ATLANTA (AP) — Clint Castleberry had a glorious season at Georgia Tech, a whirlwind of a player whose star burned bright.
A newspaper scribe nicknamed him the “Jackrabbit” – a testament to his blinding speed on the gridiron.
In an age where players lined up on both offense and defense, Castleberry seemed to be everywhere.
And then, he was gone.
All that potential, extinguished by the horrors of war.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Castleberry’s largely forgotten exploits – so dazzling, yet so brief – are a grim and painful reminder of what might have been were it not for the extreme futility of settling differences through an armed conflict.
As we honor those who have paid the ultimate price on behalf of their country, including pro athletes like Bob Kalsu and Pat Tillman, we should take a few moments between a cookout and some sun to acknowledge that we can never truly know how much loses when someone doesn’t come home.
All those lives that never get a chance to reach their full fulfilment.
There are no winners.
Castleberry may have been one of college football’s greatest players. He may have been one of the first NFL stars. He may have lived a long life, telling stories of how he led a memorable win at Notre Dame with his rushing and passing feats, how he picked up that pass against Navy and returned it nearly the length of the field for a touchdown to beat the mighty Middies.
Instead, he died while flying a B-26 somewhere off the coast of Africa during the last year of World War II. They found some bits of debris floating in the ocean, but never his body. He was only 21 years old.
“I can’t even imagine what he could have done,” said Bill Chastain, who wrote the book “Jackrabbit: The Story of Clint Castleberry and the Improbable 1942 Georgia Tech Football Season.”
Chastain describes Castleberry as “a gym rat,” someone who enjoyed playing sports from dawn to dusk, who excelled at just about anything he tackled.
Soccer. Baseball. Basketball.
In the summer months, he swept foul balls that went over the roof of the baseball field on Ponce de Leon Avenue that was home to the local minor league team, the Crackers.
One day, the story goes, famed Atlanta high school coach RL “Shorty” Doyal was having a football practice when a ball flew onto an adjacent field where Castleberry was playing. When the tiny boy jerked him away with a mighty gasp, Doyal knew he was a player he had to have.
“Shorty Doyal, like all good coaches in the past, had a good working knowledge of who the best players in the area were from the field up,” Chastain said. “And he went to get them.”
Playing for Doyal at Boys’ High School, not far from the Georgia Tech campus, Castleberry displayed the powerful arm and tremendous speed that made him a weapon on both sides of the line in the non-platoon era.
He was only 5 foot 9 and weighed just over a dollar fifty, but Chastain was immediately struck by his chiseled body when, while researching for the book, he came across a photo of Castleberry in a basketball uniform.
“He had some major hamstrings,” Chastain said. “You knew this guy was an athlete just by looking at the photo.”
Castleberry was a high school senior when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging America into a world war that had already been raging for more than two years. He enrolled at Georgia Tech the following year and got a chance to play right away.
With so many youngsters going to war, schools have been facing a shortage of players. The rules were changed, allowing freshmen to dress for college.
Castleberry was hardly overwhelmed. While his individual stats are hard to come by, what is known is that he led the Yellow Jackets to nine straight victories, including a 13-6 triumph at Notre Dame – their first win over the Fighting Irish since 1928 – and a 21-0 empty by the Navy in Annapolis.
“When I was writing the book, a guy said to me, ‘Did you know he was a guy who blew the field because when they took the train to Baltimore, everybody got off the train before they got to Annapolis,'” he said Chastain. “’The train was about to leave and Castleberry was not there. So they kept his train.’”
Good thing. Castleberry had one of his most memorable plays of the season on defense. According to one report of the game, the Midshipmen attempted a pass on fourth-and-13 from the Georgia Tech 27.
“The Tech secondary knew what was going to happen on the last down,” the story went. “The defenders lined up like duck hunters, and when Gordon Studer threw the ball, the Tech defensemen literally slammed into each other chasing him. Comet 155lb Clint Castleberry was the lucky man. He caught it on his eight of him and made a 92-yard dash to score.
As Castleberry’s fame grew, Georgia Tech moved up to second place in the Associated Press rankings. But in his ninth straight win, a 20-7 triumph over Florida in Atlanta, he hurt his knee.
“If we went back and put it in terms of modern technology, it was probably torn cartilage,” Chastain said. “It was probably something you would have cleaned up now and be back out there in a month.”
But this was a different era. Castleberry played the following week against Georgia and their star, Frank Sinkwich. With their best player clearly limited, the Yellow Jackets were swept by their greatest rival, 34-0.
Castleberry re-injured his knee but played again on New Year’s Day in the Cotton Bowl where Georgia Tech went down to Texas 14-7 to finish 9-2 and No. 5 in the AP rankings.
In Heisman Trophy balloting, Castleberry finished third behind a pair of seniors: winner Sinkwich and runner-up Paul Governali of Columbia. With freshmen deemed ineligible again after the war—a rule that would remain in effect until the early 1970s—Castleberry held the top-finishing freshman record in the Heisman vote until Herschel Walker of Georgia also ranked third in 1980.
Eventually Castleberry underwent surgery on his bad knee after the season and was declared fit for military service. He was drafted into the Army Air Forces and earned his wings as Lieutenant Clinton Dillard Castleberry Jr.
Stationed in Africa, with the end of the war some nine months away, he was co-piloting one of two B-26s that took off from Liberia on a run up the coast to Senegal on November 7, 1944. It is unclear what happened, but neither aircraft arrived at their destination. An extensive search turned up only a few pieces of debris. Castleberry and three others were pronounced dead with no remains found, sparking hope in his young wife and father that somehow he had survived, that he had made it to a remote part of Africa and would one day be discovered safe and sound.
“His wife dreamed he was alive on an island,” Chastain said.
Castleberry’s number – 19 – is still the only one to be retired from the Yellow Jackets football programme. He hangs in the corner of Bobby Dodd Stadium, above the tunnel where the team takes the field.
We will never know what Castleberry might have been had he returned to Georgia Tech, as he planned, to complete the last three years of his college career.
All we have is that glorious season.
And, on this Memorial Day weekend, a grim reminder of the terrible toll of war.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Email him at [email protected]
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