Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fond memories of Army's 'Mr. Inside'

by Don Klein

When I was a young reporter I never liked writing obituaries. I always felt I was being punished by my editor for committing an umbrage. How wrong can youth be? Now I read obituaries every day because despite the sadness it often brings when realizing a life has ended, the story is usually the most elegant and evocative piece in the paper.

I read obituaries not for the reason an aging wag once explained "to make sure my name was not on it" but because it is a wonderful last tribute to someone who formerly lived a life of interest. We all live interesting lives whether we realize it or not.

Stop anyone on the street and if you can get them to talk about themselves, as reporters are more likely to do than most people, you will realize the remarkable factors that go into making a "normal" life. Besides, with most newspaper obits a reader gets that one last chance to spend time with someone they haven’t thought of for years.

Take Felix "Doc" Blanchard, the former West Point football star of the World War II era. Blanchard died this week in Texas at the age of 84, but when I was a callow youth in my early teens he was the rough and tough star of Army football when Army had the greatest football team of the day. The team never again attained such glory.

Every Saturday when Army football games were broadcast on radio – there was no commercial television in those days – I would find a suitable chair and sit on its edge to listen to the exploits of Blanchard and his sidekick Glenn Davis.

During Blanchard’s three years with Army, the team never lost a game.
Blanchard was called "Mr. Inside" because of his exceptional running talent erupting like a volcano up the middle of the field. Davis was known as "Mr. Outside" because he was speedier and could turn the corners better than his colleague. Between the two, Army football was invincible in those days and like any male adolescent during wartime I was completely enthralled by the duo.

Now with the death of Blanchard there comes to mind distinct memories of those wonderful days. Much like the death of actress Fay Wray five years ago, the curtain was closing on my memorable early years of star worship. Wray was the first actress to stir admiration for the opposite sex as she writhed in the clutches of King Kong in my prepubescent days. Blanchard came later and was probably the last of my teenage heroes. As I grew, I realized there are not nearly as many to admire as a child might have thought.

Davis died four years ago and now that Blanchard is gone the famed "touchdown twins" are no longer, but the memory remains. Blanchard scored 38 touchdowns in three years and Davis 59 in four.

I remember a particular day from that era. My grandfather was in a hospital not too far from where we lived in the Bronx. My mother had six sisters and three brothers and many of them used our apartment as a pit stop before or after visiting grampa. On a November Saturday in 1944 Army was playing either Navy or Notre Dame when my Aunt Rose and Uncle Sol from Brooklyn dropped off their sons, my younger cousins, Philly and Irwin, while they visited the hospital.

I had just turned 16 so my mother explained to me how to put up a pot of spaghetti for us three boys while the grownups were visiting the ailing patriarch. Everything went well until I drained the spaghetti into a serving dish and put it, mixed with sauce, on the kitchen table. The radio was blasting away reciting the resolute exploits of Blanchard and Davis.

I was glued to the squawking box during one of the more exciting moments of the game and when I turned back, Philly and Irwin had their hands deep into the pasta bowl and were stuffing their mouths without utensils like cavemen. Today all three of us are grandparents and still whenever I see my cousins I think of the time they ate handfuls of spaghetti like Fred Flintstone while Blanchard and Davis made it a perfect football day for us.

Davis was more of a ladies man and even went on to become one of Hollywood actress Terry Moore’s numerous husbands. He also played professional football for two years with the then Los Angeles Rams. In contrast, Blanchard turned down all offers of personal fame and professional football to become an officer in the Air Force (this was before the Air Force Academy was started in Colorado Springs) and served honorably until he retired as a colonel in 1971.

He served a brief spell as an assistant football coach at West Point. But his greatest achievement was how he inspired a bunch of adolescent boys during a very dark period in the country’s existence. No one did a better job than he on his school’s football field, the first to win the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player while still just a junior. Then after graduation he fulfilled his obligation as an fighter-bomber pilot officer. He flew 84 combat missions over North Vietnam.

Blanchard was all but forgotten as he served in the Air Force and for decades few people heard about him. But kids like me will never forget reading the exploits of the touchdown twins week after week for three consecutive football seasons. At the time I thought the excitement this pair generated would never be equaled, and it wasn’t.

The US Military Academy previously retired Davis’s uniform number 41 and, before he died, West Point announced it would retire No. 35, Blanchard’s famous uniform number. It is fitting that no future Army football player wear these two numbers. It is hard to conceive that ever again there will be two such great running backs playing for the same team at the same time as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.