If you're a fan of college football history, author Wilbur D. Jones, Jr. has penned a book that should be on your summer must read list: "Football! Navy! War!" - How Military Lend-Lease Players Saved the College Game and Helped Win World War II . Jones chronicles the state of football during World War II, a time when the sport's popularity was beginning to soar, but could have easily been a wartime casualty. The Navy, as well documented by Jones, can be credited with keeping the sport alive and well during a critical stage of its existence, as well as set the stage for the future.
The Navy had competitive "Pre-Flight" schools (along with training station teams) that played college teams during those years, and one of those was the North Carolina Pre-Flight team located in Chapel Hill. Lieutenant Commander Bear Bryant was one of the assistant coaches on that team, and none other than Otto Graham quarterbacked them in 1944. UNC's varsity team also played football that same year, but it was the Navy Pre-Flight team that had all the talent.
The next time someone asks about the most talented football team of all time, shock them by throwing the "Bainbridge Eleven" into the mix (so-called because in those days players played both ways, therefore, eleven players). Bainbridge was a Naval Training station (later a training "center") in Maryland that was abandoned after the war. In a seven-game schedule in 1943 that squad outscored its opponents 313-7 with a line-up that was never seriously challenged. And it played for Navy pay.
Jones chronicles the beginnings of Justice's career as a player fresh out of Asheville High School on Bainbridge's roster of college stars and professional players. Justice was a critical component of the Bainbridge T-formation attack. You'll have to read the book to find out that Justice was a "done deal" for another ACC football program before he finally went to UNC.
Justice had over 250 college offers and several professional teams offered him a spot on their rosters before he ever put on No. 22 for the Tar Heels. He had excelled on the gridiron against the best talent in America before he attended college. Today, the equivalent might be if Adrian Peterson was able to come back to college and sign with North Carolina.
Jones also details how the Navy favored football as a training tool. Both from a strategic and physical standpoint, it was a sport that most closely resembled combat.
Generally, if you are looking for a starting point to begin a study of college football history, you could do a lot worse than "Football! Navy! War!" and specifically, to fully comprehend the significance of Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice in the history of North Carolina football, it is an essential read.
Note: Wilbur D. Jones, Jr. is a retired naval captain who has authored several books on military history. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina and is the father of Andrew Jones, a sports journalist in the Triangle and contributing writer to Inside Carolina.