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  • FOOTBALL

    Signature Moment

    Autographed football is rare find for local man
  • When he pulled the very old, very heavy, very graffiti-ed football — it was rife with signatures — from the top of a junk pile years ago, JC Hildebrand couldn't help but romanticize about the life it led.
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  • When he pulled the very old, very heavy, very graffiti-ed football — it was rife with signatures — from the top of a junk pile years ago, JC Hildebrand couldn't help but romanticize about the life it led.
    On it was a score: Navy 30, Army 0.
    Also, and as legible and distinctive as any autograph, was a name of prominence: Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States.
    Other names surrounded his, no doubt players on the winning team from this game of yore. Colorful they were, with nicknames such as "Pop" and "Tex." Such pride must have coursed through the inscriber as he etched the game's outcome. Surely it was accompanied by the bravado that comes with one rival's conquest of another.
    Hildebrand pictured the lads vying for superiority in front of their commander in chief, mud-caked faces and limbs tattooed with welts and bruises, both black and blue, the dull but unmistakable colors of an autumn battle.
    "It's got to have a story behind it," said Hildebrand, who has lived in the Rogue Valley for a dozen years since arriving to attend Southern Oregon University.
    Indeed.
    At this point, it was a story of mystery, of unknowns dog-piled on one another. What was significant about the ball? Was it actually used in a game? If so, when and where? What's its value?
    And how did something once held, nay, caressed, by the president of the United States, the same hands and fingers that penned documents to govern a nation and influence the world, wind up nearly 70 years later in a rubbish pile in rural Oregon, only to be rescued from extinction by a teenage boy?
    One by one, the answers would come.
    Hildebrand was raised in Days Creek, which has fewer than 300 residents but sees its share of traffic as a Douglas County byway to the coast. He was a big-armed quarterback on the high school's eight-man football team, throwing for five touchdowns in a game, and also played baseball. Away from the athletic fields, he involved himself in Future Farmers of America.
    One spring day, not long after he bought a pickup truck, Hildebrand tooled around looking for odd jobs to pay for gas. He had canvassed the same neighborhoods while searching for FFA auction items, so when he happened upon the home of Mike Cross, it wasn't the first time.
    "I asked him if he had anything he could use some help with," said Hildebrand, "like mowing lawns or whatever to pick up a couple bucks. He said, 'Yeah, I've got a bunch of crap that needs to go to the dump.'"
    A perfect task, Hildebrand thought, for him and his pickup. He returned the next day to find a pile in the driveway.
    On top of it sat the football, waiting for one last, inglorious run. A run to the dump.
    Hildebrand picked it up and asked Cross if he was sure he wanted to get rid of the relic.
    "He said, yeah, he didn't want it," said Hildebrand.
    The boy asked if he could keep it, and that was fine with Cross.
    It wasn't until Hildebrand got home that he looked closely at the ball. He immediately noticed Hoover's signature and, also immediately, believed he'd stumbled upon a treasure.
    "I was thinking the whole time, this is my ticket to college,'" said Hildebrand. "It'll be worth a fortune. I'll sell it and pay my way through college.
    "Obviously, I never did, and it took me until now to really even start researching it."
    Hildebrand had gone on to SOU, graduating in 2005 with a degree in journalism. He's worked eight years in the motorcycle industry, first as an online magazine editor, and more recently as video communications coordinator for a local retailer.
    It was the job change — packing his belongings to move into a different office — that prompted him to revisit the old, retired football living out its days on a shelf at his work digs.
    "Even though I see it every single day, it's one of those things you just don't even pay attention to," he said.
    Hildebrand had made a token effort to trace the ball's lineage years before. The obvious start was finding out when the annual Army-Navy game culminated in a 30-0 victory for the Midshipmen. Surely, that would provide clarity.
    But no such outcome existed.
    "That's as far as I took it," he said. "Up until now, I hadn't even bothered to send an email or make a call."
    In January, he reached out to the Naval Academy via a series of emails but got no closer to solving the mystery.
    Next, he contacted the Mail Tribune, where he'd interned while in college.
    He was curious to know some answers and handed over the intriguing project.
    What he didn't know then was that Mike Cross' account of how he got the football was inaccurate. Cross, Hildebrand said, had told him he got it from a Navy buddy of high rank. In fact, Cross' connection to the ball was quite tenuous, which explains his lack of sentiment for it.
    Scott Strasemeier is the associate athletic director for sports information at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The dozen or so emails Hildebrand shotgunned out found their way to his inbox.
    No, Strasemeier reiterated, in all the games between the service academies dating to 1890, none ended with the Middies winning, 30-0. Not for varsity games, nor for freshman or "sprint" games, where there's a weight limit for players, he said.
    Further, presidents don't routinely attend the game.
    "Maybe six or seven times," Strasemeier guessed. "It doesn't happen as much as people might think."
    Strasemeier surmised the football was used in a game between units, perhaps on a base overseas, maybe on American soil. It could have been flag football, it could have been tackle.
    "And the president just happened to be there," he said.
