There is a tradition of likening football to war, and in a dramatic season opener, the 1942 University of Memphis football team combined the two.
That moment shaped the lives of freshmen Fred Medling and Robert Humphreys, who are the definition of BFFs: best friends forever.
The pair have been next-door neighbors for more than six decades. The 89-year-olds still mow their yards and tend to their crops. The self-described country guys are athletic. And athleticism was part of what brought them together, in 1942, when they met as freshman football players at then Memphis State College.
They arrived on campus early for a two-week practice before classes started. Those first weeks of practice were grueling.
“As far as I’m concerned the hardest two weeks I put in the rest of my life,” Humphreys said. “Two-a-day, a bunch of coaches behind you: ‘Step it up, speed it up. Come back here.”
With 56 players, the football team was the largest in the school’s history at the time. That is until Uncle Sam needed soldiers for World War II. The draft decimated the team.
At halftime of the season opener on Sept. 24, more than half of the remaining team -- 22 players -- stood on the field at E.H. Crump Stadium and en masse joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Fans cheered the patriotic swearing-in ceremony, which was organized by the coaches. Humphreys was among the new inductees.
“(The coaches) made a deal with the Marine Corps, and all of us freshman, we were enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve,” he said. “They had a program that we entered into. At the end of that time, if we passed the test, we would go into Officer’s Training School. So, we were all sworn in for the whole year.”
Humphreys said all of the freshmen joined. All except Medling.
“I knew I was going, period,” Medling said. “He did too. But I didn’t want to get in that Marine deal.”
Medling wanted to follow his brother into the Army, so he waited to be drafted.
The team finished the season with a 2-7 record. It was the last team until the war was over. Football resumed in 1947. Besides the continual loss of players, the team struggled with limited financial and equipment resources due to the wartime draft. Nearby Rhodes College had already abandoned its football program and other schools would soon follow.
Humphreys and Medling both finished the school year, but soon, duty called. Neither ended up in the military branch they intended. Humphreys left the reserves and joined the Merchant Marines. And Medling was spotted by a Navy recruiter who saw the makings of a sailor.
“He said, ‘Well, what is it about the Navy that you don’t like?’” Medling recalled. “And the only answer that I could give, which I think is the best answer I ever made in my life, ‘I don’t like the clothes you wear.’ He hit the stamp and said, ‘You in the Navy.’ So, that ended that.”
Medling was commissioned on the USS Devilfish. It was the only submarine known to have survived a kamikaze attack and was featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” according to Medling.
“Luckily, we got 42 feet under water before he hit us,” Medling said of the charging plane. “But the periscope, the radar and the sound gear, well, they all got hit, bent over and what they call, we was running naked the rest of the way. We didn’t have anything except the engines of the boat.”
While Medling saw action beneath the waves in the Pacific, Humphreys watched it on the surface in the Atlantic. He witnessed a two-man submarine ram a nearby Merchant Marine ship laden with ammunition.
“Right before we got to the White Cliffs of Dover, seven or eight ships had gone on through and this ammunition ship was behind us. And they rose up and hit that ammunition ship. When the smoke cleared up, there wasn’t nothing but an oil slick.”
Both men served until the war ended, and then returned to school. Humphreys attended the University of Tennessee, but declined a football offer to focus on his agriculture degree. Medling returned to Memphis State, where he again played football and earned a physical education degree. He soon moved to Collierville, where Humphreys was already living. In 1951, the pair reunited as neighbors for the first time since their playing days. It’s where they’ve been ever since.
Now, with children and grandchildren, both have fond memories of their sole football season together. One of their favorite war stories is actually a trouncing by the Baptist-affiliated Union University.
“He got the worst licking in all of football (by) one of them preacher boys,” Humphreys said of his former teammate Medling. “He was a center. He blocked him one time, and (a Union player) reached over and pushed (Medling’s) head back and slammed his head right against his helmet, tore his nose all to pieces.”
“Ah, that was the good old days,” said Medling.
Now, as the Memphis Tigers prepare to take the field, the last remaining members of the 1942 football team prepare to take their positions: rooting for the next generation.
Thanks to the Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries for the President Roosevelt clip from their Marvin Bensman Radio Archive.