Jack Chevigny: football's larger-than-life war hero

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 25, 2012



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts humble correspondent

 
The story of Jack Chevigny haunted Jeff Walker. The story might haunt you, too, if you knew only the annotated version of an American life lived among an amazing array of great people and defining moments.
 
The complete story is told for the first time in Walker’s new book, “The Last Chalkline: The Life & Times of Jack Chevigny.”
 
Chevigny was a football star and coach turned war hero who we once dubbed a mix of Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump. After all, Chevigny’s life seemed to miraculously float among so many legendary figures and pivotal moments in the history of football – and in the history of the nation.
 
Walker, meanwhile, is a high school teacher, football coach and historian from Katy, Texas, He was captured by the story of a young man who played football fearlessly and who starred on the largest stages, who coached in both big-time college ball and in the NFL, but who only met his destiny in a shell crater in the Pacific near the end of World War II.

It was there, on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, that Marine Corps Lt. Jack Chevigny crossed "the last chalkline." The reference comes from a devotion about how to live attributed to Chevigny's college coach and mentor: football icon Knute Rockne.
 
Walker stumbled across a brief bio of Chevigny in a University of Texas football media guide about 10 years.
               
“All it said was that Chevigny was the only losing coach in Texas history,” said Walker by phone Thursday, just days before the nation pauses to honor its war dead on Memorial Day.
 
“The bio also said that he died on Iwo Jima.”
 
Iwo Jima, of course, was the site of the World War II battle many consider the most heroic in the history of the Marine Corps. Something about the brevity of the entry, the way it brushed over Chevigny’s life, caused Walker to pause and step back.
 
“I knew here had to be a lot more to his story,” said Walker.
 
Boy, was there ever.
 
"The Last Chalkline" is the result to Walker's 10 years worth of research into a great American life. It’s a perfect read for anyone who values football, American history and the way a life can weave like a real-life Forrest Gump or George Bailey across so many pivotal moments in time.  
 

The Highlight Reel Version of Jack Chevigny

Walker grew up in Louisiana and Texas and had heard bits and pieces about Chevigny, the former Longhorns coach. But he knew precious little about his story.
 
The paradox fascinated Walker. Chevigny was a huge sports star in his day. “Everybody I talked to from that generation knew him. He might have been the Tim Tebow or Tom Brady of his time.”
 
But here today, Chevigny’s story had been buried, even in the UT football guide – a place where it might have been celebrated loudly had Chevigny’s record been something better than 13-14-2. The more Walker dug into the story, the more he was compelled to dig deeper.
 
“It was my calling to tell Jack Chevigny’s story,” said Walker.
 
Longtime Cold, Hard Football Facts readers are among the few football fans today who might know the highlight-reel version of Chevigny’s life.
 
He played football for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. He was in the locker room for the “Win one for the Gipper” speech, the most famous rallying cry in American sports history. Chevigny then did his part, scoring the tying touchdown in the third quarter that day against Army, in what remains a legendary 12-6 come-from-behind Notre Dame victory.

Chevigny's score was national news in the highlight reels and newspapers of the day. It was later immortalized in the 1940 film, "Knute Rockne: All American."
 
Chevigny coached football in the NFL for the Chicago Cardinals (1932) and at the University of Texas (1934-36), finding little success at either stop. But he did have one moment of coaching glory: he led the Longhorns to one of the biggest victories in their history, a 7-6 win at Notre Dame in 1934, his first season as a head coach.
 
As Walker reports, Chevigny stole a bit of Notre Dame’s thunder that day with a halftime speech that was named the greatest in Longhorns history.
 
Eleven years later Chevigny was a lieutenant with the 5th Marine Division in the first wave of the invasion of Iwo Jima. He was among the first killed in what proved to be a brutal 36-day battle to root the defenders out of their volcanic caves, secure the island and hasten the defeat of Imperial Japan.
 
So that’s the highlight-reel version. Walker dives into the complex man behind the legend. 

A Football Life

The details of this American hero, as uncovered by Walker in “The Last Chalkline,” are even more fascinating than the highlights.
 
Chevigny not only played at Notre Dame, he played before the largest crowds in football history: some 120,000 people came to see Notre Dame battle Navy at Soldier Field in 1928, just a couple weeks before the Gipper game. It remains the largest crowd in American football history.
 
Chevigny, in other words, put his manhood to the test in front of a live audience few others have ever experienced. That’s a pretty amazing few weeks for a young man: one day you’re playing before a crowd that dwarfs those that pack even the mega-stadiums of today, and a few weeks later you're a national sports hero, helping to Win One For the Gipper.
 
“Sports writers wrote effusively of Jack Chevigny’s tenacity and larger-than-life performances,” writes Walker.
 
Chevigny not only played for Rockne, still the winningest coach in history, “he was basically Rockne’s son,” said Walker. Chevigny, in fact, was in line to be Rockne’s hand-picked replacement as Notre Dame’s head coach. Then Rockne died in a plane crash in 1930. The crash that so traumatized the country that it led to the creation of the FAA.
 
