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The San Francisco story

9:57 PM  Dec 28th, 2014
by Audrey Starr

When asked to pinpoint the “high point of high points” in the 1939 Dayton sports season, veteran Dayton Daily News sports editor Si Burick didn’t pause.

“Without blinking an eye or hesitating a moment, it was the football game in far-away Frisco between Dayton and the Galloping Gaels of St. Mary’s College that stands out from all the rest,” Burick wrote in his Christmas Eve column that year. More than 500 students — including the UD pep band — crowded the Union train station to see the team off. A local news account called it “the noisiest half-hour that many of the people in the station had ever witnessed.”

The Flyers made the 3,000-mile journey to a game where, according to prognosticators, they stood little chance of scoring, let alone winning. California news articles classified the game as “St. Mary’s lone breather,” calling UD “a small school from the middle west that had grabbed up the game just for a chance to cash in on some national publicity if they happened to win — which they have no chance of doing.”

Burick, who accompanied the team out west, noted that some reverse psychology from coach Harry Baujan was in order — he strategically left such newspapers in players’ rooms, inspiring them to defy the odds. The squad held its own, leaving the field with a 6-6 tie.

“That was a football game for you,” Burick continued. “Our little band of Flyers, outweighed and outnumbered, holding those giants of the Pacific to a tie. The thought still prevails that this was the greatest exhibition of raw courage I have ever seen on a football field.”

Greg Lansdowne ’79 heard his father, Howard Lansdowne ’41, talk about the game often. “It was a big deal for them to travel so far for a game, and clearly they were expected to get beaten badly,” Lansdowne said. “The Flyers were  all grit and determination in a time when players played both offense and defense for, as my father used to say, ’60 minutes of hell.'” The team felt so strongly about the game that they reunited 50 years later to celebrate its anniversary.

Shirley Wurstner Padley ’40, wife of the quarterback who led the ’39 team — the late Jack Padley ’40 — remembers the trip well.

“On the way out to San Francisco, when the train would stop, the fellows would get off and exercise a bit. Then, when they got back on and the train started moving, one of the guys would tell Coach Baujan that they couldn’t find Jack — he must still be back on the platform. Poor Harry — I’m sure that’s all he needed! He was a wonderful father figure to those boys,” Padley said.

The trip turned out to be memorable for more than pigskin. On the way home, the team enjoyed a 12-hour stopover in Los Angeles, where film star Tyrone Power — a Cincinnati native who for one year attended St. Mary’s Institute for Boys, UD’s preparatory school — welcomed them at a private party on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Hollywood. The entourage enjoyed a tour of the studio, a film screening and a meal.

“Having lunch in a room with big movie stars — that was a big deal,” Padley recalled. “I have a picture of Jack giving a football to Power, and it’s something they all talked about for years afterward.” The studio’s press agent later wrote, “From time to time, other football teams have come to Twentieth Century Fox, but never has a better-looking, pleasanter bunch of boys passed our gates. They were first-class ambassadors from your city, and there are rumors from up San Francisco way that they also play football.”

Joan Westendorf Will ’77, whose father, Gene Westendorf ’41, handed down a picture of the team autographed by Power himself, recalls that the film icon wasn’t the trip’s only star. “My dad loved getting to visit Joe DiMaggio’s restaurant, where he even met him,” she said. As a student-athlete on scholarship, Westendorf, a fullback, was required to play all three varsity sports — football, basketball and baseball — eventually serving as quarterback.

As Burick summed up the experience: “If there is really such an item as a moral victory, Dayton’s team earned it in playing the Gaels.”

Read more about Tyrone Power’s UD connection on UDQuickly.

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