While physical conditioning was already a large part of recruit training at Great Lakes, the First World War enabled military bases nationwide to supplement their regular physical training programs with the emergence of military sports teams—known as “service teams”—in 1917 utilizing the large number of former college and professional athletes that served in the Armed Forces. Baseball, football and basketball teams, as well as swimming, track, wrestling and boxing squads were formed to not only aid their fitness program but to increase the moral of the Service members preparing for war.
In 1918, approximately 50 stellar service football teams competed among the best college football teams in the country. These Army and Navy service teams were eligible and—in some cases—good enough to vie for the college football championship. That year, two teams—Great Lakes and the Mare Island Marines—rolled through all opposition to earn trips to the 1919 Rose Bowl.
Just six years after it was established, World War I forced Great Lakes to ramp up its production of converting Navy recruits into war-ready Sailors to become the Navy’s largest training station after Captain William A. Moffett obtained authorization to expand its capabilities to train upwards of 25,000 recruits at one time. Before 1917, Great Lakes possessed just two training schools—a Signal & Radio School and the Hospital Corps training school—with more to be added due to the outbreak of war. In addition to a Musician School, headed by legendary conductor Lieutenant John Phillip Sousa, another 17 schools were established including Coxswain, Gunners’ Mate, Quartermaster and Machinists’ Mate schools as well as a Company Commander school for those Sailors entrusted to efficiently train the growing surge of new recruits.
Great Lakes fielded its first World War I era service team, under the guidance of Commander John B. Kauffman, shortly after war was declared by Congress on April 6, 1917. While Kauffman’s primary function was head of the hospital training school, he also doubled as the station’s athletic officer. Staffed with minor sports stars, the appropriately named Great Lakes Bluejackets baseball team struggled through a short schedule facing local industrial and city teams.
In the fall, Kaufman appointed civilian athletic director Herman Olcott, a former Yale University athlete and University of Kansas football coach, to head-up the station’s football and basketball teams. The 1917 Bluejackets football team—led by Pat Smith, a former University of Michigan captain and future NFL halfback with Buffalo—wrapped up a successful inaugural campaign in December with victories over lesser opponents with signs of better things to come a year later against much stronger opposition. The Great Lakes basketball squad—which began its season with a low-scoring 15-11 loss to Northwestern College—labored through the early part of their season.
Numerous losses early in the season, including two against the University of Chicago Maroons in a New Years Eve doubleheader, caused Coach Olcott to completely revamp his lineup in mid-January with the arrival of two key players—University of Illinois captain George Halas and former Illinois Athletic Club star and pro baseball player Bill Johnson, who helped spark the team to a respectable finish to the season.
The multi-talented Halas, who was also a New York Yankees’ minor league prospect, and Johnson, a Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, teamed up again the following summer as the station’s baseball team—the most successful of any Great Lakes team to date—clinched the 1918 Navy Baseball Championship. Besides Halas and Johnson, the baseball Bluejackets featured White Sox hall of fame pitcher Urban “Red” Faber, Chicago Cubs’ infielder Paddy Driscoll and Detroit Tigers’ infielder Ben Dyer. The team defeated the Atlantic Fleet Navy team two-out-of-three games at Cubs Park in Chicago to clinch the Navy championship; however, three losses to the Rockford Illinois-based Camp Grant Army service team prevented the team from gaining the Armed Forces’ baseball title. The baseball team closed its season with a 5 to 0 loss to the World Series bound Chicago Cubs in an exhibition game played before 10,000 Sailors on the station’s baseball diamond.
Assembling the Team
Determined to build on the success of the baseball team, Coach Olcott carefully selected the roster for his new football team amid the group of 150 Sailors answering his call for tryouts. Among them were multi-sport stars George Halas and Paddy Driscoll—both of whom would ultimately gain their fame on the football gridiron.
Not only was Driscoll a professional baseball player with the Cubs, he spent his off-season playing semi-pro football in Hammond, Indiana since graduating from Northwestern in 1917. Several of the outstanding football players at Great Lakes, who opted to continue playing football after college, had to resort to playing for semi-pro teams as Great Lakes’ 1918 football season predated the advent of the National Football League by two years. Joining Halas and Driscoll on the football field was
former Washington University back Jimmy Conzelman and former Notre Dame all-American Charles Bachman.
