The touch football games on the deck of the USS Rutland were pretty intense as the attack transport steamed toward Iwo Jima in February 1945. The players were Marines, after all.
Two of them were also members of football royalty. One was Captain George (Sonny) Franck, a 26-year-old running back for the New York Giants who had finished third in the 1940 Heisman Trophy voting when he ran for the University of Minnesota. The other was Jack Chevigny, a 38-year-old first lieutenant in the 5th Division who might better be described as the Jack Chevigny.
He was a legend at Notre Dame, the running back who shouted, "That one was for the Gipper," upon scoring the tying touchdown in the epic 12-6 victory over Army on Nov. 10, 1928 in Yankee Stadium. He was a former NFL coach (1932 Chicago Cardinals) who became the head coach at the University of Texas, then beat his alma mater. He played with The Four Horsemen and had a horse named after him that once raced on the same card as Seabiscuit. He had a law degree, matinee idol looks and memories of playing golf with Crosby and Hope. He was smaller than most and larger than life. He also happened to be Sonny Franck's boyhood idol.
But there he was, in the middle of the Pacific, mixing it up with men much younger on a steel playing field. In one game, he suffered a hyperextended elbow when he leaped for a pass and was tackled to the deck. With his elbow in a cast, he wrote a letter to his fiancée, Eugenia Purdy, bemoaning the deterioration of his football skills. The cast was taken off only after the top of Mount Suribachi came into view.
Every year at this time, we honor the men and women who give and gave of themselves to protect the United States of America. Heroism comes in many forms, but the simple act of putting on a uniform for your country is valor worth commemorating.
Jack Chevigny (pronounced Chev-knee) didn't have to be on board the Rutland that February; he could've been back at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, coaching the Marine football team there as he had been assigned to do. But he felt that those weren't the team members who really mattered, so he volunteered for combat duty.
His is a remarkable story, with chapters once typed by writers like Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice and narrated by announcers like Bill Stern. Over the years, fiction was mixed into fact, and his heroism became encapsulated into an anecdote about a fountain pen -- which turns out not to have been true.
But what was true makes for an even better tale, and it wasn't until a Texas schoolteacher and football coach named Jeff Walker came along that the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Jack Chevigny was fully measured.
Walker's 2012 book, "The Last Chalkline (The Life & Times of Jack Chevigny)," didn't exactly set the publishing world on fire, but it's well worth reading for a portrait of a man of God and good times, football and family, pride and patriotism. He was a gambler who led a charmed life until his luck ran out on a rocky godforsaken beach. He was complicated, but his credo was always pretty simple: You'll have to carry me off the field.
That's why Knute Rockne himself called him "the best right halfback in Notre Dame history."
His story begins in Hammond, Indiana, where his French-Canadian father, a World War I vet named Julius Chevigny, was a company physician. Jack had two brothers and two sisters, but he was the one who seemed destined for greatness. He starred in football, basketball and track for Hammond High, but he also had roles in the school plays ("She Stoops to Conquer," "Seventeen") and served as class president. The inscription on his yearbook read:
"ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD HE LOVED TO BE
BUT FEW COULD PLAY AS WELL AS HE"
He enrolled at Notre Dame, 80 miles from Hammond, in the fall of 1924, which is the same autumn that Grantland Rice immortalized that Irish backfield as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Jack was only a freshman, but he did practice with the varsity and even got the better of a fight with an upperclassman who tried to stuff him into a locker.
Following in his father's footsteps, he was pre-med, but except for the football classes he took with Rockne, his grades weren't good, and he lost his eligibility. So he switched to pre-law, spent the summer of 1926 taking extra classes, and returned to the team in the fall as a valued backfield reserve -- Rockne would often start the game with his second team just to feel out an opponent.
Chevigny became a regular for the 1927 season, hurtling his body into the line, blocking for his teammates on sweeps, leveling opposing ball carriers. In a win over Navy, he suffered a concussion, but he didn't miss a beat as Notre Dame marched to what some people felt would be a national championship. The Irish were 5-0 when they went to Minnesota to play Bronko Nagurski and the Gophers.
