Tag Archives: World War II

Memorial Day

Seventy summers ago, NFL players began to filter back to the league after getting discharged from the military. The lucky ones, at least. Some, who’d lost a sizable chunk of their careers to

Jack Sanders

Jack Sanders

World War II, walked away from football with barely a backward glance. Others, like Chicago Cardinals back Mario “Motts” Tonelli — a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a captive of the Japanese for nearly four years — simply weren’t up to the rigors of the game anymore.

Then there was Steelers guard Jack Sanders. The war had taken a heavy toll on him, too. While serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima, he’d lost his left hand and wrist in an explosion. He’d also suffered shrapnel wounds and significant hearing loss, and one of his legs was broken in three places.

That should have been it for Sanders as a pro football player. But then he saw Pete Gray, baseball’s one-armed wonder, scurrying around Philadelphia’s Shibe Park for the St. Louis Browns, and told himself, “If he can do it, so can I.”

At the time, Sanders was being treated at the Naval Hospital in Philly, where a brace and pad were made for his arm. As a courtesy, the Steelers loaned him to the Eagles so he could try to keep playing while receiving therapy. (Actually, “try” might not be the best choice of words here. If at all possible, coach Greasy Neale was going to find a place for him on the roster. It was just the way things were in 1945.)

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Sanders returned to the NFL in a preseason charity game against the defending champion Packers. The crowd topped 90,000 and included tens of thousands of servicemen, many of whom had been wounded or were amputees themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the scene thusly:

The thunderous crescendo rolled from one side of Municipal Stadium and back again as Lieutenant Jack Sanders of the Marine Corps ran onto the field to take his place in the Eagles’ starting lineup. . . . Every eye was focused on the courageous athlete, who lost part of his left arm at Iwo Jima. The sincere wishes of every man, woman and child in the huge stadium went with him as he stepped forward to make his comeback – a personal ambition for him as well as a shining example for other fighting men who have returned from the battlefronts wounded.

Sanders appeared in three games that season — his fourth in pro football — before retiring at 28 and turning to coaching. In an interview with the Corpus Christi Times in 1951, he said his arm guard, which was made of steel and cowhide and weighed five or six pounds, could double as a weapon if he felt so inclined. But he rarely did. Opponents, after all, were awfully deferential toward him.

“If I fell down on the ground,” he said, “those guys would dust me off and help me up.”Jack Sanders headJack Sanders AP story 8-18-45

Dec. 7, 1941

If you’re looking for some black humor on this Pearl Harbor Day, check out this story I unearthed a while back — specifically the lead. It showed up on commentary pages in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack.Fort Lauderdale guy's lead

I call attention to it because, yes, the NFL did wrap up the 1941 regular season on Dec. 7. There were three games that day — in New York, Washington and Chicago. But the Packers didn’t play in any of them. They had completed their schedule the week before and were waiting to see if there would be a playoff with the Bears to decide the West Division title. (There would, indeed. George Halas’ team beat the crosstown Cardinals on Dec. 7 to finish tied with Green Bay at 10-1.)

Let that be a cautionary tale, all you J-schoolers out there. It’s always a bad idea to reminisce about things that never happened, especially when it’s so easy to verify whether they did. Even if you don’t get caught right away, you might get exposed 23 years down the road by some curmudgeon like me. (Assuming, that is, I’m the first curmudgeon to arrive at the scene.)

OK, where was I? Right, Dec. 7, 1941. For the record, this is what the NFL scoreboard looked like at the end of the day:

Dodgers 21, Giants 7 (at the Polo Grounds)

Redskins 20, Eagles 14 (at Griffith Stadium)

Bears 34, Cardinals 24 (at Comiskey Park)

To give you a feel for what it was like at one of the games, here’s the Brooklyn Eagle’s coverage of the inter-borough Giants-Dodgers battle:Eagle Dec. 7 game 1

Eagle Dec. 7 game 2Eagle Dec. 7 game 3Eagle Dec. 7 game 4Eagle Dec. 7 game 5

Sportswriting in that period was just fabulous, wasn’t it? Now that I’ve read this, I can hardly wait to describe a player as “a dark-brown warrior from the Iowa corn belt.”

Tuffy Leemans programIt was Tuffy Leemans Day, by the way, at the Polo Grounds. The Giants’ Hall of Fame back was given a silver tray inscribed by his teammates and $1,500 in defense bonds. Two years later, the Steelers and Eagles merged into the “Steagles” — just to keep going. The Rams, meanwhile, shut down for the season and dispersed their players — the few, that is, that weren’t in the military — among the other clubs in the league.

