'45 Badgers were a team to remember
By Javier Morales
The Arizona Daily Star
In the eventful year of 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away, Harry S. Truman took over, and the Japanese surrendered in World War II.
Closer to home, and far from the tension of the real world, Tucsonans were treated to the exploits of the young Gridleymen.
Weel after week in the fall of 1945, backers of the Gridleymen — coach Rollin T. Gridley's Tucson High School football team's — became entranced by the team's success. In a time of uncertainty, the team offered Tucsonans a release. The city was theirs.
In bold letters, headlines atop the sports page read, "Tucson High Badgers Romp" and "Tucson High Crushes Another Opponent." Occasionally, reports about the Badgers ran adjacent to war coverage on the front page of the newspaper.
Overflow crowds in excess of 13,000 would file into Arizona Stadium to watch the Gridleymen face another likely victim.
Large caravans would travel to the Phoenix area to watch Tucson play the likes of St. Mary's, Phoenix Union and Mesa.
A sea of red and white, the team's colors, was noticeable wherever the Badgers played.
Tucson High monopolized local fan interest for a variety of reasons.
Amphitheater, a new school situated on the western edge of the city back then, was the only other high school in town.
The University of Arizona football program resurfaced in 1945 after a two-year break because of World War II, and it took a while for fans to kindle faith in the Wildcats. The Badgers drew larger crowds.
A winning tradition enhanced Tucson's devotion to the Badgers. The seniors — the class of 1946 — never lost a game in their varsity career.
Tucson achieved a 32-game winning streak, and it was the undisputed state champion in 1944 and 1945. A state playoff system did not exist, and since the Badgers were unbeated in those years, they were declared champs.
The team featured the likes of reserve quarterback Frank "Brain" Borman, halfback Karl Eller, and starting quarterback Lee "Legs" Carey.
Each accomplished fame or fortune after graduating from Tucson High, and they lended credence to the Class of 1946 being called the Class of Champions.
Borman piloted the Gemini 7 space mission in 1965, and three years later, he was the commander of the Apollo 8 mission. It was the first manned spacecraft to circle the moon.
Eller ius a prosperous entrepreneur who onnce owned the circle K Corporation and currently owns the Swenson's Ice Cream chain. He was one of the original owners of the Phoenix Suns, and he was president of Combined Communications, one of the nation's largest mass media enterprises that eventually was purchased by the Gannett Co.
Carey, whom Gridley calls one of the most legendary athletes to attend Tucson High, played professional baseball in the Cleveland Indians organization for almost a decade. Today, he holds an administrative position at the UA.
Over the weekend, they and others from the Class of 1946 gathered to celebrate a 45th reunion. It was a time to reminisce about the old days when they were the toast of Tucson.
Times have changed, but their bond remains strong.
"That team in 1945 had character," said Borman, who has settled in Las Cruces, N.M., after a 10-year stint as chairman of Eastern Airlines. At 63, he flies aerobatic planes in his spare time and works with a company that issues licenses for lasers.
"The only real naturally gifted athlete on the team was Lee Carey," Borman said, "and even he did not play on the collegiate level. It was just a group of guys who were very dedicated.
"Coach Gridley was responsible for our success. He's a man who changed all of our lives and was a positive influence. I mean that."
Gridley, 88, lives in Tucson and continues to follow football on all levels. He played for the UA in 1925-26 and was a teammate of John "Button" Salmon, whose phrase "Bear Down" has become legendary.
Gridley said the 1945 edition of the Badgers embodied the noble characteristics of Salmon. Many years have passed, but he can remember details.
He likes to talk about how Borman replaced Carey at quarterback early that season after Carey suffered a fractured wrist. Borman operated the T-formation offense without a glitch.
Gridley cannot forget when Carey returned to action late in the season and ran for 197 yards on three carries against Phoenix Union.
He does not hesitate to speak of the time Tucson defeated Mesa in the final game of the season and shut down famed running back Wilford "Whizzer" White.
"What a wonderful group of young men," Gridley said. "They were a bunch of individuals who were determined to not lose. It's hard to compare, but I would say that team was very well one oo the best teams I ever coached."
Borman and Eller, at the outset of the 1945 season, did not figure to play a prominent role. Although they survived a tryout that consisted of many aspirants, neither was listed as a starter. But by the end of the season, they shared in the team's glory along with the headliners Carey, Art Pacheco and Oscar Carrillo.
"I was just a 150-pound fullback, but I did not let my size stop me," said Eller, who continued his football career at the UA from 1949-51. "I backed up the line pretty well. All of the guys were strong.
"We had a lot of guts, stamina and spirit. Everyone knew how to clock and tackle. We were good kids. That reflects on Coach Gridley. He's the finest individual I've come across. He has so much integrity."
Forty-six years later, the Gridleymen continue to think of their glory during a time when the world was unsettled. Tucsonans had something to smile about. A gala 50th reunion, a golden anniversary of the class of 1946, is in the works for five years from now.
The event will provide yet another opportunity to reminisce about the splendor of yesteryear.