Monday, January 2, 2012

Randy Roberts's "A Team for America"

Randy Roberts is a Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University. His books include John Wayne: American (coauthored with James Olson), Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, and Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes among others.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation, and reported the following:
Smart man that Ford Madox Ford. After reading more than my fair share of Page 99 Tests, I’ve concluded that there is something special, even cosmic, about the theory. Kind of like watching Tim Tebow play the last series of a football game, which, I guess, is as good a segue as any from literature to football. And A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied A Nation is about football—and perhaps even more about West Point, leadership, and the ties between the home front and the battle front during World War II.

The book could have been entitled Col. Red Blaik’s War because it traces Army’s rise in football from well south of mediocrity to the national title. Blaik came to West Point before the 1941 season with a mission: To build a team that would reflect the excellence of the U.S. Army. In 1944, Blaik’s fourth season, he accomplished that mission. Between D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge Army’s team, led by Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, rolled over all their opponents. And sportswriters were quick to draw parallels between West Pointers on the gridirons and the American armies driving toward Germany.

Page 99 illustrates this link between football and war. It begins with the death of Paul Bunker, an All-American West Point football player who served 40 years in the Army, commanded the coastal artillery forces in the Battle of Corregidor, and died of starvation and disease in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

From Bunker the page transitions to a discussion of the new image West Point cultivated during World War II. Before the war reporters regarded the USMA as an anachronism, a place where cadets still mastered equestrian skills and were photographed at cotillions wearing white gloves and plumed tarbuckets. The coverage changed during the war. Now reporters noted that dress uniforms had been shelved for fatigues, and the hills around West Point echoed with the low rumble of artillery pieces and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns. No longer horsemen, West Pointers were soldiers in the age of tanks.

I reinforce the connection to football on the next page: “By 1943 journalists had transformed Army’s team from a squad of football players to representatives of the country’s first line of defense. They were America’s soldier-players, commanded by Colonel Blaik and adored by General MacArthur. Navy players struggled to erase their image of elitism, but the men in long gray coats were as all-American as the G.I. Joes slogging up the gut of Italy.”

On one level, then, A Team for America explores the connections between the players and the soldiers. But on a different level, it recounts the lives of specific players as they advanced toward a showdown game with Navy. It was their story—perhaps the smaller story—that made the book a joy to write.
Visit the A Team for America Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue