the only obstacle he had to overcome to play high school football. His father was dead set against it because two of his other sons had broken legs in the past while playing sports and life was already enough of a struggle without facing down any additional medical bills. His youngest solved the problem by forging the needed permission signature, later recalling, “When I get to heaven, I’ll tell my father what I did and I know he will forgive me.”
Having proven that size wasn’t everything, Shapiro tried out for the New York University football team and won a position on the squad. He initially believed he would never be taken seriously, so had asked head coach Chick Meehan to help him land a spot on the Hobart College team. Instead, he was shocked to be given a roster spot and one of 30 available scholarships at NYU instead.
He ultimately gained a starting role on the Violets as a fullback by his sophomore year. In 1927, they went 7–1–2 and outscored their opponents by a whopping margin of 345–65. His career was full of excitement, as he earned a varsity letter, played in front of 87,000 fans at Yankees Stadium in a Thanksgiving Day game against Fordham, and even met legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.
He also played professionally in Connecticut, under the pseudonym of Murphy, as to not lose his amateur eligibility. He made $25 a game and was well regarded enough to land a spot with the Staten Island Stapletons of the NFL after he tried out for them in an effort to be make even more money. That year they were a middling 3–4–3, despite outscoring opposing teams 89–65. Part of that discrepancy was a 34–0 thrashing they handed to the miserable 1–9 Minneapolis Red Jackets.
Shapiro may have been downright small but as a blocking back he was able to get into the knees and legs of defenders and wreak havoc. The official record shows him playing in one game (the Minneapolis blowout). He was reported to have gained seven yards on five rushes and to have returned a punt for 12 yards. He later recalled he was on the team’s roster for five games; playing in a preseason contest, where he ripped off a 35-yard touchdown run, and two others during the regular season. His playing time made him the shortest and smallest player in the history of the NFL — a record memorialized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1999, and one that stands to this day, which likely has no chance of ever being broken.
After the NFL, Shapiro returned to NYU and got his degree in 1931. He embarked on a career as a sales representative for Stoffel Seals.
Although his professional experience was short, he was remembered years after he last played. The NFL Alumni Association presented him with the Norm Van Brocklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in 1995. Former player Pete Brown remarked, “Jack Shapiro is the all-time Tom Thumb in the history of pro football… Each of us can achieve a dream, no matter what it is.”
Shapiro passed away in 2001, a month shy of his 94th birthday. His NFL career barely registers a blip in terms of statistics and length, but he achieved something even better. He’s remembered. Even if he was small in stature, his legacy was much larger and he will always hold a place in football history.