November 10, 2022

Veterans Day – Six College Football Military Stories

The College Football Hall of Fame is proud to celebrate its rich military history this Veterans Day and every day. Founded in 1951 by General Douglas MacArthur, legendary Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik and renowned journalist Grantland Rice, the College Football Hall of Fame recognizes the sacrifices of all military members, past and present. These six stories feature veterans who excelled in their military service as well as on the gridiron.  



Known as the “Iron Major,” Frank Cavanaugh began his coaching career at Cincinnati in 1898. He soon returned to his New England roots coaching at Holy Cross and Dartmouth.

With the outbreak of World War I, he left Dartmouth to serve in the Army at the age of 41.  He rose to the rank of Major and was wounded in October 1918, less than three weeks before the end of the conflict. He participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive which claimed over 26,000 US lives among the 360,000 total casualties suffered by all participants. A shell explosion caused numerous facial injuries which contributed to his eventual blindness later in life.

He returned to coaching after the war at Boston College and Fordham. He cut a distinctive figure on the sidelines by always wearing a derby hat. Cavanaugh was a great psychologist and motivator with inspirational pre-game and halftime speeches. While the modern T formation did not gain popularity until 1940, he ran a few plays from the T as early as 1929.

He was portrayed by Pat O’Brien in the 1943 film The Iron Major. Cavanaugh died in 1933 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.



Hamilton Fish III is only one of a long line of Fish family members who served this nation.  His great grandfather served in the Revolutionary War, his grandfather was Secretary of State in the Grant administration, and his father was a member of the US House of Representatives. 

Hamilton Fish III enrolled at Harvard, played tackle and was named an All-America in both 1908 and 1909.  Later Walter Camp listed Fish as a member of his all-time All-America team.

Hamilton was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 24.  He gave up his seat when the nation entered World War I.   Captain Fish was given the duty of leading New York’s 369th infantry.  This was a segregated unit of African Americans who were initially led solely by white officers. They became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”  The 369th set a record by serving 191 days in the trenches and never losing a foot of ground as the Hellfighters suffered 1,500 casualties, the highest of any US regiment.  170 members of the unit received the Croix de Guerre, a military decoration bestowed by the French to individuals who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces.

Fish reclaimed his seat in Congress following the war and served until 1945.  He proposed the 1920 resolution which resulted in the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.


V-12 Program

Every aspect of society and daily life are influenced by major conflicts such as World War II – including college football.  The numerous ways the war changed the college game are immeasurable.  One of the more interesting influences came from a Navy officers training program known as V-12.

The V-12 program was hosted at 131 colleges.  These institutions benefited from the addition of over 100,000 future officers during a period when college enrollment greatly decreased due to student enlistments into military service.  Some credit the program with saving the University of Notre Dame from bankruptcy because two thirds of all students were enrolled at the school in some form of military training in 1944.

Football players who enrolled in the V-12 program could be transferred from their existing school to a school that hosted the program.  What school you were sent to was determined by what school you came from and at times where your name fell in the alphabet. 

Schools that did not have the V-12 program lost players to host schools.  Sometimes they lost excellent players which led to dramatic turnaround seasons.  For example: Purdue went 1-8 in 1942.  As a V-12 school they went 9-0 in 1943 with the addition of players such as Hall of Famer Alex Agase of Illinois.  Conversely, Illinois fell from 6-4 to 3-7. So many V-12 players went from Wisconsin to Michigan that they became known as the "Lend Lease Badgers”.  Wisconsin went from an 8-1-1 season in 1942 to a 1-9 season in 1943, while Michigan was the #3 team in the nation with Badger players such as Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch now playing for the Wolverines.



