I love sports history, and when I heard that a book about the “last golden season” of Army football was available, I immediately wanted to read it (I didn’t purchase this off amazon, I received it as a gift). This is not just a history, it, at times, reads with the pace and ease of novel. Mark Beech has done an incredible job in highlighting an era when college football was at its height, and the military academies (Army, Navy, and the newly founded Air Force) were among the elite schools in the country (or for Air Force, expected to become an elite program). Army has a great tradition and history: from 3 claimed national titles, 3 heisman winners, and is still (even after the glory days have long since passed) among the all-time leaders in college football wins.
College football remains an extremely popular sport. In some parts of the country, college football is the Saturday holy day. Arguably, from the turn of the century through the 1950s and into the 1960s, college football remained the sporting spectacular of the United States. Baseball may have been “America’s game,” but college football had extensive media coverage and alumni fanfare and epic rivalries that still carry the winds of memory today.
Mark Beech’s book examines the forgotten history of one of college football’s greatest programs: The United States Military Academy (Army). Army football reached its peak in the 1940s and continued as an elite program into the 1950s, with the last “glory” season being 1958 which the book primarily covers. Yet the book is more than that. It is also a history of football culture, coaching, gamesmanship, and witty and funny stories and asides that captivate the meaning of life and purpose. It also gives us snapshot biographies of the leading players of the team, what they did, where they went, and how the cadets of Army Football put aside their athletic careers (at a time when the NFL was emerging in popularity) for service to their country living up to West Point’s motto: “Duty, Honor, Country.”
For anyone who loves college football history, the history of West Point, and an age when the game was played purely for passion and love, you need to buy this book. Once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in two days, and it remains one of my favored possessions. Mr. Beech also just touches the surfaces of legends like Earl Blaik (the head coach), Pete Dawkins (the 1958 heisman trophy winner), Harry Waters (a fullback who is made alive in Beech’s writing), and even General Douglas MacArthur (among the most supportive fans of the program and a friend to Coach Blaik), all of whom (among other players and figures Beech covers) are very lively and colorful. Contained in the book is also a glimpse at the college football world in the late 1950s, and how teams like Duke and Rice were ranked in the Top 25 as well. In the end, by the 1960s, Sunday Mattered Most (with the rise of professional football) and the historic and legendary military academies, Army included, suffered when athletic talents saw college as their medium to reach the pros. Nonetheless, when the magical 1958 season began, Army was among the most accomplished football programs in the country.
This was, simply put, a remarkable and enjoyable read.
This is adapted from my Amazon review of the book.
When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football by Mark Beech.
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