Greatest generation of stars roamed 1950s fields|[09/17/2006]
Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006
Editor’s note: This is the third in a six-part series chronicling the history of high school football in Warren County.
The sacrifice and national unity of World War II gave the United States both unspeakable tragedy and some of its finest hours.
Thousands of young men gave their lives and scores more risked it to preserve freedom. After the war, those same young men went on to put a man on the moon, transform the country from a sleeping giant into a world power and provide hundreds of inventions and innovations that earned them the nickname “the greatest generation.”
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Like so many other eras, the football teams of Warren County in the 1940s and 50s mirrored what was happening in the world around them. During the early 40s, many players and former players rushed off to war. Some never returned.
Former Carr Central back Billy Sam, a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, was killed in action on Saipan in 1944. St. Aloysius coach Joe Balzli joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and did survive the war. He returned to Vicksburg in 1946 and coached the Flashes for another 14 years.
A few years after Balzli’s return, one of his players left for Korea and wasn’t as fortunate. Tony Virgadamo, a captain on the 1947 squad, was killed in action there. Today, an annual leadership award at the school is given to a football player to honor his memory.
There was also tragedy closer to home. Leo Puckett, a running back at Jett, was paralyzed from an injury suffered in a game in 1953. For the next few years, the Leo Puckett Benefit Game – a forerunner to the Red Carpet Bowl – was played, with the proceeds helping to pay for Puckett’s medical care.
While some were paying the ultimate price on farflung battlefields to earn their generation’s moniker, the greatest generation of Warren County football players was about to suit up closer to home.
Between 1955 and 1958, Culkin Academy, Carr Central and St. Aloysius combined to win 94 games. The three teams, the dominant forces in the county at the time, lost only 18 games in the same span – 12 of them by Carr, which went 19-2 in 1955-56 and won a Big 8 championship in 1955.
Although the Blues, Greenies and Flashes were having the most team success, Redwood and Jett weren’t without their stars. Redwood’s Johnny Brewer went on to star at Ole Miss and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Billy Shaw starred at Jett for three seasons before transferring to Carr in 1956, and later became the first Warren County native to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In all, three Warren Countians who played between 1952 and 1957 – Brewer, Shaw and Glynn Griffing – have been inducted to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. George Morris, who wrapped up his high school career in 1948, is also in. A few others, like Richard Price, George Evans, Morris and Shaw, have been elected to college or pro halls of fame.
There were also a number of other “forgotten” stars who put up eye-popping numbers: