Doc Blanchard And His Greatest Run

It is easy to refer to a football game as a battle or a war, especially in light of the fact that football -- not exactly a safe sport today -- was far less safe in the first half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the gulf between sport and actual combat is vast, and Doc Blanchard showed why when he pulled off the greatest run of his military career.


Doc Blanchard, The Mr. Inside to Glenn Davis’s Mr. Outside, was a three-time All-American at West Point. He won the 1945 Heisman Trophy, the first junior to claim the coveted and prestigious award. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry in that luminous season. He also punted, kicked off, and played linebacker for Army at a time when two-way football players were still common.

Yet, for all those feats of athleticism, Blanchard’s greatest run wouldn’t occur until 14 years after his Heisman season.

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Before chronicling Blanchard’s greatest run, it has to be said that Blanchard’s life didn’t take him in a straight line directly to West Point. Blanchard’s path was a curving one before it reached those three seasons, which dramatically altered the course of college football in the middle of the 20th century and brought Army its greatest period of gridiron acclaim.

Doc Blanchard’s initiation into the Army began in 1943, in a place and context far removed from West Point and, soon after that, the center of the college football universe from 1944 through 1946. He was stationed in New Mexico as part of a chemical warfare unit, immediately thrust into the difficulty and complexity of war and what it was becoming. It was only then that Army recruited him to play football; it’s not as though Blanchard was a recruit who courted Army. It was more the other way around, a change from the modern recruiting game in which young talents put hats on a table or choose other theatrical ways in which to announce their choice of school.

Blanchard was a first-round NFL draft pick – of the Pittsburgh Steelers – after his Army playing career ended in 1946. He sought a four-month furlough from military obligations in order to play in the NFL, but the United States War Department denied the request. That incident might make Blanchard seem selfish in a certain sense, but one has to remember that Blanchard went directly into military operations at the beginning of his military career. It was West Point which reached out and asked him to play football, so it is only natural that Blanchard felt he was doing the reasonable thing by wanting to play NFL ball (and he wasn’t wrong to think so).

At any rate, when denied the chance to play NFL football, Blanchard stayed in the military but under a different umbrella. He went into the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. He would eventually fly 84 missions in North Vietnam, spanning 1968 and ’69. He flew combat missions in Korea as well. Yet, it was an instance in 1959 that made the best use of Blanchard’s commitment to service in the fullest sense of what that word – service – really means.

The event also used Blanchard’s legs better than any football game he ever played in.

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The New York Times obituary for Blanchard – who died at 84 in 2009 – included this quote from his coach, the iconic Red Blaik: “Doc Blanchard was the best-built athlete I ever saw. Six feet and 208 pounds at his peak, not a suspicion of fat on him, with slim waist, Atlas shoulders, colossal legs.”

Those legs won many games and brought Army national acclaim on the gridiron, leading the Cadets to a 27-0-1 record from 1944 through 1946, with two national championships. Yet, those legs did something far more consequential well after Blanchard’s playing days ended.

Here’s more from the New York Times, which noted Blanchard’s decision to extend his military career in the United States Air Force:

“Blanchard became a fighter pilot, and in 1959 was back in the news. While flying back to his base near London, an oil line in his plane ruptured and fire broke out. Blanchard could have parachuted, but the plane might have crashed into a village. Instead, he stayed with the craft and made a perfect landing, an action that brought an Air Force commendation.”

The Independent, a newspaper based in the United Kingdom, had this to say about the event:

“In 1959 Doc Blanchard was inducted to America's college football Hall of Fame, and broke a speed record flying an F-100 Super Sabre jet at 610mph between England and Tripoli. But his greatest achievement came when another F-100 caught fire as he returned to RAF Wethersfield. Ordered to follow protocol and eject, Blanchard, with the Essex village beneath him, refused. He executed an emergency landing, then fled the burning plane. ‘It was the fastest I ever ran,’ he said.”

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It is striking that Blanchard – who mastered the art of running in a football-specific sense – was gifted with the realization that running in football is an expression of creativity. A play organically develops, and a running back seeks the hole in the line or the opportunity which emerges within the flow of play. Blanchard received coaching on how to run, but it was ultimately up to him to shape and make a play.

Without the improvisational dimensions of football running – without having the experience of a football career to call upon – would Blanchard have had the toughness and the independent-minded resolve needed to land that plane and spare a village? That’s a hard question to answer. Yet, it’s also hard to deny the sense that football – maybe at a purely subconscious level, and nothing more – helped Doc Blanchard to run from that burning plane, completing his best and most successful assignment in a decorated military career – on football fields and in English fields as well.

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