AN INSTANT REPLAY OF A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY by Jack Knox

IMG_0983.2015-06-16_011610     My alma mater, The Citadel, plays its home football games at Johnson Haygood Stadium, named after a Confederate General who was an early Citadel graduate. Since the dedication of the field in 1948, The Citadel has defeated only two “Division 1A” teams in that stadium. They were The University of South Carolina in 1950 and Navy, years later in 1988. In fact, the 1950 Carolina victory was The Citadel’s only win over such a major opponent on its home field, in front of its cadet corps, for a span of sixty years.
I was a 190 pound tackle on the 1950 squad and I lived my impossible dream as a college player on that Saturday afternoon nearly a half a century ago when the Citadel Bulldogs upset the highly favored South Carolina Gamecocks.
Three months ago, a former Citadel classmate mailed a video to me of the original 1950 game film. I was not aware that such a film even existed. It was an unimaginable gift and I could hardly believe I was about to see those memories come to life again.
The decades had obscured what I thought was my accurate recollection of the game. The Citadel was as much as a forty point underdog and we were outweighed at every position. The South Carolina attack was spearheaded by the top running back in the pro draft, Steve Wadiak. The Gamecocks were on a roll. They had tied undefeated arch rival Clemson who later went on to beat undefeated Miami in the Orange Bowl. Also, Carolina had shut out Georgia Tech, a team with seven eventual All-Americans on their roster who, in the two seasons to follow, would go unbeaten and claim a share of the national championship.
I was a Sophomore, but started and played the entire offense at right tackle against Carolina because our first string tackle had broken his ankle two weeks earlier. It was not a glamour position. My job was to block.
But, at the end of the day, when the scoreboard showed that we had won by 19-7, I was hoisted off the field on the shoulders of my cadet classmates as though I had been the star of the game. Our victory was the first over South Carolina since 1926.
It was a day of glory and I had served with honor.
The following Spring, The Citadel alumni Association held a special banquet for our team and presented to each member of the squad a mahogany plaque with an affixed bronze emblem on which the player’s name and score was inscribed.
At every class reunion since my graduation, The Citadel’s win over South Carolina in 1950 has been a topic of conversation.
I was not a great football player, but I always felt that on that day I played a great game. Yet, strangely, the play I best recalled was one I didn’t make. I missed an open field tackle by inches, following a booming punt, that would have pinned Carolina deep on their own ten yard line. The cover man close behind me made the stop, and on the series of downs that followed, The Citadel blocked a kick for a touchdown. But, even thought I was denied that added element of satisfaction, I still basked in the thrill of the tremendous victory.
As I unwrapped the package containing the video tape, I prepared myself for the journey back to that memorable hour in the final days of my youth. I nervously inserted the cassette into th VCR and leaned forward in my chair to watch my performance of yesteryear.
The picture was crude and without sound or color. My eyes moistened when I viewed the trim young cadet football players we once had been. Some, I have not seen since my Citadel days, and some have passed away, including two whose names are engraved on the Vietnam Wall. But, on the TV screen, we were all together once more with that special camaraderie we had.
The video showed it all exactly as it had happened. The Citadel played a courageous game by 1950 standards or by any standards. We were a determined team and I felt tremendous pride in having been a part of the action.
But, I saw the frustrating side too. No matter how any times I ran the tape back, the scratchy game showed that I barely missed the tackle on that punt. Also, to my disappointment, the film revealed that I had not played the otherwise great and errorless game that I had recalled.
As I watched, the truth and fiction that had blended together in my mind during the years began to become unblended. It was obvious that some of my long cherished memories of my outstanding performance had been fantasies. But, I ould not argue with reality. The way it happened was the way it had happened.
The game was virtually won by our defense, led by our right side linebacker who blocked two Carolina punts for touchdowns in the first half giving us a 12-0 halftime lead. But, I played offense. In our only sustained drive of the first half, although we came close, we failed to score.
At times, that afternoon, I won some battles in the trenches. At other times, the scene was not so pretty.
Midway through the first quarter, I fanned at my opponent and failed to protect the passer. Our quarterback had to run for his life. I clinched my fist and scolded my nineteen-year-old self for not being more aggressive and more tenacious forty-four years earlier.
In the second quarter came my infamous missed tackle following the punt.
“If only I’d hustled down the field faster.” I grimaced as I watched.
My recollection of the game had always seemed vivid to me, but I had obviously forgotten many details and had lost track of the sequence of events. As I continued to watch, I continued to grade my youthful self hard.
