A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation

by Randy Roberts

The story of how the 1944 West Point football team went undefeated, captivating and inspiring the nation in the process.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547511061
  • ISBN-10: 054751106X
  • Pages: 288
  • Publication Date: 11/29/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
  • About the Book

    One of the greatest stories in American sports history: how the 1944 Army team beat Navy, captured a championship, and inspired a nation at war.

    “There never has been a sports event, perhaps never an event of any kind, that received the attention of so many Americans in so many places around the world.” So wrote a reporter on December 2, 1944, about the greatest Army-Navy football game in the long history of that storied rivalry. World War II raged; President Roosevelt was seriously ill, only a few months away from death; and Americans on the home front suffered through shortages—including, just days before the game, a Thanksgiving without turkey or pie. But for one day, all that was forgotten.

    Army’s team was ranked number 1, Navy’s number 2. Army’s years of football misery had been lifted by a wartime team and a brilliant coach who made them a contender. If they beat Navy, they would be national champions. For a few short hours the war seemed to stop, as U.S. soldiers around the world tuned in to a broadcast of the game and turned their thoughts toward home.

    Randy Roberts has interviewed surviving players and coaches for nearly a decade to bring to life one of the most memorable stories in all of American sports. For three years, Army football upperclassmen had graduated and joined the fight, from Normandy beaches to Pacific atolls. For three hours, their alma mater gave them back one unforgettable performance.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    PROLOGUE
       
       Far off I hear the rolling, roaring cheers.
       They come to me from many yesterdays,
       From record deeds that cross the fading years,
       And light the landscape with their brilliant plays,
       Great stars that knew their days in fame’s bright sun.
       I hear them tramping to oblivion.
       —Grantland Rice


    "But our son played at Harvard,” the couple explained when they were refused tickets at the gate of Michie Stadium for the 1943 Army-Navy game. It seemed like a perfectly valid reason, irrefutable to them. Still, unless they had spent the previous few weeks in quarantine, they must have known what everyone else who read a newspaper, listened to a radio, or heard any of the football gossip knew—anyone who lived beyond a ten-mile radius of West Point and who failed to send in a verified application for a ticket would be banned from the contest. Gasoline, and tire rubber, was too valuable. Army officials would not sell any tickets at the gate. That was football near the end of the second year of the war. Even in an age when college football was king, its most important annual game could not escape the impact of the war.1
      “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was the mantra of 1943. What with rationing, shortages, and continual privations, nothing seemed to look or taste like it had before Pearl Harbor. What American ever heard of making rubber from desert shrub guayule, rabbit bush, goldenrod, or milkweed? What self-respecting coffee drinker could abide the brew made of soybeans, chicory, or used grounds? And meatless Tuesdays and Fridays were one thing, but quite another was being served lungs, tripe, or heart on the other days. It was enough to make people long wistfully for the Great Depression.
      An Army-Navy game played before a half-filled Michie Stadium at West Point instead of a packed house of more than 100,000 in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium was a sorry sight. Even worse was the spectacle of the Army band busting onto the field playing “Anchors Aweigh” before swinging into “On, Grand Old Army Team,” and the entire First Regiment of cadets sitting in the Annapolis cheering section wearing Navy’s distinctive white peak hats . They actually shouted “We want Bill” and followed the command of the Navy cheerleaders. Demanding to see the Navy goat and rooting for the blue-and-gold appeared to many gray-clad men a clear signal that wartime unity had been stretched too tightly. But President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the low-key affair. Midshipmen were not allowed to travel, so Army cadets had to root for the enemy in their stead. It was all part of college football in 1943 in a time of rubber shortages, gas rationing, and travel restrictions.

    Pacing the sideline, Earl “Red” Blaik hardly noticed the tomfoolery. The hard, uncompromising aspect of his face looked as if it had been chiseled in the rock of Mount Rushmore. His nickname was the product of his bronze hair, cut short in a no-nonsense fashion. His nose was full, his mouth slightly turned up on the left side, and his lips thin as razor blades when he was concentrating, but his jaw and eyes attracted most people’s attention. His jaw looked as if it had been squared with a bevel and fixed into place with screws—strong, tight, unmoving. His pale blue eyes, normally shaded under a baseball cap during practice or a neat, gray fedora during a game, were not so much cold as distant, as if he were always thinking about the next move on a chessboard. Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram thought that if you didn’t know Blaik and had to guess his profession, “you’d probably catalogue him as a professor of mathematics.”2
      Doug Kenna played for and coached under Blaik, becoming one of his closest friends over the years. “The thing that you’ve got to understand,” he began, “is that Red Blaik didn’t have a shred of an iota of a sense of humor. He was serious when he woke in the morning and he just stayed that way until he went to sleep at night.” The day was never long enough for all the important work he needed to accomplish, so he drove himself relentlessly, measuring days into fifteen-minute units, eating meals at his desk, laboring to bring order to a game whose outcome often resulted from some whim of the gods.3
      No game would be lost because the other coach outworked Red Blaik. His commitment to his profession was so single-mindedly complete, so numbingly uncompromising, that during his son’s high school football career he saw him play only one half of one period, about six minutes of action. He watched from behind a shrubbery that guarded the Highland Falls High School football field. Later he remarked, “I had to leave for Army practice before the first period was over, but I stayed long enough to see that Bob’s team was going to get a good licking.”4
      Blaik’s schedule left no time for frivolous activities or what he considered questionable behavior by his strict Scot Presbyterian standards. He didn’t drink alcohol, smoke, or swear—except for an occasional “Jeepers Katy!” and a very rare “Jesus Katy!” Well into his forties, he was the same size and weight as when he played end at West Point. At 6-2, 180 pounds, he was rock solid and could still fit into the same uniform he had worn as a first lieutenant in the early 1920s out on the dusty plains of Texas. Over the years other coaches put on weight and aged; Blaik just didn’t seem to do either. It was not part of his plan.
      And his life was all about precise plans. Robert Woods played for him at West Point and remembered that he was “like a ballet teacher. He drilled everyone on their exact moves. His plays were not designed to pick up 5 or 6 yards. He was sure that if every player performed his job they would end in touchdowns.” Glenn Davis, who earned All-American honors and won a Heisman Trophy playing for Blaik, recalled that his coach never praised him or anyone else. Praise was not required for simply performing his role perfectly. That was expected. Nor did he berate anyone for failure. “I never heard him degrade anyone in the presence of anyone else,” Davis said. “Never heard him raise his voice, hardly, in the presence of or to any player.” “Red Blaik didn’t yell,” Kenna noted, “but he remembered. Fail once too often and you would never get another chance on his team.”5
      More than any other emotions, Blaik inspired respect and loyalty from his players, coaches, and associates. Robert Chabot, who played for him in the mid-1940s, said he was a “tough, hard-working type of guy” but also, in a chilly way, “compassionate.” He demanded everything from a player, but he also cared for each one. John Sauer, who played and coached for Blaik, agreed. Whenever he went into the coach’s office and saw him sitting at his desk, a framed picture of General Douglas MacArthur behind him on the wall, his knees started shaking. “I had more respect for that man,” he said. “I was a smoker in those days, not a big one. . . . No way Earl Blaik ever saw me with a cigarette. I mean, that’s just the respect you had for the man.”6

    Now his team was in trouble. His jaw visibly tightened as it always did when he faced adversity. With a nervous tick, he turned his class ring—West Point, 1920—on his finger. There had to be some adjustment, some bit of fine tuning, that he

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