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Remembering Georgia Tech’s “Jackrabbit”

Posted Dec 20, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:23 PM

The last time Bill Chastain wrote about Georgia Tech, lovers Truman Forbes and Paige Kupryn were enjoying college life’s carefree spirit in the “Peachtree Corvette Club.”

That was fiction. Chastain’s latest project about his alma mater is factual, but it reads like a storybook without a happy ending.

Jackrabbit: The Story of Clint Castleberry and the Improbable 1942 Georgia Tech Football Season” (Cadent Publishing; paperback, $14.95, 204 pages), dusts off the archives of World War II-era college football and takes a fresh look at a tragic star.

Clint Castleberry was a two-way sensation who starred at Georgia Tech in 1942, the first freshman to finish as high as third in the Heisman Trophy voting (Herschel Walker and Michael Vick also were third as freshmen; this year, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win college football’s top award). An unlikely star at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Castleberry became the first freshman to be named to an All-America team as he led Georgia Tech to a 9-1 regular season.

One sportswriter compared Castleberry to “a crazed jackrabbit.”

“He twisted and squirmed out of grips, bounced off shoulders, spun out of arms, running all the while to an individual glory not won by a Tech man since Everett Strupper (a running back for Georgia Tech’s national championship team in 1917).”

But World War II intervened and Castleberry joined the military. He was killed on Nov. 7, 1944, when the plane he was a co-pilot for crashed on a mission off the western African coast.

Georgia Tech fans were left to ponder “what if” — a familiar refrain among college football fans during the war. Every college was affected; at Florida, for example, the Gators’ Walter Mayberry was a Marine pilot who was shot down in the Pacific and died in a Japanese prison camp. And UF’s Forest Ferguson was critically injured on Omaha Beach on D-Day and never fully recovered from his wounds, dying 10 years later.

Both men could have had productive careers in pro football. And Castleberry could have been a contender for the Heisman had he played out his full college career at Georgia Tech.

Chastain, a former Tampa Tribune sportswriter and a 1979 Georgia Tech graduate, was faced with a daunting task. Most of the men who played for Georgia Tech in 1942 are either dead or in their late 80s to early 90s. Trying to breathe life into game accounts was a challenge.

Fortunately for the reader, telling a story is Chastain’s strength. He approaches the career of Castleberry by writing a primer on the early history of Georgia Tech football, drawing on the leadership of coaches John Heisman, William Alexander and Bobby Dodd. He digs into articles from musty old files and paints scene-setters.

He relies on interviews with Castleberry’s wife, Shirley, and rivals like Charley Trippi of Georgia (who played in the backfield with 1942 Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich in 1942) to inject life into the quiet 5-foot-9, 155-pounder.

And Chastain gives the reader a solid background by detailing Castleberry’s successful prep career at Atlanta’s Boys’ High School.

Chastain’s description of Castleberry’s signature play in college — a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown against Navy — brings every fake and cut against the grain into vivid focus.

“That run was a thing of beauty,” Georgia Tech teammate John Crawford told Chastain.

His heroism on the football field was overshadowed by his military career, and his untimely death left a void that Georgia Tech fans found hard to swallow. But Castleberry’s legacy remains intact;the final number he wore (19) remains the only football jersey retired at Georgia Tech.

Even if you haven’t heard of Clint Castleberry, you will be impressed after reading Chastain’s narrative. “I thought he was Superman,” former Georgia Tech player and coach Pepper Rodgers told Chastain. “He was my hero.”

Chastain’s 13th book puts gives Georgia Tech’s Superman a human touch.

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