In the third quarter, the coach sent me in the game for a series on defense. Carolina scored on that series and whittled our lead to a shaky 12-7. It was as if we had fallen behind, our hopes diminished. I was not sent in on defense again.
Early in the fourth quarter we got the ball in better than expected field position at our own forty yard line. Once more, our defense had miraculously toughened and come up with a Herculean effort. Our right end had finished off the series by sacking the quarterback for a jolting seventeen yard loss forcing Carolina to punt from deep in their own territory.
Hopefully, that sack would provide the spark we needed. It was “now or never” for our offense. It was showdown time. The gloves had come off and we were down to bare knuckles. We had to muster a scoring drive at that moment or we would lose the game. Our gallant but outweighed defensive players, five of whom also played offense, were tiring and could not be expected to continue stopping Wadiak and the highly touted Carolina running game. The Gamecocks had closed the scoreboard to less than a touchdown and if they stopped us this time, they would regain the momentum they needed to overpower us with a last quarter surge.
On our first down, a running play to the left produced a one yard gain and a cloud of chalk and dust. On second down, our Sophomore quarterback rocketed a spectacular pass to our right end who made an impossible catch between two clinging defenders at the South Carolina twenty-seven yard line. It was a super play. Up front, we had successfully held off the onslaught of a huge angry defensive line.
Following the pass completion, we clawed for short gains around left end and up the middle. The action was fierce and it was hard to distinguish the play of the individual linemen.
Then on the next play, I saw myself contribute to the attack. It was an off-tackle call to the right. Our fullback blasted the Carolina end off his feet toward his own bench with a driving head on block. I darted to my right and chopped down the burly defensive tackle across the line from me with a crisp body block from the outside screening him from the play. Our two blocks cleared the path for the ball carrier to start wide then cut through the hole between us and power his way through the fast closing defensive secondary for three tough yards.
It was only a three yard gain, but it was well executed hard-nosed football. Nothing fancy, nothing tricky. My block showed up on the video as being my best initial contact of the day.
With the game coming down to the wire, I realized that the boy on the TV screen, whose soul I shared, was fighting for every inch. I ran the tape back and watched the play again.
It was then that I first noticed the sideline chains and the poorly focused down marker on the soundless black and white screen. Suddenly, I was agog. It had been fourth and two. I had thrown a key block in a pivotal fourth and two situation. It had been “do or die” for The Citadel and we converted a crucial fourth down play over my hole that kept our drive alive with a first down at the South Carolina sixteen and line. The boy on the screen had come through.
Three plays later our quarterback scrambled to the Carolina five for another first down.
Two plays after that, a spunky Citadel sophomore half back hurled a touchdown pass in the end zone that broke Carolina’s back and secured the victory. The playing field shook from the burst of Pandemonium that exploded from the ranks of the one-thousand strong Citadel Cadet Corps.
Several long minutes of bruising football were still to be played that afternoon, but South Carolina did not recover from the shock, and as the clock wound down our defense was born again.
“What a great team! What a great Corps!” I thought.
For forty-four years, I never recalled that pivotal fourth down play on our scoring drive. Neither has anyone else I’m sure. But, to learn that I’d made that key block in the final quarter with the game on the line was as good as it could get for an offensive tackle.
I felt that after all those years somebody up there had rewritten the script for me. Through a miracle of modern technology, I had been blessed with a second chance to go back I time and make a big play in the biggest game of my life. It was as though The Citadel had won the game that day and not four and a half decades earlier.
I showed my twin ten-year-old grandsons the replay. I explained to them that, considering the enormity of the victory over the Division 1A state university, it was probably the biggest fourth down conversion in the history of Johnson Haygood Stadium, and maybe in the history of Citadel football. The two young boys could not comprehend the significance of the event as was evidenced by their respectful but inquisitive show of enthusiasm. “What’s a fourth down conversion?” one asked.
“Who’s South Carolina?” asked the other.
Then they said, “Tell us again about the corps..”
By Jack Knox 11/1/94  Class of 1953

2 thoughts on “AN INSTANT REPLAY OF A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY by Jack Knox

  1. Pingback: AN INSTANT REPLAY OF A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY by Jack Knox | anticsbyannie

  2. Pingback: AN INSTANT REPLAY OF A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY by Jack Knox | anticsbyannie

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