The Rose Bowl came about to attract visitors to California, principally for real estate opportunity, after the turn of the 20th century and became a model that other cities would follow. Miami (Orange), New Orleans (Sugar), Dallas (Cotton), Jacksonville (Gator) and even El Paso (Sun) all eventually got in on the act.
The first Rose Bowl was played on Jan. 1, 1902, and it became an annual event in 1916. Some football enthusiasts tend to forget that it for more than 15 years, the Rose Bowl stood alone. It wasn’t until Jan. 1, 1935, that the Orange, Sugar and Sun bowls emerged.
Very few of the Georgia season-ticket holders of today were born when the Bulldogs played in Pasadena 75 years ago ―Jan. 1, 1943 ― a time when the world was at war and gas rationing was a serious issue for travelers. Many players in the 1943 Rose Bowl would return to their respective campuses and embark on military assignments.
Some of them never came home.
To put things in perspective, otherwise, the Rose Bowl became a morale boost for the little town of Athens, which then had a population of 20,650, and UGA, with its student body of 3,150. Earning an invitation to the Rose Bowl was the objective of teams throughout college football in those years. Alabama was the first Southern school to be offered an invitation in 1926.
Georgia Tech got to Pasadena in 1929, which was frustrating for the Bulldogs faithful, but to make matters worse, Georgia Tech had knocked Georgia out of an invitation just two years before. The undefeated Bulldogs, playing at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field every year for the larger gate, were upset 12-0 on Dec. 3, 1927. The loss was blamed on heavy rains and the partisan suspicion that Georgia Tech added water to the playing surface, ensuring a quagmire for Georgia’s stable of fast, but lightweight backs. Still, Georgia managed to win the national championship that year.
It wasn’t until 1943 that the Bulldogs could exclaim, “California, here we come.” It came about after Pearl Harbor, and while men were dying and sacrifices were being made across the globe, the mood in Athens and Los Angeles had a celebratory edge. The year before, to bring the war into perspective, the Rose Bowl was moved to Durham, N.C., for fear of a West Coast invasion by Japanese forces. On Jan. 1, 1942, Oregon State defeated the host Blue Devils, 20-16.
It’s not clear how many living Georgians were in attendance at the 1943 Rose Bowl, but there are at least three: Charley Trippi, the star of the game; E.W. Daniel of Claxton; and Frank Troutman, who grew up in Atlanta and became a resident of Augusta before moving back to his family home in Buckhead. Frank was 8 years old when his father, Frank Sr., a trademark lawyer for Coca-Cola, took his son and wife Mary to the West Coast for the big game.
It was the trip of a lifetime at one of the critical turning points in U.S. history. The team traveled to California via Chicago, a fun and frolic adventure that was as memorable as driving the family car on your first date.
The sidebars and stories that have been handed down are now made fuzzy by the scarcity of reference for fact checking. One popular tale had to do with actress Rita Hayworth boarding the train in Chicago. Word soon reached the players that one of the nation’s most recognizable beauties might be traveling west with them.
George Poschner, a high school cheerleader and friend of the team’s big star, Frank Sinkwich, had gotten a contingent offer by the coaching staff: make the team, and you’re on scholarship. These were post-Depression times, and America was still the land of opportunity. That was all Poschner needed. Three square meals for this growing boy, and he was soon a man. He became a battery mate with Sinkwich and earned All-America honors at end in 1942.
Poschner was bold and audacious, and on the train ride from Chicago to Pasadena, the aforementioned Hayworth, Ginger Rogers and Spencer Tracy were also passengers. Poschner found Hayworth’s compartment, knocked on her door and introduced himself. According to legend, she screamed, and Poschner stealthily became incognito.
One of those making the trip was Athens photographer Kenny Kaye, who took an 8mm movie camera along. Old scenes of the trip, one in particular at dusk, showed a touching interlude between Sinkwich, the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner, and his young wife, Adelaide. When I learned about Kaye’s handiwork in the 1970s, as I recall, I interviewed him about the trip and got copies made of his Rose Bowl movies for the UGA archives. You can go online and see this treasured old footage of movie personalities Hayworth, Rogers and Tracy, as well as Susan Hayward, Bob Hope and others.
For years, I interviewed Georgia’s Rose Bowl participants about the trip, which was revealing and fascinating. One particular story had to do with Bob Poss, the longtime barbecue and hash entrepreneur who played guard on the team. “Possey,” as he was nicknamed, was a colorful and clever character, fun-loving and mischievous. In defining the greatness of that team, Possey always said, “I was third team, and I was good.” More Possey: “Whenever we played poker on the train, I made sure Sinkwich was in the game. I knew Coach (Wally) Butts wouldn’t kick me off the team if Sinkwich was playing, since he sure as hell wasn’t going to kick Frankie off.”