Dec. 7, 1941. The Packers, as I recall, were off that day.

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle, pro-football-reference.com.

Veterans Day: The NFL’s Audie Murphy

Five days after Veterans Day 1941 — and three weeks before Pearl Harbor — the Lions beat the Eagles 21-17 in Detroit. The winning score came with four minutes left on a pass from Dick Booth to Maurice “Footsie” Britt, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound end from Arkansas, “who sprinted in solitude for 45 yards,” The Associated Press reported.

It was the only catch of Britt’s NFL career. After the season he went into the army and became the first U.S. soldier to receive the three top combat decorations — the Congressional Medal of Britt football cardHonor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star — in the same war (a feat later duplicated by Audie Murphy).

Britt’s combat record was the stuff of legend. Whenever I’ve talked to players from that era about their war experiences, they’ve almost always mentioned Britt, everybody’s hero. The unspoken message was: Yeah, I served, but have you heard about what That Guy did?

Britt’s Medal of Honor citation reads thusly:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Disdaining enemy hand grenades and close-range machine pistol, machine gun, and rifle, Lt. Britt inspired and led a handful of his men in repelling a bitter counterattack by approximately 100 Germans against his company positions north of Mignano, Italy, the morning of 10 November 1943. During the intense fire fight, Lt. Britt’s canteen and field glasses were shattered; a bullet pierced his side; his chest, face, and hands were covered with grenade wounds. Despite his wounds, for which he refused to accept medical attention until ordered to do so by his battalion commander following the battle, he personally killed 5 and wounded an unknown number of Germans, wiped out one enemy machine gun crew, fired 5 clips of carbine and an undetermined amount of M1 rifle ammunition, and threw 32 fragmentation grenades. His bold, aggressive actions, utterly disregarding superior enemy numbers, resulted in capture of 4 Germans, 2 of them wounded, and enabled several captured Americans to escape. Lt. Britt’s undaunted courage and prowess in arms were largely responsible for repulsing a German counterattack which, if successful, would have isolated his battalion and destroyed his company.

And that was just one day in the soldier’s life.

Early in 1944, during the bloody battle of Anzio, Britt lost his left arm. He later recounted the episode in the Chicago Tribune in a series of articles chronicling his heroism — and that of Company L, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.

“Our company command post was . . . in a house,” he wrote, “one of those standard Italian concrete or stone houses with the stairway on the outside. It stood on a knoll behind the lines and commanded a fine view of Cisterna and the network of roads behind the town. . . . Soon the Germans resumed shelling us. The roof and front of the house were now gone, and I stood at a window on the first floor, looking through my field glasses at German troop movements. Kneeling on the floor beside me was Lt. Carter of M company, who was assisting in directing mortar fire.

“I had just raised my arm to point out something to Lt. Carter when a tremendous blast shook the whole house. A shell had struck the casement of the window where we were standing.

Britt description 1

Britt description 2

The war took the lives of 23 NFL men — 21 active or former players, an ex-coach and a front-office worker. Among them was Al Blozis, a mammoth — especially for those times — 6-6, 250-pound tackle for the Giants. You can read his story, in comic-book form, here.

At first, the army wouldn’t take him because of his size. But in 1944, when the Allies were making their final push, he was inducted. I once asked one of his Giants teammates if he knew what had happened to Blozis on the battlefield. He gave me a sad expression, shook his head and said, “He stood up.”

As for Britt, he lived to be 76. After starting out in business, he went into politics, was twice elected Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, then settled into a post in the Small Business Britt in uniformAdministration. The New York Times, in his 1995 obituary, said he was “the first Republican elected lieutenant governor in Arkansas since Reconstruction . . . and paved the way for a new generation of Arkansas politicians, including Democrats in a new mold, like Bill Clinton.”

He was a veteran’s veteran, Britt was. Few soldiers had gone through what he had — and been able to tell about it later. I’ll end with another passage from his Tribune series, describing another battle in the Italian mountains:

We took the second peak and dug in again. We had been in action or ready for action two days and a night without sleep and without fresh supplies of food or water. That night it rained again, and some of the men tried to catch water in a blanket that they formed into a kind of trough. They managed to collect a little bit in a helmet by wringing out the blanket.

Our mouths were so dry that cigarettes tasted like dust. We tried to wet our tongues, but there was no saliva. Our lips were crusted and cracked. Our stomachs had an empty, drawn feeling. But there was nothing to be done about it. The only men we could spare to run supplies had to carry ammunition, not food and water.

He earned the Bronze Star that time.

