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When Football Went to War
Charles Einstein
December 06, 1971
The seasons of 1942-45 turned the game upside down, creating new juggernauts and decimating some old ones
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December 06, 1971

When Football Went To War

The seasons of 1942-45 turned the game upside down, creating new juggernauts and decimating some old ones

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But football was preeminently the game that went to war, as did the men who coached it. Minnesota's Bernie Bier-man, as wartime director of athletics at Iowa Pre-Flight, insisted that every cadet participate in football training "climaxed by a full scrimmage session." It goes without saying that Iowa Pre-Flight was one of the biggies among the wartime service teams. So were Great Lakes Naval Training under Paul Brown, North Carolina Pre-Flight under Glenn Killinger, and the El Toro Marines, coached by Dick Hanley, formerly of Northwestern.

There were to be only three seasons of feast (for the services) or famine (for the colleges) before the universities began to get back on their feet for the 1945 season. By that time only two of the great wartime service squads were still up to muster. Indeed, one of them, the Fleet City ( Calif.) Bluejackets, may have been the greatest football team ever to take the field anywhere up to that time. It says enough to point out that Buddy Young, the future star at Illinois, was not a starting halfback. About 60,000 people in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum watched Fleet City play the El Toro Marines, which starred Elroy Hirsch. Edgar (Doc) Greene, then a marine, recalled what it was like.

With the Marine team leading 18-14, Greene recalled, Hanley assembled the squad in the locker room at halftime and studied each face silently. Finally he asked, "Who is the stupidest man here?" His gaze continued around the room. One of his tackles raised his hand. "Are you the stupidest man here?" Hanley asked.

"Yes, Coach," the tackle intoned.

"Then I'll talk to you," Hanley said, "because if you can understand me, then everybody can understand me."

"Yes, Coach," the player said.

"O.K.," said Hanley. "Now they have one guy on this other team. Except for him, we're doing all right. But they put him in every once in a while to catch a punt or a kickoff."

"Yes, Coach," the tackle said.

"You can't miss him," Hanley continued. "Little colored guy. Number 77, Named Young."

"Yes, Coach," the tackle said.

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