“I look at sports as a way to think about history,” says Randy Roberts. “It’s not just sports for sports’ sake. I always hope I have something bigger to say.”
In A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game that Rallied a Nation, Roberts has a lot to say about football, young men, national pride and war. It all comes together in a monumental football game on Dec. 3, 1944.
In a time of war and national uncertainty, the young cadets and midshipmen of the military academies represented to America not just a sport but a way of life – something worth fighting for.
“I see A Team for America not as a sports story but as a World War II story,” Roberts says. “I knew I wanted to look at the home front, but I needed a focus.
“Well, here’s a football team representing the U.S. Army in time of war. The war was being fought by old West Pointers – Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton – and these young players would soon be risking their lives in the war.”
The setup for the confrontation on December 3, 1944, was hugely dramatic. After years of failing in the home stretch (its teams started their seasons strong, then collapsed) Army’s 1944 gridiron squad was unbeaten and ranked at Number 1 in the polls.
Navy, which had repeatedly foiled the cadets from West Point in recent years, was ranked Number 2.
Its football fortunes lifted by an innovative coach (Col. Earl “Red” Blaik) and less restrictive wartime regulations that allowed the recruitment of big beefy linemen (pre-war no cadet could stand taller than 6 feet 4 inches or weigh more than 198 pounds), Army was now ready for the game that could make them national champions.
Watch a 1944 newsreel of the game:
“There has never been a sports event, perhaps never an event of any kind, that received the attention of so many Americans in so many places around the world,” wrote one sports journalist.
Indeed, in wintry European fields, sweltering Asian jungles and on the heaving decks of ships at sea, American servicemen stopped fighting long enough to listen to the broadcast of the game.
When he began his research a decade ago, Roberts says, many of the players still were alive and contributed their recollections. He also sought out fans who had witnessed the game played in Baltimore on a frigid winter’s day. And he pored over the official program, a hefty 70-page volume.
“The program was crammed with advertising, not just from local merchants but from big companies like Grumman or a manufacturer of tanks and armaments. And coming through it all is a very strong sense that this game is about the war, it’s about America, and that these are our warriors.”
Roberts has produced volumes about prize fighters like Jack Johnson, Mike Tyson and Joe Louis (in fact, in March, 2010 he visited the Library to present a program about the “Brown Bomber” – get audio of his presentation). He has written about Boston’s history of sports and about teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He says he’s always looking for sports stories that say something more about who we are as a people.
“This is going to sound strange, but the first paper I ever had to write -- maybe I was in fourth or sixth grade – was about boxing and on how boxers had this connection with history,” Roberts says.
“That paper was long ago thrown away, but that fascination with sports as history has always been a part of me.”
He’s often written about boxing, he says, because that sport sums up so much about American notions of masculinity.
“In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver wrote that the boxing ring is a two fisted-testing ground of masculinity, and that the heavyweight champ is the real symbol of Mister America.
“He was onto something. A boxer is an individual; it’s not a team sport. And lots of boxers carry lots of baggage, personal and cultural.
“Forty years ago you could ask someone how they felt about Muhammad Ali, and from their answer you could figure out where they stood on race, politics, the Vietnam War – lots of things that weren’t necessarily about boxing.
“Those are the sorts of connections I look for when choosing a topic.”
Roberts remains busy. In addition to his teaching duties, he has a book about the Chicago Cubs coming out later this year and is researching another about Alabama football in the early ‘60s – the era of Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Civil Rights.
To attend Roberts' lecture on Thursday, Feb. 2. 2012, please RSVP online or call 816.701.3407.