Friday, 1 May 2009

MR INSIDE, DOC BLANCHARD: My Independent Obituary

My obituary of Doc Blanchard is in today's Independent, you can find it here. Obviously, the paper's main interest was in the way Blanchard's actions prevented a tragedy over an Essex village, but equally obviously, his fame in America was down to his exploits on the football field; even when I was boy, the legend of Mr Inside and Mr Outside was still current.

The obit was supposed to be brief, but even so, some of the things I felt were crucial to his story were cut, and there were others I had left out myself to keep the piece short, so I'll tell you about them here.

The 1944 Army-Navy game was moved to Baltimore by President Roosevelt. Traditionally played at a neutral venue (usually in Philadelphia) in 1942-43 it had been held at the academies, but Roosevelt recognised the great interest in the undefeated Army team and its propaganda value, and also ordered war bonds sold along with the tickets.

After going undefeated in '44 and '45, and being national champions both years, Blanchard missed the first two games of the 1946 season to injury, and played the rest of the year at less than 100%. The meeting of the unbeatens, against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, one of the greatest non-baseball events at that now-destroyed venue, ended in a 0-0 tie, which, as usual, acted in Notre Dame's favor and they were awarded the national championship. That tie was the only blemish on the three years Davis and Blanchard played together under Red Blaik. Late in the game, Blanchard was stopped in the open field by Notre Dame's quarterback Johnny Lujack; it is often contended that the fully-fit Doc would've scored. Davis won the Heisman that year, Lujack the next, and Notre Dame end Leon Hart would win it in '48: I'm not sure there's been another college game that featured four Heisman winners.

Of course Army had some advantages in those years, not least that many of the players other colleges would have recruited were in the services, Blanchard among them. He was a year older than he would have been otherwise. Absent the war, he would have played at North Carolina. He was sent to his father's school, St. Stanislaus, in Bay St Louis, Mississippi, the Rockachaws. According to some sources, he was recruited by both Army and Notre Dame, but fell short academically. But he chose North Carolina to be closer to home, where his father was ill, and where the varsity coach was his mother's cousin. The academic bit was certainly real; Doc graduated 296 out 310 in his class, and there was the lingering suspicion it was his football skill that got him admitted to West Point.

The deal Blanchard and Davis originally made to play pro football was made with General Maxwell Taylor, before public outcry forced its cancellation. This became an issue last year, when an Army player was allowed to go to NFL camps, and again there was an outcry. While they were making their movie, Davis injured his knee seriously; he left the Army when his four years were up and played for the Los Angeles Rams, part of one of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen, but he was never the same player.

Blacnhard's number 35 will be retired this season; along with teammate Joe Steffy. Army had retired only two numbers previously: Davis' 41 and Pete Dawkins' 24. Dawkins went from Army football to a Rhodes scholarship and Oxford blues in rugby; he is the man who invented the overarm throw-in at the lineout.

But it's a puzzle why Davis and Blanchard didn't see their numbers retired together, and even more of a puzzle why Blanchard, who chose a career in the military, and even returned to West Point to coach, had to wait while Davis was honoured first. Maybe because Doc stuck with the Air Force after it became a separate service?

The politics of the service academies are beyond me, but the magnitude of the Army-Notre Dame rivalry was something I wish I could have conveyed. You could look up John Ford's movie, The Long Gray Line, if you'd like to get something of a feeling for it--the perfect film for Ford, as Irish and military loyalties crash head to head. Anyway, I am grateful the Indy gave me the chance to write about him. Although I should point out that I had the correct spelling of 'shotput' in my original copy.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I am very happy that you were moved to write this obit and recovered a great moment in college football. I was an Army fan in 1944 and had little use for Notre Dame.

Blanchard and Davis were my heroes (the Mr, Inside and Mr. Outide tags helped)and the Irish got too much coverage for me. I heard this game on the radio and still remember the tension of a game that ended in a scoreless tie. I was quite sad when the Irish were awarded the national championship.

Thanks for pushing this memory back to the surface.