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Monday, April 20, 2009
Blanchard more than football hero

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

When Nazi Germany launched one of its last counterattacks of World War II during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, American GIs identified themselves in the dangerous woods of the Ardennes by whispering "Blanchard."

If the man in the foxhole next to them was a fellow American soldier, he simply replied, "Davis."

In the war-torn decade of the 1940s, Army running backs Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard were more than American football heroes. They were the faces of the young men fighting the Axis powers during the deadliest conflict in human history.

Doc Blanchard
Doc Blanchard won the 1945 Heisman Trophy.

"We had to represent them well," Blanchard told author Bill Pennington in the book, "The Heisman: Great American Stories of the Men Who Won." "To let them down at the time, when guys are giving their lives, would have been disrespectful. But I think the whole country felt that way, too, not just us."

Blanchard, 84, died of pneumonia over the weekend at his home in Bulverde, Texas. Blanchard was the earliest living Heisman Trophy winner until his death. He won college football's most coveted individual award in 1945. Davis, his teammate, won the award the next season.

Davis died of prostate cancer in 2005.

Together, Blanchard and Davis formed perhaps the most famous backfield in college football history. Dubbed "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside" by columnist George Trevor of the New York Sun, Blanchard and Davis helped lead Army to three consecutive unbeaten seasons, going 27-0-1 from 1944 to '46.

Army won national championships in each of their first two seasons together and finished second to Notre Dame in 1946, after the teams played to a famous 0-0 tie at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 9, 1946.

"Blanchard was just a great player," said ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook. "He and Davis were probably the most famous duo in college football history. In the 1940s, it was Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Blanchard and Davis. The two of them together were what made them so special. If you mention one player, you always mention the other. They were together."

At at time when America needed sports heroes more than ever before, the country found them in the most appropriate of places: the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

During the 1940s, only professional baseball and boxing rivaled college football as the country's favorite pastime, and only Notre Dame rivaled Army as America's team.

No college football stars of the era were more revered than Blanchard and Davis. They appeared together on the covers of Time and Life magazines and their football exploits were featured in home-front newsreels. Blanchard and Davis even appeared in a Hollywood film about their lives, "The Spirit of West Point," shortly after their college careers were over.

Although they are still singularly identified more than a half-century later, Blanchard and Davis couldn't have been more different. Davis was raised in Claremont, Calif., and arrived at West Point one year before Blanchard in 1943. Davis adhered to the academy's strict rules and guidelines, after he was nearly expelled for failing a math class as a plebe.

Blanchard was more of a free spirit, raising his hand and saying, "Oh, sure," when legendary Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik asked if any of his players drank alcohol after Blanchard's very first practice at West Point in 1944.

Blanchard was raised in Bishopville, S.C., where his father, Felix Anthony Blanchard Sr., opened a medical practice. Blanchard was given the moniker "Little Doc" at an early age. He attended high school at Saint Stanislaus College in Bay Saint Louis, Miss., where he grew into a highly coveted football star. Blanchard was recruited by such football powers as Fordham and Notre Dame, but chose to play at North Carolina partly because the Tar Heels were coached by his mother's cousin, Jim Tatum.

Blanchard played on the freshman team at North Carolina in 1942, when NCAA rules still prevented freshmen from playing for the varsity. He was turned down by a Navy V-12 unit at the end of his freshman season because of his weight and poor vision. He enlisted in the Army and served until securing an appointment to West Point. He sat out the 1943 season and then joined Davis at Army in 1944.

It didn't take long for Blanchard to impress Blaik.

"Doc Blanchard was the best-built athlete I ever saw: six feet and 208 pounds at his peak, not a suspicion of fat on him, with slim waist, Atlas shoulders, colossal legs," Blaik wrote in his 1960 biography, "You Have to Pay the Price."

"For a big man, Doc was the quickest starter I ever saw, and in the open he ran with the niftiness as well as the speed of a great halfback. He was a terrific tackler and blocker. He could catch passes, punt, and kick off exceptionally well. Twice in Navy games, I saw him run through a head-on tackle without breaking stride and race on to a touchdown. He had great instinctive football sense, supreme confidence, and deep pride."

In a 59-0 rout of Notre Dame in 1944, Blanchard dislocated the elbow and wrenched the knee of the head linesman, Dr. David Reese, with an inadvertent hit. After that game, Fighting Irish coach Ed McKeever was famously quoted as saying: "I've just seen Superman in the flesh. He wears No. 35 and goes by the name of Blanchard."

