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CHAPTER THREE - The Storybook
CHAPTER THREE - The Storybook Team
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 3
The Storybook Team
By Hugh Wyatt
At the first practice of 1944, Blaik remembered telling his players, "I expect you to be the greatest team in the history of West Point." They wouldn't fail him.
For the third year in a row, the incoming Plebes were outstanding - maybe the best ever. In the group were no fewer than six future All-Americans, people such as Barney Poole, Dan Foldberg, Arnold Tucker and DeWitt 'Tex' Coulter.
Plus a stocky South Carolinian named Felix Blanchard, and a Californian named Glenn Davis. Blanchard, nicknamed "Doc" because he was the son of a small-town doctor, would earn football immortality as "Mister Inside," combining with Davis, "Mister Outside," to form perhaps the most celebrated pair of runners in football history.
Blanchard, called by Blaik 'the best-built athlete I ever saw,' was six-foot, 210, extremely strong, and capable of running a 10-flat 100-yard dash, an impressive speed for any football player in those days of cinder tracks. Blanchard originally enrolled at North Carolina, where his play as a freshman against the Tarheel varsity was so impressive that one observer, a former coach at Northwestern and Wisconsin, said, 'I have seen all the great fullbacks. This boy will be the greatest.'
However, too heavy for his height to qualify for Carolina's V-12 (pilot training) service football program, he instead enlisted in the Army, and subsequently won an appointment to West Point, where in addition to being a bruising runner with great speed, he punted and kicked off, and was, in Blaik's words, 'a terrific blocker and tackler.'
Davis was only 5-9 and 170, but he was an exceptionally gifted athlete. He established the all-time record in the Academy's rigorous 'physical efficiency' test. As a center fielder on the baseball team he was so good, according to Blaik, that Branch Rickey of the Dodgers would gladly have signed him were it not for his service commitment. In the winter, he played basketball and, when time permitted, ran indoor track. In the spring, he fit in track appearances whenever possible - sometimes immediately following a baseball game - and in 1947, ran the fastest times in the East in both the 100- and 220-yard dashes. According to Blaik, 'there could not have been a greater, more dangerous running halfback in the entire history of the game, and on this I put no qualifications whatsoever.' In addition to his lightning quickness as a runner, Davis had great hands and was a good passer.
So loaded with talent was this team that Blaik had two equal units - one consisting mostly of plebes - that he used interchangeably.
The Cadets opened the 1944 seasons with four lopsided wins, before having a mild scare, trailing Duke 7-6 at halftime, before earning a hard-fought 27-7 victory.
The real challenges - Notre Dame, Penn and Navy - lay ahead. No Blaik team had ever beaten any of the three. In fact, Blaik's teams had yet even to score against Notre Dame, and as for Navy, Army had now lost four straight to the Midshipmen.
Blaik wanted desperately to beat those teams - so much so that on the day the Cadets played lightly-regarded Villanova, he and a group of assistants went instead to Baltimore to watch Navy and Notre Dame play, leaving his team in the hands of assistant coach Andy Gustafson.
At breakfast on the train to Baltimore, a fellow diner recognized Blaik, and reminded him that the great Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne had once done the same thing Blaik was now doing; that while Rockne was on the road scouting a future opponent, the Irish were upset by Carnegie Tech.
One of Blaik's assistants, sitting opposite him at the table, said he watched the coach turn pale at hearing the story. Blaik informed the gentleman that he himself remembered the incident well; in fact, he had seen Rockne at the game in question - it was, in fact, an Army-Navy game. Unnerved, Blaik got up left the dining car, his breakfast left uneaten. As it turned out, he had little reason to worry - Army defeated Villanova, 83-0.
As for Notre Dame, Blaik's players were ready - so ready, as Blaik recalled years later, that their thirty-minute scrimmage on the Wednesday before the game - two equally talented units pitted against each other in practice - was "the best football I ever saw."
Notre Dame fell behind early and elected to throw the ball, a tactic that backfired as Army intercepted eight Irish passes, triumphing by an astonishing 59-0. With a war going on and good news scarce, Blaik heard from excited Army men all over the world. For many of them, the frustrations of past losses to Notre Dame had made beating the Irish a cause even more important than beating Navy.
The result even had an effect on the war itself. Before the Battle of the Bulge weeks later, English-speaking Germans, posing as Americans, had been infiltrating American lines. Dressed in uniforms taken from captured American officers, using artfully-forged identification and possessing all the necessary countersigns, they were creating confusion by giving conflicting orders to American units. What began to expose them was a question posed by a suspicious M.P., who asked one of them, "Who won the Notre Dame game?"
The bogus "American" had no idea what the M.P. was talking about, and he was taken in for questioning, and subsequently shot. Other imposters, similarly unable to provide an answer known all too well to every true Army man, were exposed and rounded up, and the problem was solved.
Next on the Army schedule was Penn, and the Quakers fell, 62-7, suffering their worst defeat in over 50 years.
Finally came Navy. After dropping their first two games by a total of only nine points, the Midshipmen had run off six straight wins, defeating Notre Dame, Penn, Purdue, Duke, Penn State and Cornell. They were ranked Number 2 in the nation, right behind Army.
Although the game was originally scheduled to be played at Annapolis as had been done two years earlier, it was moved to Baltimore in an effort to sell war bonds. The move was a huge success: some 70,000 people attended, and bought almost $60 million of war bonds.
With the top two teams meeting in the last game of the year, and service personnel all over the world tuning in, it is quite conceivable, as Blaik claimed, that there was more interest in this game than in any ever played.
After Navy scored to pull to within 9-7 going into the fourth quarter, Army went to work, marching 52 yards, to extend its lead to 16-7. Blanchard personally gained 48 yards on seven carries. The clinching score came late in the game, with Davis, on a play called "The California Special," sprinting 52 yards to make the final score 23-7.
As Blaik would later reflect, "I know that there must be a moment in every coach's career which surpasses all others for him. I suspect that when it comes, he is aware of it, knows it has not come before nor will again. I believe the number one moment for me came in that victory of Army's greatest over Navy's greatest in Baltimore."
An indication of the impact of the victory came in the form of a wire from General Douglas MacArthur, otherwise busily engaged in fighting the greatest war the world had ever seen:
THE GREATEST OF ALL ARMY TEAMS. WE HAVE STOPPED THE WAR TO CELEBRATE YOUR MAGNIFICENT SUCCESS.
Greatest of all Army teams? Maybe the greatest team ever. The unbeaten 1944 Cadets were unanimous national champions. Outscoring their opponents 504-35, they averaged 56 points a game, and allowed a total of just five touchdowns all season. No team scored more than seven points against them. Six Cadets were named first-team All-Americans.
Blaik himself may have said it best, in a souvenir booklet put together just for the members of the team and people attached to it in an official capacity:
"Seldom in a lifetime's experience is one permitted the complete satisfaction of being part of a perfect performance," he wrote. "From her sons, West Point expects the best - you were the best. In truth, you were a story book team."
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