This won’t be the usual Thoughts of the Day. It’s Memorial Day and sadly, far too many Americans think of this as the kickoff weekend for summer and never once consider the sacrifices made on our behalf by countless brave men and women. So today I want to use a good portion of this space to say thanks to everyone who has served in our armed forces, but especially to those who paid the ultimate price.
We’ll start with a great song by Greenville, Florida’s finest and probably the best known alum of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine – the late and oh so great Ray Charles. His rendition of “America the Beautiful” always sent chills up and down my spine, but never was it more meaningful than the 2001 World Series just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The next part is courtesy of the late, great Gene Ellenson, who was the Gators’ defensive coordinator during the Ray Graves years and then an assistant athletic director and fund raiser for Gator Boosters until he died in 1995. Typically, I make a point to reprint Coach Ellenson’s letter to the Gators from October 11, 1962 during football season, but I’m making an exception today because it’s Memorial Day and long before he was Florida’s defensive coordinator, he was a true American hero.
To set the stage for the most famous letter in Florida football history, I have to first tell you that in December of 1944, Coach Ellenson was a 23-year-old lieutenant in General Patton’s Third Army, which was meeting stiff German resistance at The Battle of the Bulge. A star lineman for Georgia’s national championship team of 1942, Coach Ellenson was a natural leader and on this night, he showed that he was also a very brave man.
Second, I have to tell you why he wrote the letter in the first place. The Gators were expected to have an outstanding team in 1962 but after beating Mississippi State, 19-9, in game one, they proceeded to lose two in a row. Georgia Tech embarrassed UF in Gainesville, 17-0, and a week later in Jacksonville, the Gators blew a 21-0 halftime lead and lost to Duke, 28-21. The season was on the brink and a couple of days before the Gators took on Texas A&M at Florida Field, Coach Ellenson wrote a letter about this desperate night in December of 1944 to inspire and motivate his team.
Here is the letter:
Dear _____ :
It's late at night. The offices are all quiet and everyone has finally gone home. Once again my thoughts turn to you all.
The reason I feel I have something to say to you is because what need now more than anything else is a little guidance and maybe a little starch for your backbone. You are still youngsters and unknowingly, you have not steeled yourselves for the demanding task of 60 full minutes of exertion required to master a determined opponent. This sort of exertion takes two kinds of hardness. Physical, which is why you are pushed hard in practice-and mental, which comes only from having to meet adversity and whipping it.
Now all of us have adversity-different kinds maybe-but adversity. Just how we meet these troubles determines how solid a foundation we are building our life on; and just how many of you stand together to face our team adversity will determine how solid a foundation our team has built for the rest of the season.
No one cruises along without problems. It isn't easy to earn your way through college on football scholarship. It isn't easy to do what is expected of you by the academic and the athletic. It isn't easy to remain fighting when others are curling around you or when your opponent seems to be getting stronger while you seem to be getting weaker. It isn't easy to continue good work when others don't appreciate what you're doing. It isn't easy to go hard when bedeviled by aches, pains and muscle sprains. It isn't easy to rise up when you are down. The pure facts of life are that nothing is easy. You only get what you earn and there isn't such a thing as "something for nothing." When you truly realize this-then and only then will you begin to whip your adversities.
If you'll bear with a little story, I'll try to prove my point. One midnight, January 14, l945, six pitiful American soldiers were hanging onto a small piece of high ground in a forest somewhere near Bastogne, Belgium. This high ground had been the objective of an attack launched by 1,000 men that morning. Only these six made it. The others had been turned back, wounded, lost or killed in action. These grimy, cruddy six men were all that were left of a magnificent thrust of 1,000 men. They hadn't had any sleep other than catnaps for over 72 hours. The weather was cold enough to freeze the water in their canteens. They had no entrenching tools, no radio, no food-only ammunition and adversity. Twice a good-sized counter attack had been launched by the enemy, only to be beaten back because of the dark and some pretty fair grenade heaving.
The rest of the time there were incessant mortars falling in the general area and the trees made for dreaded tree bursts, which scatter shrapnel like buckshot. The attackers were beginning to sense the location of the six defenders. Then things began to happen. First, a sergeant had a chunk of shrapnel tear into his hip. Then a corporal went into shock and started sobbing.
