'38 TCU Champs a Dwindling Band

By RAY BUCK
|  Friday, Nov 27, 2009  |  Updated 9:15 AM CDT
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Frog Fever Takes Over North Texas

NBCDFW.com

The Chesapeake Energy building in downtown Fort Worth was little up purple Thursday night ahead of Go Purple Day in Cowtown.

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Frog Fever Takes Over North Texas

Frog fever is taking over Fort Worth as the city goes all out to show its support for the No. 4-ranked TCU Horned Frogs in Saturday's game against Utah.

Frog Fever Takes Over North Texas

Frog fever is taking over Fort Worth as the city goes all out to show its support for the No. 4-ranked TCU Horned Frogs in Saturday's game against Utah.
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"They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front." -- Tom Brokaw, "The Greatest Generation"

  Tom Brokaw could have been writing about the 1938 TCU Horned Frogs.
 
The school's last national championship team -- led by All-Americans Ki Aldrich, I.B. Hale and Davey O'Brien -- exemplified the Depression Era-WWII generation and paid forward something that the current team can enjoy more than seven decades later: a piece of living TCU history.
 
Just as Generation Y can take lessons from the men and women found in Brokaw's 1998 best-seller, The Greatest Generation, the No. 4 Horned Frogs can take notes from the school's only previously undefeated, untied team (with a then-student enrollment of just over 600).
 
In short, the '38 team finished the job.
 
Coach Dutch Meyer's Frogs dominated opponents much the same as Gary Patterson's Frogs now. Meyer concocted sleight-of-hand schemes from the spread formation and unleashed an equally potent 6-2-3 defense that allowed a touchdown or less in 10 of its 11 games.
 
The '38 Horned Frogs had those innate qualities that Brokaw so aptly described in his book. Hardscrabble generation. Selfless people. Common values. A willingness to work toward the greater good.
 
"Back when we played, athletics were pretty much our whole life," said William "Mac" Best, a junior quarterback and defensive back on the '38 title team. "Nowadays, the scope is a lot wider. I imagine most everybody has their own car."
 
And their own cellphone ... and their own iPod ... and their own laptop computer.
 
Best laughed. "In some cases, they're their own coach, and I don't think that's very good."
 
Best, 91, is one of only five known survivors from the '38 TCU title team. The others are Don Looney, 92, Benbrook; Bobby Sherrod, 90, Burleson; Enis Kerlee, 89, Fort Worth, and Connie Sparks, 89, Wichita Falls.
 
Health issues preclude three of these men from being interviewed.
 
Best, who has had "three bad falls" recently and requires a walker, managed to hold up his end of a 30-minute phone conversation, although he had to ditch the hearing aid to make it work.
 
"Things were a lot different time in those days. I just happened to be dating a lady who had a car," Best continued. "Man, we were living. Maybe only one or two other players on the team had a car. I felt a little privileged."
 
Best met Fenton Clark, a P.E. major from Iowa Park during their freshman year at TCU. They've now been married 68 years.
 
She drove a 1936 Ford touring sedan, which made Mac the envy of his teammates.
 
"Actually, it was my grandmother's car," said Fenton, whose family is considered TCU royalty.
 
Addison and Randolph Clark -- Fenton's great-uncles -- founded the school in 1873.
 
Fenton's memories of those '38 TCU national champs?
 
"They were just a group," she said. "Very close-knit."
 
It took awhile for the pollsters to warm up to O'Brien and the '38 Frogs.
 
TCU ranked seventh in the country after beating Centenary, Arkansas, Temple and Texas A&M by a combined score of 96-26.
 
The next three opponents -- Marquette, Baylor and Tulsa -- fell by a total of 81-7, and TCU finally moved into No. 1. But only for a week.
 
Even knocking off Texas, Rice and SMU by a combined 77-20, the Frogs seemed stuck forever at No. 2, and finished the regular season behind a Duke team headed for the Rose Bowl.
 
Suddenly, the tables turned on Jan. 2, 1939, when Duke lost to USC 7-3 in the Rose, and TCU beat No. 5 Carnegie Tech 15-7 in the Sugar.
 
The Frogs were dubbed national champs.
 
Downtown Fort Worth was euphoric. As a show of thanks, several merchants gave the hometown heroes "store credit."
 
Mac Best likes to joke that it was either his good fortune, or his very bad fortune, to have played behind O'Brien, the most decorated player in all of college football in 1938.
 
O'Brien won the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award. He was a 5-foot-7, 151-pound magician in Meyer's double-wing formation.
 
"I grew up in a small town outside Tulsa called Sand Springs, Okla., and I read all about Davey O'Brien in the paper," Best recalled. "I wanted to go to TCU because of him."
 
It probably didn't hurt any that Sam Baugh earlier had led the '35 Horned Frogs (12-1) to the school's first national title, and Slingin' Sammy was a second-year pro for the Washington Redskins.
 
