Editor's note: Veterans Day marks the 75th anniversary of Montana State's 1944 "All-America Team" commemorating 14 football players who perished in World War II. This story was first published in 2012.
The late Charles "Max" Stark was some storyteller. The legendary Montana State athlete, a late 1930s and early '40s letterman in track, basketball and football, told tales of elbows rubbed with history, of delivering newspapers to Hollywood stars like Lana Turner and Mae West, handshakes with football legends Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg, and even of a summer job at Lockheed in California where he assembled an airplane for "a young female aviator named Earhart." Yes, that Earhart.
Yet the story Stark treasured most was the one about his teammates. The tragic tale of a football team, a star-crossed starting lineup, that went off to war and did not return. It's said to be one of the most extraordinary tragedies in sports history: 14 Montana State players spanning the classes of 1935 through 1944 were killed in World War II. Astonishingly, during the 1940 and 1941 seasons, 11 were full or part-time starters on the then-Montana State College varsity.
Famed sportscaster Bill Stern was the first to publicize the story when Stern named MSU's fallen heroes his "All-American Team" of 1944. By war's end, their names had been memorialized in newspapers across the country and read into the Congressional Record by legislators. Although attained through tragic circumstances, it was national attention that Montana State had never known.
What is now Montana State University can boast of football alums such as National Football League hall of famer Jan Stenerud and coaches Joe Tiller and Dennis Erickson, plus three post-war national championships, but the school enjoyed only seven winning seasons from 1918 through 1941. Back then, the average Bobcat team was more George Custer than Walter Camp, a Seventh Cavalry in shoulder pads battling deeper opponents in gridiron last stands.
The 1940-41 squads were no exception. At MSC, as with all land-grant institutions, ROTC was mandatory for male students through their sophomore year (a requirement that endured at Montana State until 1964) and the Bobcats suited up only 33 players in a season-opening victory over Western State on Sept. 21, 1940. Military call-ups, injuries, jobs and the harvest — most players came from mining, ranching and farming families which depended on their sons' labor — shaved coach Schubert Dyche's roster weekly. Games with teams like San Jose State and Drake, sometimes played with only 15 players, concluded disastrously, Stark recalled prior to his death in 2003. The Bobcats clawed their way to a 4-4 record, but with the winds of war whirling in Big Sky Country, it was difficult for the '41 squad to focus on football, according to Bill Zupan.
Zupan, a sophomore halfback that season who was the last surviving player from the Bobcats' pre-war team until he died in 2008, cradled Stark's figurative lateral — responsibility for the legend of the Golden Bobcats. As Zupan told it, on Nov. 26, 1941, four days after a 39-0 loss to the University of Idaho concluded a dismal 1-4-2 campaign, a secret Imperial Japanese naval task force sailed for Pearl Harbor.
"My college years were carefree, the best time of my life," recalled Zupan, who would serve in General George Patton's Third Army in Europe. "Then away she goes."
During the war, only schools that hosted large military training programs would field football teams. Starting in 1942-43, schools like Michigan State, Oregon State, Syracuse, Tennessee and Wyoming dismantled their programs for anywhere from one season to the duration of the war. In 1942, based on a low enrollment, MSC suspended football, but most of the Bobcats had long before exchanged their pads and playbooks for khakis and commissions.
"A lot of other football players from other college teams deserted the gridiron and went to war," Stern noted. "But in the case of the 11 (Note: there later were 14) players from Montana State College, a strange and grim story began to take shape. A fatal cycle of death."
A strange and grim story, indeed. Stateside airplane accidents claimed Bobcat end Lt. Dana Bradford on March 11, 1942, as well as halfbacks Lt. Wendell Scabad and Capt. Al Zupan — Bill Zupan's older brother, a 1930s MSC star — on April 12 and Oct. 28, 1943, respectively.
A commendation for Captain Jack Burke arrived in Tunisia in January 1944, but the author, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was unaware that the all-Rocky Mountain Conference tackle had died of unknown causes.