As the game wound down in the final quarter, the coaches sent the court-jester reserve onto the field. Poss recalled that he saw the referee looking at his watch with his arm raised in the air, ready to fire the final gun. “Hey, ref,” Poss yelled. “Don’t fire that damn gun yet. I’m gonna play in the Rose Bowl.”
The best-documented vignettes, perhaps, had to do with linebacker Bill Godwin, who wrote a book called Cotton Pickin’ Linebacker in the mid-1980s with former Georgia football color announcer Jim Koger. Godwin was a farm boy from Arkansas and was a very competent player for Butts.
In his book, Godwin remembered that tackle Dick Richardson was a very handsome teammate who had a way with the girls. His teammates challenged Richardson to see if he could succeed in securing a date with Betty Grable, then one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. She was the No. 1 box-office draw in the world, and her famous legs were insured by her studio, as a publicity stunt for $1 million. Richardson did indeed get a date with Grable, who married trumpeter Harry James soon thereafter, leading to a familiar refrain of the day, “Betty Grable’s legs and Harry James’ trumpet.”
Godwin’s personal story may be the best of all. After the game, he and several players had been invited to actor Mickey Rooney’s party at the famed Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. Godwin moved into the proximity of the expansive dance floor, searching for a dancing partner. He “spotted a delicious lookin’ gal who must have been wearin’ a size 50 bra.” He asked her to dance and she quickly replied that she “was taken” and sidled over to the lap of UCLA quarterback Bob Waterfield. Jane Russell married the Bruins’ quarterback later that year.
Godwin’s wandering eyes next feasted on the “prettiest dark-haired gal I had ever seen.” This tall and “rangy” beauty “with deep, dark, watery eyes” soon heard Godwin ask if she would like to dance. “I sure do” was the reply.
Here is the rest of Godwin’s story: “The band played One O’Clock Jump and we did just that — we jumped all over the room. I could sense that she enjoyed jitterbugging with me, so when the music changed to a soft, much slower number, I just kept her out there on the floor.
“The blend of the sounds from that orchestra were most sweet, and we were cheek-to-cheek when, all of a sudden, as I looked down into those swimming, dark eyes and was just about to whisper something that I thought a hip Hollywood dude would say to such a beautiful lassie … dadgummed if she didn’t reach right up and kiss me, juicy and tenderly right on the lips — right there on the dance floor! I returned that soft, sweet kiss and then we rubbed our cheeks together again and floated some more around the room. And ole Bill began conjuring up more visions than a movie director. I didn’t know if I was in love or not, but my heart was trying to bust outta my hairy chest.”
He then said, “My name is Bill Godwin.” She replied, “Ava Gardner. I’m Mickey’s wife.” Moments later, Godwin was looking into the “red flushed face of Mickey Rooney who said contemptuously, ‘Come on Ava, you are going home.’”
Renowned band leader Kaye Kiser visited with the team and comedian Joe E. Brown was a regular at practice, cheering the Bulldogs and performing as if the game was underway. Coach Butts had to shoo him away.
Georgia was a heavy favorite in the game, but the underdog Bruins of UCLA made the Bulldogs earn victory. If it had not been for Trippi, who rushed for 130 yards, a big upset might have come about. The Bulldogs won 9-0 before 93,000 fans.
I often think of the country boys, small town boys on that team. They could have only gotten there because of the game of football, a circumstance still commonplace in the game today. In addition to Godwin, there were Georgians on the team such as Lamar “Racehorse” Davis of Brunswick, Van Davis (no relation) of Philomath in Oglethorpe County, and Red Boyd of Toccoa. Racehorse, the wingback, had multiple long-distance touchdowns in his career, including catching a pass from Sinkwich versus Auburn in 1941 and racing for the winning touchdown after the final gun had sounded.
Racehorse almost returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. He came home after the war, played briefly with the Baltimore Colts and lived a modest life on St. Simons Island, working with the SeaPak Shrimp & Seafood Co. He was deeply indebted to his alma mater for an opportunity to play a game he loved. He always believed his life was enriched by playing for the winning team in the Rose Bowl.
Van Davis became a high school principal and tried to teach young boys the values of sport, education, family and community service. His son, Andy, has in his possession a Rose Bowl ball, which was signed by all of Van’s teammates. Red Boyd wound up coaching at his high school in Toccoa. His teams experienced hardscrabble times in Class C football, but Red coached them as best he could and always sent every worthy player to play for his alma mater.