Best firmly believes that O'Brien, like Baugh, could have played for any team in any generation.
 
While O'Brien lacked size, he played big, and he never took a play off.
 
O'Brien's eldest of three children, David, was born while his famous father worked for the FBI as a retired NFLer (1939-40 Eagles).
 
Davey went to Dallas Woodrow Wilson High School but lived most of his life in Fort Worth. David's memories of his dad playing football are strictly from old film, old photographs ... and, frequently, old players who dropped by the O'Brien household to pal around.
 
"My father was very competitive about everything," recalled David O'Brien, 64, who has spent the last 21 years working for himself at Housing Opportunities of Fort Worth, located near the Paris Coffee Shop on West Magnolia.
 
"Dad loved golf. He was close to being a scratch golfer. But he was one of those strange packages: Very competitive and yet extremely modest. He hated braggadocio. He never understood it.
 
"He just felt like he owed everything to TCU, not the other way around," David said. "And if somebody asked him for his autograph, he was flattered."
 
Enis Kerlee is quite typical of that generation.
 
"I've got two metal hips and a metal knee and a metal shoulder," he said, not really complaining as he sat in his wheelchair at a White Settlement nursing home where he and his wife, Dorothy, have lived the past two years.
 
"The other shoulder is kind of sore now," Kerlee added. "Well, I fell on it, that doesn't help any. But I'm all right."
 
This generation doesn't discourage easily.
 
The affable Kerlee weighs 221 pounds (he played at 256-260) and his favorite player on the '09 team is junior wide receiver-return specialist Jeremy Kerley.
 
"I like that Kerley kid, he's fast and he's rough," said Kerlee.
 
"The quarterback (Andy Dalton) is good, too, isn't he? I think he's pretty steady."
 
Kerlee's daughter, Camille Hess of Arlington, wishes a meeting could be arranged between Kerley and her father.
 
Kerlee tells of how the TCU players wore Western-style boots and hats on the 1,300-mile, two-day train ride to Philadelphia in October '38 to play the Temple Owls, who were coached by the legendary Glenn "Pop" Warner.
 
More than a few stereotypical comments were made by fascinated Easterners (such as waiters and waitresses) who had seen one too many Western movies.
 
How did the players react?
 
They simply played along.
 
The Horned Frogs won that game by three touchdowns in a rare game played under the lights in 1938.
 
"That generation was pretty tough -- playing with leather helmets and no facemasks," said Jon Sparks, 60-year-old son of Connie Sparks and a former Horned Frogs player himself (class of 1970). "The toughest one of all was probably Davey O'Brien. My dad has talked about how great a leader he was ... in a very humble way."
 
O'Brien died of cancer 32 years ago this week at St. Joseph Hospital. He was 60.
 
"My father stayed very active," said David O'Brien. "He loved to work in the yard -- even with cancer."
 
Bobby Sherrod's daughter, Cynthia Ray, and her husband, Randy, live in Arlington.
 
"Mr. Sherrod felt the effects of playing hardnosed football," said son-in-law Randy. "But he frequently has told us that he would not change a thing."
 
And it wasn't that the TCU football program went unnoticed in the mid-to-late '30s.
 
"As I recall," said Best, "we were pretty-well covered."
 
In 1970, Mac Best retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. When he wasn't serving his country, he coached some football at Hereford and Pampa.   "I imagine this TCU team compares favorably with the '38 team, I really do," Best said. "Of course, they have better athletes now, better equipment, better weight-training, better nutrition, better coaching, better everything."
 
A reunion was held in October 2008 at Amon G. Carter Stadium and the entire '38 team was inducted into the TCU Hall of Fame. Their 11-0 record still stands alone in TCU annals.
 
Two other Southwest Conference championship TCU teams ('29 and '32) finished undefeated -- but each had a tie. Baugh's 1935 national champs went 12-1 with a 20-14 loss to SMU.
 
Ward Wilkinson, a former '38 team fullback-linebacker who attended the 70-year reunion last season, has since died (Sept. 10 in Houston). He was 92.
 
In 1938, "Gone with the Wind" was in production. It would become 1939 Picture of the Year.
 
In 1938, Joe Louis got his rematch with Max Schmeling. It would become known as a boxing match with global ramifications.
 
In 1938, the TCU Horned Frogs were on top of the college football world.
 
Those players came home from the Sugar Bowl with personally engraved wristwatches. (Sherrod, sadly, had his watch stolen during a home break-in a few years ago.)
 
And now, the '09 Horned Frogs are trying to become this year's "BCS Buster" -- and more. They have unfinished business starting with the need to win their remaining two games and finish 12-0 to have a shot at a BCS bowl.
 
Following the 1938 team's national-championship clincher in New Orleans, the Star-Telegram wrote: "We don't know if Dutch Meyer will ever assemble another outfit like that. It's doubtful."
 
But perhaps Gary Patterson can come as close as BCS rules will allow.

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