Fred Becker: Forgotten All-American

By Mike Chapman

Waterloo’s Fred Becker literally gave his life for Iowa and country

On a warm spring day, May 14, 1921, over 5,000 people attended a funeral in Waterloo, Iowa. The previous day, hundreds had waited at the train station for the body to come from New Jersey. On the day of the funeral, mourners packed the church, the overflow even covering the parking lot. That afternoon, they filled the local cemetery to the bursting point.

They came from all across the state to honor Fred Becker, who had given his life fighting as a doughboy in France during World War I. It was said to be the largest crowd ever assembled in the city on the Cedar River. The inspiration behind the turnout remains one of the most profound yet little-known stories in the annals of Iowa sports.

Fred H. Becker was born on November 6, 1895. The Becker family lived in a solid, one-story house at 228 Newell Street, on the east side of the river. Ironically, it was just two blocks from the house on Adams Street where the five Sullivan brothers – who all perished on the same ship during World War II – were raised in the 1930s.

His early years offered scant evidence that Becker was going to be an exceptional athlete. Tall and gangly, he weighed just one hundred pounds by the time he entered ninth grade, dreaming of becoming a football star for East High School. Though thin in stature, Becker had one characteristic that seemed to stand out all through his athletic years: he was endowed with a fighting spirit, and it carried him to great success on the football field.

He first gained attention in sandlot games played on the patches of ground wherever enough boys could gather. Some of the organized games were held on the large lot by the Illinois Central Railroad offices, not far from the Becker home. It was in these rough-and-tumble games that he carved out a reputation as a tough customer.

It was his “fighting spirit” that set him apart from the other young athletes, said a Waterloo newspaper writer.