Every so often in the last twenty years, as American soldiers have fought in Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan, a football player has found himself on the wrong side of public opinion (or the loudmouth version of it voiced on sports talk radio) for using a military analogy. "It was a war out there today" seems tame--unless there really is a war and men--men who could be playing games for pay or scholarships--really are in a war with live bullets and real and tragic casualties.
Wilbur Jones tells the story of how the Greatest Generation dealt with that issue. And far from shying away from football during war, the U. S. military (especially the Navy) embraced it. In fact, the title of Jones's interesting book was also the title of a Navy pamphlet extolling the virtues of football as a training ground for physically-hardened, mentally-focused. teamwork-oriented soldiers and leaders on the ships and battlefields of World War II.
When I first heard about "Football! Navy! War!" shortly after reading Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles--"The Steagles"--Saved Pro Football During World War II (by Matthew Algeo) I knew I had to read Jones's book as a companion. Algeo tells the story of the NFL, specifically focusing on its Pennsylvania teams that merged to survive the war, and how it managed to keep going. Jones tells the story of how the War actually helped some colleges (through the "Lend-Lease" players) and created a whole new breed of football (through the Service teams) at the same time other colleges were disbanding football teams as a cost- and resource-saving measure.
Jones has done a thorough job scouring old game programs, military records, newspapers, college press releases, and NCAA documentation to piece together this nearly-lost piece of American history. The story of the service teams, representing bases flung all over the country, many of which existed just for the duration of the war, was especially fascinating. Here were men--some fresh from hgh school football teams, some with college experience, some graduated from the college ranks and playing professionally--thrown together on the same base, perhaps only for a few months until called overseas, trained by physical education officers or football coaches into a team representing the base or the unit in games against nearby bases (travel restrictions ensured this). Under these dire circumstances, football flourished! The 1943 Iowa Pre-Flight team was ranked 2nd in the final AP poll, one of four service teams (not including the service academies which were also particularly strong during the war years) in the top 20.
Jones covers the
--reasoning behind the military decisions, --the types of teams, --the restrictions caused by the war, --the college, conference, and NCAA responses to the military presence in football, --and even the benefits of war (yes there were some, such as a quiet and almost undocumented erasure of color barriers in many locations).
If it was documented, Jones has found it and written about it. One area I might like to have read more about would be how college administrators and athletic directors really felt about the changes to the game during the War. Some prospered, others did not. Some college teams were beaten by teams using players who earlier the same season had suited up for them. Imagine the clamor on sports talk radio if something like this were to happen today! Surely, the administrator opn the losing side of that game wouldn't have been happy, but finding documentation of this would be near impossible, I suspect, given the need to maintain morale and focus 100% of energies on positive steps to win the war.
And this I think is the most interesting part of both of these books: the lengths to which American men and women would go to contribute to winning the war. This was not a half-hearted, half-way effort, this was all out "Football! Navy! War!" It is a level of effort we have trouble imagining today, let alone making.
Any sports fan will find this book well worth the time spent.
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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager (TStocksl)
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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"Fills an important niche in the sports and military history of World War IIâ€¦not just a list of teams and statistics, this book also tells the "then and now" differences in the playing of football through extensive research and interviews." --Jack A. Green, Naval History & Heritage Command
"A comprehensive telling of a story that can't be told enoughâ€¦the chapter about halfback Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice captures him as no defense ever did. This is a good thing that Jones has done." --Ivan Maisel, senior writer, ESPN.com
"I've been waiting for somebody to do this book and preserve these treasured college football memories, and now Wilbur Jones has done it and done it splendidly. --Dan Jenkins,Sports Illustrated