Spanish Flu Cancelled Three Early Games
The Bluejackets football team, led by Conzelman at quarterback, opened the season with a 10 to 0 victory over the University of Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City. The team’s schedule early in the season was hampered by the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed approximately 600,000 lives in the United States, and adversely affected the team’s schedule throughout the month of October. Olcott, with 26 football players, boarded a train destined for Pennsylvania on a Thursday evening to face the University of Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 5th only to learn the contest had been cancelled due to health risks soon after their
arrival. City bureau of health officials, citing the state board’s order prohibiting all gatherings and meetings where large crowds would congregate, cancelled the Great Lakes-Pitt game and the team caught a Friday night train back to Chicago. Subsequently, games against the University of Chicago two weeks later and an early November game versus St. Louis University were also called off.
With a schedule decimated by the Spanish Flu, the team was fortunate to squeeze in two October road games against Illinois and Northwestern. Mild controversy marred their contest against the University of Illinois before the game even started. Illinois coach Bob Zuppke filed a protest to the Great Lakes athletic department charging their star halfback Paddy Driscoll with “professionalism” due to his status as a pro baseball player and semi-pro football star. Great Lakes, which had no “eligibility requirements” other than the team be made up entirely of enlisted men, appeased Illinois officials by starting a backup halfback in Driscoll’s place. George Halas, who setup a Great Lakes touchdown against his alma mater on their initial possession, hauled in a long pass from Conzelman and was tackled inside the
one-yard line with the Bluejackets scoring on the ensuing play to capture a narrow 7 to 0 victory. Olcott eventually inserted Driscoll into the game in the second half where he promptly returned the opening kickoff 68 yards before being tackled by Illinois defenders; however, the offense failed to score.
The late October battle with Driscoll’s alma mater, Northwestern, would be the only game of the season held aboard the Naval Training Station. Heavy rainfall the previous day resulted in a sloppy rain soaked Ross Field. The two teams drudged through the mud for sixty minutes with the game ending in a scoreless tie. Newspaper reports credited Northwestern with a moral victory for being able to subdue Great Lakes, who were now starting to gain national recognition as one of the top teams in the country. Despite the fact that the Bluejackets had yet to allow a single point so far in the season, their offense was only able to amass 17 points in their last three games.
Luckily, the Spanish Flu epidemic did not interfere with the Bluejackets’ trip to South Bend, Indiana a week later to face the University of Notre Dame. The Irish were led by their first-year—and now regarded as legendary—coach Knute Rockne and their number one offensive weapon all-American George “The Gipper” Gipp. The exploits of Rockne and Gipp, who would tragically die from strep throat two years later at the age of 25, were later depicted in the classic 1940 film, Knute Rockne All-American, with none other than Ronald Reagan portraying Gipp.
With three former Notre Dame players—center Charlie Bachman and guards Gerry Jones and Emmett Keefe—in Great Lakes’ employ, back to battle their former school, the two teams played a hard-fought game with numerous injuries resulting on both sides. Notre Dame scored rather easily in the first five minutes on a goal line quarterback sneak after marching down the field on pass completions to George Gipp and freshman back Curly Lambeau—the future founder and coach of the Green Bay Packers. A 35-yard touchdown run by Driscoll in the second half knotted the game, 7 to 7, where it would remain with neither team able to poke through the other’s defense for the rest of the game.
Champions of the Midwest Head East
Although settling for a tie against Notre Dame at the unfriendly South Bend campus, the Bluejackets were unofficially crowned as the top team in the Midwest and scheduled games with strong opponents in “intersectional” contests on the east coast against Rutgers and Naval Academy. Despite the Bluejackets’ success, officials at Great Lakes were less than pleased with the teams’ lackluster offensive output. Citing the desire to have a Navy man in charge of the team, Great Lakes’ commander William Moffett relieved Herman Olcott of his duties a week before their game against Notre Dame and replaced him with Lieutenant Clarence J. McReavy, commander of Great Lakes’ officer training school and former Naval Academy football player. McReavy’s first task as the team’s new head coach was to insert Paddy Driscoll in place of Jimmy Conzelman as the team’s quarterback in an attempt to spark the team’s offense.
