The United States Air Force pinpointed a target with its customary efficiency at Boulder, Colo. last Saturday and did it before 40,000 people. The immediate tactical target was the University of Colorado and the long-range strategic objective was an undefeated season for the Air Force Academy football team and a bowl bid; the Falcons, a small, young, immensely optimistic football team, were on target all the way. They beat a better University of Colorado team 20-14, achieved their first undefeated season in history and accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl. Thus a wild blue dream that has been dreamed since 1955, when the Falcons played their first game in the freshman league, came approximately true on schedule. They did not—as the dream would have had it—beat Army by 1958 (they will not meet Army until 1959). But they did beat some mighty good teams, and they achieved a magnificent tie, early on, with Iowa. That's good enough.
Two things strike you about this Falcon football team. First, in the dressing room, is its size. The beardless boys who play for the Air Force Academy look like a high school team before they don the armor of the sport. Second, on the field, is the élan and cheerful courage that marks their play. Last Saturday, a very good Colorado team, which was bigger and stronger and as fast as the Air Force, did all the things that you would expect a team to do with so marked a physical advantage. The Colorado team piled through the small Falcon line with considerable ease. (In explaining the Colorado strategy, an assistant coach said, "From our scouting reports, we figured we could go just about anywhere we wanted to.") The Colorado defense harried Rich Mayo, sophomore quarterback of the Falcons, so relentlessly that he had the worst afternoon of his brief career. Colorado gained 420 yards to the Falcons' 160 and had 26 first downs to five.
But the Falcons won, and the victory could be marked up to the indefatigable optimism of the Air Force youngsters, who never considered themselves outmanned for a minute, combined with an amazing ability to shoot down loose footballs. The enthusiastic tackling of the young Falcons, who usually arrived on target in squadrons of three, brought about 10 Colorado fumbles, and the Falcons recovered seven of them. A Colorado linebacker overshifted on one play, and Mike Quinlan, a Falcon halfback, zoomed through the small opening and ran 60 yards to a touchdown. This was in the third quarter and the touchdown left the Falcons still behind 14-12, but a little while later the fierce Falcon tackling popped the ball out of the arms of a Colorado back and Falcon Halfback Mike Rawlins picked it off in full flight and ran 20 yards for the touchdown which put the Falcons ahead to stay.
Lucky? Certainly; this is a lucky football team, and it has been all year. It needed luck to beat Colorado. Coach Dallas Ward, who has been unjustly under fire from the lunatic fringe of the Colorado alumni, had prepared his team magnificently. Colorado has a weakness at center, but it was covered so well that it was never apparent. The Colorado offense exploited its edge in brute strength very well, and the Colorado defense was never fooled—except for the one long run by Quinlan. But Colorado had no luck and the Air Force did.
Not that the team representing the Air Academy isn't a good one. Its strength, maybe, is best pointed up by something one of the Falcon halfbacks said after the game. Someone had asked him if he ever thought that Colorado would win. He thought seriously for a moment, the young face intent, then he said, very politely but very firmly, "No, sir. They came out in the first half mean and bushy-tailed and strong, but I figured we would slow them down in the second half. You see, sir, we met strength with strength. It never occurred to me that we would lose."
This abiding faith animates not only the football team, but the entire cadet corps. Very natty in blue overcoats, the fledgling aviators stood throughout the game and cheered thunderously, and they swept onto the field in a howling mob when the game ended and carried the team into the dressing rooms. They sang "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder..." when the Falcons moved on the field; the night before the game, they cheered the team into buses bound for Denver and a relatively peaceful hotel. This is a young school and a young cadet corps and it's a young team, too, and the corps and the team are imbued with the boundless enthusiasm and courage of youth.
This youthful enthusiasm is a part of the coaching staff, too. Ben Martin, the Falcon head coach, is a fairly recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and he looked a bit bewildered in the Falcon dressing room after the game. "It's been like this all year," he said. "These kids keep doing impossible things. I never saw a school like this or a bunch of kids like these." He looked around at the players, some of whom were acting out scenes of happiness for photographers to show their excitement about the Cotton Bowl bid. He took off his hat, a neat brown hat with a gaudy feather in the band, and ran his hand through his black, curly hair. "It doesn't seem real," he said, dazedly. "But it is."
HERE is the blueprint (SI, Oct. 17, 1955) the academy drew up for its strategic war on the football world. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's James Murray missed on only one point: Army was not a victim of the Falcons, can't be until 1959, when first game is scheduled.
ROCKIES IN THE WILD BLUE YONDER, THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY CADETS ENTER MILE-HIGH FOLSOM FIELD TO SEE THEIR FOOTBALL TEAM COMPLETE AN OUTLANDISH DREAM