Terrific new book recounts when prep football was king

Before the Greatest Generation went off to war to save Western Civilization, they survived the Great Depression and played and followed high school football.

How big was high school football in 1939 when the nation was on the cusp of WWII?

It was so big that Paul Brown was a high school coach in Ohio and Vince Lombardi was an ASSISTANT high school coach in New Jersey. And high school games were played before big crowds and were covered like college football, which then dwarfed the NFL.

Eighty years later, it is almost hard to imagine what America was like in those days.

And veteran sportswriter Hank Gola has captured that time perfectly in his book “City of Champions” (Tatra Press) about how an underdog team from Garfield, N.J. beat Miami High School to be crowned the mythical national champion high school team in the country on Christmas night in 1939 at the Orange Bowl.

But this is much more than a sports story about a plucky high school team filled with players from working class immigrant families that beat the odds against a more glamorous Miami team. It is more a slice of Americana like Frederick Lewis Allen’s iconic books, “Only Yesterday” and “Since Yesterday” about the 1920s and 1930s.

It is an entertaining read but a scholarly read that will be used by historians in the future who want original source material on what America was like in the late 1930s and what it was like to fight in WWII.

The book is so detailed that it tells what Hitler was doing on Christmas Eve the night before the game was played.

Gola also details the scourge of the polio epidemic in that era and notes that even though FDR was the face of the illness, some researchers now think he may have had Gullain-Barre Syndrome. I had never heard that but Googled it and found out that some researchers have speculated he might have been misdiagnosed. Regardless, he still started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which led to the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s.

Gola even tells the story of the sinking of the Athenia, a British ship sunk by a German sub in 1939. An immigrant from Garfield almost lost his family in the incident. The Nazis, trying not to inflame the American public at a time when the Americans were reluctant to go to war, denied one of its subs sank it and claimed it hit a mine. The Germans didn’t acknowledge it until the Nuremburg trials of 1946.

A footnote: the officer who sank the ship later had a sub he commanded captured by the British. They recovered an Enigma machine, which helped break the German code and helped the Allies win the war.

You might not know that 15,530 Amercan pilots were killed in 6500 training accidents that destroyed 7,114 aircraft because the Army was rushing to train pilots for combat. One of them played for Garfield in that memorable game. That is the kind of detail in the book.

And then there was the racism of the Jim Crow area when northern teams couldn’t bring their black players to play games in the South. Blacks couldn’t even attend white athletic events, much less play in them.

Gola writes that in 1932, Toledo Waite High School was invited to play Miami in the annual Christmas day game. One of the Toledo players, Floyd Wright, couldn’t play, but watched the game hidden under a tarp on top of the team bus in the end zone. Most blacks on other teams simply didn’t make the trip.

Not that Wright’s absence got much attention.

The writer for the Toledo News-Bee wrote that Toughie Lorence was inserted at left tackle. He didn’t report that he was replacing Wright.

Wright’s son, Ernie Wright, played at Ohio State and then played for 13 years in the AFL and NFL for the Chargers and the Bengals.

His grandson, Howard Wright, said that Wright started training his son at age 13 to be a great football player.

“My grandfather was pained his entire life by not getting the chance to get off the top of that bus and get onto the field,” his grandson said. “He was in an internal straight jacket of the hatred, disdain and bitterness of that day in Miami and instead of having that engulf him, he injected it into his son to make him something to be proud of and change the entire arc of our family for generations. He channeled all of those rage and all of his ability into a 13-year-old child and this 13-year-old child went on to play for Woody Hayes and then 13 years in the NFL. You can’t make that up.”

You can’t make it up and it is just one of many anecdotes that make Gola’s book such a good read.

After his football career, Wright later became a player agent and western regional chief for the NFLPA, died in 2007 of cancer.

Gola also writes that among the several black players on northern teams that weren’t allowed to travel to Miami was Clint Williams of Elmira, N.Y., who played on the team’s undefeated 1935-36 unbeaten teams.

But Williams’ snub got attention in Elmira and the city rallied around him and the committee charged with raising funds for the trip gave Williams the same amount of spending money as the players who made the trip and he was presented with the game ball at the team banquet. It was small consolation for Williams, who threw his arms around the team captain and sobbed as the players left for the trip to Miami.

His absence wasn’t noted in the Miami papers although it was noted that Booker T. Washington played Stanton of Jacksonville for the “Negro high school football championship of the state at the “Negro city ballpark.” Washington went undefeated from 1934-40.

Stanton later became the first magnet school in Jacksonville and is now the Stanton College Preparatory School.

Gola writes that there is no recorded instance of any team balking at Southern demands to exclude black players in the pre-war years.

It wasn’t an issue for the Garfield-Miami game because Garfield had a tiny black population and the blacks tended to play baseball instead of football – the reverse of what today’s black athletes prefer to play.

How Gola came to write the book is an interesting tale. He was driving back from covering a Patriots game in 1974 when he realized it was 75 years since the game was played. As a native of Garfield, he was told about the game by his father as a young boy.

Gola wrote a 2800 word story on the game for the New York Daily News on the game and decided it would make a good book.

He spent nearly four years researching the book and decided it was more than the story of an American game.

“It was a story of America,” he wrote.

He also spent as much time researching the Miami team and goes into much detail on the game and everything that led up to it.

The game turned out it lived up to the hype. It was a close game decided by a field goal by Garfield’s best player –Benny Babul – in the leather helmet era when field goals were rare. Garfield won, 16-13.

This book is now part of the legacy of that team and that era.

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