Their game against Rutgers University at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn N.Y.—scheduled just days earlier—was billed as a United War Work Fund benefit with 12,000 fans in attendance, including Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, which netted the campaign $8,000. McReavy’s decision to move Driscoll paid dividends. Driscoll scored six touchdowns as Great Lakes overcame a 14 to 0 deficit to walloped Rutgers 54 to 14.
“In the East, Rutgers was unbeaten,” George Halas wrote in his 1979 autobiography Halas by Halas, “The Easterners boasted Rutgers would sweep through Great Lakes like a dreadnought. Rutgers did score in eleven plays and again in the second quarter. Then, according to some memories, Rutgers started playing rough. We gave up our naval gentlemanly manners. We opened routes for Paddy. He took a punt and ran it 80 yards for a touchdown. He added short run to short run for four, yes, four, more touchdowns.”
Head coach Lieut. Clarence McReavy (left), seen wearing the Bluejackets’ football jersey, stands with athletic officer Commander John Kaufman during practice in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
How good was the Great Lakes football team? The Bluejackets’ B-squad challenged the team from Cornell College and defeated them 33 to 3. When the first team was hastily scheduled to play Rutgers on the same day the team was supposed to play the Detroit Naval Reserve team, Great Lakes officials—with Detroit’s approval—elected to send the B team in their place who won 14 to 0. A third team representing Great Lakes aviation department notched a scoreless tie versus St Louis University, who at one time was scheduled as an opponent of the A-team before the game was cancelled by the Spanish Flu outbreak.
1918 Season Featured One of the Oddest Plays in History
Still unbeaten in five games, their game against Naval Academy in Annapolis, M.D. promised to be a big game. Navy was also undefeated and had beaten Ursinus College by an incredible score of 127 to 0 a week earlier. Attended by three trainloads of Sailors from Great Lakes, the game against the Midshipmen featured one of the oddest plays in football history—a play that would ultimately decide the game. Several different versions of the events that took place exist including George Halas’ account of the game.
“The Academy scored a touchdown but missed the conversion,” explained Halas, “Their great fullback, Bill Ingram, was about to go over for a second touchdown when he was hit on the 1-yard line. He fumbled. The ball bounced right into the arms of our Dizzy Eielson. Conzelman and I broke a path for him. Eielson twisted free. When he reached midfield, no one was in front. Conzelman and I dropped back to protect him from the rear.
“‘Get him, go get him!’ the Academy coach shouted from the bench. Lo and behold, a substitute who had been resting there got up, ran onto the field, intercepted Eielson and brought him down. There followed quite a ruckus involving both teams, coaches, officials, midshipmen and gobs.
“The Academy superintendent, Captain Edward Walter Eberle, marched onto the field and demanded order. The officials decided the Academy should be penalized halfway to the goal line but Captain Eberle decreed we should be awarded a touchdown. The officials said that was contrary to the rules. The captain replied he didn’t care a whistle about the rules. ‘I said it was a touchdown,’ he stated. ‘I run this place and a touchdown it is.’”
Eberle, who would later serve as the Chief of Naval Operations, chose to penalize his own team for their poor judgment making the extra point kick following Harold “Dizzy” Eielson’s fumble recovery—officially reported as a 103-yard touchdown return—the eventual winning point. “On such men the American Navy had built its greatness,” added Halas, “Because of him, we won 7 to 6. The train ride back to Chicago was a party.”
Service Title in Dispute
Great Lakes’ victory in Annapolis ensured them an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Years’ Day several days before playing and defeating their next opponent, Purdue University, 27 to 0 in what should have been Great Lakes’ second home game. The game had been moved to a neutral site—the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill—due to continuing problems with the playing surface on Ross Field.
