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War puts 1942 Rose Bowl in a different time zone

December 31, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Glancing at the travel itinerary for their train excursion to the 1942 Rose Bowl, you might guess that George Zellick and his Oregon State teammates lost their way.

The Beavers disembarked to practice in Nebraska and Chicago, then stopped in Washington to watch Congress in session and meet with lawmakers.

On the way home, they spent time in New Orleans.

It was an unusually long and circuitous trip, but these were extraordinary circumstances and this was no ordinary Rose Bowl.

For the only time in its history, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and amid fears of a possible enemy assault on the West Coast, the game was played not in Pasadena but at Duke Stadium in Durham, N.C.

"Realizing the situation that confronted the country, we were grateful that the game was played at all," Zellick, an 87-year-old former two-way end, says from his home in Lewistown, Mont.

In what amounted to a calm before the storm, the trip and the game offered sort of an end-of-innocence respite for the Pacific Coast Conference champions.

"Because of the caliber of it, the game was pretty foremost in our minds," says Zellick, who was a 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior that season. "But as soon as that thing was over, we all knew that the party was over because most of the players -- I would say 90% -- were in the service within six to eight months."

In December 1941, however, they still were innocents.

"Those few of us that are still alive still talk about it," Zellick says of the Beavers' one-of-a-kind Rose Bowl experience. "It was really something."

In those days, the PCC champion picked its Rose Bowl opponent. With top-ranked Minnesota unavailable -- the Western Conference barred its members from bowl appearances -- the 12th-ranked Beavers instead tabbed second-ranked Duke, unbeaten champion of the Southern Conference.

After Pearl Harbor, the game initially was canceled. But Oregon State, which had posted a 7-2 regular-season record in earning its first Rose Bowl bid, then offered to make the trip to Durham if Duke would agree to play host to the game. Arriving in time for Christmas dinner, the Beavers were so lightly regarded that virtually no one expected them to put up much of a fight against the powerful Blue Devils, who had outscored their opponents by 30 points a game.

The Beavers, Zellick says, were well aware of the talk.

"In fact," Zellick says, referring to the NBC radio announcer who called the game, "Bill Stern made the comment that Duke probably could win by throwing 11 helmets out on the field. We were listening to the radio while we were in the hotel -- this was before the game -- and you can imagine our feelings. I tell you, we were hopped up. And I mean hopped up."

Oregon State upset the Blue Devils, 20-16, in front of 56,000 on a cold, rainy day. Says Zellick, who scored a third-quarter touchdown on a 31-yard pass from Bob Dethman, "I've lived and caught that pass about 110 million times and often wondered what would have happened if I'd dropped it."

The winning points were scored later in the third quarter by Gene Gray, who connected with Dethman on a 68-yard touchdown pass play. Years later, after he'd flown more than 30 bombing missions over Germany, Gray had his hands amputated after crashing during a postwar training flight in Panama.

Noting the irony, Zellick says of his late former teammate, "The young man who caught the pass and made the victory possible ended up with no hands at all."

But Gray wasn't the only 1942 Rose Bowler who sacrificed. Four of the 80 or so players who suited up for game were killed in the war.

Zellick enlisted in the Marine Corps within two months of the Beavers' return to Corvallis, Ore., he says, and eventually joined the First Division in the Pacific until war's end. After returning to Oregon State to complete work on his undergraduate degree, he served in the Korean War.

Later, he was a schoolteacher and school administrator in Springfield, Ore., and Missoula, Mont., before retiring in 1985 to Lewistown, his hometown.

"I'm in very good health," says Zellick, whose son Dan played on the 1967 Oregon State team that upset O.J. Simpson and national champion USC, 3-0, at Corvallis. "I have my aches and pains, but I've got real good doctors. They're very kind to me. They never tell me that I'm getting old. They just tell me I've having too many birthdays. That's pretty doggone nice, isn't it?"

Zellick, whose wife of 61 years died a few years ago, shares an apartment with Barbara Lu Smith, a widow and close friend of the family.

His three sons have given him eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren to tell the story of the 1942 Rose Bowl, which was unique in the series.

"When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor," says Zellick, a son of Croatian and Serbian immigrants, "we kind of wondered if we should play. But just within a few days our emotions went from surprise to anger. Then it became quite evident to a lot of people -- not the players so much, but others -- that things had to continue as they were, just from the standpoint of morale."

The world as they'd known it would change soon enough.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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