After more than six hours of the constant mortar barrage and two close counter attacks, and no food since maybe the day before yesterday, this was some first-class adversity. Then another counter attack, this one making it to the small position. Hand-to-hand fighting is a routine military expression. I have not the imagination to tell you what this is really like. A man standing up to fight with a shattered hip bone, saliva frothing at his mouth, gouging, lashing with a bayonet, even strangling with his bare hands. The lonesome five fought (the corporal was out of his mind) until the attackers quit.
Then the mortars began again. All this time the route to the rear lay open, but never did this little group take the road back. As early dawn a full company of airborne troopers relieved this tiny force. It still wasn't quite light yet. One of the group, a lieutenant, picked up the sergeant with the broken hip and carried him like a baby. The other led the incoherent corporal like a dog on a leash. The other two of the gallant six lay dead in the snow. It took hours for this strange little group to get back to where they had started from 24 hours earlier. They were like ghosts returning. The lieutenant and one remaining healthy sergeant, after 10 hours of sleep and a hot meal, were sent on a mission 12 miles behind the German lines and helped make the link that closed the Bulge.
Today, two of the faithful six lay in Belgium graves, one is a career army man, and one is a permanent resident of the army hospital for the insane in Texas, one is a stiff-legged repairman in Ohio, and one is an assistant football coach at the University of Florida.
This story is no documentary or self-indulgence. It was told to you only to show you that whatever you find adverse now, others before you have had as bad or worse and still hung on to do the job. Many of you are made of exactly the same stuff as the six men in the story, yet you haven't pooled your collective guts to present a united fight for a full 60 minutes. Your egos are a little shook-so what? Nothing good can come from moping about it. Cheer up and stand up. Fight an honest fight, square off in front of your particular adversity and whip it. You'll be a better man for it, and the next adversity won't be so tough. Breaking training now is complete failure to meet your problems. Quitting the first time is the hardest-it gets easier the second time and so forth.
I'd like to see a glint in your eye Saturday about 2 p.m. with some real depth to it-not just a little lip service-not just a couple of weak hurrahs and down the drain again, but some real steel-some real backbone and 60 full fighting minutes. Then and only then will you be on the road to becoming a real man. The kind you like to see when you shave every morning.
As in most letters, I'd like to close by wishing you well and leave you with this one thought. "Self-pity is a roommate with cowardice." Stay away from feeling sorry for yourself. The wins and losses aren't nearly as important as what kind of man you become. I hope I've given you something to think about-and remember, somebody up there still loves you.
The aftermath: General Patton pinned a Bronze Star and a Silver Star on Coach Ellenson’s chest. He would win another Silver Star for bravery as Patton and the Third Army advanced into Germany. As for the ball game, inspired by Coach Ellenson’s letter, the Gators stomped Texas A&M, 42-6, and went on to beat a great Pen State team in the Gator Bowl.
SOME GATOR STUFF
The Gators (47-13) will host an NCAA baseball regional but won’t know their seeding and the other three teams until noon today on ESPNU. The Gators made it to their third straight SEC Baseball Tournament Championship Game to Texas A&M, 12-5, Sunday, but that loss shouldn’t keep UF from earning a top four seed, which means hosting a Super Regional if they get past the regional. Other SEC regional hosts are Texas A&M (45-14), LSU (42-18), South Carolina (42-15), Vanderbilt (43-17), Ole Miss (43-17) and Mississippi State (41-16). Both Florida State (37-20) and Miami (45-11) were among the nine non-SEC teams to host.
Softball: Florida’s quest for a three-peat came to an abrupt end Friday night when Georgia got a dramatic 2-run homer in the bottom of the seventh. Georgia (45-18), Auburn (54-10), Alabama (51-12) and LSU (50-16) will represent the SEC at the Women’s College World Series.
Women’s Tennis: The doubles team of Brooke Austin and Kourtney Keegan advanced to the NCAA Doubles Championship Sunday when they knocked off UCLA’s Catherine Harrison and Kyle McPhillips. Austin and Keegan will face Maegan Manasse and Denise Starr of California for the championship at 2 p.m. today.
Men’s Golf: The Gators posted a 5-over 293 on Sunday and dropped one spot to 13th overall, but they will still play on the final day of the NCAA Golf Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Florida is 21 shots off the pace of 1st place Vanderbilt. Only the top 15 teams advance to play the final day of the tournament.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Unless baseball or either men’s or women’s track comes through, UF won’t have a single national championship team this year. UF did win six SEC championships. Does the lack of a national championship make this a disappointing year in your eyes?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Since it’s Memorial Day, I think the best way to end Thoughts of the Day is with James Brown singing “Living in America.”