Column: Remembering Georgia Tech’s Clint Castleberry, Who Paid the Ultimate Price of War

ATLANTA — Clint Castleberry had a glorious season at Georgia Tech, a whirlwind of a player whose star shone.

A newspaper scribe nicknamed him “Jackrabbit” – a testament to his blinding speed on the grill.

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

And then he was gone.

All that potential, stifled by the horrors of war.

On this Memorial Day weekend, Castleberry’s largely forgotten exploits – so dazzling, yet so brief – are a dark and painful reminder of what might have been without the ultimate futility of settling differences through armed conflict.

As we pay tribute to those who have 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 toasting and enjoying some rays to acknowledge that we cannot never really know how much is lost when someone doesn’t come home.

All those lives that never have the chance to fully blossom.

There are no winners.

Only loss.

Castleberry could have been one of college football’s greatest players. He could have been one of the NFL’s first stars. He may have lived a long life, recounting how he led a memorable victory at Notre Dame with his running and passing exploits, how he nailed that pass against Navy and returned it almost the full length from the field for a touchdown to beat the Central 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 pieces of debris floating in the ocean, but never his body. He was only 21 years old.

“I can’t even imagine what he could have 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 enjoyed sports from dawn to dusk, who excelled at just about anything he did.

Soccer. Baseball. Basketball.

During the summer months, he would shake fetid balls flying over the roof of the Ponce de Leon Avenue baseball stadium that was home to local minor league team, the Crackers.

One day, the story goes, famous Atlanta high school coach RL “Shorty” Doyal was holding a football practice when a ball sailed onto an adjacent field where Castleberry was playing. When the little kid sent him back with a powerful uplift, Doyal knew he was a player he had to have.

“Shorty Doyal, like all good coaches of the past, had a good working knowledge of who the best players in the region were from the field of play,” Chastain said. “And he went to get them.”

Playing for Doyal at Boys’ High School, not far from the Georgia Tech campus, Castleberry displayed a powerful arm and lightning speed that made him a weapon on both sides of the line in the age without peloton.

He was just 5ft 9in tall and weighed just over a dollar fifty, but Chastain was immediately struck by his chiseled body when, while researching for the book, he came across a photo of Castleberry in a uniform. of basketball.

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

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

With so many young men going off to war, the schools faced a shortage of players. The rules were changed, allowing freshmen to dress for college.

Castleberry was barely outdone. While his individual stats are hard to come by, what is known is that he led the Yellow Jackets to nine straight wins, including a 13-6 triumph at Notre Dame – their first win over the Fighting Irish since 1928 – and a 21-0. of the Navy in Annapolis.

“When I was doing the book, a guy said to me, ‘You knew that was a guy that rocked the pitch because when they took the train to Baltimore, everyone got off the train before get to Annapolis,” Chastain said. “‘The train was about to leave and Castleberry wasn’t there. So they held the train for him.

Good thing. Castleberry had one of their most memorable plays of the season on defense. According to a report of the game, the Midshipmen attempted a pass on Georgia Tech 27 fourth-and-13.

“High Tech knew what was coming in the Finals,” the story said. “The fullbacks fanned out like duck hunters, and when Gordon Studer kicked the ball the men from the Tech defense rolled up enough to chase him. Clint Castleberry, 155 comet pounds, was the lucky man. He got it on his eight and sprinted 92 yards to score.

As Castleberry’s fame grew, Georgia Tech rose to No. 2 in the Associated Press rankings. But in the ninth straight win, a 20-7 triumph over Florida in Atlanta, he injured his knee.

“If we went back and put it in terms of modern technology, it was probably torn cartilage,” Chastain said. “It was probably something you were going to clean up now and be back there in a month.”

But that was another era. Castleberry played the following week against Georgia and their star guard, Frank Sinkwich. With their best player clearly limited, the Yellow Jackets were blown out by their biggest rival, 34-0.

Castleberry suffered a knee injury 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 standings.

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

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

Stationed in Africa, about nine months from the end of the war, he co-piloted one of two B-26s that took off from Liberia up the coast to Senegal on November 7, 1944. It is unclear what happened. produced, but neither plane arrived at its destination. A thorough search revealed only a few pieces of debris. Castleberry and three others were pronounced dead with no remains found, sparking hope in his young wife and father that he had somehow survived, traveled to an area remote part of Africa and would be discovered safe and sound one day.

“His wife used to dream that he was alive on an island,” Chastain said.

Castleberry’s number – 19 – is still the only one 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 will never know what Castleberry might have been had he returned to Georgia Tech, as was his plan, to complete the final three years of his college career.

All we have is this glorious season.

And, on this Memorial Day weekend, a grim reminder of the terrible toll of the war.


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