I have a secret and dangerous mission. Send me a West Point football player.
—GEN. GEORGE MARSHALL, VMI class of 1901
In a life of enormous achievement probably the only two things that General MacArthur had ever wanted but failed to attain were the Presidency of the U.S. and a position on the football team at West Point. When he arrived at the academy, in 1899, he was a scrawny mama's boy—5'11", 133 pounds—and athletically all he could achieve was an undistinguished tenure as an outfielder on the baseball team, for which his career highlight was working the pitcher for a walk in the first Army-Navy baseball game. Then, in his senior (first class) year, MacArthur came as close as he would to suiting up for Army football. He became the team manager.
God, how Douglas MacArthur loved West Point football! In all the world he loved it less than only the academy itself and the command of men under arms. When he returned as superintendent, in 1919, he would, on many autumn days, put aside his manifold responsibilities to attend football practice, mere to stride the sideline, his familiar riding crop stuck under his arm. He took such a liking to the team's star, right end Earl (Red) Blaik, that in 1922, when MacArthur was given a new command, in the Philippines, he wrote Blaik and invited the young officer to become his aide-de-camp. However, there was so little opportunity in the peacetime Army that Blaik had already resigned his commission. Instead, he would be a football coach. Later, MacArthur took to Manila another former West Point football player, one Dwight Eisenhower.
Once Blaik was hired as the Army coach, in 1941, the team became a juggernaut in which MacArthur—and much of America-reveled. Within a few years, at a time when the U.S. military had just won a world war, when almost every mother's son had served in the Army, West Point's players were admired more than anyone else's. A cartoon from the Army-Navy program of 1950 shows President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Marshall watching the game and the president saying, "Just look at that DEFENSE, George. I hope Moscow is scouting THIS game." Hollywood even made a movie, The Spirit of West Point, glorifying Army football.
From 44 through '50 the Cadets went 57-3-4. The NFL was small beer in those days—Blaik himself denigrated it as second-rate football, "show business"—so Army and Notre Dame ruled the pigskin nation. Indeed, after their 1946 game at Yankee Stadium produced a million ticket requests, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then the West Point superintendent, decided to cancel the rivalry. It was becoming, he thought, rather like a symbolic medieval battle between our knights in padded armor and the Roman Catholic Church.
MacArthur, though, could never get enough of his gridiron warriors. THE GREATEST OF ALL ARMY TEAMS STOP WE HAVE STOPPED THE WAR TO CELEBRATE YOUR MAGNIFICENT SUCCESS he cabled Blaik from the Philippines after Army had routed Navy in 1944. The Brave Old Army Team—Blaik's Boys, they were called by now—kept winning, grew even more romantic. In 1950, at the height of the Korean War, when President Truman summoned MacArthur to Wake Island, the general emerged from this extraordinary conference to be briefed by his staff on one item from the outside world: the Army-Michigan game. MacArthur returned to war well pleased, for not only had the Cadets thumped the Wolverines 27-6, but Al Pollard, Army's sensational yearling fullback, had again led the way.
Army's p.r. militia was already planning to push Pollard for the Heisman Trophy in 1951. Pollard, Gil Reich's roommate, was the perfect candidate. He had been a huge high school star in Los Angeles. He was handsome, a consummate ladies' man, but also attended Mass every morning and on the field carried a Mother Cabrini medal in his right shoe. (He was half Italian.) "He was a very gentle fellow," Braun remembers. "Everyone liked Al."
Like MacArthur, Blaik knew how to soft-soap the press. A lengthy article swooning over Pollard had already appeared in Look magazine. It became de rigueur for Blaik's journalistic acolytes to write that Pollard ran "like a Sherman tank" and that he was reminiscent of the fabled Mr. Inside, Army's 1945 Heisman winner, Doc Blanchard.
Pollard remembers Blaik's office, where the coach kept a portrait of MacArthur on the wall behind his desk, as if the great soldier were, even now, looking over the coach's shoulder, repeating part of the overwrought message that he had wired the team before another Navy game: ONE SINGLE THOUGHT, ONE SOLE IDEA-WRITTEN IN RED ON EVERY BEACHHEAD FROM AUSTRALIA TO TOKYO: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VICTORY.
On one occasion Pollard was summoned to the coach's office, and Blaik waved him in as he talked on the phone. Pollard realized Blaik was speaking to the man in the portrait himself. "A fine fullback," Pollard heard Blaik describe him to MacArthur. "And he did well on his exams. He'll make a wonderful officer." Long ago had MacArthur concluded, after the Duke of Wellington, that success on the playing field presaged triumph upon the battlefield. As superintendent he had even ordered this, his own original quatrain, inscribed above the gymnasium.