1938 McGill Football Champions: Never to be forgotten

News



By TOM HAWTHORN


(reproduced courtesy of the authoir)

Special to The Globe and Mail
Nov. 11, 2004


The day was cold and windy, the turf muddy and slippery.A brisk November afternoon in Montreal did not dissuade an eager crowd of 13,000 fans, some in raccoon coats and waving pennants, from sitting in the grandstand to see a championship football game. The McGill Redmen, representing a school more noted for hitting the books than for hitting halfbacks, had won nothing but condolences for 10 years. Now they were one victory away from claiming the 1938 title in senior intercollegiate football. Most of the Redmen had played together for years. Some had grown up on the same street. "We had a team spirit that was ferocious," said Alex Hamilton, 86, who was acting captain that day. Hamilton and his teammates snagged a small piece of sporting history on that chilly day, yet none on the squad knew they were soon to be broken up. Events half a world away would forever alter the plans of these bright young men.


The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Hamilton played flying wing as part of a razzle-dazzle McGill backfield.

At right outside wing was Joey Jacobson, his boyhood chum from Lansdowne Street in Westmount. In the backfield were Massey Beveridge, Russ Merifield, Ben Stevenson and quarterback Ron Perowne, who ran the show. Among those on the line was 165-pound medical student Eddie Tabah, the son of a Lebanese immigrant. The snapper was Presty Robb, whose uncanny talent it was to flick a ball between his legs into the breadbasket of a runner in motion.

McGill faced the Western Mustangs in the Yates Cup championship game on Nov. 19, 1938. The Mustangs had beaten the Redmen 16-6 the previous weekend in London, Ont., the only blemish on the McGill record all season. At 7-1, the stellar season would be squandered if they could not avenge their defeat. The conditions were so poor that McGill threw only three passes with one completion for 10 yards. (Western completed five of 17 passes for 97 yards.) McGill's chief weapon was the punt. Herb Westman kicked the ball even on first and second down during the game, trying to pin an unsuspecting Western team downfield. The strategy was a success, as Westman kicked nine singles for all the points in a 9-0 victory.

At the final whistle, elated fans poured onto the field at Percival Molson Stadium to mob the Redmen, many of whom were carried off on the shoulders of fans. The players, exhausted after playing both ways, collapsed in the dressing room, where not so much as a beer was served.

"We weren't the greatest athletes," Russell Merifield said many years later, "but we survived."  
McGill had its first football title in 10 years. Another 22 seasons would pass before a McGill team would celebrate again. The football championship was matched the following February by a hockey title, as slick-skating captain Russ McConnell, a former member of the football squad, led the league in scoring. In just a few months, the do-or-die urgency of university sports would seem terribly innocent. The coming of war interrupted many careers. By the fall of 1941, the football team to a man had enlisted. Seven did not come home. Those who did have never forgotten.

Almost three years after the championship game, on Oct. 8, 1941, Sergeant Ben Stevenson was killed on his last training flight as an air observer for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Stevenson was buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery, part of a sprawling necropolis 48 kilometres west of London. He was 22. A Handley-Page Hampden bomber took off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire late in the evening on Jan. 28, 1942. Visibility was poor. The only Canadian among three Englishman was Flight Sergeant Joey Jacobson, a McGill commerce graduate. Their target was Munster, a medieval German city known as a canal port with railway marshalling yards. Jacobson's bomber belonged to a raid by 55 Wellingtons and 28 other Hampdens, an unwieldy, twin-engine aircraft known as the Flying Suitcase. Jacobson's plane crashed on Dutch territory at Lichtenvoorde near the German border. All four men were killed. Jacobson, a substitute lineman in the championship game, was 24.

Perry Foster, who was born in New Britain, Conn., was an RCAF pilot officer with No.418 intruder squadron. While others flew in protective swarms, the intruders adopted the daring but risky tactic of harassing enemy airfields alone at night. Foster's Boston III light bomber crashed in France on June 18, 1942. He was buried at the Canadian War Cemetery at Leubringhen, a village 14 kilometres from Calais. Foster was 24. At McGill, he was a flying wing and belonged to Phi Epsilon Alpha, the honorary engineering society.

