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Johnny Lujack, once nearly as celebrated as the Four Horsemen at Notre Dame, operates the largest Chevrolet dealership in Davenport, Iowa. At 48 he can pore over his scrapbooks and say, ' "That character in there looks a little like me, but I can't believe it really is." Lujack has season tickets to all Notre Dame games.
Southern Methodist's Doak Walker is 46 and a vice-president of Fischbach and Moore Inc., a large New York-based electrical-contracting corporation. Although he is still a legend in Texas, he rarely goes there anymore. He lives both in Detroit and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the family of his second wife, former Olympic skier Gladys (Skeeter) Werner, has business interests. Skiing is his consuming passion. "If I'd taken it up earlier," he says, "I might never have played football." He goes to only a few games now, and his 1948 Heisman Trophy is kept by a friend who has it on display in a Denver bar-restaurant.
They are very much alive, these phantoms, but they survive in times that must seem strange to them. College football today has no heroes, only superstars, and superstars are fallible; the heroes of the postwar '40s were not. They appeared at a time when a nation weary of war and depression wanted escapist entertainment. The people had had their fill of the heroes in foxholes and the command post; they wanted them now in the back-field or the outfield.
College football would prosper in this atmosphere. It would be the game's finest hour and its last alone on the stage, for in the next decade the professionals—with their ally, television—would start to dominate. But in the years immediately following the war, the college game and the college football hero fired the public's imagination. And with rosters swollen with returning servicemen who were older, larger and more experienced than their prewar predecessors, the game had never been played better.
This period would also be the last fling of the triple-threat man, the versatile player, usually a single-wing tailback, who ran, passed and kicked. The increasing sophistication of the T formation, with its emphasis on specialization, would soon render him obsolete. Justice, Walker, Trippi, even the T quarterback Lujack—were all practitioners of versatility. They could dominate a game in a way no longer possible. In separate games in 1945, for example, Trippi set Southeast Conference records in rushing and passing. The triple-threater was truly responsible for his team's entire offense and was thus the object of unusual exposure. Furthermore, the four great All-Americas of this period also could play defense—and did. It was not hard to find them on a football field.
And so they were honored in their time as few athletes before or since have been. Reflecting on this, Doak Walker has said, "I suppose Charlie Justice and 1 got about as much publicity as any two men who ever lived." It was not an outlandish boast.
Even in this atmosphere, Charlie Justice was unique. The state of Texas had produced football heroes by the score before Walker, Lujack merely entered the Notre Dame pantheon, and before Trippi at Georgia there had been Frankie Sinkwich. But North Carolina had never had anyone quite like the man who, in the words of a Navy officer who saw him go wild in a service game at the Bain-bridge Naval Training Center, ""runs just like a little old choochoo train."
Charlie stood on the sidelines, hands stuffed into the pockets of his blue parka, shoulders hunched. It was February 1946. Coach Carl Snavely's first postwar winter drills would conclude with a game-type scrimmage against Guilford College, a small Quaker school near Greensboro. Charlie had yet to carry the ball against an outside opponent, and 1,000 Carolina students, driven by curiosity, appeared to watch a mere scrimmage. Charlie was already famous. He had been a high school sensation in Asheville—he averaged 25 yards a carry his senior year—and he had been the star of a Bainbridge team that had in its lineup experienced former college and professional players. Maybe hundreds of schools had offered him scholarships after the war, but Charlie had chosen to stay home in North Carolina.
He did not start in the scrimmage, and there was some speculation among the crowd that he would not live up to his reputation. He weighed barely 165 pounds, tiny for a single-wing tailback, and it was just possible his size was too much of a handicap. Now, with the ball on the Carolina 35-yard line, Coach Snavely finally called for him.
They called his signal on the first play. Charlie swung wide to his right, cantering, searching for an opening. Then he cut back with astonishing swiftness against the grain of tacklers and was suddenly in the secondary. Everything—head, shoulders, legs—seemed to move at once, and in different directions. Free now of the safetyman, he was running alone down the sidelines, his head thrown back triumphantly as he approached the goal line. There was a shocked silence at first. Then the cheering began....