Yellow Jacket Player, Lee Tressel - 1943-47
(Excerpted from "...And We Must Excel")
College football in 1943 was in a unique state of flux. Gridders were either unfit for military service, waiting to be drafted or in special military programs on college campuses.
In reality, football at Baldwin Wallace University in 1943 began on April 2 when entrance exams were given for acceptance into the Navy V-12 program.
The program allowed high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 22 to join the Navy and work toward officer's rank through training at colleges. The program was entitled Navy College Training Program.
The new Navy program created an infusion of football talent to the Berea college. In fact, 10 of the 11 starters in the season opener at the University of Rochester were in this program. The 11th man was blocking back Vern Fesco, from Berea High School, and he was awaiting his draft orders into the military.
On the local front, the Big Four, which was very popular in the 1930's, became the Big Two. Western Reserve University and John Carroll University dropped out of football in 1943, leaving only BW and Case on the local playing fields. And, both BW and Case had V-12 programs.
To make the 1943 campaign a little bit more bizarre was the scheduling in which the Yellow Jackets played the Rough Riders twice and split the two games. Thus, BW and Case shared the "Big Two" wartime title.
While the American troops were fighting both in Europe and in the Pacific, the homefolks were working to aid the war effort. Women were a big part of the work force, creating the nickname of "Rosie the Riveter". Gas rationing and food stamps were still in place and entertainers traveled the globe to entertain troops and the people at home. Visiting Cleveland was a theatrical troop, pushing the sale of war bonds, which included actress Greer Garson, comediene-singer Betty Hutton, bandleader Kay Kyser, and comedian Groucho Marx.
The Navy reinforced Yellow Jackets opened their season at the University of Rochester, the preseason pick behind Colgate and Syracuse as the third best team in the East. However, BW coach Ray Watts did not have a bare cupboard. Two of the V-12 candidates, who previously attended Ohio State University were 17-year old halfback Jim Roberts and 18-year old fullback Lee Tressel, who went onto a spectacular career at Baldwin Wallace as both a player and a coach.
The Berea Enterprise called Tressel fast, tough, elusive and evidently a "born" football player.
A total of 29 of the 31 players made the trip to Rochester and Watts was very conservative when he said,"I think it'll be a tough afternoon." He could not have been more correct. Rochester prevailed, 14-6.
The Yellow Jackets put up a stubborn battle and outplayed their opponents much of the game. The favored New Yorkers built a lead that could not be toppled. The first period was scoreless and Rochester posted single touchdowns in the second and third quarters and held on through the final 15 minutes.
BW's touchdown was set up when Jim Roberts completed a 19-yard pass to Harold Mintz. Lee Tressel then dashed 33 yards to the Rochester 8-yard line, and from there Roberts circled right end for a touchdown.
BW outgained Rochester 123-118, and had more first downs, 11-9. Roberts, a freshman playing his first collegiate game, completed 10 of 19 passes and BW linemen, especially Larry Pizziali and Hank Rutledge, were applauded for their play on both sides of the ball.
Next on tap was the first of two games with cross-town rival Case Tech, the other remaining team in the Big Fourónow Big Two. This game offered a display of the two Navy V-12 programs and it also provided local grid fans a chance to see two outstanding backs, Case's Bill Lund and Tressel of BW. After graduation in 1946, Lund went onto a brief career with the Cleveland Browns.
BW's Ray Watts who was in his 16th year at the helm, and Ray Ride, coach at Case, were not only good friends, but the co-founders of the Big-Four.
BW was favored in the cross-town clash at Shaw Stadium in East Cleveland and lived up to pregame billing, winning 19-6. The Yellow Jackets scored all three of their touchdowns in the second quarter. Tressel, from Ada, Ohio scored twice and Joe McCall tallied once to give BW an insurmountable lead.
The victory gave the Yellow Jackets a 13-12-3 advantage in the 28 meetings in the series.
BW's first touchdown was set up when Ralph Benedict's punt rolled dead on the Case 1-yard line. Bill Eeicher's punt from the end zone was blocked by BW's Larry Piziali, and the loose ball was downed on the Case 3-yard line.
Two plays later, Lee Tressel bolted over tackle for the first score of the contest. On BW's ensuing kickoff, Bruce Baty of Case slipped on the turf and the ball was downed on the Rough Riders 4-yard line.
On a three-and-out situation, Eicher punted out to Case's 35-yard line where BW took possesion. Tressel gained 4 yards on the first down and then Jim Roberts completed a pass to Vernon Fesco to put the ball on the Case 20. On first down, Tressel dived for 3 yards before Roberts hit Fesco with another pass completion to put the ball on the 7. On an end around, Louis Grove ran to the 2-yard line and Tressel scored from there. Jack Bevan converted and BW led 13-0.
Read more about the Lee Tressel's career as both player and coach, and Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's college football career in "...And We Must Excel" available at the BW bookstore, or by calling (440) 826-2742 and placing your order with Bev Lake.