Chevigny’s life changed course when Rockne’s plane fell from the sky. He was a magnetic personality with friends in high places, but faced struggles in his personal and professional life in the wake of Rockne's death.
 
His first effort at coaching with the NFL's Chicago Cardinals was a failure. The team went 2-6-2 and Chevigny stayed only one season. Even worse, he was caught in the midst of a racial firestorm. NFL teams fielded black players in the 1920s. But with the onset of the Great Depression, writes Walker, owners in the early 1930s felt pressured to stack their teams with only white players who would appeal to white crowds.
 
The Cardinals were one team that bucked the trend. They signed talented black back Joe Lillard out of Oregon. Lillard was a stellar athlete known as the Midnight Express. The image of him outracing "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange was captured in a photo that spoke volumes about his skills. But Chevigny butted heads the mercurial back. The front office ultimately suspended the player for a series of trangressions. Walker cites a number of personality conflicts between the two.

But Chevigny was essentially labeled a racist by the African-American press. The Defender wrote: "The suspension of Lillard by the Cardinals is traceable directly to the disfavor he ran into with his coach, Jack Chevigny, former ace at Notre Dame. They don't use Race boys up at Notre Dame, you know, and Chevigny may or may not have been prejudiced against the flashy back."
 
It’s easy to paint Chevigny as a star athlete and hero who gave his life for his country. But the reality, writes Walker, is that he was a complex person with his own flaws and his own struggles.  
 
Chevigny “loved the fast life,” said Walker. “He was always getting in the news for tickets and car wrecks. He loved beautiful women. He was quite the bachelor. He loved horse racing.”
 
In between his stints coaching and in the service, Chevigny worked in the Texas oil business. But he found no more success there than he did on the sidelines.
 
“There his anecdotal evidence that he gambled away the money he made in oil,” said Walker. “He fell on some hard times.”

 
The Last Chalkline

With war raging overseas, the Army drafted him in 1941. We like to think that the "Greatest Generation" dutiful marched off voluntary to sacrifice themselves overseason. The reality, of course, was much more nuanced. Millions served because they weren't given a choice. Chevigny was an unwilling soldier and did not take well to military life.
 
“He couldn’t stand the Army,” said Walker. It certainly didn't help that the former big-time star was a lowly private. So Chevigny worked his many connections to gain a commission in the Marine Corps. It didn’t hurt that he was friends with the commandant of Corps.
 
Chevigny was far from the gung-ho warrior so often portrayed in war films.  He "suffered oscillating emotions over the frustrations of military life and a spiderlike fear of his finality creeping into his daily thoughts,” writes Walker. He even wrote to his girlfriend, suggesting they flee to Canada "to make a new life."
 
Ultimately, though, he gave up stateside duty to volunteer for combat. When the nation, and the world, needed tough men to step up and put their lives on the line, Chevigny answered the call.
 
In the early morning of February 19, 1945, Chevigny boarded a transport that would take him on to Iwo Jima with the 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division in the first wave of the invasion.
 
Chevigny was a liaison officer charged with communication between the 5th and 4th Marine Divisions. Amid the chaos of explosions, gun fire, shattered bodies and dead men, Chevigny found what seemed like safe haven in a shell crater. As fate would have it, one of the Marines huddled in the crater with him was another football star: Captain George “Sonny” Franck, who played with the Giants in 1941 and again after the war.
 
“Jack appeared to Sonny as strangely calm and in control,” writes Walker. “In the midst of the terror about them, Jack assured Sonny that he was in a safe place.”
 
Franck was a sprinter and football All-American at Minnesota and considered the fastest man in the NFL. Using those skills, he raced from the seeming safety of the hole to find cover elsewhere.

“Something in that crater just didn’t feel right,” Sonny said years later. His instinct saved his life.
 
The next day Franck asked another Marine if he had seen Chevigny.
 
“He’s gone. They’re all gone.”
 
A Japanese shell landed in the crater, instantly killing Chevigny and the other Marines huddled inside.
 
It was a month before news that the celebrity Marine had been killed reached the United States.
 
“By late March,” writes Walker, “news of Jack’s death had been printed nationwide. It was a sad but inspirational story, one of many from a generation of the greatest Americans to have ever lived. Jack’s decision to leave the safety of a post on the home front in order to be with his boys overseas elevated him to a wartime icon of service and self-sacrifice.”

The heroism of Chevigny and others like him was not just that they gave their lives in service of others. They heroism is that they gave their lives when they still had much to live for themselves.

"Unlike the teenage warrior fresh out of high school, Jack knew what life offered," writes Walker. "By age 38, he had lived a full life, a life full enough to know he wanted more. He wanted to marry the woman of his dreams, enjoy the fruits of a prestigious career practicing law, have children, and hold Notre Dame season tickets. Jack's courage took all of that from him."

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