The time is 1958. The place, Soldier Field, Chicago. The scoreboard shows there is less than a minute to play, the score tied. A hundred thousand spectators crane forward tensely as the team with the silver pants and blue jerseys and the lightning bolts traced along the helmets lines up in a flanking T. The ball is snapped and the quarterback fades gracefully to the right. Suddenly there is a silver-and-blue blur in the end zone. The crowd screams. A man is open. The quarterback's arm flashes—and a pass zips in like a jet at deck level for a touchdown. The stadium trembles from a mighty roar. The band hysterically strikes up Off We Go—Into the Wild Blue Yonder and hundreds of light-blue cadet caps go sailing up to the sky. Around the country, the headlines begin to roll off the presses: FLYBOYS BEAT ARMY, GO TO SUGAR BOWL...
That, of course, is the dream. And out on a field in Denver last Saturday, the team that hopes to make it come true, the heir presumptive to college football, the United States Air Force Academy, trotted 55 strong to play its first game ever. The place was not Soldier Field but the cleat-scarred, dust-slaked University of Denver stadium. The opposition was not Army but a bumbling if willing band of U. of D. frosh and the crowd—while a respectable 17,785—would hardly have filled one end zone at the Army-Navy game. Only the score gave a hint of the future: Air Force 34, Denver Frosh 18.
The fact it was more than a frosh game, that it was indeed a rendezvous with history, did not escape the natives. Rhapsodized the Denver Post before the game: "It will be an historic Hour...forget the game, forget the score. Be there to tell your grandchildren that you witnessed the first game played by the school which in years to come will many times be national champion." Not to be outdone, the
Rocky Mountain News
murmured dreamily: "It's going to be a day and a game which will be referred to for centuries to come..."
Actually, the game quite nearly became a football embarrassment for centuries to come.
The scene was all set for the auspicious debut everyone expected. The cadets had marched in, 300 of them, in letter-perfect formation and had sped to their seats on the double, chanting "Beat D.U." in cadence. The teams had lined up and the Air Force kicked off—poorly—to the Denver 35. On the very first play the Denver quarterback, Don McCall, faded to pass. On the sidelines, the eight-deep coaching staff of the Air Force blanched. The team went into a May Day scramble, but before they could get out of it there was a bogey at 5 o'clock—a sure-handed, speed-burning halfback named Dick Stevens who took McCall's pass over his shoulder and sped past the frantic academy interceptors like a MIG running from a squadron of bent-blade biplanes.
It was a moment of awful truth and more awful portent. The academy had fielded a hand-picked team—all-state high school stars from the fertile football fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, sprinting stars from the West Coast, and lanky, sure-handed tacklers and pass-receivers from Texas and Dixie. It was a collection of football heroes which had left a string of anguished, apoplectic home-town football coaches from sea to shining sea screaming hoarsely at the academy recruiters. It was probably the only freshman football team in history to have an ex-professional football coach as tutor—the incomparable Buck Shaw whom the San Francisco 49ers wish they had back. Fifty-five superb young athletes, the Falcons—restricted to base constantly—were in perfect physical condition and had practiced till nightfall for weeks before the game. In the press box they had not one but two spotters shouting up-to-the-minute intelligence reports on what the enemy was up to.
It was clearly maximum effort and a cold chill went through the entire cadet wing when the Denverites scored with such contemptuous ease on just one play. Would this elite corps be run over roughshod by a bunch of amiable Joe Colleges who probably didn't even shine their shoes or press their blue jeans to go to class? Unthinkable.
And unthinkable it was. With admirable poise, the Air Force boys never wavered but regrouped in formation and took to the air. With Quarterback George Klutinoty at the controls, the air cadets soon had the wheels up and locked and the squadron was heading for the wild blue yonder at Mach 1.
Led by a dive-bombing fullback, John White, who had never played football before (but only because his high school didn't field a team), and a guided-muscle tackle, Charles Zaleski, who was state high school heavyweight wrestling champ of West Virginia, the Air Force mixed swift aerial thrusts with devastating ground strafings, rolled up 338 yards and 23 first downs before returning to base.