The game would end in a 7-7 tie that crushed Rockne, but the play of the game belonged to Notre Dame-and Chevigny. Early in the fourth quarter, the Gophers were on the brink of the go-ahead touchdown when "the Hammond Flash" made a diving tackle of the runner at the goal line. Grantland Rice observed that it was the greatest tackle he had ever seen.
Army ended Notre Dame's 1927 national title hopes with an 18-0 thumping at Yankee Stadium, but the Irish did get to play spoilers by beating unbeaten Southern Cal 7-6 at Chicago's Soldier Field. The cheers reached as far as Montreal because the French Canadians there had adopted Chevigny as one of their own.
Notre Dame had only one player returning on each side of the ball for 1928, and Chevigny was both of them. Not that much was expected of the Irish his senior year, and when they lost 22-6 to Wisconsin in the second game of the season, they started playing for pride. Chevigny, who seemed to save his best for the service academies, was magnificent on defense against Navy in the third game, playing at Soldier Field before 120,000 fans -- a record at the time for the most people ever to see a college football game.
Trailing 7-0 late in the fourth quarter, the Midshipmen had a fourth-and-one at the Notre Dame seven, but Chevigny and his teammates rose up to stuff the runner. Jack had to be carried off the field, but Notre Dame held on for a 7-0 triumph.
Jeff Walker unearthed this letter to Dr. Chevigny, written by a friend after the Navy game:
"Wasn't [Jack] marvelous? You sure can justly be proud of such a fine son, and may God spare him and all your children to a grand old age. A boy like Jack is sure an incentive to the youth of our land."
A loss to Georgia Tech the next week put an end to Notre Dame's slim title aspirations, but the date with Army -- Nov. 10 -- and the chance to avenge the loss in '27 fueled Rockne and his men.
Army was favored by two touchdowns as 85,000 fans packed into Yankee Stadium. If you've seen Pat O'Brien in "Knute Rockne, All-American," you know the story, or at least one version of it. Seeking to inspire his men against Army at halftime of a scoreless game, Rockne invoked the name of George Gipp, the great player who died of pneumonia shortly after the 1920 season. On his deathbed, Rockne told them, Gipper (or Ronald Reagan) whispered:
"Some day when the team's up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."
Nobody knows exactly what Gipper said back in 1920, or what Rockne told them as halftime came to a close, but Chevigny was sitting to his right with his head turned toward the coach, misty-eyed like the rest of his teammates. When Rockne finished with "Men, this is that day!" Jack stood up, yelled, "Let's go!" and the Irish charged out onto the field.
(In the movie version, actor Steve Pendleton wears Jack's No. 12 and sits to Rockne's right.)
The tears must have gotten in the way -- Army scored on its first possession and led 6-0 after the point-after kick was missed. The two teams exchanged punts, with Chevigny recovering a teammate's fumbled punt return on the Army 37. Notre Dame drove toward the goal line. On fourth-and-goal from the one, Chevigny got the call and smashed through for the tying touchdown. According to one account, he tossed the ball high into the air, returned to the sideline, and yelled to Rockne, "That's one for the Gipper!"
The Irish also missed the point after, so the score was tied 6-6. But they had woken up the echoes, and Army was on its heels. In the fourth quarter, a 16-yard gain by Chevigny brought the ball down to the Army 15. When the next snap squirted free, all the way back to the 35, Chevigny jumped on it. Unfortunately, as Damon Runyon wrote, "He was so badly hurt as the Army tacklers piled on him that he had to be helped from the field."
As the crowd gave Jack a thunderous ovation, Rockne sent in the little-used Johnny O'Brien. The woozy Jack didn't get to see the next play, a 35-yard pass from Johnny Niemiec to O'Brien for a touchdown -- one more for the Gipper. Again, the PAT was missed, but Notre Dame held on for a 12-6 victory.
