Review: Third Down and a War to Go

Terry Frei's latest book is true Americana

Book publishing is a funny business sometimes. Like many other lines of work, quality is often at times replaced by quantity — quantity of course meaning how fast a particular product flies off the shelf regardless of its long-term appeal.

As a result, many otherwise quality products wind up in the land of literary oblivion before they even get a chance make a name.

In the world of book publishing, that means that an otherwise fine book, or its subject matter, may be labeled "too narrow," "too old," or "too local."

I recently came across a book that had been given the above labels. The book, entitled, Third Down And A War To Go, is the story of the 1942 Wisconsin Badger football team's journey through the ‘42 football season, and their subsequent, and much more important, experiences on the battlefields of World War II.

Terry Frei, a sports writer and columnist for the Denver Post and author of the highly acclaimed 2002 book, Horns, Frogs, and Nixon Coming, began researching his latest project shortly after his father's death in 2001. Terry's father, Jerry, was a member of the 1942 Wisconsin team, and later became a decorated P-38 pilot in the Pacific Theater. During Jerry's long post-war career as a football coach and educator, he never brought up his wartime experiences with the many young athletes he coached. It was only during Jerry's final years, when Terry began to talk to his father about his experiences, that the story about a group of young Wisconsin athletes — who would soon become Marines, soldiers, sailors, or airmen — began to take shape. Jerry's death only encouraged his son to press on and learn more; not only about his father, but about all of the stories of that 1942 Badger squad.

The year 1942 was unlike any other on college campuses as the first year of U.S. involvement in the war was winding down. With Pearl Harbor still fresh in America's mind, male students as well as athletes knew that it was only a matter of time before they would be called into action to fight in either Europe or the Pacific. As the Badgers climbed up the 1942 national rankings under the guidance of head coach Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback of Notre Dame's famed "Four Horsemen," stars and bench warmers alike had enlisted in various branches, and now were awaiting their service callups. Each player knew that with each passing game, they were that much closer to entering a world of much greater finality. When the 1943 season began, only one of the 51 players on the '42 roster remained on the team.

The first half of the book captures the fun and innocent atmosphere of the Wisconsin campus, as the players work hard, and play even harder, as they compile an 8-1-1 season and are named No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll behind top-ranked Ohio State and No. 2 Georgia. In the book's second half, Frei follows the player's stories tirelessly as they scatter across the globe in their new wartime roles.

Much of the book's story centers around the lives of Wisconsin All-American Dave Schreiner and the Badgers' other co-captain, halfback Mark Hoskins. Both men came from tiny Lancaster, Wis., and the long-time buddies and teammates both planned to become pilots. But Schreiner's color blindness scuttled that plan, and after he turned down a pre-medicine student deferment, the two-time All-American end became a Marine officer. Hoskins, in turn, joined the Army Air Corps and soon became co-pilot, and later lead pilot, of a B-17 "Flying Fortress" over the skies of Europe.

Schreiner, Hoskins, and Jerry Frei's war tales are told in great detail, as are many other Badgers as they sailed through the Pacific, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, lived as POW's, confronted daunting odds as pilots when their mission totals mounted, and led units in the fierce battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Through exhaustive research and interviews with the remaining Badgers, their families, and combat comrades, Terry Frei tells the often heart-wrenching story of this team of young men who became real-life heroes by fulfilling a much greater calling. In describing their successes and losses both on the football field and in service to their country, Frei makes it clear why the generation young men and women who came of age during the Second World War have become known simply as the "Greatest."

While some may think that this book is "too narrow," "too old," or "too local," let me say that it is far from that. This is a story of the highest degree, one that will leave the reader at various times laughing, mournful, amazed, and inspired. Third Down And A War To Go is much more than just a football story. It is much more than just a war story.

It is a story about us.

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