For many Americans, the end of summer means one thing – football! No one loved football more than my father, Jim Austell. But in August of 1945, he was stationed in post-war Germany and had just experienced the most defining months of his life. Football was not on his mind.
As a young lieutenant in the 71st Infantry Division in the winter of ‘45, he had fought through the frozen French countryside, sleeping in foxholes and battling the Germans with machine guns, mortar fire and rifles. Close friends died all around him from bullets and minefields. At one time his unit was so close on the heels of the Wehrmacht that they slept in the same hay-filled bunks that had nestled German soldiers the night before. Trudging behind tanks through the burned out villages, he saw first-hand the devastation and suffering of the French and German people.
On March 23rd, he was part of the historic crossing of the Rhine River with General Patton, napping in a truck as they went over the makeshift pontoon bridge. As the spring weather warmed, they pushed through Germany and crossed the famous Danube River, encountering heavy fire. Daddy was wounded and taken to a French army hospital. When the German surrender came through, soldiers outside the hospital fired off their rifles in celebration, and nurses rushed to place their patients under the beds, thinking they were being bombed.
After his wounds healed, Daddy reported back to his division. He was supposed to train troops headed out to the Pacific, but with the surrender of Japan on August 15, that was no longer needed. He was ready for his next assignment.
He was ordered to play football.
Back in high school in Blacksburg, South Carolina, Daddy had been the football captain and went on to play center at Clemson University, then an all-male military school. But with the onset of the war, the majority of his classmates entered Officer Training School and spent most of 1941-44 preparing to fight. Instead of strategizing on how to beat Duke, they were working on defeating Hitler.
But by that fall of 1945, the fighting was over and the soldiers were restless. A football league was formed among the divisions that had previously worked together to protect each other and kill Nazi’s. Now they would battle each other over yardage and touchdowns.
Daddy was chosen from several hundred men who tried out, but in his wartime memoirs he doesn’t brag or give any details about games or plays. He does proudly recount that his team, the Red Circlers (named for the 71st Division badge) won the championship for the European Theatre of Operations.
In the program for the championship game, the team members are listed. Many, like Daddy, played in college, and came from all over the United States – universities in Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Virginia, Ohio, and Nebraska. Others simply have “High School” listed after their name, boys who signed up for the army instead of college. They came together amidst the devastated and defeated countryside and played American football in a field that had once been the site of Nazi parades. In their leather headgear and cotton uniforms, they slammed into each other and fell together in the mud and ice, got up, shook hands and went on with their lives. I see them on that field, with no pom-pom swinging cheerleaders or drumming pep bands, just their fellow GI’s and paratroopers shouting for their teams, reveling in the normalcy of football on a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
In a grainy clipping from the Division newspaper, the victorious Red Circlers sit at the championship banquet, celebrating their win. Daddy, as co-captain, accepts the souvenir football, tall and regal in his dress uniform. He had just turned 23 years old.
He went on to finish his degree at Clemson on the GI bill and have a successful career in the textile field. He married and raised two daughters, and was influential in his church and community. He never played football again, but every Saturday in the fall the games were on at our house, the background music to my childhood.
I’ve often wondered, as I think about him cheering on his beloved Tigers – was his mind on those cold Saturdays in Germany, feeling the exhilaration of pitting his young, strong body against other players? Or did he think back to his innocent playing days at Clemson, before he faced bullets and bombings and death? We never discussed it and now he is gone. But I hold that vision of him and his fellow Red Circlers, rejoicing in having survived, and showing the world that America prevailed against the evil that was Nazi Germany by playing a game of football in the crisp autumn air.