Even without the subsequent Gipper mythology, it was considered one of the greatest college football games ever played. The touchdown pass, wrote Runyon, "came at a moment when it looked as if the very best the boys could do would be a tie."
Notre Dame would lose its final two games, to Carnegie Tech and USC, but before that last game, Maxwell Stiles wrote this in the Los Angeles Examiner:
"John Chevigny -- remember the name. He is slick as a whistle, as swift as a hare, takes passes on the dead run, sears a blazing trail off tackle, and is just about the whole Notre Dame secondary defense wrapped up in the sinewy frame of one man."
It was a forgettable 5-4 last season for Chevigny, but he did get to score in a game for the ages. And Rockne saw a future for Jack. He not only made him an assistant coach, but also a co-star of his coaching clinics across the country. At one point, they passed through Hammond, and Rockne told the Chamber of Commerce that Chevigny was "one of the greatest team men I ever had."
As Jack worked for his law degree, he helped Rockne lead Notre Dame to two unbeaten national championship seasons, in 1929 and 1930. When Rockne had to go to the Mayo Clinic for treatment of his phlebitis, it was Jack who stayed by his bedside in Rochester, Minnesota.
He was clearly Rockne's heir apparent. But on March 3, 1931, the great coach boarded TWA Flight 599 in Kansas City, bound for Los Angeles, where he was to help in the filming of "Knute Rockne, All-American." The plane crashed in bad weather, killing all eight people aboard.
News photos of the coach's funeral mistakenly identify the young man to whom Rockne's wife, Bonnie, is clinging as one of his sons. It was actually Jack Chevigny, but as Jeff Walker writes, "In a way, they were right."
Rockne was, of course, irreplaceable, but Notre Dame administrators did something curious: They appointed two men to take his job: 31-year-old Heartley (Hunk) Anderson, the "senior coach," and 24-year-old Jack Chevigny, the "junior coach."
Anderson was himself a Notre Dame legend, one of the blockers for The Four Horsemen, but from the outset, he and Chevigny clashed. While Jack did much of the work, Hunk took much of the credit for Notre Dame's 6-0-1 start. Then, when they lost the last two games to Southern Cal and Army, Hunk passed much of the blame onto Jack. Anderson told the administrators that he wanted Jack out of the picture.
Stung by the abandonment, Chevigny resigned his position on Feb. 1, 1932. Six months later, he decided to take the job as the head coach of the Chicago Cardinals in the fledgling National Football League, replacing legendary player-coach Ernie Nevers.
Chevigny knew he was going from crowds of 80,000 to crowds of 3,000, but it was a chance to make his own imprint. He brought in two Notre Dame teammates, Tim Moynihan and Al Culver, and switched offenses from Pop Warner's single wing to the Notre Dame shift. He saw the potential in a college dropout named Joe Lillard, who happened to be African-American.
But Jack was also younger than a lot of his players and headstrong, insisting that they play hurt-like he did. He lost the locker room amid a season in which the Cardinals finished 2-6-2 in league play (7-6-2 overall). So with one eye on South Bend, Chevigny resigned and took the head coaching job at St. Edward's College in Austin, Texas, a school run by the same Holy Cross order as Notre Dame.
It was there that he worked a miracle. Starting out with only 27 players, few of whom were any good, he changed the team name from Saints to Tigers and installed an innovative offense featuring a delayed lateral. In the Texas Conference title game, he upset the Texas College of the Mines to end the season at 7-1-1.
In the meantime, the other college team in Austin, the University of Texas was finishing the season at 4-5-2. Jack had made overtures about returning to Notre Dame to replace Hunk Anderson, who was fired, but the fathers chose one of the Horsemen, Elmer Layden, instead. That left him free to be courted by the powerful oilmen and ranchers who ran UT football. Thanks to his success at St. Ed's, his charismatic personality and the Rockne association, Jack was a popular figure, so popular that a rancher and card-playing friend, Houghton Brownlee, named a thoroughbred after him.
