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January 10, 2014

Former Tech players remember fondly first trip to El Paso

By: Jimmy Robertson

Most members of the 1946 squad have passed away, but the few who remain take pride in being the school’s first bowl team and remember well the program’s original trip to the Sun Bowl

The 1946 Tech football team was the first in school history to play in a bowl game, traveling by plane all the way to El Paso, Texas, to play in the 1947 Sun Bowl. Here is a photo of the game program from that game (right) and a photo of the team as it got ready to board one of two DC-3 airplanes that took them to Texas.

Ray Beasley is 90 years old and lives with his wife in Midlothian, Va. He and his wife have been married 72 years.

He still plays golf, and in late November, shot a round of 88. He takes pride, deservedly so, in shooting his age, or a little better, and chuckles when informed that a lot of people shoot his age.

But the impressive thing about Ray Beasley isn’t related to numbers. Ask this 90-year-old young man about Virginia Tech’s 1947 appearance in the Sun Bowl, and he can practically recite the team’s daily itinerary and the details of the game 67 years later.

Beasley is one of what is believed to be five former Tech players still living who played in the 1947 Sun Bowl against Cincinnati – the school’s first bowl game and the first bowl game for any team out of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is believed that 11 members of the 1946 team still are living, but not everyone traveled to the bowl game back then. Ross Orr, Gerhard Zekert, Floyd Bowles and Paul Zender are the other four who are living and played in the game.

The announcement that the 2013 Hokies were returning to the Sun Bowl to play UCLA brought forth smiles among this crew – and brought back a lot of good memories.

“I was pleased,” said Orr, an honorable mention All-American at tackle and kicker in 1945 who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa. “I think the Sun Bowl stands head and shoulders above 90 percent of the other bowls because of the background. I think there are a few bowls that are really nice. Most bowls are just football games that someone throws a lot of money into the game and you go and play a game and go home. Then there are others with a lot of tradition.

“At least with some of these bowls, the community is really into it. It’s good for them, and they spend a year working on it. That’s the case with the Sun Bowl. I think it’s great, so I was happy when they [Virginia Tech] were going back to the Sun Bowl. It didn’t matter who the opponent was to me.”

The 1946 team certainly enjoyed its trip. But that team was more than just a bowl team. In a way, that team symbolized the quick rebirth of Tech football following World War II.

The university shut down its athletics department after scores of cadets in the Corps of Cadets, which served as the foundation of the school in those days, went off to fight. Tech did not field a football team in 1943 or 1944, as many of the football players served as cadets and participated in the war efforts. So, too, did head coach Jimmy Kitts, who joined the Navy and served after the 1941 season.

In 1945, the university resumed athletics, and the 1945 team, under Henry B. Redd, went 2-6. Kitts later returned from the war and assumed his role as the coach, guiding the 1946 team.

“That’s when all the veterans came back,” said Beasley, who served but was never in combat. “It was difficult for the coaches because, in 1945, they had brought in some great freshmen. Then in 1946, all the veterans were taking the place of the freshmen, and it was difficult for the coaches handling that situation. We had a lot of guys transferring in who had gone to other schools, too. It was an interesting time. All schools had the same situation.”

The 1946 season did not get off to a great start, with the team tying Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and the North Carolina Tar Heels and rival Virginia in the first two games and then losing the next two (William & Mary and Maryland). But the Gobblers, as they were known in those days, rallied to win three of their final five games to finish 3-3-3.

That might have made for a rather forgettable season if not for one thing – the invitation to play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on New Year’s Day. The Gobblers would take on Cincinnati, which sported an 8-2 record heading into the game.

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.

Virginia Tech ran a version of the single-wing offense in 1946, and the starting lineup featured a back named Ray Beasley (No. 87, top right), who lives in Midlothian, Va., today. Ralph Beard (No. 84) scored the Gobblers’ lone touchdown in the 1947 Sun Bowl.

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

Only 32 players and a handful of coaches went to the game. They loaded up on two DC-3 planes and flew from Roanoke to Knoxville, Tenn., Knoxville to Memphis, Tenn., Memphis to Fort Worth, Texas, and Fort Worth to Big Spring, Texas. They bused from Big Spring to El Paso because of storms.

“That was the first time I had been in a plane, so that was exciting for me at that age, just going to fly all the way to El Paso,” said Zekert, who lives in Suffolk, Va. “I think everyone felt the same way.

“What greeted us in El Paso was more snow. It had snowed here [in Blacksburg], and they scraped the Drillfield off so we could practice. When we got to El Paso, they had said, ‘We don’t have snow,’ but there was snow. It wasn’t that much, but it was there. It was cold, too.”

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, a renowned bullfighter. 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.

