Sooners won’t mention George Cafego – but I will

Marvin Westwestwords

Oklahoma’s official entry into the Southeastern Conference got the Hardee’s coffee club away from politics and the weather for a few minutes the other morning.

Nothing too deep, mind you, just a question about the early betting line for the September 21 Tennessee game at Norman and what exactly do the Sooners bring to the big league.

First things first: Volunteers are five-point underdogs.

Oklahoma has history. The university was playing football before Oklahoma was a state. The Sooners hold the NCAA record for most consecutive wins, 47. Oklahoma ranks sixth all-time with 944 victories. Bud Wilkinson had a coaching record of 145-29-4. Barry Switzer went 157-29-4 but his tenure was scarred by scandals – worse than Jeremy Pruitt even considered.

The Sooners have a lot of tales to tell – quarterback and coach Josh Heupel, seven winners of Heisman trophies, 57 bowl games. They may brag about the one where Karl Kremser missed a field goal by three or four inches but they won’t tell you much about the 1939 Orange Bowl.

I will.

Undefeated No. 2 Tennessee was matched against undefeated No. 4 Oklahoma for the game of the year, attendance record of 32,191.

It was quite a fight, maybe some dirty stuff, 25 penalties, unnecessary roughness, a couple of broken bones, ejections and alleged slugging, scratching and biting under pileups.

Out in the open, Oklahoma tackle Gilford Duggan took a swing at UT guard Ed Molinski. That was a mistake. Molinski was heavyweight boxing champion of Ohio before he was a Vol.
Tennessee also won the football part, 17-0.

Knoxville Journal columnist Tom Anderson conducted a press box survey. The toughest bowl game in history was judged a mismatch. Oklahoma was voted primary instigator but the Vols got more yellow flags.

Tennessee end Bowden Wyatt said the Sooners were defeated on the first play from scrimmage. George Cafego was the winning edge. Details to follow. Quotes are from my book, “Legends of the Tennessee Vols.”

Cafego is one of the all-time great Tennessee football stories. He rose from nothing, nothing I tell you, to Southeastern Conference player of the year, all-American tailback and College Football Hall of Fame. He was the first pick in the 1940 NFL draft.

He became a football lifer – an assistant coach for Bowden Wyatt at Wyoming and Arkansas before a 30-year career at Tennessee.

George said everything that happened to him could be traced back to coach Robert R. Neyland finding Scarbro, West Virginia, the miracle that made all else possible.

Scarbro was not exactly hidden. It is where it has always been, off to the side of Okey Patterson Road, not too far from Oak Hill, a longer way from Lick Fork.

“When you come from where I did, when you’re looking at living and dying in the coal mines, the best thing that ever happened to me was when the General said ‘I’ll take care of you.’

“He didn’t use the word scholarship but that was what he meant.

“I didn’t really know who General Neyland was or where the University of Tennessee was. It could have been anywhere, even the West Coast. I didn’t know much. I had barely been out of Fayette County.

“I had nothing. My parents were dead. I had been living with a sister, with coaches, in a boarding house with miners, wherever I could find a corner to sleep. I just bounced around, living here and there. My married sister took me in but times got so rough, she couldn’t afford to feed and clothe me.”

George picked up and sold little lumps of coal from the scrap heap for what spending money he had.

George was an end in junior high football. He lived at the coach’s house. He played in the first basketball game he ever saw, lined up where he was told to line up and ran in the direction others ran.

He was running scared when he moved up to the football varsity. He wasn’t afraid of linebackers but the fear of failure was awful.

“The part I remember best is we won. I remember the wonderful feeling of winning.”

Cafego’s move from Scarbro to Knoxville is another story.

“My buddies had a going-away party for me. I was waiting for the bus. Somebody suggested they put a tag on me, like you do on baggage, saying ‘Unload in Knoxville.’

“I didn’t think that was very funny. I told ’em I knew where to get off.”

Cafego and his borrowed cardboard suitcase tied up with string arrived as scheduled. He didn’t know what to do or where to go.

“I was so scared, I would have turned around and headed back for the hills if I could have afforded the return trip.”

George’s life savings, gifts and grants added up to $6. He spent 50 cents on a taxi ride, from the bus station to the university. The driver took him to Ayres Hall. He asked around and found his way to the athletics department.

Neyland had directed proper arrangements. George was to eat at Mrs. L.C. Brann’s boarding house. He was hungry. He weighed 153.

He had a room at old Humes Hall. Nobody told him to bring sheets and a blanket. If they had, he still wouldn’t have had sheets or blanket. There weren’t any spares in Scarbro.

Cafego became a great tailback. His nickname was Bad News. He was that for opponents. He gained 114 of Tennessee’s 205 rushing yards against Oklahoma. He completed a few passes. He punted. What he did best was that first play. His assignment was to block Sooner star Waddy Young, all-American end.

“I was supposed to stick him and I did. I knocked him for a somersault. I tried to kill him but he lived. They helped him off the field.”

Wyatt said that hit took a terrible toll from the Sooners.

“They lost their poise.”

It is OK if Oklahoma’s recollections of that Orange Bowl are a little bit different. Welcome, partners, to the SEC.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *