Wartime Football

One of the Sports Facts newspaper of April 25, 1950 with photos of Bronko Nagurski.

What many people today don’t know is that professional football went through many of the same trials and tribulations that baseball did during the war years. Making matters even worse for the owners and fans of the sport was the fact that even in the 1940s, professional football was not as popular as its college counterpart.

Adding to the wartime troubles for football was the fact that college football remained somewhat unaffected, as the players were mostly younger or exempt (at least temporarily) from the military draft. That meant that star college players kept playing, but star professional players found themselves in uniform.

American footballer Tuffy Leemans

To keep people interested in the game, the National Football League (NFL) came up with sort of a gimmick, much like their baseball counterparts – they re-signed older, retired stars. The most famous of the returning players was Bronko Nagurski, who had played for the Chicago Bears and had retired in 1937. Nagurski, who became famous in college and the pros as a fullback, returned to football as a tackle.

Other (future) Hall of Famers included Green Bay quarterback Arnie Herber, who had retired in 1940, and halfback Ken Strong. Herber signed with the New York Giants and Strong returned to that team.

Steagles starting line-up

Teams as a whole went through hard times because of the war. The Cleveland Browns suspended play for 1943. Many people would be surprised to hear that the two Pennsylvania teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, actually merged for 1943, and played in both cities. People dubbed the team “the Steagles.”

The “Steagles” only lasted one year, but in 1944 Pittsburgh combined with another struggling team, the Chicago Cardinals. The official name of this team was the catchy “Card-Pitt Combine” and they were so bad they went winless that year. Opposing teams ran over them so much that sportswriters and fans began calling the team “the Carpets.”

The year 1945 saw the end of the “Combine,” but two teams that do not exist anymore, the Boston Yanks and the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, football “Dodgers”) merged at that time and played as the “Yanks,” but left a city tag off the name.

During the war, a surprisingly large number of NFL players were killed overseas. Many of the players went into combat roles – their athletic prowess and toughness made it almost inevitable, and the death toll reflected that. Nineteen active or former players were killed in action, as was an ex-head coach and a team executive.

Al Blozis, Giants tackle, died in World War II. According to Mel Hein, “If he hadn’t been killed, he could have been the greatest tackle who ever played football

Of those NFL players killed in action, probably the best-known was Al Blozis, who played tackle for the New York Giants and had been “All-League” (the early NFL’s “All-Pro”). Blozis was 6’6” tall and weighed 250 lbs. Blozis was in the Army, and actually could have claimed exemption from front-line infantry duty because of his size and instead put into the artillery or a support branch, but he would not take the exemption.

During basic training, he set the Army record for a grenade throw – he had been a varsity shot-putter at Georgetown University. In the winter of 1944, just six weeks after playing in the 1944 NFL Championship Game, Blozis was killed by German machine-gun fire as he helped look for some missing men in the snow-covered Vosges Mountains of eastern France.

Three men who had played in the NFL or pro football or later had connections to it were awarded the Medal of Honor during the war, one of them posthumously.

Joseph Jacob Foss wearing the highly prized Medal of Honor bestowed upon him by President Roosevelt for outstanding gallantry against the Japanese in the Solomons.

The most famous of the three was fighter pilot Joe Foss, who was the leading Marine ace of WWII with 26 victories. He later was commissioner of the AFL from 1960-66 as well as being governor of South Dakota.

Maurice Britt briefly played end for the Detroit Lions before the war. He fought in North Africa and Italy and was the first man in WWII to be awarded all four of the top medals of valor: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star. He also received four Purple Hearts. Football was easy compared to all that.

Jack Lummus, USMC, Medal of Honor recipient; Battle of Iwo Jima

Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lummus played with the 1941 New York Giants and received the Medal of Honor for actions taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. He destroyed many Japanese positions single-handedly, despite being wounded multiple times, before being killed by a land-mine.

Tom Landry, USArmy Air Corps / Coach Landry

Perhaps the most famous of them all, at least in regard to football, was legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. At 19, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 30 missions in a B-17 over occupied Europe, surviving a crash in Belgium on his way back from bombing a German armaments plant in Czechoslovakia. He was on the real “America’s Team” long before he coached the other one.

CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.

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Military Humor – 

‘These military teams really take their defence seriously…!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Stephen F. Ambrose – Trumbull, CT; US Army, WWII

Francis Behrendt – Charleroi, PA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, Co. E/188/11th Airborne Division

V. Herbert Brady Jr. – Macon, GA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO

Peter Corchero – Mayfirled, CA; US Army Air Corps, WWII

Michael Howard – South Kensington, ENG; British Army, WWII, ETO, Lt., Coldstream Guards. Military Cross / Military Historian

Evelyn Owens – Harlan, KY; Civilian, “Rosie” @ Willow Run, B-24 riveter & crane operator

Thomas Parnell – Somerset, WI; US Army Air Corps, WWII, gunner

David Ridley – Brockville, CAN; RC Air Force, WWII, 514th Squadron, Lancaster navigator

Jerome Thomas – Chicago, IL; US Navy, WWII, PTO, LST # 991

John Weatherly – Grand Island, NE; US Army, WWII, ETO, 349th Infantry Regiment “Blue Devils”

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on December 5, 2019, in Home Front, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 107 Comments.

