In honor of college football on this beautiful Saturday, pictured here is Clint Castleberry (born October 10th, 1923), who in 1942 electrified college football fans across the country playing for Georgia Tech, eventually finishing third in voting for the coveted Heisman Trophy.
He attended Boys High School in Atlanta, founded in 1924 and currently known as Henry W. Grady High School. Other notable alumni include baseball player Nolan Richardson, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter Yolanda King, actor Eric Roberts and Charles Alvin Beckwith, the founder of Delta Force. He excelled on the football field and set many records while at Boys High. Castleberry’s claim to fame came at Georgia Tech, where he made a distinct mark on the national college football scene and Atlanta history.
Freshman could not start varsity college football in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When Clint Castleberry was a freshman in 1942 this rule was suspended due to the shortage of players drained by World War II. Castleberry thrived not only as Georgia Tech’s “pony” back on offense, but also on special teams and as a defensive back, using his quickness and speed to create the electrifying highlights cherished by fans and sports media. He made fast open-field plays on kick returns and grabbed interceptions for touchdowns, in addition to his signature jackrabbit-like plays out of the backfield. Many considered him the most dangerous runner in America in 1942.
Castleberry was small for college football at 5’9″ and 155 pounds, even by the standards of the 1940’s. This would take a toll on his body, with injuries adding up throughout the 1942 season, each one slowing him down bit by bit.
The story of the 1942 Georgia Tech season is special. Since 1920 the head coach of Georgia Tech football was William Alexander. While he had early success winning a National Title in 1928, Coach Alexander had since struggled, unable to put together a winning season since 1930. He was a coach under fire, barely holding on to his job. Along came Clint Castleberry, the famous Atlanta high school player overlooked by major football programs because of his diminutive size. He would make many of them pay for passing him up.
Castleberry lead Tech to a 9-0 start to the season, which was only 11 games. They defeated the likes of Notre Dame (undefeated for two years), Navy (a game broadcasted worldwide), Florida and other powerhouses that had passed on making a scholarship offer to Castleberry. The Georgia Tech players and coach were the darlings of sport writers across the country due to their out-of-left-field story. But injuries were a problem for the whole team the entire season, and Castleberry hurt his hand during the ninth victory against Florida. Georgia Tech would lose the next two games, the final game a blowout against eventual National Champions Georgia (they share this 1942 title with Wisconsin and Ohio State).
Many sports fans considered Georgia versus Georgia Tech the most important college football game of 1942. While Georgia Tech offered the electric Castleberry, Georgia boasted 1942 Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich. Castleberry would finish third in voting behind Sinkwich and Columbia’s Paul Governali. And Sinkwich along with the Bulldogs sunk Castleberry’s Yellow Jackets 34-0. It was a hard loss to Tech’s main rival.
Even though Georgia Tech lost in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day to Texas, Coach William Alexander remained in that position until he retired in 1944, and was the athletic director of Georgia Tech until his death in 1950. Castleberry and the impossible season extended Alexander’s career.
Castleberry had knee surgery during the off season. After he recovered, Castleberry joined the Army Air Forces. He planned on resuming his studies and football career after the war. Lt. Clinton Dillard Castleberry, Jr. was eventually stationed in North Africa, where he piloted a Martin B-26 Marauder, known as “widow makers” during the first phase of the war.
On November 7th, 1944 Castleberry took off from Roberts Field in Liberia in his Marauder named “Dream Girl” along with another bomber. They were to simply fly up the coast towards Dakar, Senegal. Both planes and their crews disappeared into the North African night, never to be heard from again.
Crews searched for the planes for six days. All members of both crews were classified Killed, No Body on November 23rd, 1944. Clint Castleberry left behind a pregnant wife. He is the only Georgia Tech football player to have their number retired (19). His brother Jimmy Castleberry also played for Georgia Tech.