User ID: Password:

May 12, 2009

REMEMBERING THE PAST - More than six decades later, the 1947 Sun Bowl team remembers its historic accomplishment - one that many have forgotten

By: Jimmy Robertson

The 1947 Sun Bowl team was the first Tech team to go to a bowl game and the first team from the state to do so as well.

Over the course of the decades, the memories have faded, becoming blurred images that only come into some semblance of focus when someone or something triggers a thought that brings that image forth through the channels of their minds. They struggled, at times, to provide sharp details, and then apologized for that, even though no apology was warranted and certainly when none was expected.

But they do remember the end result. In the end, that may be the only memory that matters.

Twelve members of the Virginia Tech football team who played during the 1946 season that led to a berth in the ’47 Sun Bowl gathered at the Inn and Convention Center on the Tech campus for a two-day reunion the week before Tech’s spring game to commemorate their spot in history.

Nineteen members remain from that team, with four others unaccounted for. The rest are presumably playing the game they love on that gridiron up above. The ones left readily admit that this will probably be their last huddle. After all, they are all in their mid-80s and in a hurry-up offense against Father Time, whom, as we all know, is undefeated.

Most have some sort of physical ailments. But, while some of the recollections are foggy, they certainly possess their mental faculties.

They clearly remember beating rival VMI that season and tying UVa. They remember vividly that they were the first Virginia Tech team to go to a bowl. They also remember distinctly that they were the first team from the commonwealth of Virginia to go to a bowl.

And they remember all this expressly today during a time when many current Virginia Tech fans and alums have forgotten.
In many ways, they – this 1947 Sun Bowl team – have become the forgotten team.

World War II’s impact

The following members of the team attended the reunion: (sitting, from left to right) Frank Taylor, John Kroehling, Bob Taylor, Ross Orr, Jack Ittner and Oren Hopkins;(standing, from left to right) Gerry Zekert, Ray Beasley, Fred Shanks, Charlie Forbes and Chip Collum.

Nothing impacted college athletics in the 1940s more than World War II, a global conflict, sparked by a maniacal German dictator that ended up being played out on three continents. Of course, nothing impacted Tech athletics especially more than that world clash during that time period.

After all, the Corps of Cadets served as the foundation for the school, as all students were cadets in the early days. The United States’ entry into World War II in 1941 resulted in many of Tech’s finest being called to serve their country – athletes and coaches weren’t excluded, including head football coach Jimmy Kitts, who joined the Navy and went to serve after the 1941 season.

The school shut down the athletics department after scores of cadets went off to fight. In fact, Tech did not field a football team in 1943 or 1944.

In 1945, with the war winding down, the school restarted the football program. The highlight of the season came when Tech beat a Bear Bryant-led Maryland squad, as a running back named Charlie Forbes rushed for more than 100 yards. Forbes, who came to Tech as a walk-on from Newport News, Va., was an 18-year-old freshman at the time.

“I doubt there was anyone else in the 1940s who ran for more than 100 yards in a game,” said Ross Orr, a tackle and a kicker from Smyth County, Va., who played on that team and for the next two years.

Orr – who spearheaded this Sun Bowl team reunion – may be right. Tech’s records only go back to 1950. No one kept them before then.

Ross Orr, a tackle and the team’s kicker, was diving as he posed for a photo for the 1946 version of the Tech media guide. Orr (top), who went on to serve in the Air Force and to become a doctor, organized the reunion of the ’47 Sun Bowl team.

Like Forbes, Orr and a handful of other Tech players had not fought in the war. Their youthful, teenage exuberance made for an interesting dynamic when the war veterans – many of whom were married – returned to Blacksburg in 1946 to continue both their schooling and to play football.

Kitts returned in 1946 as well, and set about molding his football team. Only nine guys who played in 1945 actually played on the ’46 team. The ’46 team ended up being comprised of mostly freshmen or sophomores, most of whom were returning from the service.

Some were married at the time and lived with their wives, and in some cases, their children. Others lived in the dorms. Yet chemistry wasn’t an issue with this bunch.

“Sure, there were some cliques,” said Oren Hopkins, a freshman end from Norfolk, Va., who was drafted by the Army right out of high school and fought in the Battle of Bulge in Europe before coming to Tech. “We had a lot of married guys on the squad and they didn’t always mingle socially with some of the others. We didn’t always see each other much. But I never saw any animosity whatsoever.”

“I thought the transition was easier coming back from the war,” said Bob Taylor, a guard from Winchester, Va., who fought both in the European theater and the Pacific theater. “After the war, the veterans wanted a degree. It was either go to work or go to school and play football.

“I think most of those boys were mature. They were ready to get back and play ball and everyone pretty much fit right in.”

