Tuesday, December 7, 2010

December 7, 1941: The last game

WASHINGTON - On the field, the Redskins and the Eagles were playing out the string, finishing up a meaningless game to close out a disappointing season. What was happening on the field wasn't important. Not as far as the history books are concerned.

The first announcements starting coming in during the first quarter. Military officers left and right were asked to report to their offices. Nobody was saying why.

Some people knew, of course. Nearly everybody in the press box was aware that the bombs had fallen on Pearl Harbor earlier that day, but most people in the crowd didn't know. The players surely didn't. Redskins president George Marshall wouldn't allow an announcement of the bombing over the loudspeakers, meaning the fans and players in Griffith Stadium were among the last in America to know.

It was hard not to know something was up, though. Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh took notice of all the announcements, one after the other after the other. It was very unusual to hear that many. And yet the players kept playing.

Before long, the Redskins were 20-17 winners, and the 1941 NFL season was over, at least for Washington and Philadelphia. A few fans ran onto the field toward the goalposts, but most filed out of the stadium still oblivious. That wouldn't last. From the newsboys holding up newspapers and barking out the headlines to passersby on the street telling each other, it soon became painfully clear what had happened, why all those announcements were coming over the loudspeakers.

The game lost meaning. The players who minutes before had been playing a game suddenly wondered when, not if, they'd be drafted. Some players jumped the gun and enlisted themselves. One, Nick Basca of Philadelphia, enlisted three days later with his brother and was shipped to Europe. His brother made it back.

Baugh got a deferment, allowed to stay on his ranch and raise cattle. Throughout the war, he flew on weekends to play for the Redskins. His career lasted until 1952, and he went into the Hall of Fame nine years later.

Eventually football, and all sports, resumed normal activities, and rosters eventually went back to their pre-war quality and quantities. It's hard to imagine there will ever again be a game where time stood still, where nobody inside knows just how much the world outside had changed. For two hours on December 7, 1941, in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., there was no bombing of Pearl Harbor. There was no war that the United States was now fully engaged in. There was just football. The last moment of innocence before four years of heartache.

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