On Dec. 2, 1944, days before the Battle of the Bulge would begin in Europe, top-ranked Army faced No. 2 Navy in the regular-season finale. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the game be moved to Baltimore's Municipal Stadium to accommodate a larger crowd. FDR also required fans to purchase war bonds with their tickets. According to Pennington's book, the game raised $60 million, the largest homeland fundraising effort during World War II.

Army had lost five straight games to Navy before Blanchard and Davis arrived. Army had a 9-7 lead going into the fourth quarter in 1944, and the Midshipmen seemed poised to spoil their rival's undefeated season. But Davis intercepted a pass at the start of the quarter, and then Blanchard ran six consecutive times, including a 10-yard touchdown to put Army ahead, 16-7. Davis added a 50-yard touchdown run to seal a 23-7 victory.

On his way back to West Point, Blaik received a telegram from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which read: "The greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur."

"We came into the game and it seemed like the whole country was either in the Army or Navy or knew and cared about someone who was," Blanchard told Pennington in "The Heisman." "It was one of the times when a game just felt like more than a game."

It always seemed that way when Army took the field during the mid-1940s. At a time when many schools' best players were off at war, Army had the pick of the litter from among thousands of troops and was a juggernaut. The 1944 team outscored its opponents 504-35; the 1945 squad won all of its games by a whopping 412-46 margin.

Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard
Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard formed one of the most famous backfields in college football history.

No team suffered more humiliation during Army's great era of dominance than Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish didn't lose to the Cadets from 1932 to 1943, beating them 10 times and tying them twice. In fact, Army didn't score against Notre Dame in five straight games before Blanchard and Davis joined its team.

But with coach Frank Leahy and many of Notre Dame's best players serving in the military, the Cadets outscored the Irish 107-0 in consecutive victories in 1944-45. When Leahy and many of his players returned to Notre Dame in 1946, they began counting down the days when they would play Army again.

"Notre Dame won the national championship in 1943," Cook said. "Army won it in 1944 and 1945. The war was over. Everybody knew Leahy and all those players would be back in 1946. The buildup started the day after Army beat Notre Dame in 1945. It was the biggest buildup for a game in history."

The 1946 Army-Notre Dame contest was called the "Game of the Century." It featured four Heisman Trophy winners: Blanchard (1945), Davis (1946), Notre Dame quarterback John Lujack (1947) and Irish end Leon Hart (1949).

With more than 74,000 fans packed into Yankee Stadium, and $1 tickets being sold for as much as $250 on the streets of New York, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Notre Dame moved inside Army's 10-yard line only once and failed to score on fourth down. Blanchard had the best chance to score, but was tackled in the open field by Lujack at the Irish 37. Then Notre Dame intercepted an Army pass at its 8-yard line to preserve the scoreless tie.

In the opener against Villanova that season, Blanchard tore knee ligaments. He missed only two games and played the rest of the season at about 60 percent, according to Blaik. After the Notre Dame game, Blanchard joked that he would have "run through" Lujack if not for his knee injury.

Blanchard later called the famous scoreless tie against Notre Dame "the most boring game I ever played in."

Blanchard was the No. 3 overall selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1946 NFL draft. He was offered $130,000 to play professional football, and he and Davis nearly persuaded West Point officials to extend their furloughs to allow them to play. But when the media learned of the possibility, the Army decided granting Blanchard and Davis a reprieve from their military commitment would send the wrong message.

So Blanchard joined the U.S. Air Force in 1947 and made a career of it. He flew fighter planes during the Korean and Vietnam wars, completing 113 missions in one year while flying a bomber jet over Thailand and Vietnam. He received a special Air Force commendation for bravery for landing a burning aircraft. Blanchard retired as a colonel in 1971 and later became a flight instructor.

Army is scheduled to retire Blanchard's No. 35 jersey during ceremonies at its Oct. 10 home game against Vanderbilt. Blanchard will be the fourth Army player to receive such an honor, joining Davis, Pete Dawkins and Joe Steffy.

While Davis is buried near his coach on the grounds of West Point, Blanchard will be buried at the Texas military base where he met his wife, the former Jody King of San Antonio. They were married 45 years until her death in 1993.

But West Point was never far from Blanchard's heart, according to his family members.

In his final days, when he was battling dementia and other ailments, Blanchard wanted nothing more than to catch a bus back to West Point.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.