Sport has often served as a microcosm of larger events, such as memorable historical accounts. As players and coaches have often said, sports can build character and serve as important memories later in life when times get tough.
College football is a masterful example of such lessons. Rudy Ruettiger’s moment in Notre Dame glory comes to mind, as the ruthless extra recorded a sack during his final college streak. This solitary play sparked a legend, as Ruettiger was seen in a frenzied celebration; he didn’t even make an impression the rest of his career. But this sack from the Georgia Tech quarterback in South Bend has inspired countless underdogs.
Many other such stories exist in the 153-year history of college football. Perhaps nothing is more poignant than the situation Jack Van Pool, later a US Army veteran, found himself in at the 1954 Orange Bowl.
A product of Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Van Pool was actually an accomplished player, becoming the only player at that time to make All-State in football, basketball, and baseball. In his senior year, his team won the state football championship with a perfect 12-0 record.
Still, his story is somewhat emblematic of what can happen to a good high school athlete who suddenly finds himself playing for a college juggernaut. In other words, the high school star finds himself a minnow in a whirlwind of athletic sea monsters.
Arriving as a freshman in 1950 for the emerging Bud Wilkinson dynasty, Van Pool stood and watched elite players like Eddie Crowder and Gene Calame contribute to the program’s flash-and-dash, the latter having been quarterback -back of the Sooners at the start of their still unmatched. 47 consecutive wins. In the third team, Van Pool probably spent a lot of time thinking about life after football.
That all changed when Oklahoma headed to Miami to take on the no. Maryland, ranked No. 1 in the playoff classic after the 1953 regular season ended. The Terrapins, coached by former OU boss Jim Tatum, were on top for a reason. Or several reasons, in fact. Allowing just three points per game, Maryland intimidated opponents and relied on a formidable offense to wear down 10 teams. Among the victories, six shutouts!
Oklahoma was no minced liver and placed fourth in the nation. The power of the Big Seven was the product of Wilkinson’s cerebral mind and discipline. Calame led an effective attack that had found its rhythm on the stretch. Curiously, an injury bug left Norman’s team with a thin quarterback room: second stringer Pat O’Neal separated his sternum during bowl practices, leaving only Calame with experience.
You know what happened.
Twice in the first quarter, OU stopped Maryland inside the 10, once at the six-inch line. In the second, Calame led his team steadily down the field, before kicking the ball on the option of half-back Larry Grigg. The result was a 25-yard touchdown run. They would be the game’s only points and give OU a 7-0 lead.
Calame, however, parted at the collarbone just before halftime.
Enter Jack Van Pool.
The story goes that when Van Pool entered the group, he stretched out his hands, which were shaking. He told his teammates: “I know I’m not very good, but if you stick with me, I promise you I won’t fumble.”
He did not do it. In fact, the former Capitol Hill Red Wolf went from strength to strength and led a flawless offense all the way. With four minutes left, Oklahoma ran out of time; Van Pool led OU 41 yards to Maryland 39 when time expired.
As longtime OU color commentator Mike Treps wrote for The New York Times in 2000:
“The Sooners pulled off a surprise 7-0 victory behind a third-string quarterback who hadn’t even written the year before and hadn’t made all the road trips this current season. Injuries had forced Wilkinson to turn to Jack Van Pool, a senior who led the attack without a single mistake.
Think about it. Van Pool entered the game, on the biggest of Miami’s sunny stages, and immediately faced the granite wall of the Terrapin defense. The adversity there undoubtedly helped him later in life, as he served 28 years in the US Army, earning a Bronze Star in Vietnam.
Who said Jack Van Pool wasn’t very good?