Quite a Life

Georgia has had at least a half dozen athletes from Youngstown, Ohio, on its football roster, three of whom made All-America: two in football, Frank Sinkwich and George Poschner, and one in basketball, Zippy Morocco. Morocco played basketball and football.

Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy and remains an icon in both his original hometown and the town he adopted.

In his spare time in the summer of 1939, Sinkwich hung out on the street corner like the rest of his friends—including Jack Evans and George Poschner, who had finished high school a year ahead of him.

Evans was gainfully employed and was doing well enough to purchase a used DeSoto. Poschner was working at assorted jobs with the objective of providing financial assistance at home where his widowed mother, a Hungarian immigrant, was struggling to feed his two sisters.

The country was coming out of the Great Depression, but times were still hard. Evans and Poschner envied their friend Sinkwich who had received a scholarship to play football for the University of Georgia.

After an encouraging conversation with Sinkwich one day at the corner of Mahoning and Wesley streets in Youngstown, Evans and Poschner decided to accompany Sinkwich to Athens and try out for Georgia football. Coach Wallace Butts had determined that he would win football games with a precision passing attack and boot camp–style conditioning. He always welcomed more bodies for his survival-of-the fittest regimen.

Any college that would provide food and a bed in return for a commitment to play a game was offering golden opportunity. Those who did not squander the educational option that came with it knew that the future could be brighter. Poschner especially appreciated that. He would earn a degree, but World War II would render it useless.

His father had emigrated from old Austria-Hungary, found a job, and sent for his mother. At 31, she had become a widow. To feed and support her children, she scrubbed floors at a utility company after hours, working until midnight. Then, during the day, she worked four domestic jobs before returning to the utility company.

"The only time I saw my children was from 1:00 a.m. until 6:00 a.m., and they were sleeping," she said. Like so many others, she had come to America for the good life, which never really came until she was an old woman. In her final years, she assessed her lot simply as a hard one, but better than it would have been in Hungary, living under Communist rule. That, to her, was not an acceptable alternative. She never expressed any regrets, even when the utility company for which she labored for 25 years refused to grant her a pension when she retired prematurely as a result of misinformation and advice from a company supervisor. She had quit work to look after her son who had come home from the war disabled. Hers was not the American dream.

Her injured son, George, was once a graceful and dominating athlete who was one of college football's accomplished receivers in 1942. He had fully expected to advance from college stardom (he made All-America in 1942) to professional football.

Poschner's adventure south with his friends would not be costly except in practice field aches and pains. They slept in Evans's DeSoto, simply pulling off the side of the road when they were too tired to drive. Sinkwich remembered that the trip required less than $10.00 in gas money to cover the 515 miles from Youngstown to Athens.

When Sinkwich showed up with his two pals, the Georgia coaching staff was happy to accept the "try-outs." Those who could best dish it out would be the ones who would survive the squad cuts. Butts wanted a seasoned and rawboned squad, which suited Poschner perfectly.

The lanky end soon had his meal ticket. He was skinny and unimpressive physically, but he could play football. He had a flair for the spectacular, and football beat working for the butcher or the baker back in Youngstown. With his background, football under any conditions was not work. He had known far rougher times and was eating regularly for the first time in his life.

"He has the guts of a burglar," Bulldog assistant Bill Hartman told Butts's staff early on. "Some players just naturally have football instincts and he was one of them."

Poschner played on Butts's first bowl team, which defeated T.C.U. in the Orange Bowl in Miami, January 1, 1942. He didn't score a touchdown in the great offensive afternoon, spearheaded by Sinkwich, but he never forgot the trip. "Going to Miami was a dream. I never knew I'd have an experience like that. It was a winter wonderland, but not the type I was accustomed to in Ohio. I couldn't believe the sunshine and the palm trees," Poschner recalled late in life.

"I've never been more excited and was determined to play a good football game, but unfortunately I was hurt early. I went up for a pass and was hit low. I came down on my shoulder, causing a separation. The most disappointing words of my career came at halftime when the trainer, after cutting off my uniform, examined my shoulder and said, ‘George, you are through.' I couldn't believe it. ‘No,' I cried, ‘tape me up. I've got to play in the Orange Bowl.'"

Following the Rose Bowl victory a year later in 1943, Poschner had to forego his longtime objective to play football professionally. War was raging in Europe and in the Pacific. Pro football would have to wait. He was inducted into the infantry at Ft. Hayes, Columbus, Ohio, and was immediately sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he was in the same company as Bob Waterfield (UCLA Quarterback), whom he had played against earlier in Pasadena.

After receiving his commission, Poschner was sent to England for further training. At that point he began to realize that he would eventually see action against German troops on the continent. "There was a great chance," he realized, "that I would face some distant cousins somewhere along the way." He joined the Allied invasion at Normandy. The Allies were advancing rapidly, toward Berlin, when Hitler struck back with an offensive effort, resulting in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. A cakewalk turned into a brutal and bloody conflict, and the offensive was felt farther away in places like Althorn, France, where Poschner saw action.