In 1942, Bob Chappuis was a sophomore halfback at Michigan.  The following three seasons he found himself as an aerial gunner and radio operator in the Army Air Corps.  He was on his 21st mission in February 1945 when his B-25 was shot down over the Poe River Valley in Italy.  He and two other crewmen parachuted to safety and were rescued by anti-Nazi Italian partisans.  For three months the crewmates were passed from town to town, headed toward the Swiss border.  When they reached the town of Asola they were hidden by the Ugolini family in a house that was two doors away from German headquarters.  One evening the fiancée of one of the Ugolini daughters entered the house unexpectedly and found the three Americans.  He threatened to turn the trio over to the Germans but had a change of heart when he realized doing so would result in the death of his future wife.

Chappuis returned to Michigan after the war as a 23-year-old and set a conference record for total offense in 1946.  The following year the Wolverines went undefeated and Chappuis was named unanimous All-America and was the Heisman Trophy runner up.




The Heisman Trophy owes its great legacy to numerous individuals and their achievements.  Perhaps no story is greater than the account of Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s 1939 Heisman winning halfback.

That season the Hawkeyes were known as the “Ironmen.”  With little depth, the team went 6-1-1 with many starters being near 60-minute players.  Kinnick earned a degree in economics, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, was elected student body president and gave the commencement speech at the 1940 graduation ceremonies.

His Heisman acceptance speech came just three months after the start of World War II.  His comments are among the most eloquent in Heisman history. He thanked God he was “warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe.”

He declined professional football offers to enter law school.  After one year in law school, he enlisted in the Navy, reporting for duty three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  While training to be a fighter pilot, he took off from the flight deck of the USS Lexington on June 2, 1943.  His plane developed an oil leak, and he ditched his plane.  Rescue crews quickly reached the site but found only an oil slick.  His body was never recovered.

Today the Hawkeyes play at Kinnick Stadium with his likeness on the coin used to start all Big Ten games.  Many have speculated Kinnick would be the most likely choice to be elected President if ever a Heisman Trophy winner ran for the office.




Holleder was an All-America end in 1954, averaging 29 yard per reception while helping Army to a 7-2 record. Cadets’ coach Red Blaik was forced to switch Holleder to quarterback in 1955.  The All-American embraced the role although it meant sacrificing a chance to earn repeat honors. He struggled at first, but the left-handed passer guided Army to a 6-3 record. The night before Army’s annual meeting with Navy, Blaik explained he was tired of having to congratulate the Midshipmen coach after losing four of the past five games. “That walk is the longest,” the coach lamented. Holleder confidently told his mentor: “Colonel, you’re not taking that walk tomorrow.” Holleder was good to his word, leading his team to a 14-6 victory.

Blaik was so enamored with the man he called a “priceless leader” that he devoted an entire chapter to Holleder in his autobiography You Have to Pay the Price. The title of the chapter poignantly reads “You Are My Quarterback.”

Holleder’s military career was also noted for his willingness to sacrifice. After duty stations in the Pacific, he returned to West Point to be an assistant football coach but volunteered to be sent to Vietnam.  He made a habit of risking his life for others, earning a Soldier’s Medal for bravery after pulling men out of a burning tank. On October 17, 1967, Holleder and his platoon were engaged in the Battle of Ong Thanh, 40 miles from Saigon. Realizing several men were injured and trapped, Holleder led a rescue mission under heavy enemy fire. While trying to clear a landing spot for medical helicopters, Holleder was cut down by machine gun fire and died in the arms of an Army medic. He was 33 years old and left behind a wife and four daughters.

On the campus of West Point stands the Holleder Center, home to West Point basketball and hockey. The arena is located next to Michie Stadium, where Don Holleder once exemplified General Douglas MacArthur’s impassioned ode to college football: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”



Icon Tickets

Secure your tickets now and be apart of the legacy. Don’t miss the chance to experience greatness firsthand!

Icon Membership

Unlock exclusive access and be part of something legendary. Join our community and enjoy premium benefits today!

Icon Shop

Take a piece of greatness home. Shop our exclusive collection of themed items and preserve the legacy in your own way!