A True All-American
By BJ Bennett
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Months after receiving news of his invitation to NYC's Downtown Athletic Club, Clint Castleberry and 17 of his GT teammates received draft letters from the Army Air Corps.
Using today's football parameters, Clint Castleberry would have been both figuratively and literally overlooked by all. At just 5'9'', 155 pounds, he hardly had the makings of a budding athletic pioneer. An Atlanta-native, Castleberry attended Boys' High School in the greater metro area. Slight in stature but dynamic in performance, he managed all-state honors in football, basketball and baseball and led his prep team to the 1941 state championship on the gridiron.
News of his 171 yards rushing per game quickly spread across the country and scouts from miles away traveled to the Peach State to watch him play. Despite his productivity and athletic talents, some frankly dismissed him due to his size. There was a worry that a thin runner, such as Castleberry, would not be able to handle the physical rigors of big-time college football. His speed was never questioned; his sturdiness, however, certainly was. A select group of national powers, Notre Dame included, passed on Castleberry. Hometown Georgia Tech, then a member of the SEC, did not.
For the first time in college football history, there was opportunity for newcomers in the game. World War II, the draft specifically, had created a natural vacuum for playing time and afforded first-year players the chance to compete. Even at 155 pounds, the gaunt freshman Castleberry took full advantage and nudged his way right into the lineup. Despite a perfect 10-0 record in 1928, roster attrition had led to the Yellow Jackets winning just three game in the two years prior to Castleberry's arrival. Georgia Tech was in need of even the slightest of a spark. Their smallest player would soon set the game ablaze.
Reports suggest that Castleberry was so fast, he ran down the field in the 1942 season-opener against Auburn and caught a fourth down punt before the Tigers' return man. Castleberry himself delivered the kick. Weeks later against Navy he recorded a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown. His efforts against the Midshipmen proved to be iconic as the game was broadcasted on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Persistence and toughness became defining trait's of the undersized speedster's game. Castleberry's Georgia Tech teammates took on his personality, taking the field each week with a never-say-die attitude.
After scoring over seven points in just three games and being shutout four times in 1941, the Yellow Jackets scored in double figures in eight games in Castleberry's first year and scored 20 points or more six times. After pitching only one shutout the season before he arrived, Castleberry helped the Georgia Tech defense blank four teams his freshman year.
"I know of only one way to stop Castleberry, and that's to repeal the freshman eligibility rule," wrote Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner.
Castleberry led Georgia Tech to a 9-2 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl, becoming the first underclassman to ever earn All-SEC honors. He became the most decorated freshman in college football history, finishing third in the 1942 the Heisman Trophy voting. In the seven decades since, only Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson has earned more votes as a first-year player.
An athletic innovator of sorts, Castleberry was one of the first freshman to ever impact major college football. He prepared to enter the 1943 season as the favorite to win the game's most coveted award, a national name on the verge of a legendary playing career. Mere months after receiving news of his invitation to New York's Downtown Athletic Club, Castleberry and 17 of his GT teammates received draft letters from the Army Air Corps. After leaving tacklers in the dust, he took his duffel bag and pilot gear and left the red clay of Georgia for overseas.
From the playing field to the battle field, Castleberry became a co-pilot of a B-26G Marauder bomber. After various training stints throughout the southeast, he went on to serve along the coast of Africa. In October of 1943, he told a reporter of his plans to return to the gridiron as a member of the Georgia Tech football team. In November of 1944, with the United States nearing victory across the Atlantic, Castleberry's crew left from Roberts Field in Liberia headed for Dakar, Senegal. His plane and the one alongside him would never be seen again.
Somewhere along the African continent, thousands of miles away from the hurry of downtown Atlanta, ended the service and the playing career of one of college football's most dynamic stars. More importantly, the lives of a handful of boys were cut tragically short as search orders were stopped just over two weeks later. For Castleberry, his life ended as abruptly as his career seemingly started. Similar stories, with unique backgrounds and great promise, were halted and have continued to be stopped short to this day.
Between the hash marks, Castleberry stood out from the rest as the star player on a team full of great ones. His number 19 is the only retired football jersey in Georgia Tech's storied history. Serving his country, he was one of many heroically dropping all else in the name of freedom. Even as memories of World War II pass from the mind to the history books, Castleberry's lore still lingers. If not his competitors, each of his brethren in uniform stand on equal footing.
Perspective helps relevancy realize its' full potential. Time should be taken to lend that passage some thought. These moments must not trivialize sports, rather be the angle that makes them special. Castleberry, and those who have stood and will stand alongside him, have provided the liberty for that leisure. In the rush of our lives, we need not ignore the stories of those who have made this country what it is today. Overlooking the potential that was for the dream of what could be would prevent us from seeing just how great our collective strength truly is.