The game didn’t turn out to be as nice for the Hokies. Playing in cold, snowy and icy conditions at Kidd Field, adjacent to the current Sun Bowl Stadium, the Gobblers gave up 12 points in the third quarter and lost 18-6. Tech blocked the three extra points and John Maskas blocked his seventh punt of the season. But the Gobblers’ only score came on a 3-yard run by Ralph Beard in the fourth quarter. Two interceptions by Harold Johnson and Cincy’s 369 yards rushing were too much to overcome.

We woke up [the day of the game] and the whole state of Texas was iced in, nothing but ice,” Beasley said. “They didn’t have lights on the field. It was an old field, not the one they play on now. It was a dark day, and it was raining, snowing, sleeting and everything. I don’t think it got up to about 25 [degrees], but it was worse than that. I don’t think anyone could make an extra point.

“I know Cincinnati was a rough, tough, rugged team. I got beat up pretty bad. On two occasions, their players, rather than try to tackle me, gave me good right-hand punches to the face. We didn’t have facemasks like they do today. I ended up with a broken nose and swollen lips. But they beat us.”

The Gobblers tried to return home the next day, but the weather got so bad that it forced them to stay in El Paso an extra day. That started a three-day saga, which included spending a night in Dallas and a night in Knoxville.

“It was quite an experience,” Beasley said.

Tech finished with a 3-4-3 record in 1946, but this group of players was anything but losers. Most served their country with honor and valor, and then came back and, like the others, served their university with character and dignity. Of the 46 members of that 1946 team, 45 graduated from Tech – information could not be found to verify the other one’s status.

Many also enjoyed success after their playing days ended. Beasley contemplated going to Florida and coaching football at a high school near Tampa, but with a wife and child when he graduated in 1948 with a degree in business administration, he decided to take a more stable position at Bell Telephone in Richmond, where he worked for 36 years before retiring.

Zekert graduated in 1949 with a degree in chemical engineering and took a job at Planter’s Peanuts in Suffolk, Va., working in all phases of peanut processing. He worked there for 40 years.

The 86-year-old Orr, who graduated with a degree in biology, went on to medical school at the Medical College of Virginia and later did an internship at Ohio State’s university hospital. He then did a residency at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa. He became a surgeon and later developed the vascular program and the clinical vascular laboratory (which bears his name) at St. Luke’s.

During Tech’s trip to El Paso for the 1947 Sun Bowl, the Gobblers, as they were known back then, encountered snow and freezing temperatures at Kidd Field, the site of the Sun Bowl game until 1963.

There were other success stories. Winchester, Va., natives Bob and Frank Taylor worked for the FBI and CIA, respectively. Charlie Forbes, from Newport News, Va., 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. He passed away in 2012.

Oren Hopkins, a Norfolk, Va., native, worked for DuPont, Sharples Corp., and Envirotech, Inc., as an engineer before later founding his own company. He passed away in 2011. John Kroehling, a Springfield, N.J., native, has retired twice, but formed his own company (J.H. Kroehling Associates) in 1991 and still works today. In fact, Kroehling, an engineering graduate, gave $500,000 to the university to build the Kroehling Advanced Materials Foundry near campus, a building used for high-tech metal casting.

In the spring of 2009, 11 members of the 1946 team, including all those mentioned above, returned to Blacksburg for a two-day reunion – an event spearheaded by Orr and his wife, Sandy. The Orr’s diligent research resulted in newspaper articles, photos and other general information about the team, all of which greatly helped the Tech athletics department learn more about that era (the department’s records only go back to 1950).

Already, the department has used some of the photos in exhibits commemorating the first bowl team at the Tech Hall of Fame over at Lane Stadium. Plans call for using others in Legends Hall, a football memorabilia area in the Merryman Center.

This will bring attention to their deserving accomplishments.

“A couple of friends know, and they’re like, ‘You ought to be proud of that to have your team go back to the Sun Bowl and you played on the first Sun Bowl team. You ought to be proud of that.’” Zekert said. “I said, ‘Well, I am.’ What can you do but to be proud of that? That’s part of your memoirs.”

The 2009 reunion probably marked the last huddle for this collection of greats. As the clock of life runs, they are in a hurry-up offense.

But as they watched the Hokies play UCLA on New Year’s Eve, they did so with a sense of pride. Sixty-seven years ago, they were there, cementing themselves in Virginia Tech history. Back then, they were pleased.

Now, they’re proud.

“When most people talk about Virginia Tech football, they think it began in the 1950s,” Orr said. “They lost some records, and the people who write the books, they sort of begin in the 1950s.

“But there were some great people before that. I think now we’re more proud of what we did than we were during all those years.”