Beyond the cross-country train ride, the posh hotel, the hobnobbing with Hollywood’s leading men and starlets and even the general domination of UCLA in front of 90,000 fans, Georgia legend Charley Trippi remembers mostly the destination.
“To anyone in sports, the Rose Bowl was the climax,” Trippi said. “It’s something you couldn’t believe. You couldn’t believe you was there to play in it. You read about Rose Bowls for years and then all of the sudden here you are participating in this tremendous event.”
Exactly 75 years to the day before the 12-1 Georgia Bulldogs will face Oklahoma in Pasadena, Calif., in the Rose Bowl semifinal of the college football playoff, Trippi and his 10-1 band of Bulldogs sealed consensus national championship honors in the same historic stadium. Everything about the 9-0 victory over UCLA stands out as a dream to the last living Bulldog who played in it.
Trippi called it “probably the greatest thrill I ever got out of football.”
“It was something new – you don’t visualize it being that big,” he said of the iconic venue. “You come from a small city where you played before 5,000 people and that was a lot. Then you get out there and play for (90,000), the complexion changes.”
There weren’t 39 bowls handing out invitations like Oprah Winfrey passing out cars back then. Prior to the establishment of the Peach Bowl in 1968 that prompted a steady proliferation of bowls, there were only eight postseason bowl games. Only five bowls concluded the 1942 season – Sun, Cotton, Orange, Sugar and Rose. All were played on New Year’s Day.
Georgia had gone to its very first bowl the year before, beating TCU in the Orange Bowl behind a prolific effort from Frank Sinkwick that heralded his Heisman Trophy fortunes the next season.
It was the Rose Bowl, however, that rated above all others. For nearly two decades from 1916-34 it stood alone as the only postseason game pitting the best from the West against the East. Hence its “grandaddy of them all” stature.
Georgia felt lucky to be in it, and the whole tale of the Bulldogs’ first Rose Bowl is something out of an old-time Hollywood script. The Bulldogs were invited because AP No. 1 Ohio State was forbidden by its league to compete in bowl games. The year before, the Rose Bowl was moved to Durham, N.C., only a few weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
But six months after the Battle of Midway turned the tide in the Pacific theater, the west coast was deemed safe from attack and the Rose Bowl returned home. The famous Rose Parade was the only casualty of 1943.
The Georgia team left Athens on a train before Christmas and took three days to make it to California. They took up most of two cars, with the scrubs sleeping in pairs on lower berths while the stars got the uppers to themselves. They didn’t shower until they got to L.A.
“Can you imagine that bunch on the train for days getting there?” said Peggy, Trippi’s wife.
Sinkwich, who received a telegram informing him that he’d won the Heisman after the Bulldogs crushed No. 1 Georgia Tech 34-0 to clinch the Rose Bowl berth, arrived with two bum ankles suffered during practice and his status on the eve of the game was questionable.
Coach Wally Butts pulled Trippi, a sophomore, aside the day before the game.
“You know, Charley, you are going to have to go all the way, cause Frank cannot play,” Butts told him.
“Well, I am ready to play,” Trippi said. “Whatever happens, I don’t know, but I am ready to play.”
Sinkwich did play a more limited role than usual, while Trippi played 58 minutes on both sides. He rushed 27 times for 130 yards and threw for another 96 yards to lead a Bulldogs offense that dominated with 25 first downs to UCLA’s 5. He never got tired.
“You get an opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl you don’t ever want to be out of it,” Trippi said. “You want to play 60 minutes.”
While Trippi moved the Bulldogs down the field all day, it was still scoreless in the fourth quarter after they fumbled on the goal line to end the third. Coach Butts was not a big proponent of field goals, preferring the leave the opponent in a hole if the Bulldogs failed to reach the end zone.
That eventually paid off at the start of the fourth quarter as the Bruins failed to advance after goal-line turnover and Willard “Red” Boyd blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety and 2-0 lead.
A Georgia interception set the Bulldogs up late, and Trippi got down to the goal line again with a couple minutes left. Sinkwich limped onto the field to play fullback and barely broke the plane off right tackle for the game’s only touchdown to set the final score at 9-0.
A decade later, Trippi was retroactively named the game’s most valuable player when the Rose Bowl created the award.
“I was only a sophomore,” he said. “To me receiving the honor as a sophomore with all those great players, I felt kind of awkward.”
Two years ago Trippi was selected as the 1940’s representative of the players and coaches comprising the All-Century Class – a list that includes Rose legends like George Halas, Woody Hayes, John McKay, Archie Griffin, Bo Schembechler and Vince Young.
“That was the making of my career, really, playing in the Rose Bowl,” said Trippi, widely considered Georgia’s greatest all-around player.
The primary focus of that trip was all business, with twice daily practices at Cal Tech. Coach Butts gathered the team upon arrival and, according to Leo Costa who kicked the game’s final extra point, were told “we were there to win a ball game, and if you think you’re here for anything else, come see me when this meeting’s over and I’ll give you your fare back to Georgia.”
“When you play for Butts you don’t do anything out of the ordinary,” Trippi said. “It’s strictly all football. Forget about everything else.”
The stature of the event, however, was such that Hollywood elite like to bask in the company of the players, and many appear in color silent home movies of Georgia’s trip.
The Bulldogs took a tour of Paramount Studios and were feted by stars including Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope. Mickey Rooney, Kay Kyser, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Most memorable to Trippi and his mates were leading ladies including Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Trippi ate lunch between Susan Hayward and Barbara Britton.
Bod Waterfield, UCLA’s star quarterback, even married Hollywood pin-up Jane Russell later that year.
“And he still lost,” Peggy Trippi quipped.
Trippi, who celebrated his 96th birthday on Dec. 14, is the oldest living member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the last living participant from that Rose Bowl team. Some of his teammates – Walter Ruark, Will Burt and Winfred Goodman – didn’t survive the world war they all joined after the Rose Bowl ended. George Poschner, the all-American receiver Georgia recruited in order to get his high school best friend Sinkwich to come to Athens, lost both legs and part of his right hand to injuries suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
Many of the Bulldogs didn’t come home from California, either joining the military there or settling down. For players like Trippi who made the return trip to Athens, they arrived to a nearly deserted campus. A large portion of the townspeople, however, greeted them at the station platform, including the mayor and a marching band.
Because of lingering wartime travel restrictions – not to mention the expense and logistics of the cross-country venture – very few Bulldogs fans made the journey in 1943.
This time, however, thousands of Georgia fans will flood the Rose Bowl.
There will even be another Sinkwich in uniform for the Bulldogs 75 years later. Frank Sinkwich IV – the great grandson of the 1942 Heisman winner – is a freshman fullback from Athens Academy.
“It just seems meant to be,” his father, Frank Sinkwich III, told UGA Today.
It’s also fitting that Trippi will still be around to witness it on television. The similarities between the 1942 championship team that also lost only one game to Auburn and this year’s team aren’t lost on Trippi. Both featured two outstanding running backs and stout defenses.
Trippi suspects the experience for these players will be much the same.
“Better late than never,” he said of Georgia’s return. “The Rose Bowl will always be the Rose Bowl, regardless. You don’t ever get tired playing in the Rose Bowl. You hate to see it end. That’s once in a lifetime. When you’re growing up and read about the Rose Bowl and here you are playing in it, it’s a big thrill.”