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The Spirit of Pappy

September 16, 2009
by Ron Fimrite '52
statue of Pappy Waldorf

Coach Waldorf had a special affection for the vets on the postwar football teams—and they are still returning it

This fall, surviving members of the first of Pappy Waldorf’s three consecutive Rose Bowl teams will observe with customary vigor the 60th anniversary of that extraordinary season. So, for that matter, should the rest of us, for this was an era in Cal football history like no other. The 1948 team was in all probability the very best ever to represent the University up to that time, its players being appreciably older, bigger, and more experienced than any in the preceding 62 years of Cal football. The G.I. Bill had not only returned to school former players but added others who under pre-war circumstances might not have considered college an option. Former University President Clark Kerr, then a young professor in the School of Business Administration, said nearly 40 years later that G.I. Bill financing had brought to Cal students who were “more mature, more highly motivated than any group we ever had before or since.”

Of the 57 players listed on the ’48 varsity team, all but 9 had seen military service. Twenty-six were 23 or older, only four were teenagers. Team captain Gene Frassetto, a 26-year-old Army veteran, had first played football at Cal as a freshman in 1941. Other players had gained experience as military trainees at other colleges or on service teams with top college and professional football stars. Whereas before the war, 200 pounders were scarce, the mature ’48 team had 22 of those “giants,” 4 of them over 220.

Waldorf had a special affection for the war vets. Unlike many of his coaching confrères, Pappy, a closet intellectual, recognized that pre-war authoritarian methods would not work with grown men who might themselves have been in positions of authority making life-or-death decisions. He knew as well that with the war behind them, the vets were out to have a well-earned good time. “I don’t consider any football practice to be a success,” Pappy said, “unless there is laughter.”

The ’48 team’s star was Jackie Jensen, certainly one of the greatest athletes—quite possibly the greatest—Cal has ever produced. A two-sport All American, he later became an All Star major league baseball player and the American League’s Most Valuable in 1958. In ’48, he became Cal football’s first 1,000-yard rusher, nearly doubling the previous record yardage. Averaging an amazing 7.3 yards per carry, he was such a shifty runner that Waldorf said of him, in an exquisite bit of imagery, “He eludes the hand he cannot see.”

Jensen scored Cal’s first touchdown in the Rose Bowl game against Northwestern on a 67-yard run, but he left the field after suffering a leg injury on the second play of the third quarter. Cal lost that game, 20‚Äì14, partly because of Jensen’s incapacitation and partly because an official’s call gave Northwestern the deciding touchdown, although newspaper photos clearly show the runner had fumbled before crossing the goal line. It was the team’s only loss in 11 games.

The Bears returned to Pasadena the next two years, with similarly disheartening results. But a bond was formed, beginning with the ’48 team, among all of Cal’s Rose Bowl players and finally with all of Pappy’s players. When the great man died in August of 1981, that bond grew ever tighter. And in 1986, thanks to Rose Bowlers Bob Karpe and Dick Erickson, a unique organization, “Pappy’s Boys,” was founded to perpetuate the coach’s memory, do good works for the University, and preserve that bond of common experience.

Pappy’s Boys have endowed a Waldorf football scholarship, conducted campus events for schoolchildren, donated valuable Waldorf memorabilia to the Bancroft Library, and above all have raised money for Cal football. Under the leadership of Rose Bowl star Pete Schabarum, they erected in 1994 a life-sized statue of Waldorf in Faculty Glade and another of a giant Cal Bear near the stadium’s north end. And the merry Pappy’s Boys banquets annually attract crowds of more than 200.

It is doubtful whether any other university has been so blessed by football alumni from its distant past, or any other coach has inspired such unwavering loyalty—and love.

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