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Movie stars, train rides and World War II: Georgia returns to Rose Bowl after 75-year absence

Georgia beat UCLA 9-0 in the 1943 Rose Bowl. AP Photo/Frank Filan

ATHENS, Georgia -- The last Georgia football team that played in the Rose Bowl had a star backfield that included both Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi, widely regarded as the best all-around athlete ever to play at Georgia.

The 1942 Bulldogs also had a menacing defense that shut out six opponents, including a 9-0 victory over UCLA in the 29th Rose Bowl, and allowed only 76 points in 12 games.

And, just like the current Georgia team that will play Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, the 1942 Bulldogs suffered only one loss during the regular season -- to rival Auburn.

Indeed, there are a lot of similarities between the Georgia team that made the school's first appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All on New Year's Day in 1943 and the team that will return to Pasadena, California, after a 75-year hiatus.

"It's great," said Trippi, who celebrated his 96th birthday on Dec. 14 and is believed to be the only living member of the 1943 Rose Bowl team. "It's just like 1942."

Trippi was a 21-year old sophomore when he and 42 of his teammates boarded a train in Athens on Dec. 18, 1942 for the four-day trip to Pasadena. Almost immediately after the Bulldogs defeated Georgia Tech 34-0 in their regular-season finale, they had voted in their locker room to accept the Rose Bowl invitation over playing in the Sugar Bowl.

"You read about the Rose Bowl growing up," Trippi said. "Here you are, going to play in it."

It was during the height of World War II. The Rose Bowl had been moved to Durham, North Carolina, the previous year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Following an Allied victory at the Battle of Midway six months later, the U.S. Army determined the West Coast was no longer vulnerable to attack and allowed the Rose Bowl to return to Pasadena.

But there were still restrictions. Because of fuel rationing, ticket sales were limited to only local residents and the Tournament of Roses Parade was canceled. A select number of Georgia fans were allowed to join the Bulldogs on the train trip to California. Atlanta sportswriter O.B. Keeler, who became famous for being the golfer Bobby Jones' biographer, made the trip and chronicled the journey for fans back home.

Gene Ellenson, a starting tackle on the Georgia team, wrote about the team's long train ride in a guest column for United Press, which was published in newspapers around the country in December 1942: "From that moment on we tried to make tempus fugit without much success. We were confined to two cars and could do nothing but stare at the mountains, the plains, the deserts, and into one another's eyes."

One of the lucky Georgia fans who attended the Rose Bowl was 8-year-old Frank Troutman Jr., of Atlanta, who made the trip with his mother, Mary, and father, Frank Troutman, who was a trademark attorney for Coca-Cola. His parents were close friends with Georgia coach Wally Butts and his wife, Wini.

Troutman, now 83, remembers boarding a Streamliner train and going from Atlanta to Chicago, where they spent the night. Troutman and his parents then traveled to Kansas City and through Utah, where a blizzard hit. Their train had to stop frequently to allow military trains to pass.

"You looked outside and you could barely see anything," Troutman said. "But I remember seeing hundreds of buffalo. I didn't know what one was."

Georgia didn't reach Pasadena without incident, though. Pleas "Clegg" Starks was Butts' most trusted trainer and water boy. Starks was the son of the UGA chancellor's cook and lived in a house on campus not far from the football field. He worked in the athletic department from 1909 until his death in 1964. Legend had it that Starks could throw a football 100 yards and a baseball 100 mph.

When the Bulldogs changed trains in Kansas City, Starks jumped off to stretch his legs and grab a bite to eat. Several minutes after he boarded the train again, a conductor asked for his ticket.

"Shoot, I don't need a ticket," Starks boasted. "I'm rollin' with the Georgia Bulldogs."

"Well," the conductor said. "This train is rollin' back to St. Louis. The Bulldogs are rollin' the other way."

Starks showed up in Pasadena four days late.

Troutman spent Christmas Eve on the train and was given a Sinkwich jersey the next morning. When he arrived in Los Angeles, his mother took him to see the Pacific Ocean via streetcar.

"The most impressive thing for an 8-year-old was to have dinner with the Georgia football team every night," Troutman said. "They were really sweet to sign everything for me. They were heroes to me. They were larger than life."

Sinkwich and Trippi were household names by the time they arrived in L.A. One of the first congratulatory telegrams Butts received after the Bulldogs were selected to play in the Rose Bowl came from UGA alumni serving in North Africa: "Congratulations on Rose Bowl bid. After game please send us Charley Trippi to help us catch Rommel. At present he's running like hell."

Sinkwich, who won the Heisman Trophy that season after rushing for 795 yards and setting an SEC passing record with 1,392 yards, arrived in L.A. with a badly sprained left ankle, which he'd hurt in the team's final practice in Athens. He received so much attention in L.A. that Butts changed Sinkwich's jersey number from 21 to 68 in practice to fool autograph seekers and starlets.

During Georgia's first practice at Tournament Park, the site of the very first Rose Bowl (Ellenson wrote that it was the "only dirt in the world which is harder than cement"), Sinkwich was tackled out of bounds and injured his right ankle. He was confined to bed for the next few days. Sinkwich's injury caused Butts to scale back his plan of having two-a-day practices up until the Rose Bowl.

"We were preparing for him not to play," Trippi said. "It changed the complexion of the game."

Sinkwich was well enough to join his teammates for a tour of Paramount Studios, where the Bulldogs met Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Spencer Tracy.

