Everyone in Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium that day knew
his role. The wives walked in together, chattering like a flock
of birds. The 27,102 fans shoved through the turnstiles, ready
to shout and clap, to watch and feel. The press box filled with
reporters, prepared to scribble their notes. On the field the
players tried to keep warm. Some were stars, some weren't. It
was the final pro football game of the season for the Washington
Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. It was quite cold. People
stamped their feet. They could see their breath.
No one was thinking yet about Pearl Harbor. Kickoff was at 2
p.m.--9 a.m. in Hawaii. Bombs had already fallen on the U.S.
fleet, men had died, war had come. In the stands, no one knew:
The game was still everything. Philadelphia had taken a 7-0 lead
on its first drive. Announcements began to pour out of the P.A.
system. Admiral Bland is asked to report to his office....
Captain H.X. Fenn is asked to report.... The resident
commissioner of the Philippines is urged to report.... "We
didn't know what the hell was going on," says Sammy Baugh, the
Redskins' quarterback that day. "I had never heard that many
announcements one right after another. We felt something was up,
but we just kept playing."
Only the boys in the press box had any idea. Just before kickoff
an Associated Press reporter named Pat O'Brien got a message
ordering him to keep his story short. When O'Brien complained,
another message flashed: The Japanese have kicked off. War now!
But Redskins president George Marshall wouldn't allow an
announcement of Japan's attack during the game, explaining that
it would distract the fans. That made Griffith Stadium one of
the last outposts of an era that had already slipped away.
The crowd oohed and cheered. When the game--and season--ended
with Washington a 20-14 winner, a few hundred fans rushed the
goalposts. No one took much notice of Eagles rookie halfback
Nick Basca. He hadn't played much all year, making his mark
mostly as a kicker and punter, and on this day he'd converted
just two extra points. Baugh, with three touchdown passes, was
the game's hero.
Then everyone walked out of the stadium: the wives, the future
Hall of Famer, the crowd. Outside, newsboys hawked the news. The
world tilted; football lost all importance; roles shifted. Women
began fearing for their men. Reporters and fans would be
soldiers soon. The world would not be divided into players and
spectators again for a very long time. "Everybody could feel
it," Baugh says.
Baugh went home to Texas and waited for a call from his draft
board that never came; he was granted a deferment to stay on his
ranch and raise beef cattle. During the war he flew in on the
weekends for games.
Nick Basca, meanwhile, had played his final game. A native of
tiny Phoenixville, Pa., and a standout at Villanova, Basca
enlisted in the Army three days after Pearl Harbor with his
younger brother Stephen, who left Europe with three Purple
Hearts. Nick was piloting a tank in Gen. George Patton's
celebrated Fourth Armored Division in France, when, on Nov. 11,
1944, the tank hit a mine and was blown apart.
In later years no one talked much about Nick's short pro
football career. Then, in 1991, 50 years after events had
rendered it meaningless, that game between Philadelphia and
Washington became everything again. Stephen Basca Jr. says, "My
father was lying 60 miles away in a hospital bed when Nick was
killed. They recorded on his chart that he had gotten up
screaming about the time Nick's tank blew up. [In 1991] my
father and I were sitting watching TV, and they showed a clip of
that old game. My dad froze in his chair. It was the first time
I'd ever seen him cry."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY BERNIE FUCHS While football was being waged in Washington, the bombs of true battle had fallen in Hawaii.