In a somewhat controversial move, Commander Kaufman announced a cancellation of Great Lakes’ final game, a tentatively scheduled game against the service team from Chicago’s Navy Municipal Pier, in order to rest the team before facing the Mare Island Marines in the Rose Bowl. Navy Pier, who’s officials disputed that Great Lakes’ couldn’t lay claim to the regional championship let alone the Navy title, had previously disposed of two common opponents—Illinois (7-0) and Northwestern (25-0)—in route to a 7-0 record while defeating mostly other Army and Navy service teams.
Angered by Kaufman’s announcement, the Navy Pier’s athletic officer issued a statement through famed Chicago Tribune sports writer Walter Eckersall. “The pier team has been anxious to play Great Lakes all season. The only time that Commander Kaufman and I talked about a game was when our contest with the University of Illinois was hanging in the balance because of the influenza epidemic at Urbana. At the time Commander Kaufman was negotiating for a game with Camp Custer, and it was impossible for either of us to say definitely whether we could play.
“We were under contract to play Illinois, but we had agreed to play Great Lakes at the last moment in the event Illinois called off our game. On the day before the contest we received word from Urbana that the game could be played behind closed games, and we were bound by our contract. This is the only time there was any talk of a game.
“Great Lakes cannot claim the service championship unless they meet us. The station team has played only one game with a service eleven, that with the Detroit Naval Reserves. The Lakes won this game, 18 to 0. The Cleveland Naval Reserves beat Detroit, 83 to 0, and the Pier won from Cleveland, 8 to 0. Great Lakes played to a standstill by Northwestern and we beat the Purple, 25 to 0.”
Ultimately, Great Lakes commander Captain Moffett, who was also acting Navy commander for the region which included Navy Pier, responded in a statement saying, “Owing to the fact that Great Lakes is to play a game at the annual tournament of roses at Pasadena, Cal on New Year’s day, the commandant hereby approves the action of the station’s athletic officers in recommending that no game be played with the pier team.
“Great Lakes, however, has offered to play the municipal pier eleven with one of its championship regimental teams or with a team made up at any date named by the pier officials. Some time ago, when the commandant ordered that the game between Great Lakes and the municipal pier be played, the Pasadena game had not been finally arranged.”
Officials at Navy Pier scoffed at the idea of meeting a two-bit team of scrubs from Great Lakes and asserted they were the western champions and intended to schedule a game with the best team in the East for the national football championship; however, Pitt—the undisputed champions in the East—would lose their final game against the Cleveland Naval Reserves.
A Trip to Pasadena
Great Lakes embarked on their trek to California to face the undefeated Mare Island Marines, who combined to outscore opponents by a 440 to 20 margin in ten games to easily emerge as the top team in West. After final preparations at Great Lakes, Lieut. McReavy and 21 of his best players departed for the west coast on December 20th. “The team is fit and ready,” Coach McReavy told the Chicago Tribune, “The players do not know how strong a team they will meet, but they are prepared for anything. Although it has been hard to keep a team in condition as long as the Great Lakes has been training, the players have done well. I gave them a lay-off after the Purdue game, but they are back in shape again. As it will be the last contest of the year, I do not intend to save players or plays and will throw my full strength into the game.”
Joining the Bluejackets on the long train ride was famed Chicago Tribune sports writer Walter Eckersall—a great football player in his own right. Eckersall, a former three-time all-American quarterback at the University of Chicago, submitted reports each day during the trip with the team back to his Chicago audience. His daily reports appeared in the Tribune as the team traveled west—from Marceline MO on Dec 20th, La Junto CO on Dec 21st, and Gallup NM on Dec 22nd—before arriving in Pasadena on December 23rd. Practice sessions ran everyday, including Christmas, up until the big game. Interestingly enough, Eckersall, who’s presence at the game was unexpected, was quickly recruited to head the on-field officiating crew for the game. Some years later, Eckersall’s common practice of “triple-dipping,” where he routinely acted as a reporter, publicist, and official collecting three paychecks
for the same game, was called into question as unethical.
Coming Up Roses
The 1919 Rose Bowl game, played as the main attraction of Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses celebration, was held at Tournament Park—a 43,000 seat venue which hosted the game until 1922 before the Rose Bowl, the stadium that hosts the event to this day, was opened the following year.