Chevigny didn't mind -- he loved the ponies. And he loved the idea of taking over a major college team that had Notre Dame as the second game on its 1934 schedule. The announcement of his appointment as the new head coach was made at halftime of a Texas-Baylor basketball game. Jack promised the crowd he would "make the flag of the University of Texas fly high among the schools of the nation."
The new coach suffered a personal setback on the first day of spring contact drills: His father died of a heart attack while he and his wife were visiting their son in Austin. At the graveside funeral back in Indiana, Jack was consoled by Bonnie Rockne, the widow of his "other" father.
Once mourning was over, Chevigny returned to Forty Acres to prepare the Longhorns for the 1934 season. Their first opponent was Texas Tech, and in the days leading up to the game, Jack borrowed a page from Rockne by bad-mouthing his team's chances, telling the press, "Only 15 more days until we take our first spanking."
But he and his old Notre Dame friend, Tim Moynihan, had fully prepared the players for the trip to Lubbock. As a little team-building exercise that he would come to use on his road trips, Chevigny had the players sleep in their railway cars the night before the game, rather than in a hotel.
Thanks to a 94-yard run from scrimmage by Bohn Hilliard, Texas upset heavily favored Texas Tech 12-6. With two weeks to prepare for the trip to South Bend, Chevigny came up with a plan based on his knowledge of players he had once coached. He knew that kick returner George Melinkovich had a tendency to fumble, so he instructed his kickoff team to go after the ball.
He also gave them a pregame speech that would have made Rockne proud. He invoked the spirit of his late father and reduced them to tears. He created his own Gipper moment.
Texas won the toss, elected to kick off, and just like Chevigny had planned it, the vanguard knocked the ball loose from Melinkovich, and Jack Gray recovered it on the Notre Dame 14. Hilliard scored from 8 yards out, and just like that, the Longhorns were up 7-0.
Those were the only points Texas would score that day. But they were enough, as Chevigny used just 15 (!) players. Notre Dame scored a touchdown after a fumbled punt return, but its kicker missed the extra point, and when the gun sounded, the Longhorns had won 7-6. Notre Dame hadn't lost an opener in 38 years.
According to one account, Chevigny was so stunned that Elmer Layden, looking to congratulate Jack, found him sitting on the bench, mumbling, "We did it. We did it. We really did it."
When the train carrying the Longhorns arrived back in Austin early Tuesday morning, the governor-elect was there to greet them along with a throng of supporters. Even back in South Bend, there were smiles at the thought that if Notre Dame had to lose, it might as well have been to Jack Chevigny.
That's part of why the pen story seems so plausible.
The football takes funny bounces. After the Longhorns beat Oklahoma 19-0 in the third game, Jack was the toast of Texas; they even had a Jack Chevigny Day in Austin. But when he lost to Centenary and Rice, and tied archrival Southern Methodist, he began to hear the mutters.
Four straight wins to end the season at 7-2-1 got him back in good graces -- boosters even bought him a brand-new black LaSalle --but he was still an outsider. And Chevigny didn't help matters when he focused his recruiting efforts on his familiar Midwest territory rather than the Lone Star State.
In-state rivals used that slight against him, and as good a coach as Chevigny was, he needed homegrown talent to make up for the homegrown talent he was losing. He had also toughened up his own schedule. Just like that, Texas went from the top of the Southwest Conference to the bottom. And bragging rights were everything.
In something of an omen, Jack Chevigny the horse, which had once been on the same card at Rockingham (New Hampshire) Park with Seabiscuit, was banned from racing because he had been illegally doped.
As the Longhorns tumbled downward, the press smelled blood, the players became demoralized and people wondered if Jack was spending too much time on his law practice. The boosters cast their eyes toward the highly successful Nebraska coach, Dana X. Bible. Seeing the writing on the wall, Chevigny resigned with two games left in the 1936 season. But it should be noted that one of the team's two victories that season was a 7-0 upset of archrival Texas A&M in the last game of his coaching career.