  1. Great information shared. Thank you for sharing your words and thoughts. The heroes of our past should not be forgotten.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What did Maurice Britt do to have all 4 medals? Kind of a superhuman this guy amongst others.
    I did make sense to give the grenades to one of these guys to throw it, he probably over through some of them….
    Very interesting post as always. Seems in those years nobody got a pass from the fighting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I did not know this about football and their players

    Liked by 1 person

  4. resigning the older retired stars was a good idea…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating information, and I love your jokes, as always. GP.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Really interesting and fun post! I particularly liked the Steagles story!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Absolutely the least expected post ever! I never knew any of this about the NFL and way it handled the war years. Very interesting, informative, yet that is your “trademark”, GP: Expect something new and interesting in “Pacific Paratrooper” because you always will learn new things of interest when you read it!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. That was really interesting, and thank you for sharing it.
    In WW2, in Great Britain, the top soccer players were usually given jobs as Physical Training Instructors, but at weekends they could play for the team nearest to their base. This was because the government wanted the factory workers to have something to entertain them after a sixty hour week with food rations and frequent German raids.
    Aldershot was a town near a huge army base, and their fifth level soccer team was suddenly full of internationals. In other cases, the locals of some tiny town, who had never seen a top soccer player in their lives, suddenly found the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio playing for their team.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Terrific info, John. I thank you very much for contributing to the post!! Every time I meet up with you, you have something to teach me. You help me to follow with Dad in learning something new every day!

      Like

  9. Fascinating stuff. Was there such things as women’s baseball/football during the war? I know that women’s scoccer was very popular during the first world war in the UK (I am very hazy about the second world war).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great reading gp, always good to read the history and exploits of sportspeople during the war years, also love reading the contributions that American actors played in the wars, enjoyed that read mate. Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Interesting to know how the NFL was affected due to the war. Also, enjoyed hearing about the missions of Tom Landry, a real war hero.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Great post! Very interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Another fascinating piece of WWII history. Such bravery shown by those players who served.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Terrific post, GP. o much new info. My wife and I are Steeler fans and those combo teams too us by surprise. I really like the Medal of Honor stories.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Interesting post! On related matters, the New Zealand rugby interest was kept going in the North African campaign of 1940-43. The Second New Zealand Division had a team, which played against the South African Divisional team near Baggush in late 1941, while both were preparing for the CRUSADER push to relieve Tobruk. The match was popular and considered a potential target for the Luftwaffe, so had its own air cover.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Oh yes, they needed something to do away from the horrible war. Thank you GP! Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  17. A great addition to my store of knowlegge about things WWII. I plan to reblog this tomorrowl Are you GP like the Jeep?

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Now, taht I never thought of.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. A fascinating and little known history, G. Thanks. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

  20. A great article GP. We all know about the Movie Stars who went over, but we often forget – or just don’t know – about the athletes who stepped forward and put their lives on the line.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. More interesting history, GP! The war affected so many aspects of life.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. So many sporting lives disrupted during those years of their prime.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. That was interesting. Clever ploy–to bring the retired players back. If the teams were a bit depleted, these older guys probably became quite competitive.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Reblogged this on New Mexicans in WWII & Korea: The Land of Enchantment goes to War and commented:
    This is an interesting bit of both sporting and WWII history.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick was a football great at the U of Iowa and All American. He became a pilot during WWII, but was lost in training in the Caribbean in 1943. In 1972, the U of Iowa renamed Kinnick Stadium in his honor.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a wonderful tribute for such a brave man.

      (I heard back from Myra Miller, along with a copy for me to proofread. Looks like publication is still a little bit away, as far as I can tell.)

      Like

  26. A very interesting post, George, they were a loss too soon but it showed the nation the dedication and the patriotism and the knowledge that for the world to remain free of dictators, all had to do enormous sacrifices. WWII brought an end to Nazis and Fascists, lamentably not to Communists. Always learn something from your posts and I admire your knowledge and effort. My greetings and all the best to you.

    Liked by 5 people

  27. Very interesting post today, GP. I’m about to read a book about Ted Williams. It’s interesting that you’ve focused on sports.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. I knew about the Steagles. It was my justification for rooting for Philly when they played NE in the Super Bowl. I had only recently heard of the Carpets, but I didn’t know the official name.

    Interesting post, GP. I never thought about how college football would have been affected a lot less.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. I don’t know anything about American football, but it was interesting to read this story of the sport at home during wartime, and the involvement of some stars in the action.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. this is such an incredible back story. how sad they were lost so soon –

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Thank you for sharing this, Pat!

    Like

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