James “Jim” Sherman Nance, Jr. was born on December 30, 1942 to James S. Sr. and Delia Nance in Indiana, PA. He was a graduate of Indiana High School and continued his education at Syracuse University. But Mr. Nance is remembered for his athletic ability. It was agreed among sports fans that he was the Indiana High School’s greatest athlete.
As a 160-pound seventh grader, with no intention of playing football, he was spotted by Coach Dick Farabaugh who asked if he was a football player and when Jim responded in the negative, the coach said “Well, you ought to be because you’re big enough to eat hay.” And from that moment on Nance was a football player, and by this point he was already a wrestler. There was a story of when Jim was in high school, that the wrestling team went down to IUP to practice, a college student was lifting weights and asked if Nance wanted to try. While Nance was not a weightlifter, he picked up the bar and did 15 or 20 reps very fast. Nance told the college student he needed to put more weight on the bar, but the student just put his towel around his neck and walked away.
Many of Nance’s opponents walked away from encounters with Nance. He was swift enough to run the 100-yard dash in 10.1 seconds or to outrace would-be tacklers. He was strong enough to bowl over defenders, win a District 6 discus championship, and dominate foes on the wrestling mat. He capped his high school wrestling career with 40 consecutive victories. Nance was also an all-district football player and a two-time state heavyweight wrestling champion. He graduated from Indiana High School in 1961 and went on to Syracuse University.
His sports career continued to flourish at Syracuse, attending from 1961 to 1964 - being named Athlete of the Year as a senior. He finished fifth nationally in rushing (951 yards) and scoring (13 touchdowns) in 1964. He led the Orangemen (Syracuse) to the Sugar Bowl and earned all-America honors. His career concluded with 1,605 yards, at the time a total exceeded by only two Syracuse backs: Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis and perennial All-Pro Jim Brown.
While Nance ranks among the school’s football elite, his best sport in college was by far wrestling. He was almost invincible on the mat, winning 51 of his 52 varsity matches and capturing the NCAA titles in 1963 and 1965.
After graduation, Nance landed in Boston and earned the Patriots’ starting fullback job as a rookie in 1965. Just a year later, he led the AFL in rushing with a record 1,458 yards and was voted the league’s MVP. His punishing style made him a fan favorite, but the bane of defenders everywhere.
In 1967, he gained 1,216 yards to win his second consecutive rushing championship and second straight 1,000 yard season. But change came in 1968, when Nance suffered an ankle injury. Despite the injury, he continued to pile up yardage. He reigned as the AFL’s all-time leading rusher (4,338 yards) at the time of the league’s 1970 merger with the NFL, gained 2,007 yards in two seasons with Houston and Shreveport of the defunct World Football League and wrapped up his pro career in 1975 with 7,408 yards and 61 touchdowns.
He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles after the 1971 season, but sat out the 1972 season. He then signed with the New York Jets and rushed from 78 yards in seven games and caught four passes for 26 yards.
Nance set records, he ranks second on the Patriots’ all-time rushing list with 5,323 yards, just behind Sam Cunningham (5,453).
Jim passed away on June 16, 1992, and was buried here in his native Indiana in Oakland Cemetery. But James Nance had a lasting impact on the franchise, can be seen when area media members made Nance the overwhelming choice as fullback when they selected the Patriots’ 35th-anniversary all-star team in 1994, just two years after Nance’s death.
Join the Society as we honor Indiana’s greatest athlete, with an exhibit dedicated to James “Jim” S. Nance, Jr. An opening reception will be held August 18, 2022 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum, and we ask that you please RSVP for planning purposes on our website: hgsic.org/events.