- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

The NFL is teeing it up Sunday on December7 — the Day That Changed Everything back in 1941. One of the great untold stories in sports is how the league survived the war years, making it possible for pro football to become America’s favorite game. And one of the smaller stories within the larger one involves a Redskins player named Frank “Tiger” Walton, who made a comeback in 1944 — after being out of the NFL for nine seasons because, well, the team was that desperate for live bodies.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to piece together a roster in those days, what with most young men — and plenty who were not so young — in the military. Talent was so scarce that clubs merged to stay alive (the Steelers and Eagles in ‘43, the Steelers and Chicago Cardinals the following year). In ‘44, the Cleveland Rams actually shut down for a season. It’s kind of amazing, really, that the league was able to keep going.

Teams resorted to any and all means to fill uniforms. The Rams selected Baylor’s Jack Wilson with their first pick in the 1942 draft because he had “an eye deficiency that may keep him out of the army,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. Their second pick was used on Oklahoma’s Jack Jacobs because he was “married and classified 3-A.” The Eagles, for their part, gave a tryout during the war to one Don McGregor, who had just been released from prison after serving nearly five years for car theft. McGregor had been the star of the Iowa State Penitentiary team.

The NFL put up a brave front. “Our sport,” one club executive said, “will be as good as other things that are rationed.” But, obviously, the quality suffered. If the war had lasted a little longer, Bears quarterback Sid Luckman speculated, the league “might have gotten down to the level of semipro ball.”

The ‘44 season was probably the worst for scrounging up players. Of the 330 draft picks that year, only a dozen were available to teams in the fall. The Brooklyn Tigers suited up an 18-year-old, Bill Lafitte, and the Rams had two guys who were blind in one eye. The Giants, had they been so inclined, could have fielded an entire backfield with no college varsity experience (Bill Paschal, Howie Livingston, Joe Sulaitis and Bill Petrilas). Pro football in 1944 was not a pretty sight.

The champion Packers, guard Buckets Goldenberg later recalled, were nothing more than “a bunch of broken-down stumblebums. A bunch of us tried to get in [to the service] but were rejected. When we asked how come we could play pro football and yet be rejected for service, one doctor said, ‘Well, if you’re playing in a football game and your knee gives out, they can stop the game and take you out. In a war, you can’t call a timeout during a battle.’”

This was the NFL that sent out a distress signal for Frank “Tiger” Walton. Walton was a stocky guard who had played for the Redskins in 1934, when they were still in Boston. After his rookie season, he had gone home to Beaver Falls, Pa. — the town that would produce Joe Namath — and become the high school football coach. By 1944, he was no longer the 5-11, 215-pound dynamo of his University of Pittsburgh days. He was now 240 pounds and the father of two young boys — Joe, a future Redskin himself (and later coach of the Jets), and Frank Jr.

We can only guess what motivated him, at 32, to resume his NFL career. Maybe he was just intrigued at the prospect of playing football again. Or maybe it was the chance to be the Redskins’ assistant line coach — in addition to his guard duties — that lured him back. All Joe Walton knows is, “All of a sudden, he started running around in the backyard and getting in shape. I remember being very impressed that he could do something like that — not just go back to the Redskins but actually play.”

Beaver Falls, of course, isn’t exactly within commuting distance of Washington. So for this to work, the family had to live apart during the football season. Joe, who was 8, remained behind in Pennsylvania and lived with an aunt for a few months while his parents and preschool brother were in D.C.

“All the old-timers, including me, believe that that’s how the league was built,” Joe says, “with guys who really loved to play and were willing to make sacrifices like that. I mostly stayed in Beaver Falls, but I went down for a couple of games. I would sit on the bench at old Griffith Stadium and watch him play. One thing I’ll never forget is the time he split his lip, laid it right open. I can see him coming off the field with blood streaming down his face. It took a lot of stitches to close that thing up.”

In Tiger Walton’s last season with the Redskins, 1945, they reached the championship game, only to lose by a point to Cleveland. The Redskins didn’t play for the title again until George Allen arrived in the ‘70s. “He wouldn’t let my mother and me go to [Cleveland for] the game,” Joe says. “He thought it was going to be too cold.”

Father was right; the thermometer registered 6 degrees that afternoon. The conditions were so frigid, a newspaperman wrote, “that the hot broth served in the glass-enclosed press coop turned to jellied consomme from cup to lip.”

Tiger Walton coached at Colgate the next season, then got a job on the Steelers’ staff in ‘47. He returned to Washington for a year as an assistant in ‘48 and died, much too young, of cancer in ‘53.

His son Joe followed a similar path, starring at Pitt, playing for the Redskins (1957 to 1960) and later serving as an assistant with both them and the Steelers. He also did something a decade ago that his dad probably would have appreciated more than anyone. No, he didn’t try to come back as an NFL tight end. But he did return to college — to start the football program at Robert Morris University. He’s an institution there now. Why, in September, they had a Joe Walton Bobblehead Day.

“Best thing I ever did in my life,” says Joe, who’s back living in Beaver Falls, 20 minutes from campus.

In the Walton family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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