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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.

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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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Tribute

Bryan Sperry

Battle of the Bulge WWII veteran

LAWRENCE, Kan. — An 89-year-old former University of Kansas football player has gained fresh fame after making a touchdown run during an alumni scrimmage. Bryan Sperry was all grins Saturday as he jogged toward the Memorial Stadium end zone during the scrimmage before Kansas’ annual spring football game, The Kansas City Star reported. His decades-younger opponents intentionally missed repeated tackles before showering him with congratulatory hugs and pats on the back. “I had planned on trying to get in maybe, catch a pass. He threw me a few balls to see if I could catch a ball, and I could,” Sperry said, according to CBS affiliate WIBW. “I hadn’t figured on running, in fact I hadn’t run in years. I just wanted to get in for a couple of plays and maybe catch a ball.” Sperry was 17 years old when he first left home to play football at Kansas State, but World War II interrupted his schooling. The process of returning soldiers home by boat after the war took months, so the military sent Sperry to a university in England to wait. While there, he says, he played 13 games on a team that was a mix of professionals, college players and high school graduates with limited football experience. Upon returning home in February 1946, he headed for a tryout, mostly for veterans, held by then-Kansas football coach George Sauer. He played “end” while at Kansas – offense and defense, Sperry said: “Well, we played both ways in those days.” The Jayhawks finished 7-2-1 in 1946 and in 1947, with a team captained by KU legends Otto Schnellbacher and Don Fambrough, the Jayhawks went 8-1-2, their only loss coming to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Sperry finished his career in 1948. “There aren’t many people that are lettermen of both KU and K-State,” Sperry said. With his playing days behind him, he spent decades as a high school football coach and math instructor at Pittsburg State. “That was fun,” the Pittsburg resident said. “I didn’t know if I could run.”

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