By Pat Edwards
Ramblin Reck Club
Over this fall we have focused on the legendary football coaches of Georgia Tech. This attention to Tech football would not be complete, however, if we did not pay homage to the players of the game.
One such legendary player stands out as worthy of attention, perhaps not so much for his brief but glorious career at Tech, but for what could have been, and the sacrifice he made that ended a most promising football career.
Many college and professional football teams routinely retire jerseys with the regularity of Nature s seasons. Indeed, some teams are so prolific in the tradition of setting aside the number of an honored player, that they may soon consider expanding their numbers to three digits in order to accommodate their present squads.
Tech, on the other hand, has only retired a single football jersey, number nineteen which belonged to Clint Castleberry, arguable the greatest freshman player ever to play at Grant Field.
Clinton Dillard Castleberry, Jr. didn t look much like a football player. He stood only 5 foot 9 inches, and at only 155 pounds his size didn t intimidate many players on the gridiron.
What Castleberry could do, and what made him the bane of many teams that faced him, was his speed. He was compared to running like a crazed jackrabbit , by an Atlanta Journal Constitution sports editor.
Castleberry came to Georgia Tech in 1942 from Boys High in College Park, Georgia where he was a straight-A student as well as a football hero. While in high school Castleberry never played in a losing game.
After a brilliant prepschool career, Castleberry was scouted and recruited by several big-name schools. Many of the schools that considered the young Freshman were immediately dismayed by his size. Among these were the Navy and Notre Dame, two teams that would, in less than a year, regret underestimating this crazed jackrabbit.
But for Castleberry, who loved Atlanta, there was only really one school for him, and that was Georgia Tech.
After meeting with the legendary Head Coach William Alexander, the decision was made, and Clint set up shop as a new student at Georgia Tech that fall.
Because America had called her young men to fight for freedom in World War II, a serious manpower shortage was witnessed in college football squads. Because of this shortage, the South Eastern Conference (SEC), in which Tech belonged at that time, allowed freshman to play. So, rather than settling into the practice team on the Flats and being a pledge to the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, Clint Castleberry was called into the varsity football squad.
In Tech s first football game that season against Auburn, Castleberry displayed his speed and wiry talent to such a degree that a scout for sixth ranked Notre Dame, Wayne Millner, rushed back to Southbend to warn that Castleberry was, the most dangerous runner in America.
Millner s fears were not baseless, as Castleberry played the pivotal role in defeating the Irish at their home. Castleberry himself defeated an Irish drive by intercepting a pass and returning it 95 yards for a touchdown.
Castleberry was voted the All-Rookie honors by the Associated Press for his performance against Notre Dame, an honor he would receive a total of three times that season.
Even the powerhouse Navy, a team ranked sixth nationally the week they played Tech and who s already legendary strength was bolstered by war-time enrollment surges, fell under the Yellow Jackets, with Castleberry s taking honors at the game.
For the entire 1942 season Castleberry was the best known freshman player in the country, and sport writers all over the nation spread his fame.
Tech was undefeated that year, except for a stinging loss to Georgia, which culminated in a trip to the Cotton Bowl that year against Texas, which Tech also lost by one touchdown, dropping Her ranking from a three week high of second in the nation to fifth.
Castleberry s fame and popularity is evident in the amount of $20,000 being bid for the jersey he wore for the Georgia game, made at a War Bonds benefit. He ended the year with the election to the SEC all-conference team.
A call to duty led Castleberry to leave Georgia Tech after that first meteoric season, to enter the US Army Air Corp. He entered Air Cadet training and was stationed around the country in Miami, Alabama, and Nashville to take part in that rigorous program.
It was in Nashville, Tennessee that he married his wife, the former Miss Shirley Poole in the base chapel at the Nashville Army Air Corp Base on September 21, 1943.
Not long after his marriage, Lt. Castleberry was shipped out to the Mediterranean theater where he was a co-pilot on a B-26G, Marauder bomber.
All during his training, which he accomplished with his customary speed and success, as well as his service, Castleberry was a favorite of his fellow airman, and the press as well, who frequently interviewed the famous young man about his views on the War and the future for America s fighting men, once the war was over.
In one such interview made on October 9, 1943, Castleberry indicated his own desire to return to Tech and Football after the war. He felt that all the GI s would return to College, tougher , and having become men.
Sadly, the dreams of this young legend were to come to a premature end. On Election Day, November 7, 1944, at 7:20 AM Clint s B-26 took off from Robert Field in Nigeria, bound for Darer, Senegal, ferrying supplies. His flight was never heard from again.
His father received word from the War Department two days later that his son was missing in action.
As the family held vigil, and strained to hope for good news, daily visitors to the Castleberry home were Coaches Alexander, and Coach Bobby Dodd, who was an assistant coach under Alexander at the time.
On November 23, 1944, arriving by train in San Francisco with Castleberry s pregnant wife, his brother, Jimmie, called home to receive the news that a telegraph had arrived. It indicated that, after a joint search effort including the US Air Corp, RAF, and Royal Navy forces, Lt. Castleberry was to be listed as killed in action. Only scattered wreckage was found.
All who knew Clint Castleberry mourned his passing, though his father would hold out hope till his own death that Clint would appear alive one day somewhere in Africa. He believed that if Clint had survived the crash, he had enough heart to make it through any adversity.
Tech students spearheaded a campaign that included alumni, faculty and fans to raise a memorial fund for the fallen aviator. The result was a $4,079,100.00 war bond purchase made in his honor.
In Eulogizing Clint Castleberry, Bobby Dodd clearly stated that, had he not left Tech to join the war, he would have been the greatest player in Tech history , and would surely had been an all-American for his remaining three years. He concluded: He was a great boy: gentle and brave, manly yet sweet.
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