Soon the college bowl season will be in full swing with the pinnacle being the Discover BCS Championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. The game will be played January 7 on ESPN beginning at 8:30 PM eastern time. ESPN will no doubt present the storied histories of the two schools’ gridiron programs. Images of “Bear” Bryant and Knute Rockne will be intertwined with images of their modern counterparts, Nick Saban and Brian Kelly.
I’m sure that somewhere, John Wayne is smiling that toothy grin of his as the players of both teams prepare to take part in one of the most American displays of pride and competition still left to us.
John Wayne was a football fan but, more than that, he had been a football player. Like many young men before and since him, a young, college age Wayne had seen football as a means to lift himself to a higher rung on the ladder of success and make it possible for him to attend and graduate college. At the time, he was still Marion Morrison, although he had already acquired the more manly sounding nickname, “Duke”. Having played high school football as a lineman on the 1924 state champion Glendale (California) High School team, Duke was a prime candidate to make the team at the University Of Southern California (USC).
Beginning with the fall of 1925, Duke attended USC on a football scholarship. His plan was to use the opportunity to obtain a law degree and reach a level of success he had only dreamed of as a boy. Perhaps Marion “Duke” Morrison would have made a fine attorney but it’s hard to picture him in the role of Rance Stoddard in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” even for a moment. Fortunately for his fans, football played a role in making sure John Wayne became a performer on the big screen instead of in a court of law.
Two things happened to Wayne in the summer of 1926. First, he was among a select few of the USC football players who were hired as summer help at the nearby Fox Studios as a result of a an agreement between the team’s coach, Howard Jones, and western actor Tom Mix, which resulted in Mix acquiring a box seat for USC home games. This exposed Duke to the industry that would become his life in the years to come. The other event occurred when he injured his right shoulder during a bodysurfing accident just a week before football workouts were to begin. Duke’s shoulder injury resulted in him being unable to play at the level expected of him by the USC coaches. This caused him to lose his spot on the first team which in turn caused him to lose his scholarship.
After dropping out of college at the end of the spring semester of 1927, Duke desperately tried to find his place in the world. He eventually returned to the studios at Fox as a summer hire where he worked as a prop boy for two men who would later have huge impacts on his career as an actor, Raoul Walsh and John Ford. Duke tried to return to USC in the fall of 1927 but his heart and shoulder weren’t in it. He decided to return to Fox Studios where he would begin his climb from prop boy to movie star with the aid of Walsh (“The Big Trail”) and Ford (“Stagecoach”).
As most football players know, the game of yards and downs is a great teacher. Duke also found this to be true as he progressed in the sport. When asked later in his career if football helped prepare young men for life, Duke reportedly responded, “Do you know of a better way to learn to respect someone than to have him across the line from you? Do you think the color of your skin or the amount of your father’s property or your social position helps you there?” Not only did football teach Duke about life, it shaped his and played a tremendous part in his success. Yep, I bet he can’t wait for kick-off!