Many of these players returned with hardware and honors pinned on their uniforms. Taylor actually earned a Bronze Star for his role in combat. Harry Walton, a back and now deceased, was awarded two Purple Hearts. John Kroehling, an end from Springfield, N.J., also received a Purple Heart and a Soldier’s Medal after saving a man from drowning in the south Pacific. Floyd Bowles, a fullback from Richmond and the captain of the 1945 team, was a German prisoner of war. R.E. Johnson, an end from Tennessee who is now deceased, also was a German prisoner of war.

In all, 35 veterans formed the nucleus of the 1946 team, which, according to some counts, consisted of only 46 players.

“They never talked a lot about the war,” Orr said of the veterans. “It’s amazing. They just came back and played hard and tried hard.”

“You didn’t hear many stories,” Forbes agreed.

It certainly was a transitional time, both nationally and at Virginia Tech. After all, there was the shadow of World War I and the Great Depression, and the recent horrors of World War II. At Tech, for the first time, civilians outnumbered cadets on campus, and some of the civilians resented the war. The school itself appeared to be in the throes of transitioning from an institution with a military background to primarily an educational school.

For these guys, the gridiron provided a much-needed escape from the outside world.

The 1946 season

Oren Hopkins (left), Chip Collum (middle) and Ray Beasley get some laughs while looking at a photo of Collum acting crazy for a posed shot (bottom) before the 1946 season.

Tech’s road to a bowl game got off to a rather bumpy start. On Sept. 28, the Gobblers – as they were called back then – opened the season by traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face North Carolina and found themselves down 14-0 at halftime. The Tar Heels featured one of the nation’s best players in running back Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, who would later go on to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

But Tech flipped things around in the second half. Justice also doubled as the Tar Heels’ punter and Tech managed to block two of his punts – the only two blocked punts of Justice’s illustrious career. Both of those blocks led to Tech touchdowns, as the Gobblers scrambled to tie the game at 14.

Amazingly, Tech had a chance to pull the upset. But Orr, who doubled as the kicker, had a short field goal blocked late in the game and the game ended in a 14-14 tie. North Carolina would finish with an 8-1-1 record that season and a No. 8 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

“I got the blame for that one,” Taylor said. “I had two or three guys lined up over me and they came over my side.”

Then he chuckled.

“I always told Ross that he kicked it too low. Then he sent me a note a while back, saying that, yes, he did kick it too low. I don’t know if that was true. But that made me feel better anyway.”

Blocking kicks turned out to be Tech’s calling card for the ’46 season. Again, information from those days is sparse, but a couple of sources credit the Gobblers with blocking at least 10 punts that season. That team actually started the kick-blocking tradition at Tech that continues to this day.

John Maskas, a strapping 6-foot, 210-pound tackle – strapping for those days anyway – blocked six himself. Now deceased, Maskas, a native of Pennsylvania with a Greek heritage, was an honorable mention All-American that season. He, Hopkins, Taylor and Jack Ittner accounted for most of the blocks.

“John was pretty good at blocking punts, but I believe he got credit for one or two he didn’t block,” Ittner joked.

By all accounts, Ittner, a 6-0, 200-pound tackle from Richmond, was an outstanding player. He earned honorable mention All-America honors the following season but served notice in 1946. In fact, most interviewed for this story mentioned Ittner as the best player on the team.

A team shot posed before the ’46 season.

“He was the best player I ever saw in my life,” Orr said.

“Jack was fast and tough,” Forbes said. “I’ll never forget in the Maryland game when he hit Lu Gambino [a running back who later played in the pros] so hard that it knocked both of them out.”

Tech tied Virginia, but after four games, found itself at 0-2-2 on the season. The Gobblers, though, turned their season around in the following game when they took on N.C. State on Homecoming in Blacksburg. The Wolfpack came in unbeaten, but Ralph Beard threw a touchdown pass, and then a blocked kick late in the game led to a Beard touchdown run. Tech stunned the Wolfpack 14-6 – and the Wolfpack finished 8-2 and ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll.

The Gobblers went on to win or tie four of their final five games. A 20-7 win over VMI enabled them to finish the regular season with a 3-3-3 record.

Walking off the field after that victory, with smiles galore, they thought their season was over.

The Sun Bowl

The team arrived in El Paso to extremely cold weather.

A 3-3-3 record might have made for a rather forgettable season if not for one thing – the Gobblers shockingly received an invitation to play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on New Year’s Day.

Tech got the bid because of an alum who worked for a power company in El Paso. The alum – Marion Adams, Class of 1941 – also served on the Sun Bowl committee. Two other teams, Hardin Simmons and Texas Tech, declined bids, so Adams pitched Tech’s name to the committee, something he had actually been doing since the N.C. State victory, and the Gobblers ultimately received the bid.

The team, of course, wanted to play in the game, and the athletics department was all for it, seeing a way to add $10,000 to the coffers – the payout for each team.

“It was a big surprise to us,” Hopkins said. “Word spread before we had an actual formal team meeting about it, so most of us knew.

“It [the bowl selection process] was a lot more political back then. Today, the best teams pretty much go.”

