When Football Wasn’t Just a Metaphor for War

When Football Wasn’t Just a Metaphor for War

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Dunwoody resident Brian Curtis has written books about sports, from Alabama head coach Nick Saban and big-time college football to college basketball, the New York Giants and Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.

The former president of Congregation B’nai Torah also has produced a book about national tragedy, editing a collection of letters from family members of 9/11 victims for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. That book, “The Legacy Letters,” led to a 9/11 program in September at the Davis Academy, where his children go to school and he serves on the board.

His newly released nonfiction book falls into both categories and more.

Brian Curtis will appear at noon Sunday, Nov. 6.
Brian Curtis will appear at noon Sunday, Nov. 6.

“Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War” tells the story of the 1942 Rose Bowl between Duke, which was a national power at the time, and Oregon State College, which had never reached the Rose Bowl and has never won it since.

Because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the game was moved across the country to Duke’s stadium in Durham, N.C., and the men who took the field on that rainy New Year’s Day knew they were mere months away from replacing the martial metaphors of football with real military service.

Curtis said in an interview that he and his publisher wondered from the start whether “Fields of Battle” would be a book about sports, the military or history. “I think it’s all of it. I think if someone likes sports, they’ll get something out of it. If someone’s a historian or loves reading about World War II, they’ll get something out of it.”

Curtis didn’t know about the Durham game until he saw it mentioned a Rose Bowl newsletter in late 2012 or early 2013. He was intrigued, and some research into the coaches and players led to an article for Sports Illustrated in August 2013. Two more years of research, including interviews with relatives of the players and with Jim Smith, the only surviving player as the game’s 75th anniversary approaches Jan. 1, produced the book.

“I think in the end it’s really the story of ordinary people, especially young boys, doing extraordinary things,” Curtis said. “And that can apply to the football field, that can apply to wartime, that can apply to coming home and just living an extraordinary life.”

Many extraordinary moments didn’t make it into the book, he said.

Fields of Battle By Brian Curtis Flatiron Books, 320 pages, $29.99

For example, the son of an Oregon State player, after talking to Curtis, was inspired to search online for memorabilia from the game. On eBay, he found his father’s Rose Bowl ring, which he didn’t even know had been stolen from his parents’ home in the 1980s. He thought the ring had been buried with his father.

That’s how precious those rings were to the players.

Four players — Walter Griffith, Everett Smith, Al Hoover and Bob Nanni — never made it home from World War II. At least two of them died with their Rose Bowl rings.

Those four never married, so they had no descendants for Curtis to track down. “It really hit me that there are no memories of these gentlemen,” he said. “That was important to me as well, to make sure they received recognition in some sense.”

Another hero who stands out for Curtis never went to war or even played in the game. Because Oregon State end Jack Yoshihara was born in Japan, government officials barred him from traveling, and an injury later blocked him from enlisting in the Army. He spent much of the war in an internment camp.

One of the heartbreaking moments in a book packed with them — including postwar alcoholism, divorce, suicide and early death from natural causes among men who couldn’t regain normality after the trauma of battle — takes place before the real fighting starts. When the Oregon State players start the train trip east for the game, their revelry screeches to a halt when they spot Yoshihara tearfully watching them go from the platform.

“I think it’s emblematic of what went on in the country at that time,” Curtis said.

Review: Battles worth Fighting

One of the less important effects of World War II was the change it wrought on college football.

The postwar G.I. Bill, which paid for battle-hardened men to attend universities, proved to be the last hurrah for many elite institutions as football powers because of the backlash of traditional academics against the rougher, less traditional students flooding campuses.

Schools that had combined top academics and great football for decades — for example, Tulane and Temple played the first Sugar Bowl in 1935 — responded in the 1950s by de-emphasizing athletics even as more top-flight athletes were attending college.

Local author Brian Curtis takes us back to that earlier football era in “Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War,” which tells the story of the only Rose Bowl played on the East Coast and what happened when the players shifted from the fields of football to the fields of World War II. Along the way, he shows the rising campus tensions that later altered the college football landscape.

On Jan. 1, 1942, Duke served as Rose Bowl host and favorite against Oregon State College because military authorities refused to let the game be played in Pasadena, Calif., after the attack on Pearl Harbor less than four weeks earlier.

The first half of “Fields of Battle” focuses on that game and how those two teams wound up meeting on a rainy New Year’s Day in Durham, N.C. The second half covers the war and beyond. Curtis expertly crafts the history into an engaging narrative based on extensive research in newspapers and archives and interviews with survivors and relatives.

As Curtis shows, both rosters were stocked with the everyday heroes typical of the World War II generation, from Duke Coach Wallace Wade, who left a legendary college coaching career to command an artillery unit in Europe, to Oregon State end Jack Yoshihara, whose Japanese heritage prevented him from playing in the bowl game and led him to ship off to an internment camp while his teammates were going off to war.

Curtis shares improbable moments from the war, as when Wallace gets a cup of coffee from Oregon State’s Stan Czech in a foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge and when Oregon State’s Frank Parker saves the life of Duke’s Charles Haynes Jr. by carrying him off a hilltop in Italy.

At a time when we’re failing a new generation of veterans wounded and traumatized by war, Curtis shows that it’s an old problem. Many of the player/soldiers struggled with alcoholism after the war and never seemed able to settle down to normal lives.

But ultimately “Fields of Battle” is an uplifting story of what we as a nation and as individuals are capable of — and a reminder that even the Dukes of the world can be college football powers.


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