Frank Sinkwich and the Second Air Force Superbombers
Few attending the mid-October 1945 football game between the El Toro Marines and Second Air Force Superbombers expected anything remarkable, but the injury to Frank Sinkwich during the game left many fearing for the future of the NFL's brightest star.
Like the Great War, WWII saw military bases across the country field football teams competing among themselves and with top colleges. Pro football meant nothing before WWI, so few military players during WWI had professional experience, but WWII military rosters had many pros, most of whom were eager to become civilians after Japan surrendered in August 1945. A point system based on time in the service, overseas duty, and other factors determined who mustered out first. Those with enough points went home in September and October of 1945.
We don't know whether Frank Sinkwich tried to get out early, but we know he worked hard to get into the military. Born in Croatia and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Sinkwich broke his jaw early in his junior season at Georgia (1941) and spent the rest of the season playing with his mouth wired shut, wearing a device to protect his jaw. Still, a Single Wing halfback, Sinkwich led Georgia to a 9-1-1 season in 1941, topped by a victory over TCU in the 1942 Orange Bowl when he completed nine passes for 243 yards and three TDs, rushing for 139 yards and another TD.
Sinkwich switched to fullback his senior season to allow Charley Trippi, a future All America and All Pro, to play halfback. Georgia went 11-1 with a victory over UCLA in the 1943 Rose Bowl, and Sinkwich set the NCAA record for total offense in a season. He also won the 1942 Heisman Trophy, the first for an SEC player. Unfortunately, Sinkwich could not take home his trophy because wartime shortages made the twenty-five pounds of brass needed to cast his trophy unobtainable.
As a Marine Corps Reserve intending to enter active service upon graduation, Sinkwich accepted the Heisman in his Marine Corps uniform, but the Marines later rejected him for flat feet. The Merchant Marine did the same before he was drafted, going to the Lions as the #1 pick in the NFL draft. An All Pro as a rookie in 1943, Sinkwich's flat feet also propelled him to a spectacular 1944 season. He was second in the league in scoring and punting average, third in rushing and average yards per pass, while also returning kicks and punts for the Leos. Despite being named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, Sinkwich continued seeking a spot in the Armed Forces and was finally accepted into the Army Air Force. That led to his playing for the Second Air Force Superbombers against the El Toro Marines on October 14, 1945.
Both the Superbombers and Marines were stocked with talent. Besides Sinkwich, the Second Air Force team included future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Clyde "Bulldog" Turner and Tom Fears, four-time All Pro Dick Berwagen, among other NFL and All-America Football Conference (AAFC) players and draftees.
The El Toro Marines had top-end talent and depth, starting with their head coach, Dick Hanley. Hanley quarterbacked Washington State and the Mare Island Marines to the Rose Bowl in his WWI-era playing days before becoming head coach at Haskell Institute and Northwestern. Pro Football Hall of Famer Elroy Hirsch headlined the El Toro players. Teammates included Bob Dove and Wee Willie Wilkins -both had lengthy NFL careers- and other NFL or AAFC boys, many signing with the Chicago Rockets where they played for Dick Hanley in 1946. One of the best and best-known El Toro players was drafted by the Bears, but never played pro football. Verne Gagne, the All America wrestler, believed he could make more money wrestling professionally, so he spurned George Halas' offer and spent the next few decades tossing perfectly-good men into the turnbuckle.
Had you been a sports fan living anywhere near Penrose Stadium in Colorado Springs in October 1945, you'd have been among the 10,000 at the Superbombers' home field to see the NFL MVP, the country's best football player, suit up for the home team. The home fans had little reason to cheer during the first half as the Superbombers earned a safety by blocking an El Toro punt, but two Elroy Hirsch's touchdown runs put the Marines ahead 13-2 at halftime.
Tom Fears caught a second-half touchdown pass for the Superbombers, but El Toro scored as well, so the game ended in a 20-9 Superbomber loss. Still, few fans cared about the score after Frank Sinkwich left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. Unlike today, every fan understood there was little medicine could do for many knee injuries at the time, so they feared Sinkwich's injury might be career-ending.
It was, but it wasn't. As was then common, the Army doctors did not perform surgery, instead casting Sinkwich's leg for a month to "promote healing." Whatever healing occurred, the New York Yankees of the upstart AAFC saw enough talent to sign Sinkwich nonetheless. The NFL's Lions initially challenged the signing, but Sinkwich soon underwent surgery to remove bone chips in the knee, and the Lions surrendered their claim. Sinkwich gained only twenty yards during the 1946 AAFC season.
He played for both the Yankees and Baltimore Colts in 1947, started three games, and gained 241 yards in eleven games. But that was it. The playing career of an NFL MVP was over.
In seeking to serve his country, Sinkwich had the misfortune of losing a lucrative pro football career, but he appears to have understood that others lost far more serving their country. He was not bitter about what might have been. Instead, Sinkwich returned to Georgia, started a successful beer distributorship, and became a significant supporter of the University of Georgia. Frank Sinkwich had a pretty good run in life, just not as many runs as he and football fans had hoped.
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