Chevigny took a job as a deputy attorney general in Texas -- a political appointment. After that, he did legal work for an old friend in the oil business, H. H. Weinert, nursing his wounds in southern Illinois, far from the madding crowd. One of his old Texas players, Hugh Wolfe, stopped by to see him once at an oil facility in Norris City, Illinois, and found him dressed in a shirt and tie, playing football with the roughnecks near an oil well, a twinkle in his eye.
You would have had to carry him off that field, too.
When Jack Chevigny first tried to enlist at the beginning of World War II, he was rejected because of an old Notre Dame knee injury. But as the war wore on, the physical requirements were relaxed, and one day -- March 10, 1943 -- the 36-year-old lawyer found himself reporting for duty at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, Indiana.
Knowing that he had more to offer than peeling potatoes for the Army, he reached out to the Marine Corps Reserve, and after a few more weeks of KP, he was appointed a first lieutenant. The Marines loved recruiting football players because they were athletic and tough and mindful of a larger purpose, and who better to commission than a former legend?
The Marines put him to good use right away, staging a photo op in Seattle, with Jack walking arm in arm with Woman's Reservist Agnes Plesh. But it was another woman in Seattle who had caught his eye: Eugenia (Gege) Purdy, a bank employee, the sister of a priest and an accomplished equestrian whom he met one night at a bridge party.
They kept in constant touch as Chevigny was transferred to Camp Pendleton for officer training, and then to Camp Lejeune, where the Marines had mounted a football team for morale and recruiting purposes. The previous coach had lost to both Duke and Navy, and that would not do.
Chevigny installed a Notre Dame offense, changed the name of the team from the All-Stars to the Leathernecks, and turned their season around, winning six games while tying one and losing none.
It was a redemption of sorts, but it was not what Jack really wanted to do. While home for Christmas in 1943, he revealed to his brother Jule, a physician and recent widower, that he could no longer bear to stay behind while other Marines were sent off to fight. He had asked for a transfer to combat duty, he told them, "to be there with the boys."
His request was granted in February 1944, and he was transferred to the 5th Division of the Fleet Marine Force. Stationed back at Camp Pendleton, he was sometimes asked to help with the Marines public relations effort. To that end, he posed one day with Phil Silvers, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby -- his old golfing partner from his days in Chicago. On another occasion, he escorted a young MGM starlet, Ann Blyth, to a regimental parade review. (You may know her as the daughter in "Mildred Pierce.")
While he and Gege made sure to look up at the moon at the same time every night, the Marines were launching their offensive in the South Pacific. Jack spent two months in the Hawaiian islands, training with the 5th Division for an amphibious assault.
His responsibility as a liaison officer was to maintain communications between headquarters and the landing parties. But it was also his duty to keep the young men calm under enemy fire.
Sonny Franck, in the meantime, was flying a fighter plane. Shot down in a dogfight over the Marshall Islands, he was rescued by a passing destroyer and joined the invasion force. Which is how he came face-to-face with his boyhood idol, Jack Chevigny: at a card table on board the Rutland.
"He was an incredible bridge player," Franck told Jeff Walker. "The best I've ever seen. Guys would stand around to watch him play or listen to him talk. He knew his football, too. One day he spent an hour or two teaching me the finer techniques of how to pull the guard on a trap. Years later, when I coached high school ball, I would still incorporate the things he taught me."
As the Rutland neared its destination, football talk gave way to other thoughts. In one of his last letters, to a friend in North Dakota, Chevigny wrote:
" ... right now we're checking over our final signals. I've wanted to be here because I've felt that to have the information correct, you had to get in the position of the 1st team quarterback. Col. Wornham... has given me the opportunity of being on his first team... and now I'm hoping I can perform to his expectations."
He did. Shortly after the morning invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, Sonny Franck scurried from place to place on the beach, dodging Japanese artillery as a ground spotter -- he could fly on land as well. At one point near Yellow Beach 1, he dove blindly into a crater carved out by a shell and filled with Marines. He heard a voice tell him to hold his position. It was Jack Chevigny, and his calm assurance slowed down his heartbeat.
"That was his greatest play," says Walker. "He calmed people down as all hell broke loose."
But then Franck heard another, inner voice that told him the crater wasn't safe. So he leapt out and used his football legs to dodge the enemy. When the fighting briefly subsided on the second day, he asked a mutual friend, "Have you heard anything of Chevigny?"
His friend told him, "He and some other guys got hit in a shell hole. He's gone. They're all gone."
An unthinkable 26,000 Marines were lost in the 36 days of fighting on Iwo Jima, more than a third of the invasion force. Three of them had ties to the NFL: Chevigny, Packers lineman Howard (Smiley) Johnson, and Jack Lummus, an end and Franck's Giants teammate. Lummus would be awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on March 8.
Spared at Iwo Jima were Angelo Bertelli, the 1943 Heisman Trophy winner, and Charlie Conerly, the Ole Miss quarterback who would go on to star for the Giants.
Chevigny was buried on Iwo Jima. But news of his death didn't reach his older sister, Marie Gaffney, until more than a month later, and she called Gege and the other members of her family. By late March, the sporting world found out, and Jack became a hero once again.
On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese formally surrendered aboard the U.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, and six days later, the Treasury Department aired a special radio tribute to Jack written by his cousin, Hector Chevigny.
But there were differing accounts as to his death -- one report said he was killed by a sniper. So on Dec. 9, Marie waited outside the visiting locker room at Washington's Griffith Stadium after the game to talk to the Giants' punter and halfback, Sonny Franck.
He gave her the details as best he could, steering her toward the days before his death, when Jack was the life of the Rutland. They never saw each other again.
Jack was reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Gege ended up marrying Jule Chevigny, Jack's older brother, and becoming the stepmother of Jule's children by his late wife Margaret. One of their sons was named Jack, and he became a lawyer in Hammond. They also had children of their own, and one of their descendants was recently awarded a swimming scholarship to the University of Texas, of all places.
As for the pen, well, here's the legend: A Japanese envoy was about to sign the surrender document aboard the U.S. Missouri when an American envoy noticed that he was writing with a fountain pen with an English-language inscription. It read, TO A NOTRE DAME BOY WHO BEAT NOTRE DAME.
Why, that must have been a pen given to Jack Chevigny after Texas beat Notre Dame, then taken off his body at Iwo Jima. The Japanese gave the pen back, and it was reinscribed: TO JACK CHEVIGNY, A NOTRE DAME BOY WHO GAVE HIS LIFE FOR HIS COUNTRY IN THE SPIRIT OF OLD NOTRE DAME.
For one thing, that's a pretty long inscription to put on a pen. For another, nobody in the Chevigny family had ever seen or heard of such a pen. For one more, Jack was killed behind the lines, and the Marines buried all of their own.
As best as Walker can best surmise, the pen story came from Bill Stern, the radio commentator given to outlandish stories. Writes Walker, "The legend still taken as truth, is continually reprinted by legitimate publications and continues to herald Jack's message of courage and sacrifice. Given the result, Stern can be exonerated for his lie." He's right. The fable has led many people to learn about Jack Chevigny.
But there's an even better, seldom-published story that's about the man himself, and not some pen. It comes from Maurice O'Hern, a Hammond native who was an altar boy at All Saints Church back in 1927:
"One Sunday I was the only altar boy. As Mass progressed, I was getting panicky as I had no idea how I could do all the tasks myself. I had visions of the priest and the whole congregation waiting for me. So I went to the sacristy to do the time-consuming task with the incense burner ... I was one panicky 12-year-old.
"All of a sudden, Jack Chevigny comes into the sacristy, lifts me up, and sets me down, and says he is there to help me. From the congregation he had seen my plight ... Quite evidently, when he saw something that should be done, he took action to get it done."