Note - Ross M. Orr, Jr., M.D. was a member of the Hokies’ 1947 Sun Bowl team and shares the thoughts and memories from the members of that squad who are still living after Tech’s invitation to the 2013 Hyundai Sun Bowl
Sixty-seven years ago, 1946, World War II was ending, and the boys came home. Thirty-five came back to play football at Virginia Tech, 25 in the Army, six in the Navy and four Marines. Three had been prisoners of war. Some had Purple Hearts, and some had Bronze Stars for bravery. They were joined by 10 19-year-old members of the Corps of Cadets from the 1945 team that restarted the football program after a two-year absence. Their claim to fame in 1945 was a victory over an undefeated Maryland team coached by Bear Bryant. Bryant never defeated Tech. Coach Jimmy Kitts also came back from active duty. Elmer Wilson, who was elected captain in 1942, was welcomed back from the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany. These elements came together, liked and respected each other, played a game they loved, and in the end, created a historic first for the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The world was in turmoil much like today, with governments and countries in constant change. The League of Nations held its last meeting, and the United Nations, formed in 1945, selected New York for its headquarters.
America, too, was changing. The United States Supreme Court took the first tiny step toward equality for all when it ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. A teammate, an Army veteran, expressed his feelings: “I fought a war and lost some friends so that everyone could share equality, and it is time for America to live up to that promise.” In our minds, the march for equality had begun.
Television was not a major factor in college sports. Music and films were important. We enjoyed “Five Minutes More” from Frank Sinatra, “The Old Lamp Lighter” by Sammy Kaye, “To Each His Own” from the Ink Spots, and “Rumors are Flying” by Frankie Carle. We watched “The Best Years Of Our Lives,” a film about returning servicemen, on the silver screen. We danced to the Big Band Music that had permeated our minds and souls through the long war years. It had preserved our youth and fueled our determination and dreams.
We felt good to be alive.
Virginia Tech was on the verge of a dramatic change. In the fall semester, the civilian students outnumbered the Cadets. Exactly 3,071 were veterans. History would prove that Tech was able to become a great university while balancing the needs of the civilian segment and the Corps of Cadets. This, I believe, is the finest example of educational wisdom in the American college and universities community.
Football was not the almost overwhelming force on campus as it is today. We won three, tied three and lost three. There were some bright spots. We defeated North Carolina State when they were ranked 12th in the country. This was the first Tech win over a ranked team. We tied North Carolina, who finished ranked No. 9 at the end of the season. We could have won, but Carolina blocked my field-goal attempt in the last 10 seconds. We blocked 10 punts, including two against Charlie (Choo-Choo) Justice of North Carolina. These were the only two that he had blocked in his great career. In the Sun Bowl, we blocked all three attempted extra points. We believe this is still a record. We also believe we laid the groundwork for what is now called “Beamer Ball.”
We had leather helmets and no facemasks. Although our heads were bounced around a little bit, we still knew that France was selling bikinis for the first time. (Boys will be boys).
The single wing formation was king. We dabbled in the double wing and the short punt formation, which has evolved into the “Pistol.” We played both offense and defense and 60 minutes games were very common. The extra point was especially important as there was no two-point option. If you missed one and were down eight points, you were down two scores. The University of Virginia had switched to the “T” formation. Washington and Lee ran a short pass control system years before the West Coast offense became a national rage. The ideas in football have changed some, but the weight training, strength and speed has left us in the Model T era. The starting backfield averaged 179 pounds and the starting line averaged 194. Our signature game was the Military Classic of the South, the VMI –VPI Thanksgiving Day game in Roanoke’s Victory Stadium. A great rivalry lifts football into a higher realm of emotions and memories.
We were invited to play in the Sun Bowl Classic in El Paso. We were the first bowl team from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the first bowl team from Virginia Tech. The Sun Bowl is the second-oldest bowl game after the Rose Bowl. I believe the Sugar, Orange and Cotton question this. The pride and traditions of the Sun Classic have remained strong through the years. The hospitality was outstanding. Some highlights were the Sheriff’s Posse breakfast and the trip to Juarez to see the great Spanish Matador Manolete. We took 35 players to the game. Captain Elmer Wilson set the tone. We were to be on time, grateful for the festivities and were to set an example of courtesy. We believe we did that. We look back at the snow and ice Sun Bowl with pride and gratitude. The friendships we forged with teammates are far more important than the score, as we lost 18-6 to Cincinnati.
Of the 46 players on the ’46 team, 45 received degrees, and we are not sure about only one. Several went on for master’s and PhD’s and one went to medical school. We believe the term “student-athletes” properly defined applies to the ’46 Tech team.
We are proud that Tech is going back to El Paso, and we believe they will represent the Commonwealth of Virginia and the university with pride and sportsmanship. Yes, we are proud to have represented our university in the first bowl game, but we know that our military service and our educational accomplishments extend far beyond the football field.
We are all over 80 now and some in the 90s. Most are gone. We believe there are 11 alive: Ray Beasley (halfback), Floyd Bowles (halfback), Chip Collum (halfback), B. Pat Denardo (center), Dr. John Gerngross (center), John Kroehling (end) Ross Orr, Jr. M.D. (tackle and placekicker), Fred Shanks Jr. (back), Franklin Taylor (lineman), Gerhard Zekert (end), and Paul Zender (end).
We know that five of the above traveled to El Paso and played in the game. They are Beasley, Bowles, Zekert, Zender and Orr.
It has been my privilege to present this for the 1946 Tech team. They are proud and good Hokies who understand their place in Tech lore and history.
Ross M. Orr Jr. M.D. (retired Chief of Vascular Surgery, St. Luke’s University Hospital)
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