There are others, such as Harry Kuniansky, an interior lineman who became a successful contractor, who all had their day in the sun in Pasadena and hung on to those precious memories and never let go. They were part of one of Georgia’s proudest moments.
None of them, through the years, failed to honor their fallen teammates, such as Walter Ruark of Bostwick in Morgan County, who left Pasadena for the battlefields of World War II and never returned home.
It is appropriate to reflect on how those Bulldogs got to Pasadena. In 1939, Coach Butts had recruited one of the best freshman teams ever in that era when first-year players were not allowed to participate in varsity competition.
That freshman team, led by Sinkwich, was known as the “Point-a-minute Bullpups” for scoring an average of more than 60 points per game for three outings, which was typical scheduling in those days. By their junior year in 1941, members of that earlier freshman team were giving the community anticipatory thrills. These players might just win Georgia’s first SEC championship, people thought.
They did in 1941, but what they accomplished New Year’s Day 1942 in Miami was next to sensational. Those players led to Georgia being invited to a bowl game. After defeating Georgia Tech 21-0 in Atlanta in the finale, the Bulldogs were invited to the Orange Bowl, where they steamrolled TCU 40-26.
This elevated the spirits in the town of Athens, which long had hoped Georgia would get into the bowl business. That team was one of Butts’ greatest teams in that it was known for its overpowering single wing attack, but it was just as accomplished, if not more, with its defense. That 1941 team gave up 53 points the entire season, 27 of them to Alabama. Georgia reached the No. 1 national ranking and the Rose Bowl a year later.
In 1940, coach Butts, with the help of former Bulldogs player Harold Ketron, the Coca-Cola bottler in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., recruited tailback Charley Trippi. Toward the end of the Rose Bowl season, Butts put both Sinkwich and Trippi in the backfield. Sinkwich, reputed by old timers to be the quickest back ― he is said to have been at top speed in three steps ― ever seen in these parts. At fullback, he was a devastating runner, Mr. Inside. In those times, Trippi was the best you could want for Mr. Outside duty. While Trippi could run the ball inside, he could throw on the run better than any back in the country. It takes four scholarships today to do what Trippi did in 1942 — offense, defense, punter and kick returner.
Upset 27-13 by Auburn in Columbus, Ga., Butts had his team “fightin’ mad” when Georgia Tech arrived between the hedges on Nov. 28. The Rose Bowl Committee had announced it would invite the winner of the game. With payback emotions for 1927, the Bulldogs thrashed the Jackets 34-0.
When New Year’s Day 1943 arrived, Sinkwich was hobbling on two sprained ankles which meant that Trippi got most of the snaps (27), gaining 130 yards and being named the game’s most valuable player. Sinkwich did not play until a Georgia drive led to the only touchdown of the game. Coach Butts sent Sinkwich into the game, and he scored on a 1-yard plunge for a 9-0 victory. Red Boyd, the mountain boy from Toccoa, had blocked a Waterfield punt out of the end zone for a safety and Georgia’s other two points.
Trippi said about Sinkwich’s touchdown: “I thought that was the right thing to do. After all it was Frank who carried the team to the Rose Bowl.” Time has eroded the memory of that season, but it was obvious that few teams, not even Army’s Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, beneficiaries of the Eastern Press, were more explosive than Sinkwich and Trippi. And to think that 75 years later, Georgia is returning to the Rose Bowl with Sinkwich’s great grandson, Frank IV, a member of the team.
Both Sinkwich and Trippi served in the military and then played professionally and became All-Pro players ― Sinkwich with the Detroit Lions and Trippi with the Chicago Cardinals. Both men chose to adopt Athens as home, and both men were highly successful businessmen. They helped give the university and the community much appreciated respect. Headlines, glory and honor. A national championship.
All the excitement about the Rose Bowl stadium is a reminder of a story with an interesting twist today. When the late Charlie Martin, Georgia’s one-time business manager of athletics, was invited to travel to the Rose Bowl in 1927 with his counterpart at Alabama, Martin marveled at the red roses that ringed the playing field at the Rose Bowl.
He thought it would be good to plant roses around the playing field at Sanford Stadium as it was being built. But when he recommended the planting of roses at Sanford Stadium, he was told by university gardeners that roses would not flourish in that setting. The move to plant English privet hedges then came about. Georgia has since been renowned for its beautiful hedges.
A few years ago, the effort to maintain roses at the Rose Bowl had to be given up, and the roses were replaced by shrubbery similar to Georgia’s hedges. This should lift the spirits of the thousands of Georgia fans expected to make the trip to Southern California for the game.
On Jan. 1, 2018, Georgia will play Oklahoma. Between the hedges.