The time is 1958. The place, Soldier Field, Chicago. The scoreboard shows there is less than a minute to play, the score tied. A hundred thousand spectators crane forward tensely as the team with the silver pants and blue jerseys and the lightning bolts traced along the helmets lines up in a flanking T. The ball is snapped and the quarterback fades gracefully to the right. Suddenly there is a silver-and-blue blur in the end zone. The crowd screams. A man is open. The quarterback's arm flashes—and a pass zips in like a jet at deck level for a touchdown. The stadium trembles from a mighty roar. The band hysterically strikes up Off We Go—Into the Wild Blue Yonder and hundreds of light-blue cadet caps go sailing up to the sky. Around the country, the headlines begin to roll off the presses: FLYBOYS BEAT ARMY, GO TO SUGAR BOWL...
That, of course, is the dream. And out on a field in Denver last Saturday, the team that hopes to make it come true, the heir presumptive to college football, the United States Air Force Academy, trotted 55 strong to play its first game ever. The place was not Soldier Field but the cleat-scarred, dust-slaked University of Denver stadium. The opposition was not Army but a bumbling if willing band of U. of D. frosh and the crowd—while a respectable 17,785—would hardly have filled one end zone at the Army-Navy game. Only the score gave a hint of the future: Air Force 34, Denver Frosh 18.
The fact it was more than a frosh game, that it was indeed a rendezvous with history, did not escape the natives. Rhapsodized the Denver Post before the game: "It will be an historic Hour...forget the game, forget the score. Be there to tell your grandchildren that you witnessed the first game played by the school which in years to come will many times be national champion." Not to be outdone, the Rocky Mountain News murmured dreamily: "It's going to be a day and a game which will be referred to for centuries to come..."
Actually, the game quite nearly became a football embarrassment for centuries to come.
October 16, 1955
The scene was all set for the auspicious debut everyone expected. The cadets had marched in, 300 of them, in letter-perfect formation and had sped to their seats on the double, chanting "Beat D.U." in cadence. The teams had lined up and the Air Force kicked off—poorly—to the Denver 35. On the very first play the Denver quarterback, Don McCall, faded to pass. On the sidelines, the eight-deep coaching staff of the Air Force blanched. The team went into a May Day scramble, but before they could get out of it there was a bogey at 5 o'clock—a sure-handed, speed-burning halfback named Dick Stevens who took McCall's pass over his shoulder and sped past the frantic academy interceptors like a MIG running from a squadron of bent-blade biplanes.
It was a moment of awful truth and more awful portent. The academy had fielded a hand-picked team—all-state high school stars from the fertile football fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, sprinting stars from the West Coast, and lanky, sure-handed tacklers and pass-receivers from Texas and Dixie. It was a collection of football heroes which had left a string of anguished, apoplectic home-town football coaches from sea to shining sea screaming hoarsely at the academy recruiters. It was probably the only freshman football team in history to have an ex-professional football coach as tutor—the incomparable Buck Shaw whom the San Francisco 49ers wish they had back. Fifty-five superb young athletes, the Falcons—restricted to base constantly—were in perfect physical condition and had practiced till nightfall for weeks before the game. In the press box they had not one but two spotters shouting up-to-the-minute intelligence reports on what the enemy was up to.
It was clearly maximum effort and a cold chill went through the entire cadet wing when the Denverites scored with such contemptuous ease on just one play. Would this elite corps be run over roughshod by a bunch of amiable Joe Colleges who probably didn't even shine their shoes or press their blue jeans to go to class? Unthinkable.
And unthinkable it was. With admirable poise, the Air Force boys never wavered but regrouped in formation and took to the air. With Quarterback George Klutinoty at the controls, the air cadets soon had the wheels up and locked and the squadron was heading for the wild blue yonder at Mach 1.
Led by a dive-bombing fullback, John White, who had never played football before (but only because his high school didn't field a team), and a guided-muscle tackle, Charles Zaleski, who was state high school heavyweight wrestling champ of West Virginia, the Air Force mixed swift aerial thrusts with devastating ground strafings, rolled up 338 yards and 23 first downs before returning to base.
After the first minute, the flying cadets were never headed. They went ahead variously 14-6, 28-12 and at the final gun had the Denver team so reeling under the heavy firepower that the press box gagsters were thinking of issuing a communiqué, "one of our football teams is missing." Of course, it was just possible that, aside from physical conditioning lack, the Denver team was not yet accustomed to the mile-high altitude of their alma mater. There were only four Denver boys mixed in a squad which included no less than nine sea-level bruisers from Pennsylvania and as many more from New York and New Jersey. Football players are one of Colorado's liveliest imports and the academy need make no apologies for taking its share.
Within three years, the U.S. Air Force Academy will be much more than a football team. By then, building toward full strength of 2,496 cadets and installed in a magnificent $126,000,000 establishment at Colorado Springs, it will be about to harvest its first crop of supersonic officers as well as its first Sugar Bowl invitation. But, at present, the institution with the high-sounding name of U.S. Air Force Academy is a truncated wing of only 300 cadets housed in a cluster of frame barracks on one corner of Denver's Lowry Air Force Base and, without a tradition, it is trying to spring one, full-blown, via an all-smashing football team and a cadre of jet-pilot air training officers who have been dragooned into serving as synthetic upperclassmen for the cadets to teach them how to make life miserable for next year's and each succeeding year's classes.
