Ramblins - Tech player was legendary on the field and in the sky
By Pat Edwards Ramblin' Reck Club
Fall reminds many on Tech's campus of the proud traditions of football at Georgia Tech. Of all players at Georgia Tech, one man stands alone with the highest honor and distinction that a college may bestow on a player.
Many college and professional football teams 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 jersey numbers to three digits in order to accommodate their existing squad.
In contrast, Tech has only retired a single football jersey: number nineteen, which belonged to Clint Castleberry, arguably the greatest freshman player ever to play for Ma Tech.
Clinton Dillard Castleberry, Jr. didn't look much like a football player when he came to Coach William Alexander's attention in the early days of World War II. He stood only 5 foot 9 inches, and at only 155 pounds his size didn't intimidate many players on the gridiron.
What Castleberry had that made him the bane of the many teams he faced was his speed. He was said to run "like a crazed jackrabbit" by the Atlanta Journal 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 his brilliant prep school career, Clint was scouted and recruited by several big-name schools. Many of the schools that looked into the young freshman had been initially put off by his size. Among these were 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: Georgia Tech.
After a meeting with the legendary Coach Alex the decision was made, and Clint set up shop as a new freshman at Georgia Tech that fall.
World War II was causing serious manpower shortages in college football squads, so the Southern Conference, to which Tech belonged, had allowed Freshmen to play in their first year. 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 an amazing degree. A scout for sixth ranked Notre Dame, Wayne Millner, rushed back to South Bend to warn that Castleberry was "the most dangerous runner in America."
Millner's fears were not baseless; Castleberry played the pivotal role in defeating the Irish at 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, whose already legendary strength was bolstered by wartime enrollment surges, fell under the Yellow Jackets. Castleberry took honors at the game.
For all of that season of 1942 Castleberry was the best-known freshman player in the country, and sport writers all over the nation spread his fame.
Tech was undefeated in that year except for a stinging loss to Georgia. The season culminated in a trip to the Cotton Bowl against Texas, which Tech lost by a touchdown. The loss dropped Texas's ranking, from a three week high of second in the nation, to fifth.
Clint's fame and popularity is evident; $20,000 was bid game at a War Bonds benefit for the jersey he wore for the Georgia game. He ended the year with the election to the SEC all-conference team.
Castleberry was third in voting for the Heisman Trophy by the New York Athletic Club, but the call to duty led Clint to leave Georgia Tech after that first meteoric season and enter the US Army Air Corp.
Clint entered Air Cadet training, and was stationed around the country in Miami, Alabama, and Nashville to take part in that rigorous program.
Not long after his marriage in September of 1943, Lt. Castleberry was shipped out to the Mediterranean Theater where he was a copilot on a B-26G Marauder bomber.
During his training, which he accomplished with his customary speed and success, and his service, Castleberry was a favorite of his fellow airmen. The press also showered him with attention. Reporters would frequently interview the famous young man about his views of 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 a.m., 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 Bobby Dodd, who was an assistant coach at the time.
On November 23, 1944, Clint's brother Jimmie arrived by train in San Francisco with Clint's pregnant wife. He called home and received the news a telegraph had arrived. It indicated that, after a joint search effort including US Air Corp, RAF and Royal Navy forces turned up only scattered wreckage, Lt. Castleberry was being listed as killed in action.
All who knew Clint 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 of Georgia Tech to raise a memorial fund for fallen aviator. The result was a $4,079,100 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."
"[Clint Castleberry] was a great boy: gentle and brave, manly yet sweet."
Georgia Tech legend