Long-time readers of my column know that I hold a special fascination for athletes who competed during World War II. The generation of my parents has long held my admiration. They battled courageously through the Great Depression and a World War and handed the generations that followed a better world. We are still reaping the benefits from their sacrifices.
The changes that Americans were asked to make during WW II also had a dramatic impact on high school athletics. Once we entered the war, there were some who insisted that professional and amateur sports should be curtailed or shut down entirely so that nothing would impede the war effort. It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who insisted that athletics at every level should be maintained as close to normal as possible. When, in 1942, the commissioner of major league baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, offered to cancel the baseball season, Roosevelt insisted that Americans needed to maintain sports at all levels as a form of recreation and to keep their minds off the struggles of the day.
However, high school athletics were not immune to dramatic changes. The 1941 and 1943 Lima Central High School basketball squads both advanced to state during the war years and can be used to illustrate a major change in the organization of the post season tournament. The 1941 Dragon team was one of sixteen squads that made it to state tournament to compete for a state championship. In the first 20 years of the OHSAA post-season basketball tournament, sixteen teams made up the field at state. It took four wins at state to bring home the title. That Central team lost their first game to Martins Ferry, a team led by a young Lou (“The Toe”) Groza, who went on to fame for Ohio State and the Cleveland Browns.
In 1943, the OHSAA created four regional tournaments so that teams did not have to travel as far to compete, in order to save on gas and rubber, two essentials that were severely rationed in the war years. During the war, teams often played two tournament games on the same day for the same reason. It also meant that the field of competitors at state was reduced to four teams, a format that continues to this day. In 1943, Lima Central lost a close semi-final game to Canton McKinley who went on to win the Class A title.
The 1944 Lima St. John’s High School team was impacted by the war in a different manner. After winning the first district tournament in school history, their Captain and starting point guard, Leo Murphy, turned eighteen and was drafted into the armed forces. Instead of playing in the regional tournament at BGSU that weekend, Murphy, who was also President of his senior class, was on a troop train headed for Parris Island, South Carolina. Within months, he was attacking Japanese held islands in the Pacific. St. Johns made it to the state championship game without Murphy and fell short of the title. Every senior on that team served in WW II. Most returned from war unscathed, but Robert Rigali was seriously wounded while fighting in Germany. His twin brother, Richard, was wounded on the very same day.
Neil Schmidt, perhaps the most honored competitor in Bluffton High School history, was also impacted by WW II in ways difficult to fathom. Neal, a gifted athlete, left school after his sophomore year and joined the Navy. After serving two years, including thirteen months participating in the battle of Okinawa, he returned home and enrolled back into Bluffton high school. During the war years, the OHSAA added a provision to its handbook permitting students who served in the armed forces and then re-enrolled in high school an extra year of eligibility, if they had not reached the age of 20. Schmidt took advantage of the new ruling and resumed his athletic career. He led Bluffton to WBL titles in both football and basketball. Schmidt was named first team All-State in both sports. He then enrolled at
Purdue University where he excelled in football and basketball and was named outstanding Boilermaker athlete his senior year. Schmidt was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in the third round but injuries ended his playing days. After years coaching college football, he was then employed as a pro scout by the San Francisco 49ers and earned four Super Bowl rings. A remarkable story.
It’s easy for athletes to take a lot for granted in today’s world. The amount of attention, adulation and rewards continue to grow for them. I’m reminded of a story Paul Mullenhour, a member of the 1944 Lima St. Johns team, relayed to me years ago. On the day of their state championship game the pastor of St John’s parish had a surprise for them. He handed each team member a new pair of shoelaces. Shoelaces! Mullenhour told me the team was excited to receive them. In a world where the war took precedence over every aspect of their lives, the athletes appreciated what that small gesture meant. Mullenhour enlisted immediately after graduation and was on a ship in the Pacific Ocean headed for Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped and the war ended. After being discharged, a troop-train dropped him off at Lima’s train station at 2:00 in the morning and he walked to his home on south Main street. Not wanting to wake his parents, Mullenhour slept on the porch that night. It was the middle of winter.
Over the years, all the athletes I talked with who competed in WW II claimed the same rewards they gained from their athletic experience. They learned that the friendships, camaraderie, resiliency, discipline and the simple value of hard work and being part of something larger than themselves impacted them for a lifetime.
In the present age of athletics, where mega-attention begins in grade school and scholarships for the top 5% are incentivized by lucrative NIL contracts, it’s easy to lose sight of the genuine benefits of the athletic experience. It’s important for today’s athletes to understand that their most valuable rewards are no different today than what the athletes competing in WW II claimed.