Cadets at USAFA are expected to think of themselves as jet airplanes, are expected to give their flight characteristics, including rate of climb, operational ceiling, top and stall-out speed on demand. They must run from class to class (or anywhere else on base) in a stiff-necked "brace" as though they were already harnessed under the canopy of a 600-mph jet interceptor, and one of the hazards of crossing the quadrangle is that you might have a mid-air crash with one of these jets.
They are expected to address everyone as "sir" and to request permission of their air training officers before offering even the most harmless of observations. ("Lieut. Collins, sir, request permission to say something, sir.") At mess, they are encouraged to think even of food in aeronautical terms and must check with the "tower" (i.e., Lieut. Collins) for permission to "land" (sit down) or for "taxiing instructions" (permission to push chair back from table) before being allowed at meal's end to "take off" (get up) for "altitude" (room upstairs in the barracks).
During the meal, they are liable to be caught in mid-mouthful and required to spout such oratorical mouthfuls as the full quote on General Mac-Arthur's "There is no substitute for victory" or any piece of "cadet knowledge" the ATO calls for. These are recited in a squared-back, bawled monotone not unlike a moppet who doesn't understand a word he's saying mumbling the Gettysburg Address.
The night before the Denver game, Lieut. Quincy Collins spotted a cadet about to shovel a mouthful of creamed peas into his mouth. "Cadet Blake," he purred, "give us the days." Cadet Blake dropped his fork, thrust his shoulders back, and his eyes glazed. "Sir, there is one day before the U.S. Air Force Academy's first football game which it will win, sir. There are 48 days till Thanksgiving, 79 days until Christmas, 201 days before I hope to see my girl friend again, sir, and 1,001 days until June Week."
The cadets are not incapable of seeing the humor in their braced plight which they cheerfully undergo for the pleasure of inflicting the same on next year's luckless group. At mess, the night before the game, each table of 10 cadets suddenly began to rise in sequence like breakers on shore, waving napkins above their heads and chanting "Beat D.U." This continued until it reached the football team which rose and said resignedly, "Oh, very well."
NONSENSE—AND HARD WORK
On the bench during the first quarter of the game, a substitute center suddenly leaped up and grabbed a towel. His nose was bleeding furiously. Assistant Coach Frank Merritt spotted the casualty in disbelief. "But he didn't even get in the game yet?" he protested. "That's spirit for you, sir," chirped another cadet substitute.
In the stands when things looked blackest, Lieut Collins saw his cadets slumped in dismay. He pointed to one. "Lift that hat and see if there's a cadet under it," he ordered.
Amid all the wonderful nonsense, there was the serious academy business of turning out an elite military force under a crash program. The academy appreciates it is working against time, that man himself is becoming obsolete in an age of rocket aviation. It is up to the academy to produce the men to match the Mach numbers and there is no time to go about the thing in a leisurely or evolutionary way. "We have to begin at the top," ruefully confesses Brig. Gen. Don Z. Zimmerman.
In beginning at the top, the academy considers a nationally famous football team as top-priority procurement. Military—or even lay—purists may wince at the notion of building an elite corps around a football team, but academy brass, which makes much of the fact a boy must be "motivated" towards aviation in these days when a pilot is frequently an oxygen-sucking pressure-suited captive of an airborne instrument panel, points out that it has been done by other institutions for less worthy motives, i.e., gate receipts. If winning football teams are required to lure the kind of young men the country needs to guard its old frontiers and fly into new ones, the academy will have winning football teams.
Will it work? Buck Shaw, an iron-eyed practitioner in football matters of fact and not military expediency, thinks the timetable is unrealistic. "The kids have a lot of spirit," concedes the scholarly, gentlemanly Buck. "But the normal progression for a football team is to move freshmen up and leaven them with seasoned players. This team is going to move up into a vacuum. They're going to have to find out everything for themselves."
The project—which will see the Falcons playing junior colleges next year, Skyline Conference foes the next and a "representative" schedule (i.e.. Army, Navy, Stanford) in 1958—is daring, and Athletic Director Colonel "Bullet Bob" Whitlow (West Point, 1943) sees nothing impossible or even impractical about it. A man who goes lumbering along the bench looking for the point-after-touchdown tee as soon as his team gets the ball, Optimist Whitlow plans to beat Army and Navy the first year he plays them and every year after that. The fact that his academic requirements would stagger a Rhodes scholar only means to him that he'll have a smarter team than anyone else.
In case the flak gets heavier than Bullet Bob anticipates or the enemy shows up in faster and more maneuverable craft, the academy—like any good combat pilot—has an optional strategy which it feels will swing the advantage. The altitude at Colorado Springs where the academy will presumably play at home is some 6,000 feet and a person arriving at that altitude from sea level undergoes some internal rearrangement until his blood stream can supply enough red corpuscles to take up the oxygen slack.
"These teams that come here are going to have to beat us in the first or second quarter," chortles the P.I.O., Lieut. John Colbrunn. "By the second half, their flaps are going to be down and they'll be buying the farm [washing out]." The Air Force, feels Colbrunn, will thus be applying the sound aerial tactic of luring the enemy into an operational ceiling where his engine functions poorest. At home, at least, the words of the academy song, "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force," will ring all too true for the ground-level Kaydets or sea-level Middies.