Bill McWilliams Support of the 1953 Nomination

January 29, 2009

Mr. Bob Beretta

Senior Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Communication

U.S. Military Academy

639 Howard Road

West Point, NY 10996

Dear Mr. Baretta;

I am honored to have the privilege of supporting, and in the strongest possible terms urging the selection of the 1953 Army football team for the Academy’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Enclosed please find the book, A Return to Glory, and two articles, one on Vince Lombardi, the other on the 1953 Army-Duke football game, both published some years ago in Assembly magazine. Together, these three items chronicle the history of Army football’s astonishing turnaround following the devastating 1951 cheating incident, a turnaround crowned by the 1953 team’s glowing achievements. The succeeding paragraphs will highlight a few of the team’s additional, unforgettable accomplishments and effects, some comments resulting from their play and at the same time, through the enclosed writings offer those considering the nomination a far deeper understanding of its remarkable history. With respect to the book, I will identify the most pertinent chapters and pages to ease learning about the players and their season, a season never to be forgotten by the Corps of Cadets of that era – and a season that inspired the Bicentennial book’s title.

Before proceeding, it is important to put the subject in perspective with Coach Earl Blaik‘s words about the 1953 Army football team. In his 1974 autobiography, The Red Blaik Story, he wrote, “When I come to describe the team of 1953, what they meant to me and, far more important, what they meant to West Point, I cannot praise them enough.” Of them, Grantland Rice wrote with eloquent simplicity, “They came up the hard way and there probably has never been a squad with a finer spirit.” True, we did look for better things than in 1951 and “52”. We did not harbor, however, the faintest dream of even localized empire. Any prognostication that we would win the Lambert Trophy, emblematic of the Eastern Championship, and be rated No. 14 nationally would have been tabbed fantastic. With Coach Blaik’s words as background, the team’s history echoes his witness.

They were one of the smallest Army football teams in years, at season’s end thirty-eight men, a team of heroes with no stars and with a different hero each Saturday, all playing for honor and love of the game, undeniable facts laid out in chapters 17-19 (pages 787-916) in A Return to Glory. They were led by quiet, solid leaders from the class of 1954; augmented by a small number of players from the smallest Academy class in years, 1955, and a bevy of talented yearlings in the class of 1956 who set the gridiron on fire that fall. All, together, became inspired. Though the phrase wasn’t originated by Coach Earl Blaik, it was the incomparable football teacher, the thoroughly emotionally-controlled Blaik who, with tears in his eyes, handed the Army-Duke game ball to Bob Mischak, Army’s left end who made the incredible game-saving tackle. Blaik’s words to Bob were simple but powerful, and echo down through the years, “Don’t ever give up.”

The cheating incident had never-publicized, lingering effects on Army football players in the three following seasons, effects witnessed and painfully felt by the young, inexperienced B and C teams – the men who accomplished the “football miracle” of 1953. As Blaik wrote years later in baring his bitterness and frustration over the cheating incident, “For two years these boys had seen the roughest action. They had lived with the coaching lash, dirt, blood, and defeat.” Adding to the effects the players faced was the revelation that the much-admired Army varsity had been deeply involved in what became a national scandal. In a number of cases the players left to pick up the pieces became subjects of totally unwarranted suspicions and stinging criticisms simply because they were Army football players. Army football, indeed, service academy football came under sharp attack in Congress as well as in the media. It seemed to some players that men they had looked up to as champions and team leaders had disgraced not only themselves, the Academy, the Army and Air Force, they had embarrassed and disgraced the game of football. The season of 1953 changed all that — the team and the Corps of Cadets washed the effects away with stunning, inspirational teamwork and marvelous achievements. Yet, there were more hurdles to cross before they could accomplish their football miracle.

Following the 1952 season, changes in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules greatly restricted substitution and for several years virtually ended the offensive-defensive unit two-platoon system. The result was to lengthen playing time for varsity players, decrease the number of varsity letters awarded, increase injury potential, and cause a return to what in years past had been called “iron man football”.

To compete under the more complicated substitution rules, Coach Blaik chose to return to the type of two-platoon system he inaugurated at Army during the World War II years, two or three units that went both ways, on offense and defense. While the rule changes impacted all collegiate teams, no team Army was to face in 1953 had suffered the total loss of its varsity lettermen and team leaders two years earlier. The losses had forced virtually complete rebuilding from the ground up. Other colleges and universities would have been able to accelerate efforts to make up such losses with much larger student bodies and massive numbers of alumni on the lookout for talent, aggressive well-funded recruiting, junior college transfers, and the growing lure of expanding professional football immediately after graduation. Not so at Army.

The NCAA rule changes had other impacts not normally visible to cadets and Army sports fans — but were quite clear to team members vying for varsity status and the coveted Major A. The remaining 1953 team members, who, at the end of the 1952 season believed they had almost secured starting offensive or defensive platoon positions, suddenly found themselves being retested and moved from one position to another to determine who could play both offense and defense and had the conditioning, strength and stamina to play both ways. Their extraordinary individual responses were inspirational, highlighting individual willingness to sacrifice for the team. Again, from Coach Blaik’s 1974 book.

“A normal amount of injuries as the season advanced cost us solid fullback and punter “Fred Attaya”, hard-nosed right halfback “Mike Zeigler”, spirited end “Ski” “Godwin Ordway”, and a few others. By the time we got down to the Penn and Navy games, the starting eleven and about four substitutes carried the full load” At quarterback, “Peter Vann” shared the job to some extent with “Jerry Hagan” early in the season, but improved gradually to indispensable level. Vann, Pat Uebel, and “Tommy Bell” at halfbacks and “Gerry Lodge” at fullback played 60 minutes against Penn and almost all the way in the Navy game.”