Tech was to take on Cincinnati, a team with an 8-2 record heading into the game. Like the Gobblers, the game marked the Bearcats’ first official bowl game.

Because of injuries and attrition, only 32 players went for the game. Tech left for El Paso shortly after Christmas and found weather similar to that in Blacksburg – cold, snowy and icy.

Snow and ice covered Kidd Field, as more than 10,000 fans braved the elements to watch.

“We had a rough ride out there out of Roanoke,” Forbes said. “I remember I was sitting beside Dave Thomas, and Dave used to parachute out of planes for the Army. He got sick, and I joked with him, ‘Dave, you should be used to this. You’re used to jumping out of planes.’

“But we landed and there was snow on the ground. The people from the local Chamber of Commerce were apologizing all over the place. They said they hadn’t seen snow there in 25 years.”

In spite of the weather, the week turned out to be a fabulous one for the players and the coaches. They stayed at the Hotel Cortez, the nicest establishment in El Paso. They got to make a foray into Mexico, journeying across the border to Juarez, where they saw a live Mexican bullfight conducted by Manolete, the best bullfighter of all time. The team went to two Texas ranch breakfast parties, went on tours of the city, attended luncheons and received gifts, including watches with the words ‘The Sun Bowl ’47’ engraved on them.

“I bought a ring and some jewelry when we were in Juarez, and by the time we got back to El Paso, it had turned green,” Forbes laughed. “But the whole trip was a wonderful experience.”

“The people there just treated us magnificently,” Orr said.

Unfortunately, the week ended on a bit of a sour note, with Cincinnati beating the Gobblers 18-6 during extremely cold, snowy and icy conditions at 15,000-seat Kidd Field.

Tech blocked the three extra points and Maskas blocked his seventh punt of the season. But the Gobblers’ only score came on a 3-yard run by Beard in the fourth quarter. Two interceptions by Harold Johnson and Cincy’s 369 yards rushing were too much to overcome.

“They had a couple of good players,” Ittner said. “And they just beat us soundly.”

Though they lost the game, the team represented itself well. Perhaps Kitts put it best in the Jan. 15, 1947, Techgram:
“We just played a better team, and as a general rule, the best team always wins.”

Their place in Tech history

This is a copy of the 1947 Sun Bowl program autographed at the time by the members of the team and the coaches.

The Gobblers of 1946 finished with a 3-4-3 record, a losing record only by the strict definition of that particular term.

Yet this bunch was anything but losers.

They served their country with honor and valor, and then came back and served their university with character and dignity. Of the 46 members of that team, 45 graduated from Tech, and Orr, who gathered the information for the reunion, wasn’t sure about the other one.

They went on to distinguished careers, too. Orr became a surgeon and later developed the vascular program and the clinical vascular laboratory (which bears his name) at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa. Taylor worked for the FBI, and his brother, Frank, worked for the CIA. Forbes worked for DuPont as an engineer for a while, but later came back to Tech and worked for President Bill Lavery as the first Vice President for Development and University Relations. He spent 14 years at Tech before leaving to become the vice president of the University of Delaware, where he stayed until retiring.

Hopkins worked for DuPont, Sharples Corp., and Envirotech, Inc., as an engineer before later founding his own company. Pat Denardo worked for NASA as a researcher of hypervelocity aerodynamics, while Sally Rand worked for the New Holland division of the Sperry Rand Corporation. Kroehling has retired twice, but formed his own company (J.H. Kroehling Associates) in 1991 – and still designs air pollution control equipment at the age of 85!

Ross Orr (left), Ray Beasley (middle) and Oren Hopkins gaze at the plaque recognizing all the Williams Award winners (top). All three won the Williams Award - Orr in 1945, Beasley in 1948 and Hopkins in 1949 - which goes to a team member who demonstrates leadership and character.

There are many, many other great stories. These and what they accomplished on the gridiron should be remembered. Without question, they cemented themselves in Virginia Tech athletics history.

Though sadly, many appear to have forgotten that. And for such a distinguished group, that stings.

“I felt a little sensitive about that,” Taylor said. “We weren’t the greatest team. But we were the first. I’m not sure a lot of people know that.”

“I think most feel a little neglected,” Orr said. “They didn’t get the recognition they would have liked or deserved.”

The athletics department recognizes the Sun Bowl team with a banner in Lane Stadium and also a banner in Legends Hall (in the Merryman Center). Orr’s diligence in his pursuit of information on his former teammates and pictures of them has helped. Several of those pictures have been put in a display at the Tech Hall of Fame over at Lane Stadium. The athletics communications staff probably will use these newfound pictures in the bowl section of the annual media guide. Some of the other information and pictures may be put into a display.

This will help bring attention to their deserving accomplishments. After all, they were the first Tech bowl team and the first team from the commonwealth to play in a bowl game. They always will be. Everyone knows you cannot rewrite history.

As the final chapters of their lives are drawing to a close, they are proud of their place in that history.

Their only hope is that others will be as well.