I became interested in Duke Football back in 1936 when I was only eight years old, and a fanatical baseball and football fan. In those years, Duke was a national powerhouse on the gridiron, led by their all-American tailback, Ace Parker, and let me remind you that those were the days of the single-wing, and the halfback was the runner, passer and usually the punter as well. He also starred on the defensive side of the line.
In his senior year (1936), the team had 9-1 record. Perhaps the highlight of the season was Parker’s 105-yard kickoff return against archrival UNC. He was clearly my boyhood hero and I was in pigskin heaven when the Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL drafted him. Although Ace was not with Duke in 1938, they went through the entire regular season, not only undefeated, but also unscored upon. They were invited to the Rose Bowl to meet Oregon State and were winning 3-0 until the last minute. The West Coast team then scored, winning 7-3. They went to the Rose Bowl again in 1942 to meet USC and lost 20-16. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Rose Bowl came to them. Because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it was thought to be unwise to hold the game in Pasadena; the game was played in Wallace Wade Stadium.
Now that my hero was with the Dodgers, my interest in Duke succumbed to second place, but one day a cute little mutt followed me home and I was allowed to keep it. I named him “Duke”. I was an ardent fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers in both football and baseball and in both cases we always had losing seasons. 1938 showed great promise for both sports. Of course, Ace Parker was a tremendous addition to the football team and that was the year that Larry MacPhail became General Manager of my beloved Bums. He immediately bought Dolph Cammili, the great homerun hitter from the Philadelphia Phillies and in spring training, we saw two rookies of great promise, Pewee Reese and Pistol Pete Reiser. Indeed this was the start of great times for the baseball team, with players like Gil Hodges, Duke Snyder, Carl Furillo, and of course, Jackie Robinson on the horizon.
Perhaps Parker’s greatest game for the Dodgers took place against the mighty New York Giants in 1941. It happened to be my thirteenth birthday and I was “watching” the game on the radio, avidly listening to the dulcet tones “Red Barber”. I was very annoyed, for the broadcast was constantly being interrupted for news reports. Every few minutes there was another bulletin. It was December 7th, 1941. The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. It was the end of an era and the end of Ace as a Dodger. He volunteered for service in the military. He was inducted into the pro football hall of fame and on May 17th, 2012, he celebrated his 100th birthday. I wonder if he could still throw his famous jump pass.
Now that we were at war, my interest in sports was pushed very deeply into the background. My interest in Duke was re-awakened in 2006 when my Grandson became an undergraduate. Of course, it was now basketball and Coach K that was in the spotlight. I watched every game that was televised and actually traveled to Durham to see a few games. Of course, when they played in Madison Square Garden, I was there. It was an enormously exciting time following the exploits of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, and of course Brian Zoubek. I really felt that my support helped them capture the NCAA Championship.
After my Grandson graduated, his Sister was matriculating at Lehigh University, her Father’s alma mater. Lehigh finished on top of the heap in the Patriot League, and thus received an automatic bid to the NCAA (March Madness) tournament. Because my Granddaughter had friends on the team, we decided to take a short vacation, drive to North Carolina to witness the opening game of the tournament; the top rated Duke Blue Devils versus the bottom rated Lehigh Mountain Hawks. We all hoped that Duke would show some mercy and not humiliate Lehigh. After the first few minutes it was, thankfully, pretty close. As the clock kept ticking the lead kept changing hands and we were all waiting for the time when the Blue Devils would make their run and take a twenty-point lead. However, the clock kept ticking and the score remained close. With only a few minutes left to play, momentum seemed to be with Lehigh, and when the clock stopped ticking, the biggest upset in NCAA history was recorded.
We were all bewildered. I was confused; I did not know whether to have a drink to celebrate or to drown my sorrow. I had two drinks.