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From Gridiron Hero to Frontline Wartime Hero

1930s 40s football
© Kinfay Moroti/The News-Press USA Today Network-Florida via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As the world plunged into the chaos of World War II, the fervor of football was not immune to the turmoil. Across America, the beautiful game faced unprecedented challenges, with stadiums echoing the sounds of conflict rather than the cheers of fans. Yet, amidst the darkness, football endured, providing solace and a semblance of normalcy to millions.

Let us explore the profound impact World War II had on football, both on and off the field. From the suspension of major leagues and the repurposing of stadiums for military use to the stories of players who traded their jerseys for uniforms, the war altered the trajectory of football in ways still felt today. Our gridiron heroes turned into wartime heroes virtually overnight. We delve into the resilience of the sport, highlighting how it served as a unifying force and a beacon of hope during one of history’s darkest wartimes.

The War’s Impact on American Society

World War II was a global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world’s nations, including the United States. The war was sparked by the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the subsequent expansion of the Axis powers, including Germany, Italy and Japan. The United States initially maintained a policy of neutrality, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the country entered the war on the side of the Allies, including the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union.

Economic Impact

The war had a significant impact on the American economy, which was still recovering from the Great Depression. The shift to wartime production helped to end the Depression by jump-starting the economy

and the government created new programs and agencies to support the war effort. The war also led to increased federal employment, with more Americans working in the government than ever before.

Social Impact

The war also had a profound social impact on American society. It brought about unprecedented opportunities for African Americans and women, who entered the workforce in large numbers to fill jobs left vacant by men who had gone to fight. The war also led to increased migration from rural to urban areas, as people moved to cities for work and to be closer to the war effort.

Football and the War Effort

When the United States entered the war, football became an integral part of military training at many college campuses around the country. Football was seen as a way to boost morale, provide entertainment and even serve as a proving ground for military training. The National Football League (NFL) sold War Bonds at games, generating $4,000,000 worth of sales in 1942 alone. The following year, the NFL suspended operations due to a lack of players, as many had been drafted into the military.

Military Service Teams

Many college football teams were disbanded as players enlisted in the military or were drafted. However, some colleges and universities continued to field teams, often with players who were already serving in the military. These teams, known as military service teams, competed against top college programs and even professional teams. The Fort Knox Armoraiders, Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks and other service teams played against the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State.

All-Star Lineups

The military service teams boasted an all-star collection of players and coaches, including future Pro Football Hall of Famers like Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. They played games on bases and in stadiums, often in front of large crowds. College coaches, like Paul “Bear” Bryant, served as assistant coaches for military teams, helping to develop and lead players in their military careers.

Otto Graham in the NFL
© Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports

College Football’s Loss, Military’s Gain

Many schools suspended their football programs or reduced their teams to focus on the war effort. However, the military gained from this loss, as many college players joined the military and formed teams that competed against each other and against college and professional teams. Games were also played in POW camps and overseas, providing a sense of normalcy and entertainment for those serving in the military. College football brought people together and provided a sense of community, even in the midst of war.

Stories, Contributions of Athletes

The onset of World War II profoundly impacted the college football seasons in the United States. The war effort led to significant changes and interruptions in the sport, affecting the teams, conferences and overall landscape of college football.

Player Availability and Recruitment

The war effort led to a significant decline in player availability. Penn State, for example, lost 24 varsity players over the course of a single season. Entire conferences, like the Southeastern Conference (SEC), were essentially wiped out due to the lack of players. The Big Ten Conference saw teams with military training programs, such as Michigan, Purdue and Northwestern, dominate the league. Ohio State, which did not have a military training program, managed to finish 9-0 in 1944 behind Heisman winner Les Horvath.

In 1943, more than 200 colleges dropped their football teams, and some institutions, like Georgetown, quit the sport entirely. The Army-Navy game, which had been played annually since 1890, was moved to Durham, North Carolina, to avoid Japanese bombers.

The war led to the adoption of the free substitution rule, which allowed players to shuttle in and out of the game without restriction, giving rise to offensive and defensive specialization. The wearing of head protectors became mandatory for all players during the 1943 season.

Athletes in the Military

Many notable athletes served in the military during World War II, some unfortunately lost their lives. Players, coaches and front-office personnel who died during the war include Mike Basca, Charlie Behan, Keith Birlem, Al Blozis, Chuck Braidwood and others.

Kenny Washington served as a sports ambassador on USO tours, entertaining troops and boosting morale. A college football star at UCLA, Washington was also the first black player to sign an NFL contract after African Americans were banned from the NFL in 1934.

Those who were drafted were often unable to continue competing at the same level, as their military service took priority. This had a ripple effect on the sports world, as many teams and leagues struggled to maintain their usual level of competition.

Legacy of the Gridiron During Wartime

The WW2 draft serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by athletes during times of war. It highlights the importance of sports and the role they play in bringing people together, even in the face of adversity. The draft also underscores the impact that war can have on the lives of young athletes, forcing them to put their dreams and aspirations on hold to serve their country.

Despite the challenges, college football adapted to the war effort. Many colleges used their football fields as training grounds for military personnel. Football became an integral part of military training at many college campuses. The legacy of the war on college football continues to be felt today, with many institutions still honoring the sacrifices made by players and coaches during this period.


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