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The Lions Laughed Last
Chad Millman
December 15, 1997
Fifty years ago Army was unbeaten and overconfident, until it met Columbia
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December 15, 1997

The Lions Laughed Last

Fifty years ago Army was unbeaten and overconfident, until it met Columbia

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Fifty years later, only the weather seemed familiar. On Oct. 25, 1997, the wind blew cold off the Hudson River, occasionally sweeping patches of fog and tiny drops of rain across Columbia's Baker Field, just as it had done on Oct. 25, 1947. As they carefully negotiated the rain-slicked artificial turf, the 22 men assembling at midfield remarked that they liked it this way. Their fondest memories are of the site wrapped in a soft gray shroud like the one hovering above them. Dressed in wing tips and trench coats, these men, ranging in age from late 60s to mid-70s, were being honored at halftime of the Columbia-Yale game for what they had done as young men wearing cleats and shoulder pads. Five decades earlier, to the day, Columbia pulled off one of this century's most memorable gridiron upsets by beating Army 21-20 and snapping the Cadets' four-year unbeaten streak at 32 games.

"We had no chance of beating them," said Leon Van Bellingham, who played halfback for the Lions in that game. "Supposedly."

There was good reason for Army to look past Columbia. West Point was that era's equivalent of Nebraska, blowing out opponents before that was deemed a requirement by Top 20 poll voters. When Army's star players graduated—as Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard did in the spring of 1947—the team didn't so much rebuild as reload. In its first four games that fall, Army outscored its opponents by a combined 93-0. During the four-year streak West Point had left teams from the Ivy League looking withered on the vine. In games against Cornell, Penn, Brown and Columbia, West Point had won by an average score of 52-9. Army was the class bully, and Columbia was supposed to be just another nerd it picked on.

Early in the season Columbia had been mediocre at best. The Lions split their first four games, despite having two of the best offensive players in the country in junior quarterback Gene Rossides and halfback Lou Kusserow. Rossides was closing in on Sid Luckman's school passing records, and Kusserow would be among the tops in the nation in touchdowns scored in 1948, with 18. But in the weeks before the '47 Army game, the Lions' offense struggled. Columbia lost to Yale 17-7 and was blown out by Penn 34-14.

No doubt No. 6-ranked Army was focusing on its scheduled showdown with second-ranked Notre Dame two weeks down the road. Meanwhile the Lions were still bitter about their 48-14 loss to Army the year before. Twenty-nine of the 39 players on the 1946 Columbia team had been enlisted men in World War II. Losing that badly to West Point, a team made up of future officers not unlike the ones from whom the Lions had just finished taking orders, was as humiliating as boot camp. "With the Army team being potential officers, our veterans had some incentives," says Rossides, who would go on to become assistant secretary of the treasury under President Richard Nixon from 1969 to '73.

"I think this game also meant more to [coach] Lou Little," says tackle Hank O'Shaughnessy. "He had been an infantry captain in World War I, and he wanted to prove something to West Point." Little was a man of military habits. He wore pince-nez, crisp white shirts and ties with slim knots, and he kept his hair cut short. He was a hard-nosed disciplinarian whose scream was loud enough to peel paint. He didn't skimp on criticism, either, doling out verbal abuse equally to 24-year-old war veterans and 18-year-olds fresh from the farm. The players didn't like Little, "but we respected him," says Rossides, "and feared him too."

The one player Little had a soft spot for was O'Shaughnessy, possibly because he was the one player Little couldn't intimidate. O'Shaughnessy first enrolled at Columbia in 1941. He went out for wrestling and lost only one match, but at the beginning of his sophomore year, he enlisted and was shipped off to basic training. As a member of Patton's Third Army, he landed at Normandy in September 1944. O'Shaughnessy was a platoon sergeant at the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. He was wounded in battle twice, once severely from shrapnel in a knee and his left hip. He still proudly wears the Combat Infantryman's Badge on the lapel of his sport jacket. "That was the trendy one to get back then," says the 74-year-old O'Shaughnessy, who is 6'4" and whose hands still seem strong enough for one-on-one combat.

O'Shaughnessy had returned to Columbia to finish his sophomore year in 1946 and wore a brace on the knee that was injured. Little named him team captain for the Army game. That was because if there was anyone who wanted to beat West Point more than Little, it was the 24-year-old tackle. "After the 1946 game at West Point," says O'Shaughnessy, "I went to a barbecue at the home of friends of my in-laws', near the Army campus. There was a man there named Lieutenant Colonel A. Ray White, and he rubbed my nose in the loss the entire dinner. Just another jab from an officer. The next year, I remembered that. All the veterans played up that theme."

The Cadets showed up for the '47 game in force, as if they had invaded Manhattan by marching down the shore of the Hudson River. Many of the 35,000 fans in Baker Field's wooden bleachers that day wore military uniforms.

In the game's first half Columbia was sloppy and soft. On Army's first possession, after returning a Columbia punt to the Lions' 45, the Cadets marched down the field with ease and scored, a drive highlighted by a 24-yard run up the middle by Elwyn (Rip) Rowan that helped set up the fourth-down quarterback-sneak touchdown by Arnold Galiffa. Five series later Army scored again, on a one-yard plunge by Rowan that followed a 29-yard run by Bill Gustafson.

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