Georgia tackle Dick Richardson made national headlines when actress Betty Grable invited him to lunch. As a prank, some of Richardson's teammates sent a telegram to Grable before the Bulldogs left Athens. It read: "I am a tackle on the University of Georgia Rose Bowl team. I was recently chosen the most handsome man on the campus. Would like a luncheon date with you at your convenience some time between December 23 and January 3. If it can be arranged please answer collect."

When a studio publicist received the telegram, he contacted a reporter in Atlanta to determine whether it was authentic. Richardson told the reporter the telegram was a joke.

"You wouldn't mind a date with Miss Grable, would you?" the reporter asked him.

"Nope, sure wouldn't," Richardson replied.

"Who's your favorite movie actress?" the reporter asked.

"Miss Grable, of course," Richardson said.

A few days after the Bulldogs arrived in California, Grable invited Richardson to her studio, where they had lunch. She even gave him a good-luck kiss before he left. "Anytime my friends want to work another gag on me, I'm ready," Richardson told reporters.

When game day finally arrived on New Year's Day 1943, Georgia was a slight favorite to beat the Bruins, even though Sinkwich's availability was still in question. He'd returned for the final few practices but ran with a noticeable limp. No one could question his toughness after he'd played much of the 1941 season with a broken jaw.

Georgia still had a national championship on the line. The Bulldogs had been ranked No. 1 for four weeks (the first AP poll wasn't released until after their third game), but then fell to No. 5 after a 27-13 loss to Auburn. After Georgia's rout of then-No. 2 Georgia Tech, it climbed back to No. 2 in the final AP poll, which was released before bowl games were played.

Ohio State had also suffered only one loss -- the Buckeyes fell 17-7 at Wisconsin after several players became sick by drinking contaminated water on a train. The Buckeyes weren't permitted to play in a postseason bowl under Big Ten rules, and AP voters declared them No. 1 in the final poll.

Apparently, there was a bitter SEC-Big Ten rivalry even back then.

"Where does Ohio State get that way, being ranked on top?" Georgia end Lamar "Racehorse" Davis asked reporters. "Why that Big Ten's just a bush league."

Davis, one of Georgia's fastest players, nearly returned the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl for a touchdown but was pulled down from behind. It was the most excitement of the first three quarters. The Bulldogs dominated the Bruins in front of a crowd of more than 93,000 fans, but they had little to show for it.

The game was scoreless until the fourth quarter, when Georgia's Willard "Red" Boyd blocked Bob Waterfield's punt through the end zone for a safety. Waterfield, who was also UCLA's quarterback, would marry actress Jane Russell later that year.

Sinkwich didn't start the game but scored the only touchdown on a 1-yard run to seal the Bulldogs' 9-0 victory. Georgia had 25 first downs to UCLA's five. Trippi carried the ball 25 times for 130 yards, completed six passes for 96 yards and played 58 of 60 minutes, while playing both offense and defense. Trippi was named MVP of the 1943 Rose Bowl retroactively in 1953.

"You get a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, you don't ever want to come out of it," Trippi said. "You want to stay in there for 60 minutes and don't ever get tired. You hate to see it end. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event."

As the seconds ticked away on the clock, Butts cleared his bench to allow reserves a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. When 18-year-old guard Robert Poss reached the field, the referee reached into his pocket for a pistol to fire to signal the end of the game.

"The ref was fixin' to shoot that pistol," said Poss' son, Bobby, who played football at Georgia from 1969-71. "But my daddy said, 'Hold on, sir, I'm fixin' to run this play so I can tell my grandchildren I played in the Rose Bowl.'"

The referee waited one more play to fire his pistol. Bobby Poss said his dad talked about his one play in the Rose Bowl so much that his friends called him "Rosie" until his death in 1996.

The Bulldogs remained in Los Angeles the day after the game to celebrate their victory before making their way back to Athens. Several polls declared them national champions.

Within a few weeks, Trippi and many of his teammates reported for active military duty. By the spring of 1943, all but 10 of the 43 players who made the trip to Pasadena were serving in the military, and many of them were fighting overseas.

Three players from Georgia's 1942 team were killed in action. William Burt, of Macon, Georgia, was shot down over Italy on May 25, 1944. Walter "Chief" Ruark, of Bostwick, Georgia, was shot in the chest by a sniper and died in Aachen, Germany, on Nov. 22, 1944. Winfred Goodman, of Atlanta, was reported missing while leading an air/sea rescue in the Philippines in January 1945.

A few other players were injured in combat. End George Poschner, who was Sinkwich's close friend from Youngstown, Ohio, was hit by machine gun fire during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium on Jan. 8, 1945. Medics couldn't rescue him from a snow bank for two days because of enemy fire, and Poschner lost both legs and several fingers but survived. He died in 2004 at the age of 85.

Trippi served in the Fourth Air Force and returned to play at Georgia in 1945-46. He signed an unprecedented $100,000 contract with the Chicago Cardinals and led them to the 1947 NFL championship as a rookie.

Georgia officials invited Trippi to return to the upcoming Rose Bowl, but his wife, Peggy, was worried about him making the long trip. If the No. 3 Bulldogs defeat Oklahoma and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T on Jan. 8 in Atlanta, Georgia officials promised to take him there instead.

Trippi plans to spend New Year's Day watching the Bulldogs play in the Rose Bowl on TV from his home in Athens.

"It's great," Trippi said. "Better late than never."