There aren’t too many people who can say that they’ve played quarterback in a game before thousands of people on the University of Alabama campus.
Marie Fikes Carastro can.
She’s the oldest member of that exclusive club. Even though the 90-year-old was also a finalist in the Miss Alabama pageant, and still has the trophy for being named the 1946 “Dream Girl of Theta Chi,” there’s one other major thing that she had in common with her male counterparts behind center.
“We played to win,” she says.
Although Clell Hobson (1950-52) is the oldest living quarterback from the Crimson Tide football team, Carastro’s playing career did span three games. From 1946-48, Alabama had a charity contest featuring women. It was called the “Honey Bowl.”
The Honeybees were made up of freshmen and sophomores, while the Hummingbirds featured the upperclassmen. The game was considered two-hand touch, “but it got a little physical sometimes,” Carastro said.
Somewhat similar to Alabama reserve quarterback Mac Jones coaching ZTA sorority to an intramural championship last season (Tua Tagovailoa helped Irv Smith Jr. coach the team the previous year), the active football players trained the women on the Quad. For Carastro, it meant instruction from Crimson Tide legend Harry Gilmer.
The head coaches at the time, Frank Thomas and Red Drew, also made it mandatory that everyone on the team had to attend the game at then-Denny Stadium as “morale boosters” (they didn’t dare call them cheerleaders). One year there were 6,000 fans in the stands.
“It came to an end because the Dean of Women [Agnes Ellen Harris] didn’t think it was a very dignified thing for Southern ladies to be doing,” Carastro said.
It was a different time, of course. Even during the final year of World War II, enrollment at the university was just over 3,000, but it subsequently jumped to near 9,000 when the charity game was played. Nowadays there are 38,103 students at Alabama, and the capacity of Bryant-Denny Stadium is 101,821.
If the name of the game didn’t raise a huge political-correctness flag to you, or the teams being referred to as the Birds vs. the Bees, the game program listed every player’s height, weight and phone number.
We’re talking REALLY different times.
This was only 20-some years after the 19th Amendment — "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” — had become part of the Constitution.
Having attended Tuscaloosa High, Carastro was the first of four other siblings to go to college. Without having a particular major in mind a counselor steered her toward dietetics, now called nutrition. She had known a lot of people killed in the war who had left unprepared families behind, so having a career she could purse over her lifetime was a priority.
Graduation came in 1950. Carastro accepted an internship at St. Louis University in Missouri, and subsequently worked as a secretary for a while. However, 1957 ended up being a life-altering year. Not only did she earn her master’s degree, but her pilot’s license.
Carastro was heavily influenced by her brother Talmadge, who was a sergeant and radio operator in the 515th Bomber Squadron, 376th Bomber Group, in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He was killed when his B-24 was downed by German flak over the Marshaling Yards in Ploesti, Romania — a key strategic objective as it proved roughly 30 percent of all Axis oil production.
His death helped inspire her to get into flying, even though the only commercial opportunities open to women were as airline stewardesses.
“Heck, I didn’t want to do that,” Carastro said.
Instead, she got involved with the Alabama Civil Air Patrol, which was how she met her husband. Stationed at Craig Air Force Base near Selma, he was part of the crew that flew her down to Naples, Fla., for a national convention. They were married in 1959.
Meanwhile, Carastro got her own plane.
“I have landed on highways with my little airplane,” she said. “Today they would put me under the jail. But at that time, when I was living in Tuscaloosa and I had my little Cessna 140 I would go visit my sister who lived in Centreville. She had two children and it was kind of an imposition to ask her to drive over to the airport and pick me up. So what I would do is land on the highway in front of her house, and we’d pull the airplane back into the pasture.
“When I got ready to leave, she’d go to the top of the hill, flag down traffic and I’d take off.”
But Carastro didn’t just fly. She raced.
The year 1929 was an important one for women’s aviation as it included both the First Women's Air Derby, a transcontinental race that began in Santa Monica, Calif., and ended in Cleveland, and the creation of the Ninety-Nines Women's Aviation Organization.
The All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race became affectionately known as the "Powder Puff Derby", a reference made by Will Rogers.
Carastro joined the Alabama Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, and one of her races in 1960 went from Torrance Calif., to Wilmington, Del.
“At that time, the person I was flying with was Minnie Wade from Cullman and between the two of us we only had 200 hours,” she said. “Now those jet pilots there from Craig (AFB) said none of them would attempt that with that limited amount of hours.”
In 50 years of flying, though, Carastro never had a major incident.
Nowadays, both of her children are pilots, both taught by their father. They use airports, though. Her daughter is a veterinary ophthalmologist and has her own plane, a Cessna 130. Her son got his PhD in business management and runs his own flight school in Mississippi.
In 2015, Carastro was recognized with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the most prestigious honor the Federal Aviation Administration gives to recognize individuals who have “exhibited professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least 50 years.”
This past spring she retired from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Sisterhood has many forms.
So does inspiration.
Plus, she’s still an Alabama football fan.
“Absolutely,” Carastro said.
Just like with the rest of her life, she’s not it in for the scenery. Nor does she believe for a moment that Tagovailoa’s high-ankle sprain will derail the season. After all, Carastro knows a little about what playing the position takes.
“We’re going to prevail,” she said. “We always do.”
Lyrics to the Dream Girl of Theta Chi
I dream of the girl with the stars in her eyes,
And the gold of the sun in her hair
The smile in her glance tells of tender romance
And a love that I'm longing to share.
I'll build ber a palace, a mansion or two,
Or a castle way up in the sky,
But a cottage for two I'm sure will do,
For the dream girl fo Theta Chi.
The loveliest girls are the girls of my dreams
And the loveliest one that I've seen
Is not Sally, Louise, or Irene,
Or a girl smiling down from a screen;
The girls of all ages on magazine page
Don't cause me the slightest unrest,
For I've found the one girl - the stars, moon, and sun girl,
The girl I will always love best.