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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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If you think Tattletale Gray was a Confederate spy, it must mean that you do not remember the advertising slogans of 30 years ago, which might be just as well. It could mean, too, that you do not remember other amenities of that era, like the state of college football during World War II, which might also be just as well.

Actually, the wartime college game in America was played at two levels, one a kind of enforced de-emphasis among the colleges and universities, and the other—far closer to the collegiate game as it had been known up till then—among teams representing various Army, Navy and Marine installations. Some colleges had servicemen on campus, assigned to such military curricula as the V-12 program, who were eligible for football, and a good number of service teams were infused by recent college stars. The NCAA tried to keep the two categories separate in its record, but it was a doomed effort.

For one thing, many college teams played against service teams. For another, the two strongest "service" elevens, Army and Navy, had always been classified as colleges. Besides, individual players who competed in October in college ranks—for, say, Yale—had a way of turning up in November on the El Toro Marines. At least one player, a Rutgers guard named Bernstein, pulled his civilian-to-military switch in mid-contest, sprinting from the field during the Lehigh game, showering, dressing and departing just in time to show up for a 6 p.m. induction at Fort Dix.

Military orders caused other players to switch from college to college. A Duke tackle named Ellis was transferred to North Carolina just in time for the Duke game. Bill Daley, a promising Minnesota fullback, helped the Michigan V-12 team bury the Gophers in 1943. One Big Ten player recalls, "It seemed like no matter who we were playing that Saturday, the coach always gave us the same pre-game instructions: 'Watch out for Elroy Hirsch.' "

There was nothing so refined as a player draft among the service branches; it seemed to be a case of getting there first with the induction notice. Some colleges suffered fearfully. From an established football power, Fordham turned almost overnight to a state of puniness, to the point where, at the LSU game in 1942, even the drum major fell down. Other colleges had it even worse. Some went over to six-man football. Others gave up the sport entirely. Georgetown quit the game upon discovering that not a single member of its 1942 varsity or freshman squads would be on hand for the 1943 season. Nearly 200 colleges in all abandoned the sport in 1943. Those that persevered had their troubles, too. In the course of one season, Penn State lost 24 varsity players.

In contrast, the service teams could depend on a steady flow of manpower—all of it fit and, perhaps more remarkable for the time, all about the right age. Many pure college teams were fielding aggregations of 16-year-olds, and Utah State, according to an archive in the Helms Hall of Fame, had a 1944 team that included a guard named Anderson who was 35. That may not have been the record. Michigan had two players, both with the same surname, who in the judgment of one suspicious researcher were father and son.

But it was chiefly in the area of recruiting high school talent that the services had all the best of it. There was no such thing as a college deferment from the service, unless it was enrollment in a military program at a university—one of the V-12 or preflight plans. And so the stories of midnight visitations by recruiters—military recruiters—were legend. One example of this used to be offered by the late Hooks Mylin in the form of an afterdinner talk. Mylin was the coach at Lafayette, in Easton, Pa., in the peacetime season of 1940 and he had his eye on a hot prospect, a senior at the local high school. "Naturally, everybody wanted him to go to Lafayette," Mylin recounted, "but every time a train stopped in town a different coach got off. Frank Thomas of Alabama would arrive on one train, Elmer Layden of Notre Dame on the next. Notre Dame had the inside track because the boy was Catholic."

Undaunted, Mylin called a meeting with the parish priest and the university administration, and it was agreed that to keep the prospect Lafayette would put in a special course of Catholic instruction. The season ended, and Mylin, confident and content, left for a vacation. Shortly afterward he received a frantic call from Easton. Princeton had been to town, had painted the church and taken the boy. They enrolled him in the Peddie School at Hightstown, N.J. for additional finishing, and he was there when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The night afterward there was a rap on the lad's dormitory door. There stood two uniformed emissaries. "Do you want to be drafted or do you want to play for Army?" they inquired. The boy decided to go to West Point.

For Earl (Red) Blaik, the Army coach, the years 1943-45 were golden. He had the pick of the nation's collegiate talent, and he made the most of it. Besides Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, he had such stars as Quarterback Arnold Tucker, End Barney Poole and Tackle Tex Coulter. So rich was the West Point crop that Blaik fielded two separate units, and Army fattened up on its former tormentors. In fact, one observer called 1944 Army's "year of retribution." Notre Dame, which had not lost to Army since 1931 and which had not let Army score a point since 1938, was ground under 59-0. Penn, unbeaten in the four previous Army encounters, went down 62-7. Pitt was smashed 69-7, and Villanova 83-0. Navy and Duke, which had a naval program going, were the only opponents to keep the score reasonably close. Navy lost 23-7 on a last-quarter flurry, and Duke kept it to 27-7.

Football, of course, was not the only sport that appealed to the jock general officer. Harold Patrick Reiser had a medical history that made it impossible for him to get into the armed forces—until a smart induction officer realized this was Pistol Pete Reiser, the baseball player. Now it was impossible for him to get out. He was sent to Fort Riley, which had 17 major-leaguers on its 1944 baseball squad. "I was up for discharge five times," Reiser told Bill Heinz after the war, "and each time something happened." Tennis star Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, was stationed with the Navy in Hawaii, and an admiral there assigned him to a special mission. "The mission," Riggs recollected, "was to improve the admiral's backhand."

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