When it was over, Poschner was one of those who had paid dearly for the Allied victory. He came out of the war with a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross, but he would never play football again.

Poschner doesn't remember all the details of his personal involvement, but military records gave this account: "Lt. Poschner was seriously wounded in action on 8 January 1945 in the vicinity of Althorn, France. On that date, Lt. Poschner's unit was attacking the enemy on high ground. An urgent need for more firepower developed. Lt. Poschner and his heavy weapons platoon were called upon for help. The enemy had emplaced a machine gun commanding a road that was needed vitally as a route of approach. Disregarding his own personal safety, Lt. Poschner attacked this emplacement, firing his submachine gun, slung the belt over his shoulder and continued his advance directly in the path of the enemy gun. Despite the hail of bullets around him, he had succeeded reaching within thirty yards of the emplacement before he was struck and severely wounded in the head."

It was estimated that he killed or wounded 20 Germans. Efforts to retrieve him failed, but when his unit took the ridge three days later they found him unconscious and barely alive. The freezing temperatures kept him from bleeding to death, but frostbite led to gangrene infection and a heavy toll on his limbs.

Poschner recovered, but lost both legs; his left side was paralyzed because of the bullet's damage to his brain. He also lost all four fingers on his right hand. With artificial limbs and a cane, Poschner ultimately learned to walk again, and by pressing a pen with the thumb of his right hand against the base knuckle of the forefinger, he learned to write although it was tedious and laborious.

A fellow Ohioan, Robert Taylor, later told Poschner what had happened. "We had the grave registration unit out to pick up all the bodies, and when I put my stethoscope on your back, I got no reaction, but for some unknown reason I put my foot under your shoulder and flipped your body over and saw your eyelids flicker. I put my stethoscope on your chest and found that there were faint signs of life.''

The last thing Poschner remembered was charging up the ridge. He doesn't recall being hit. When he regained consciousness several days later, he was in the lobby of an old hotel in France, which had been converted into a field hospital. He was placed in a body cast and was not told of the amputations. He had phantom pains in his legs and ankles, and it was not until he was confined six months later in Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta that he learned of his shocking fate.

"I had come home from France on a hospital plane the day after Roosevelt died. When they asked me what hospital I wanted I asked for Walter Reed because I thought that it would be closer to my family, and they might visit me.''

There were no beds at Walter Reed, but the Lawson assignment turned out well for him because the many friends he had made while at the University of Georgia visited him during the recuperative period. Those friends and the care of Red Cross nurses and a fellow patient convinced Poschner his life was worth living after he discovered his legs had been removed.

"I don't know why nobody told me my condition, but the doctors at Lawson cut away my cast one day and that is when I realized what had happened," Poschner recalled. "I kicked my right leg up in the air and saw that stump and went berserk. I began to curse and swear at the doctors. I thought they had just cut my legs off. I went into a rage, and they had to give me a shot to knock me out. When I came to, I was so depressed. The Red Cross nurses kept trying to console me, and I kept screaming at them to get away from me. ‘Let me alone and let me die,' I told them."

Even when they arranged for him to talk to his mother and paid her way to Atlanta to see him, he remained dejected and saw no use in living. The encouragement of his Georgia friends didn't change his mind.

However, the fellow patient did cause Poschner to undergo an attitude adjustment. Poschner recalled that the patient's name was Irving Kerisch. Kerisch was in a wheelchair and had experienced paralysis and amputation, too. He gave him a lecture that changed Poschner's life.

"Lt. Poschner," Kerisch said, "Why don't you go ahead and die. Just die and get it over with and let those nurses help those of us who feel like life is worth living. There are some of us who believe life is worth something no matter what happens to you, and you're not the only one who is suffering. So go ahead and die and let them help the rest of us."

From that time on, Poschner resolved to make the best of his condition. He fought back physically, but most of all he applied the mental toughness he had used so effectively on the football field.

His mental discipline was reestablished—not to get him through the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, but to get him through life.

While he knew that he would never return to a football game except as a spectator, he drew on his experience. Survival had always been his trademark.

There were two reasons that enabled him to accept his fate and move on. "One," he said, "is that I'm glad I am an American. Had my father not come to this country, I could have become a Communist or lived under Communist rule. In fact, my brother, John, who was born in Austria-Hungary, got a letter at the start of the war suggesting that since he was born under Austro-Hungarian rule that he should return home and fight over there.

"The other reason I've been able to enjoy life and not complain is that I had several teammates who made the ultimate sacrifice. Two of my best friends, Smiley Johnson and James Skipworth, gave more than I did. They gave their lives."

Poschner, who was elected to the State of Georgia Hall of Fame in 1982, died in Youngstown May 2, 2004.

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