One benefit of the Purdue ICONS series is that it has opened my eyes to some alums that deserve more recognition, but I have never heard of. Today's subject is a prime example. When it comes to being a badass, you can't go wrong with a battle hardened Marine. Combine that with being a nasty, bruising fullback that led the nation in rushing, and you have the rare Super-badass. That was Tony Butkovich.
It is also appropriate because Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the death of my beloved grandfather. He was a World War II veteran as well, and we bonded immediately because of his love of sports. He was a Purdue fan, a Cubs fan, and a big baseball fan in general. He took me to my first game at Wrigley Field in 1988, and we spent many an afternoon bonding over the Cubs on WGN with Harry Carey. In fact, it was during a Cubs game that he suffered the sudden heart attack that took his life. So yes, the Cubs killed my grandfather.
It was through him that I learned to respect an honor those who served this country, especially the dwindling number of World War II veterans that we still have. Butkovich never survived to be considered a veteran, but he is a badass that deserves to be honored no less.
Time At Purdue:
Not much is known about the early life of Butkovich. He attended the University of Illinois, much like Alex Agase, before transferring to Purdue for only one season. That season was the 1943 year, when Purdue was coming off of a sorry 1-8 season the year before. They had something in Butkovich as a fullback, however. The Boilermakers had scored only 27 points the year before, and the lone victory was a 7-6 win over Northwestern.
Butkovich was one of several new players to the program because of the University' V-12 program, which allowed for seven Naval trainees and 26 Marine trainees joined a roster that included just one returning letterwinner from the year before. The V-12 program was a military training program that also allowed these recruits to take college classes. An article by Ray Schmidt that I found helps to explain the program:
As the 1943 football season approached, Purdue's football team was apparently going to be vastly improved due to having the use of seven naval trainees and 26 marine trainees from the school's V-12 program. Certainly Purdue football fortunes could use the help as they had gone 1-8 in 1942. The early preseason forecasts for Purdue were a little mixed, due to not knowing just who was going to be on the 1943 squad, but the Chicago Tribune noted that "Purdue is suspected as one of the teams which may have profited by the installation of a military training program."
When Coach Elmer Burnham, starting his second year, greeted the candidates for his 1943 Purdue squad he found only one returning letterman from his previous year's team. But he couldn't have been concerned when he looked at the players the V-12 program had made available to him. From a good 1942 Illinois team there were eight marines now wearing Purdue colors, Genis, including outstanding linemen John Mike Kasap and Alex Agase, and powerhouse fullback Tony Butkovich. There were seven lettermen from Missouri's 1942 Big Six champions and if that wasn't enough, there was Sam Vacanti from Iowa to play quarterback and halfback Stan Dubicki from Shurtleff College. Despite the cornucopia of football talent, Burnham was extremely concerned as the season opener arrived, bringing with it the powerhouse defending national service champions of Great Lakes. The Sailors had all new personnel for 1943 but they were again loaded with former college and pro stars. To make matters worse, the game was to be played at Great Lakes' Ross Field before 22,000 roaring sailors.
As it turns out, there was no need to worry. The Boilers rolled 23-13 over a Great Lakes Navy team that went 10-2. Purdue went on to finish 9-0, outscoring their opposition 214-55. That was enough for Purdue's last outright Big Ten Championship and they nearly won the National Championship, but it was, instead, awarded to a 9-1 Notre Dame team that Purdue did not play. Butkovich led the nation in rushing with 833 yards. He also broke the Big Ten's season scoring record, as "Touchdown Tony" scored 78 points. He was named an All-American, and some argued that he was more deserving of that year's Heisman Trophy over Notre Dame's Angelo Bertelli, who only played in six games.
Butkovich did this despite playing in just seven game himself. From Gold and Black Illustrated:
In one of his most spectacular performances, Butkovich scored four touchdowns against the Fighting Illini and averaged a mind-boggling 17.2 yards per carry. When he was done at Purdue, he had snapped the 21-year old Big Ten scoring record of 78 points while rushing for a school record 833 yards in 142 attempts (119 per game, 5.9 per carry).
As part of the military training program, his service for the country was the next logical step.He was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by Cleveland, but his country came first. Butkovich deployed with the Marines shortly after the season. He was deployed to the Pacific where he was involved in the U.S. Island-hopping campaign as American forces advanced on Japan. In 1944 he was involved in a pickup game of former college stars between the 29th and 4th regiments played on Guadalcanal:
Bergman started in the 29th's backfield, with halfback Bud Seelinger, formerly of Wisconsin; fullback Tony Butkovich, the nation's leading rusher in 1943 at Purdue and the Cleveland Rams' No. 1 draft choice in 1944; and quarterback Frank Callen, from St. Mary's of California. Murphy was one end and player-coach Chuck Behan, formerly of the Detroit Lions, was the other.
It was supposed to be "touch" football.
The rugged Marines, of course, mostly ignored that restriction.
John McLaughry, a former Brown University star and ex-New York Giant in the 4th Regiment, served as a playing assistant coach. He wrote to his parents the day after the game, saying: "It was really a Lulu, and as rough hitting and hard playing as I've ever seen. As you may guess, our knees and elbows took an awful beating due to the rough field with coral stones here and there, even though the 29th did its best to clean them all up. My dungarees were torn to hell in no time, and by the game's end my knees and elbows were a bloody mess."
The game ended in a scoreless tie, so all bets -- and there were many of them, some involving astounding stakes -- were "pushes." (The brass didn't mind that.) Bergman and the Sixth Division continued training, then left Guadalcanal for Okinawa, about 400 miles south of Japan. Part of a multiservice command operating as a Tenth Army expeditionary force, the Marines went ashore on Easter, April 1, 1945. The landings were unopposed. The Japanese made their stands elsewhere.
All told, nine players involved in that game sacrificed their lives for their country before the war was over. Butkovich was killed in action on April 18, 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. 2,937 other Marines met their end on Okinawa as well over the course of a battle that lasted from April 1 until June 22, 1945. His death came just three days before my grandparents got married, as my grandfather, who was a mechanic on B-29's, was nearing the end of his service.
I minored in history at Purdue, and one of my final classes was a History of World War II lecture in Class of '50 lecture hall. It is one of my favorite classes because of the epic story that World War II was. I think I have that connection because of my grandfather, who lived on to tell the tale of people like Butkovich who did not. My grandfather was always a proud veteran. He felt it was his duty to continue honoring the sacrifice of those, like Butkovich, who did not come home. These were the true badasses of badasses, who fought without thinking of their own safety so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have today.