Bobcat end Lt. John Hall, the red-haired skipper of a B-24 bomber, died in a crash over Halesworth, England, on May 29, 1944. An all-conference guard, Marine Lt. Newell Berg was wounded in the Pacific atoll of Tarawa in 1943 and personally decorated for bravery by Admiral Chester Nimitz. Berg was killed on Saipan on June 19, 1944.
Tackle Capt. Joe McGeever, a popular paratrooper in the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, was killed by machine gun fire near Sospel, France, on Sept. 11, 1944.
Max Stark, an agricultural education major, received a deferment and was thus perhaps spared the fate of his teammates. He'd never forget the last time he saw his best friend, guard Bernard Cluzen.
"He told me that he didn't think he was coming back, and wanted to say goodbye," Stark said. "I never saw him again." Major Cluzen, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, was last seen on Oct. 8, 1944, after his F4U Corsair disappeared over the Marshall Islands.
A descendant of John Paul Jones, halfback Lt. Orin Beller had just begun to fight in France when he was mortally wounded on Nov. 13, 1944. Two weeks later in the Pacific, Capt. William Coey, who played halfback for MSC and graduated in the class of '35, failed to return from a reconnaissance flight to Marcus Island.
Bobcat quarterback Lt. Johnny Phelan, wearer of the Distinguished Flying Cross, perished when his P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down on Dec. 29, 1944 near Massa, Italy.
Major Rick Roman, who played halfback in the late 1930s, was killed in France on Feb. 15, 1945. One month later, Lt. Karl Fye from Butte, who was Bill Zupan's best friend, was killed in a firefight in Germany. By early in the summer of 1945, center/Lt. Alton Zempel was the only starter from Bobcat pre-war teams that "had escaped the Reaper," Stern noted in a broadcast at the time. But Zempel was killed in a crash on July 7.
To put Montana State's loss into perspective, of the institutions whose football alumni fought in the war, West Point and Annapolis naturally incurred the most casualties. As for singular teams, only Georgia Tech's 1939 squad, which lost nine players and one assistant coach, came close to rivaling Montana State's supreme sacrifice. Notre Dame lost nine football alumni from its graduating classes of 1925 to 1945. Brigham Young, a rival that frequently appeared on the Bobcats' pre-war schedules, lost one player to the war.
"As students of Montana State College yell for their Golden Bobcat football team to roar on to victory when the sport is resumed, there will be lumps in their throats," wrote Frank Whitney in the Washington Post in 1945. "...No college football team has been as hard hit by World War II as Montana State."
MSC didn't field a squad in 1945, but new coach Clyde Carpenter's 1946 roster featured 71 battle-tested war veterans and talented freshmen. And that team had a powerful rallying cry. Playing for the "Golden Ghosts," the Bobcats won a conference championship and a trip to San Diego to play the University of New Mexico in the inaugural Harbor Bowl. Yet despite all that the school had endured, the feat received little national fanfare.
"We were from Montana, we went to the front lines," explained veteran Zupan, the only pre-war letterman to suit up in 1946. "(Other teams and players) got the front pages."
Nevertheless, the Bobcats enjoyed the school's first bowl game, a 13-13 tie played before 25,000 fans at Balboa Stadium on Jan. 1, 1947.
"Everybody was pretty much happy just to be playing football," recalled quarterback Gene Bourdet, who became MSU's athletic director from 1958 to 1970 before taking a similar post at Fresno State. "It was a lot of fun after being at war."
At halftime of a game against Wichita State on Oct. 1, 1960, the Montana Sports Hall of Fame played a recording of Stern's 1944 broadcast and presented the school with a bronze plaque engraved with the names of the Golden Bobcats. After Zupan's passing in 2008, the plaque, which hangs in the Breeden Fieldhouse, is the lone reminder of the players and their sacrifices. But Stern's emotional words echo still, and upon hearing them one understands why this tale captured the hearts and imaginations of a nation: "On that Montana State team were no nationally famous football stars ... none of them very well known outside of Montana. They were just typical American boys."
And, though not in the traditional football sense, they all were All-Americans.