Ray Rice, Roger Goodell and journalistic hyperbole

The unconscionable conduct of a handful of NFL players — Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson most visibly — “has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 95-year history,” ESPN.com reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote the other day.

And they make that claim more than once in their investigative piece on embattled Roger Goodell — and how he and the league fumbled the handling of Rice’s domestic-violence case. Toward they end, they again call it “the worst crisis in NFL history,” adding, “some league sponsors, most notably Anheuser-Busch, are jittery.”

Worst crisis in NFL history. That certainly takes in a lot of territory. Also, if you’re going to use words like “biggest” and “worst,” it helps to define your terms. If by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “loudest,” you’re probably right. Nowadays, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle and nonstop sports chatter on TV and radio, everything is louder. But that doesn’t make the subject of the noise any more momentous. Our airwaves are a huge vacuum. Something has to fill it. The beast must be fed.

But if by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “most threatening to the league” — as far as its financial well-being and/or place in the sports hierarchy are concerned — the current crisis doesn’t even make the Top 5 all time, and pales in comparison to a few. You want a crisis? How about these:

● The Great Depression. When Black Thursday struck in October 1929, the NFL was in just its 10th season. Its success was by no means assured. College football was still far more popular, and baseball, of course, was king. On top of that, the pro football player wasn’t exactly considered a Shining Example of American Manhood. (More like a mercenary lout.)

Then the stock market crashed and, well, what do you think that was like? Do you suppose it might have been a bigger deal than what’s going on now with Rice, Peterson and the rest? By 1932, the league had shrunk to eight teams — three in New York, two in Chicago and one Boston, Portsmouth (Ohio) and Green Bay. Five cities, that’s it. And two had populations of less than 50,000.

In the late ’30s things began to get better for the NFL — as they did for the rest of the country — but it was touch and go for a while.

World War II. Yeah, let’s not forget that. With so many of its players in the military, the league thought about shutting down in 1943 — only the Cleveland Rams did — and some franchises were merged to keep them viable. As the war went on, teams were so hurting for manpower they suited up a few 18-year-olds and talked retired players like the Redskins’ Tiger Walton, who had been out of the game since 1934, into making a comeback. (Only 12 of 330 draft picks in 1944 played in the NFL that season.)

“If the war had lasted a little longer,” Bears Hall of Famer Sid Luckman once said, “the NFL might have gotten down to the level of semi-pro ball.”

The American Football League. Sorry, but a decade-long battle with a rival league (1960-69) — a league that mounted the most serious challenge to the NFL’s monopoly — strikes me as a much bigger crisis than L’Affaire Rice. Competition from the AFL increased salaries dramatically, forced the NFL to expand earlier than it would have (to Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta and New Orleans) and hurt profit margins. And in the last two seasons before the merger, the AFL’s Jets and Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The horror.

Steroids. We tend forget what a stir the steroid epidemic created in the ’80s. It wasn’t just a health issue, it was a competitive fairness issue. Let’s face it, nothing riles fans quite like the idea of cheating – and it’s damaging when such a cloud hovers over a league. Once the problem came to a head, Commissioner Pete Rozelle dealt with it quickly and decisively, but only after years of whispers and denial.

Concussions. When all the votes are in, I wouldn’t be surprised if this crisis — which is far from over — turns out to be far worse for the NFL than the recent rash of misbehavior. Indeed, if anything brings down pro football, it will be the growing suspicion that the game is simply too dangerous, that the physical cost isn’t worth the financial gain. That doesn’t mean the league won’t continue to exist in some form; but it’ll be seriously diminished, and it won’t attract nearly as many of the best athletes.

One other crisis is worthy of mention, even if it doesn’t crack the Top 5. In 1946 New York police uncovered an attempt to fix the NFL championship game. This led to two Giants players being banished from the league and, naturally, much negative publicity — at a time when the rival All-America Conference was trying to gain traction. As difficult as life is for Goodell, I doubt he’d swap places with Bert Bell, the commissioner in ’46. (The AAC, after all, was a worthy adversary that gave us the Browns and 49ers.)

Anyway, that’s six crises in the NFL’s 95-year history I’d rate ahead of the one we’re now obsessing about. And I’m sure I could come up with several more if I wanted to think about it a bit longer. But I’ve got other blogs to throw on the fire, other fishy statements to fry.

So I’ll finish here: Crises aren’t bigger nowadays because the NFL is bigger; they’re actually smaller, generally, but for the same reason: because the game is so firmly established. It was in the early years that you had to worry. A crisis back then was like a baby running a temperature. The league hadn’t built up the immunities it has now.