Column: Remembering Castleberry, others who paid ultimate price of war

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ATLANTA (AP) — Clint Castleberry had one glorious season at Georgia Tech, a whirlwind of a player whose star burned bright.

A newspaper scribe dubbed him “Jackrabbit” — a testimonial to his blinding speed on the gridiron.

In an era when players lined up on both offense and defense, Castleberry seemed to be everywhere.

And then, he was gone.

All that potential, snuffed out by the horrors of war.

On this Memorial Day weekend, the largely forgotten exploits of Castleberry — so dazzling, yet so brief — are a somber, painful reminder of what might've been if not for the ultimate futility of settling differences through armed conflict.

As we honor those who paid the ultimate price on behalf of their country, including professional athletes such as Bob Kalsu and Pat Tillman, we should take a few moments between grilling out and soaking up some rays to acknowledge that we can never really know just how much is lost when someone doesn't make it home.

All those lives that never get a chance to reach their full fruition.

There are no winners.

Only loss.

Castleberry might've been one of college football's greatest players. He might've been one of the early stars of the NFL. He might've lived a long life, telling stories of how he led a memorable victory at Notre Dame with his running and passing exploits, how he picked off that pass against Navy and returned it nearly the length of the field for a touchdown to beat the powerhouse Middies.

Instead, he perished while flying a B-26 somewhere off the coast of Africa during the final year of World War II. They found a few scraps of debris floating in the ocean, but never his body. He was only 21.

“I can't even imagine what he might've done,” said Bill Chastain, who wrote the book “Jackrabbit: The Story of Clint Castleberry and the Improbable 1942 Georgia Tech Football Season.”

Chastain describes Castleberry as "a gym rat,” someone who loved to play sports from dawn to dusk, who excelled at pretty much anything he took on.

Football. Baseball. Basketball.

In the summer months, he would shag foul balls that went over the roof of the ballpark on Ponce de Leon Avenue that housed the local minor league team, the Crackers.

One day, the story goes, famed Atlanta high school coach R.L. “Shorty” Doyal was holding football practice when a ball sailed onto an adjoining field where Castleberry was playing. When the diminutive kid threw it back with a powerful heave, Doyal knew that was a player he had to have.

“Shorty Doyal, like all good coaches in the past, had a good working knowledge of who the best players in the area were from the playground up," Chastain said. "And he went and got 'em.”

Playing for Doyal at Boys' High School, not far from the Georgia Tech campus, Castleberry displayed the powerful arm and blazing speed that made him a weapon on both sides of the line in the non-platoon era.

He was just 5-foot-9 and weighed a bit more than a buck-fifty, but Chastain was instantly struck by his chiseled body when, during research for the book, he came across a photo of Castleberry in a basketball uniform.

“He had some major hamstrings,” Chastain said. “You knew this guy was an athlete just from looking at the picture.”

Castleberry was a high school senior when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging America into a world war that had already been raging for more than two years. He enrolled at Georgia Tech the following year, and got a chance to play right away.

With so many young men heading off to war, schools faced a shortage of players. The rules were changed, allowing freshmen to suit up for the varsity.

Castleberry was hardly overmatched. Though his individual stats are hard to come by, what's known is that he led the Yellow Jackets to nine straight victories, including a 13-6 triumph at Notre Dame — their first win over the Fighting Irish since 1928 — and a 21-0 blanking of Navy in Annapolis.

“When I was doing the book, a guy told me, ‘You knew he was a guy who tilted the field because when they took the train up to Baltimore, everyone got off the train before they got to Annapolis,’” Chastain said. “'The train was about to leave and Castleberry wasn't on it. So they held the train for him.'”

Good thing. Castleberry made one of his most memorable plays of the season on defense. According to an account of the game, the Midshipmen attempted a pass on fourth and 13 from the Georgia Tech 27.

“The Tech secondary knew what was coming on the final down,” the story said. “The backs deployed like duck hunters, and when Gordon Studer threw the ball the Tech defense men fairly knocked each other over going after it. Clint Castleberry, 155 pounds of comet, was the lucky man. He got it on his eight and sprinted 92 yards to score.”

As Castleberry's fame grew, Georgia Tech climbed to No. 2 in The Associated Press rankings. But in the ninth straight win, a 20-7 triumph over Florida in Atlanta, he hurt a knee.

“If we went back and put it in terms of modern technology, it was probably torn cartilage,” Chastain said. “It was probably something that you would get cleaned up now and be back out there in a month.”

But this was a different era. Castleberry played the next week against Georgia and their star back, Frank Sinkwich. With their best player clearly limited, the Yellow Jackets were blown out by their biggest rival, 34-0.

Castleberry reinjured the knee but played again on New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl, where Georgia Tech fell to Texas 14-7 to finish 9-2 and No. 5 in the AP rankings.

In the Heisman Trophy balloting, Castleberry finished third behind a pair of seniors: the winner Sinkwich and runner-up Paul Governali of Columbia. With freshmen deemed ineligible again after the war — a rule that would stay in place until the early 1970s — Castleberry retained the distinction as the highest-finishing freshman in the Heisman vote until Georgia's Herschel Walker also placed third in 1980.

Castleberry finally underwent surgery on his ailing knee after the season and was declared fit for military service. He was called up to the Army Air Forces and earned his wings as Lt. Clinton Dillard Castleberry Jr.

Stationed in Africa, with the end of the war about nine months away, he was co-piloting one of two B-26s that took off from Liberia on a run up the coast to Senegal on Nov. 7, 1944. It's not clear what happened, but neither plane made it to the destination. An extensive search turned up just a few pieces of debris. Castleberry and three others were declared dead without any remains being found, stirring hope in his young wife and father that he had somehow survived, made it to a remote part of Africa, and would be discovered safe and sound one day.

“His wife used to have dreams about him being alive on some island,” Chastain said.

Castleberry’s number — 19 — is still the only one to be retired by the Yellow Jackets’ football program. It hangs in a corner of Bobby Dodd Stadium, above the tunnel where the team runs onto the field.

We'll never know what Castleberry might have been if he had returned to Georgia Tech, as was his plan, to complete the last three years of his college career.

All we've got is that one glorious season.

And, on this Memorial Day weekend, a grim reminder of war's awful toll.

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org

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