Bill Chastain

Jackrabbit: The Story of Clint Castleberry and the Improbable 1942 Georgia Tech Football Season

America was in the midst of war entering the 1942 college football season, leaving those who ran the game to wonder if a season should even be played and if so, how, given the number of players and coaches already enlisted and off to war. Touting several virtues of college football, such as the physical aspects, its ability to spawn leaders, and the passion for the sport shared by Americans at home and abroad, the decision was made to continue the season. To help fill the rosters with able-bodied men, the freshmen eligibility rule is waived. Clint Castleberry, a local hero from Atlanta’s Boys’ High, became one of the freshmen eligible to play in the fall of 1942.

William Alexander, a.k.a. “Coach Aleck,” had coached Tech football since 1920, winning a national championship in 1928 before hitting a malaise that produced just two winning seasons from 1930 through 1941. Coach Aleck needed a catalyst to inject life into the fortunes of the program and Castleberry proved to be just that catalyst.

Standing only five-foot-nine, a hundred and fifty-five pounds, Castleberry did not allow his diminutive stature to overshadow his talent and immense heart. Upon entering Tech, he had never played in a game in which his team had lost—and the string continued in the fall of 1942. In essence, Castleberry became Seabiscuit in football pads, revitalizing Tech with incredible touchdown runs—that inspired at least one sportswriter to marvel that he “ran like a crazed jackrabbit,” defensive gems, and a Chip Hilton too-good-to-be-true personality. Coach Aleck’s faltering health adds drama to the story by forcing the colorful coach to hand off the reigns for several games to his equally colorful assistant Bobby Dodd, Tech’s resident head coach in waiting. While Alexander convalesces at home—unable to even listen to the games on the radio by order of his doctor—Dodd coaches with the savvy of a gifted head coach.

Amid a backdrop of patriotism, wartime regulations and the bustling city of Atlanta, Tech has memorable gridiron battles against the likes of Auburn, Notre Dame, Navy, Duke, Kentucky, Alabama, and Florida en route to the final showdown of the season against powerful Georgia, which boasts Frank Sinkwich and Charlie Trippi in the same backfield. By this time the state of Georgia, an entire country, and servicemen worldwide have tuned in to Castleberry’s story and await the final verdict of whether Tech can cap off an undefeated season and win a national championship.

Castleberry’s football heroics—which prompted a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting—were fleeting due to his entering the military after just one season playing for Georgia Tech. Left behind in Castleberry’s shinning aura were the “what if” questions about what might have been had he not felt compelled to serve his country and, ultimately, paid the highest price for doing so.

Only one player in the illustrious one hundred-plus years of Georgia Tech football has ever had his jersey number retired. Clint Castleberry is that player and this story explains why.