Sub-Lieutenant Russ McConnell of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve had an assignment that seemed posh, recalled Merifield, his teammate. He was posted to a yacht in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Poor guy. On the evening of Sept. 6-7, 1942, the armed yacht HMCS Raccoon was escorting a convoy when a Greek merchant vessel was struck by a torpedo. Raccoon pursued the German submarine. The converted yacht was never seen again, believed to have been obliterated by two torpedoes fired by U-165. Raccoon sank with all hands. One month later, on Oct. 9, a body washed up at Ellis Bay on the western end of Anticosti Island. McConnell was identified by a school ring, teammates were later told. The body was taken aboard a Canadian warship, wrapped in a weighted shroud and buried at sea with full naval honours.

Jimmy Hall was flying his Mosquito over occupied France with three other fighters when they were attacked by an overwhelming force of enemy planes. Hall was unable to escape the deadly fire of an estimated 90 German aircraft and was shot down and killed over Caen. Hall is buried at the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. His grieving father, Oliver, later a member of the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, sponsored prizes and a scholarship in engineering at McGill in his late son's name. Hall was an all-star at outside wing for the football team.

Fighter pilot Massey Beveridge had a reputation for tenacity. He shared in damaging three enemy aircraft in a single day, and later was credited with three kills of his own, one of those coming after an extended pursuit. He was promoted to wing commander and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. On Aug. 7, 1944, Beveridge was patrolling over the Normandy beachhead when attacked by German fighters. The tail of his Mosquito was cut off by enemy fire. As the aircraft fell from the sky, Beveridge found himself stuck in the wreckage. John Peacock, the radio specialist and navigator leader of No.409 Squadron, pushed his commanding officer from behind. "My parachute opened just in time, as I hit the ground a minute later," Beveridge later wrote. Peacock, a Montreal man who had belonged to the officers' training corps at McGill, died in the crash.  Six weeks later, Beveridge was killed in a flying accident while searching for a missing aircraft in fog on Sept. 20, 1944. He was 28. His is the only Canadian airman's grave in the churchyard of the French village of Flavacourt.

The fierce resistance encountered by Canadian soldiers as they ground into Germany did not ease even in the final days of the war. German defenders in the town of Friesoythe offered a stiff defence. Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Wigle, the popular commanding officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, devised a plan where soldiers would slip into the town on foot in the early hours of April 14, 1945. Three companies successfully entered the town, but German soldiers stumbled across tactical battalion headquarters southeast of Friesoythe. The few troops at the headquarters repulsed the German attack, during which Wigle was killed. Wigle, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Order of the British Empire, was buried at the Holten Canadian War Cemetery. The football team's assistant coach had been responsible for coaching the linemen. He was 31.

The seven lost men left brokenhearted mothers and fathers, grieving widows, and children whose only memory of their father would be old photographs and retold stories. Life went on. After three years of mourning, Eunice McConnell, Russ McConnell's widow, married Ron Perowne, her husband's old teammate. She died two years ago. For surviving Redmen, whose hair is now grey, the lost players forever remain the young men of memory. McConnell was the most promising athlete of all. The great Lester Patrick had once called him one of the outstanding natural hockey players in the world. He had scored 116 goals in four seasons for the Redmen, a record that would last 50 years. He had seemed destined to follow other McGill skaters such as Russ Blinco, Jack McGill and Nels Crutchfield into the National Hockey League.

After the war, the players tackled the professions for which they had been educated. They added honorifics before their name, such as doctor, and honours after their name, such as Queen's Counsel. Hamilton rose to be president and chief executive officer of Domtar; Perowne headed Dominion Textile; Merifield served as general counsel for Victoria and Grey Trust; Dr. Robb, the snapper with good hands, became a world-renowned neurologist; Dr. Tabah's reputation as a cancer surgeon earned him the Order of Canada.

Every five years, the players held a reunion in Montreal. Over time, the amount of alcohol consumed grew smaller even as the stories grew taller. They retold anecdotes about their comrades, relived the glories of a brisk November afternoon decades earlier. They knew the memory of some of their fallen teammates had been preserved. Every year, the football team awarded the Fred Wigle Memorial Trophy to the most sportsmanlike player. But they felt more was needed to honour the sacrifice of the seven. In 1991, the surviving members established the 1938 Champions Award, an annual $2,000 bursary for students who display unselfishness, service, dedication and teamwork.

The ranks of the 1938 team grow thinner each season. Dr. Robb died at age 90 on Sept. 25 and now only a handful of veterans remain. To them falls the duty of remembrance.