Driscoll kicked a 35-yard field goal in the first quarter to give Great Lakes an early 3 to 0 lead. An interception by Lawrence Ecklund, gave the Bluejackets excellent field position inside the Marines’ ten-yard to later set up Charles “Blondy” Reeves’ two-yard touchdown run before the half to increase their lead, 10 to 0.
Halas, who was ultimately the star of game, caught a pass from Driscoll and ran ten yards into the end zone in the third quarter—the team’s final score—to clinch the 17 to 0 victory. The Marines only threatened to score once—a drive that was stopped by Halas’ interception deep in Great Lakes’ territory which Halas returned 80 yards before being brought down near the goal line.
“A determined Marine, Jim Blewitt, caught me on the three,” recalled Halas, “I should have scored. After I took up coaching, I told the carriers that when they reach the three-yard line, they should dive across the goal. Anyone who can’t dive three yards should play Parcheesi.”
Although they effectively stopping Mare Islands’ lone threat, Great Lakes failed to score despite Halas’ long return. In all, the Sailors failed twice on two meaningless late drives—well after Great Lakes had the game well in hand—both stalling inside the five-yard line.
“Paddy threw a pass to me in the end zone,” explained Halas, “It was short. I ran for it, bending low. My hands were only an inch off the ground. The ball came in and I held it. But the referee, Walter Eckersall, ruled the ball had touched the ground. He cheated me out of a touchdown. And Walter came from Chicago! I would have expected a little more civic cooperation.”
Halas was voted the game’s most valuable player. With the season over, three players—Paddy Driscoll, Charlie Bachman and Hugh Blacklock—were selected to the All-Service team by Walter Camp. Additionally, Camp named Driscoll outright to his nation-wide First Team All-American team with Halas receiving second-team honors.
With the war all but officially over, the players were granted leave upon their return to Great Lakes and awaited their discharges.
Nucleus of NFL/Chicago Bears Formed at Great Lakes
While numerous college and pro football hall of famers served in the Navy at Great Lakes during the Second World War—including coaches Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbanks; players Marion Motley and Benny Friedman; and Heisman Trophy winners Bruce Smith and Les Horvath—collectively, the impact made by Great Lakes’ Class of 1918 on football history was far more significant than that of their successors.
George Halas and Paddy Driscoll were released from the Navy in March of 1919. Halas gave up a career in baseball, after playing just 12 games with the New York Yankees during ’19 season, and took up employment at the A. E. Staley Company in Decatur, Ill—one of the country’s top distributors in corn and soy products. In the fall, still with an itch for football, Halas started up and coached the company’s football team which within a year would become the Decatur Staleys and, ultimately, the Chicago Bears—a charter member of the NFL when the league was formed in 1920. Halas and several others met in Canton, Ohio to discuss the possibility of forming a new professional football league.
Halas recruited at least five of his Great Lakes teammates to join him on the Chicago Bears’ roster including Hugh Blacklock, Jimmy Conzelman, Paddy Driscoll, Gerry Jones and Emmett Keefe. Two others would also play in the NFL with other teams—Swede Erickson for the Kenosha Maroons and Dick Reichle with the Milwaukee Badgers. Instead of a pro career, Great Lakes star lineman Charles Bachman was hired to coach Northwestern University the following year in the start of a successful college coaching career.
George “Papa Bear” Halas would play nine seasons for the Bears and would serve as their head coach for 40 seasons. Halas left the team for three years when he rejoined the Navy during World War II. Halas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
Jimmy Conzelman, a veteran of 9 seasons as a player, also served as an NFL head coach for 15 seasons including leading the Chicago Cardinals (presently the Arizona Cardinals) to their last NFL Championship in 1947. Conzelman also earned an induction into the Pro Hall of Fame in 1964.
Paddy Driscoll starred in NFL for 10 seasons and served as head coach for five more and was inducted into the Pro Hall of Fame in 1965. Driscoll and Great Lakes’ teammate Charles Bachman both earned inductions into the College Football Hall of Fame. Driscoll, an all-American at Northwestern, was inducted in 1974 and Bachman, a Notre Dame all-American, went on to successful career as a college coach for 27 seasons with Northwestern, Kansas State, Florida and Michigan State was inducted into the college hall in 1978.