Third Down and a War to Go - Book Review
In these weeks as all the world hunkers down in face of a virus that has ground to a halt all economic activity, sports fans around the world (myself included) are hungering to see competition. The Kentucky Derby, March Madness, opening day of MLB, the Premier League, Six Nations rugby (which I recently wrote about) are all victims of Covid-19. So, we must seek outlets in other areas. For college football fans and history buffs, I highly recommend Terry Frei’s book Third Down and a War to Go.
Frei is a sports reporter for ESPN and The Denver Post. His father Jerry piloted a P-38 in the Pacific theater of operations in World War 2. Frei became curious one day while looking at a photo of his father’s college football team, the 1942 Wisconsin Badgers. After his father’s passing Frei set about piecing together the moving story of a group of young men having their last hurrah on the gridiron before most of them went off to fight the war.
The heart and soul of the story is the friendship between Mark Hoskins, a halfback, and Dave Schreiner, a two-time All-American end, who grew up together in Lancaster, Wisconsin. Together with Elroy ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch, under the direction of Coach Harry Stuhldreher (one of Knute Rockne’s ‘Four Horsemen’), these young men put together a magical season in the fall of 1942, beating both Ohio State and perennial Big 10 power Minnesota, and playing to a draw with mighty Notre Dame. All the while, they knew they were headed for combat on distant shores.
Frei describes a very different America, still innocent, though well on its way to becoming a world power. It’s a sports version of The Greatest Generation. Frei follows the course of the memorable season, and then goes on to describe in subsequent chapters each of the teammates’ journey through the war, culminating in the tragic ending for two Badgers (Schreiner and Bob Baumann) on Okinawa in the spring of 1945. In all twelve college football players from around the nation lost their lives on Okinawa. Many of the ‘42 Badgers who survived the war went back to college to continue their playing days, and some ended up in the NFL. ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch became an All-American at Michigan after the war and had a storied career with the Los Angeles Rams. Mark Hoskins survived as a German POW after his bomber was shot down over Hungary in 1944. Frei’s description of the morning Hoskins learned of Schreiner’s death is heart-wrenching. Jerry Frei survived the war and became a long-time assistant coach and ended up working in the front office for the Denver Broncos, helping them to win their first Super Bowl in January 1998.
Frei’s tells the story well, and even those who don’t follow college football will enjoy it. And for those college football fans who do read this book, it will leave you with a soft spot for the Wisconsin Badgers from here on out.