It’s important to note, that Peter Vann was a sterling offensive team leader his last two years at Army, became a classic drop-back passer and deft ball-handling and faking wizard who repeatedly confused defensive linemen, and was far more than Blaik’s description of him on defense as “dependable in a crisis”. Playing at defensive right halfback on the last play of the season’s crucial, turnaround game, he too made a game-saving play, batting away a pass thrown from Duke’s quarterback to their alternate quarterback — in the Army end zone – then went on to be ninth in Heisman Trophy voting and a second team All-American quarterback in 1954. Right halfback Tommy Bell, scored one of the two touchdowns against Duke, became a first team All-American in 1954 and that same year one of the few four-year lettermen in Army football history. Yearling left halfback Pat Uebel, who scored one of the two touchdowns in the stunning upset of No. 7-ranked Duke and all three of Army’s touchdowns in the win over Navy — one of a small number of Army players to score three touchdowns against Navy, and to that time the only player to score all three touchdowns in a win over Navy – was another hero in the 1953 Army backfield. Of Army’s two lead halfbacks Coach Blaik would write, “In ’53 and ’54 both Uebel and Bell were among the top echelon of all-time West Point halfbacks.” (See pages 202-206 of A Return to Glory, for added information on Thomas J. Bell and Robert M. Mischak.)

Rounding out the backfield after the loss to injury in the Tulane game of the swift, agile, hard-driving fullback, and punter, “Freddie Attaya”, was guard-converted-to-fullback “Gerry Lodge”, who stepped into Freddie’s shoes and performed magnificently at both fullback on offense and linebacker on defense. It was this backfield, plus three great Army ends, and this team that brought Vince Lombardi to the attention of the New York Giants at the end of the 1953 season, setting Vince on course to become a legendary professional coach. (See pages 208-216 for added information on Lowell Sisson, “Gerald Lodge”, “Leroy Lunn”, “Freddie Attaya”, and Peter Vann.)

Blaik said of the three ends on the 1953 team, “Our end play was handled by Bob Mischak, Lowell Sisson, and a yearling of unusual potential named Don Holleder. Sisson was another who kept improving and hit the top in the Navy game. After Attaya’s injury, Sisson did the punting. Mischak developed into a fine pass receiver and on defense he delivered the play that was the pivot, in a real sense, of the entire season. Holleder was a naturally talented pass receiver with outstanding speed, hands, and competitive fire. By 1954
he became just about the most dangerous offensive end in college ranks. Don later became an Army legend in his own right. A first team All-American end in 1954, he voluntarily gave up the chance to become a two-time All-American, by acquiescing to Coach Blaik’s request that he switch to quarterback for the 1955 season, a position he had never played in either high school or college. On 17 October 1967, his courage and heroism in Vietnam while attempting to rescue wounded soldiers in his unit cost him his life. His life and service became the inspiration for the now-well-known Black Lion Award to football players at every level of football played in the nation, from youth leagues to intercollegiate Division IA.

Army linemen on the thinly-manned 1953 team included three guards, captain “Leroy Lunn”, his classmate “Dick Ziegler”, and yearling “Ralph Chesnauskas”, whose talents included extra-point conversions. Ralph calmly kicked the two extra points against Duke to win the game, and became a first team All-American in 1954. Blaik, writing of “Leroy Lunn”, said, “I think it epitomized the character of this team and Lunn’s inspirational leadership that he was able to handle a difficult situation in a manner that increased his stature. It was not an easy thing to walk out there every Saturday for the toss of the coin and then to have to return to the bench and not be in for the kick-off. Roy
never let this bother his playing when he did get in. He improved so much that he clearly earned the right to start with his team against Navy. Then he went out and played the best game of his career.”

Center “Norman Stephen” was a steady, rock-solid team leader on offense, who on the first play from scrimmage in the second half of the second home game of the season, against Dartmouth, — lit a small but growing fire in the team and Corps of Cadets — when he broke from the huddle and ran, almost sprinting to the ball, prompting the team to follow his lead. The roar of approval and support from the Corps each time Norm broke and ran to the ball, from that point forward through the rest of the season, continued to unify a determined Corps of Cadets with their team. He was a standout linebacker who was the on-field captain who called defensive signals. Starting at tackle were two yearlings, “Ron Melnik” and “Howard Glock”, with first classman “Joe Lapchick”, Jr. doing most of the reserve playing.

Coach Blaik considered the heart of his defense to be yearling Bob Farris, a top man academically who in 1955 became the Corps’ First Captain, played tackle on offense and was a line backer on defense in 1953. “The linebacking of Farris against Navy was as fine as I have ever seen in that game,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the abandon with which he played cost him a detached retina that ended his football. To have played him would have risked an aggravation that might have impaired his sight. Nevertheless, Bob captained our 54 team and helped out with coaching.”

None of the foregoing tells of the incredible will-to-win spirit and support of the 1953 team by the entire Corps of Cadets, all of it specifically intended to unify the team and Corps of Cadets in ways never before seen or heard at West Point. It’s marvelous success was marked with the most unusual Lambert Trophy presentation in the award’s history. (Detailed in A Return to Glory, pages 912-916). First offered in 1936, and sponsored by New York City’s brothers, Victor A. and Henry L. Lambert, the trophy was symbolic of Eastern football supremacy, and had been won by Army in 1944, ’45, ’46, ’48 and ’49. For the first time, on a Sunday evening, 20 December 1953, in Washington Hall, the Lambert Trophy was presented outside of New York City to a football team and its student body. (Photograph, page 914)

Respectfully, for your consideration,

Bill McWilliams, USMA 1955

NHF Books, Inc.

2229 Fiero Drive

Las Vegas, NV 89134-6042

702-363-6968; E-mail: brmcw@cox.net

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