    Regarding players' names on the football, none that could be discerned were listed in Navy's archives as letterwinners. An internet search found that a "Pop" Jones wrote an article that appeared in the Sept. 1, 1941, edition of "Our Navy" magazine. Another name, Robert Zecher — there's a "Bob" Zecher on the ball — had a 2005 obituary in upstate New York, the lone links an early 20th Century birth date and a Navy background.
    Neither find was of substance, so the search continued.
    George H. Nash is a noted historian and Hoover biographer. He worked for 20 years at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Hoover's birthplace, West Branch, Iowa, and now lives in Massachusetts, lecturing and consulting often.
    He's a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, and it was through that affiliation, and with the help of Annette Kirk, president of the Kirk Center, that Nash was approached.
    Nash was sent photos of the football and, in a phone conversation, readily agreed the handwriting looked very much like Hoover's.
    He noted that Hoover attended the 1937 Army-Yale game as ex-president, and the president's calendar shows on Oct. 10, 1932, he "met with football stars," said Nash, "but there's no indication of who they were."
    Nash referred as a source Matthew Schaefer of the Hoover Library. Once reached, Schaefer turned the inquiry over to archives technician Spencer Howard.
    It was a handoff that led to pay dirt.
    Howard was eager to help unravel the mystery of the history of the football.
    Yes, he said in an email, "Mr. Hoover was certainly a football fan and attended numerous games over the years, including, on several occasions, the annual game between the academies."
    Acknowledging there was no Army-Navy game score that matched the one on the football, Howard told of another series of games between the services.
    For a number of years, a contest was played in California between West Coast Army and Navy teams on Nov. 11 — Armistice Day.
    How many years the games were played is unclear. There is evidence of them from 1925-32 in California, and of a couple in Tacoma, Wash., in 1935 and '36.
    One thing is certain, however: President Hoover signed footballs that were put in play in the 1929, '30 and '32 games at the University of California's Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.
    Wrote Howard: "President Hoover's correspondence files reveal that he autographed footballs" prior to those games. He did so at the behest of a California U.S. Representative.
    Hoover was out of Washington in 1931 and not available to sign the ball, so Vice President Charles Curtis did the honors.
    Howard did not have West Coast newspaper accounts of the games. He reasoned they were not "sufficiently notable" to be reported in Washington or New York.
    But he had a hunch.
    "I suspect that you have found one of these autographed balls," he wrote.
    Sweet, those words.
    With luck, newspapers out west deemed the games worthy of coverage.
    An online search of sports memorabilia turned up a program from the 1929 game. The final score, a 6-0 Army win, was penciled in.
    That left only two other options.
    Armed with a specific date, Nov. 12, when game stories would be printed, the San Francisco Public Library was beseeched for help. Staff members searched archives of the San Francisco Chronicle, unearthed pages from 1930 and '32 and forwarded accounts of the Armistice Day games.
    The first revealed another 6-0 Army victory, dispiriting only because it didn't solve the case. The story, however, indicated it was quite an event. Some 75,000 fans packed the stadium for the Tuesday game, and afterward, the Army mule trotted off the field wearing the blanket of the Navy goat.
    To the victor, the spoils.
    The second attachment was far more rewarding.
    The headline at the top of the "Sporting Green," as the Chronicle called its sports section, hollered: "Navy Football Team Smothers West Coast Army at U. C. Stadium, 30-0."
    A subhead read: "Tars Outclass Jarheads in Every Department of Game."
    Eureka! Or whatever else one yells upon finding treasure at the end of a hunt.
    On that day in 1932, the crowd numbered 70,000. Spectators stood for a minute of silence before kickoff, memorializing, as the game program read, the hundreds of thousands of brothers "who gave their lives to duty in the Great War."
    Then the ball was teed up, booted downfield and, presumably, caught and returned. What the fans couldn't see was the writing on the ball. That distinctive style that biographer Nash recognized at once, something in the two "H's," something in the last "r." When players were untangled after the kickoff, the ball was taken out of play until game's end, when it would become the victor's trophy.
    Less than a month earlier, a letter, headed with, "Congress of the United States, House of Representatives," arrived in Washington, D.C. It was from Californian Albert E. Carter, and it requested Herbert Hoover's signature on a football. The ball itself would come "under separate cover," it read, and would be used in the West Coast Army-Navy game.
    The letter was dated Oct. 13, 1932 and was addressed to Lawrence Richey, secretary to the president.
    In the days before the game, Carter wrote, it is "put on display in one of the downtown stores and attracts a great deal of attention."
    Carter went on to describe "a most colorful and interesting Military and Naval Pageant" in conjunction with the game. It is, he told Richey, "one of the most patriotic pageants I have ever witnessed."
    One can imagine Hoover receiving the ball in the Oval Office. He was a fan of sport, having served as the team manager in football and baseball at Stanford — where, it's said, he was the Palo Alto, Calif., school's first student upon its opening in 1891. He was the team manager for the inaugural Big Game against Cal.
    It's reasonable to think he did what guys do when they get a football. Hold it for a moment, feel its heft. Squeeze their fingers along the laces, drop back a couple steps, cock the arm and throw a make-believe pass. Or, perhaps, and equally likely, tuck it under an arm, fake out one imaginary tackler, stiff arm another.
    He might have fancied himself the Heisman Trophy favorite of the day but, alas, that could not have been. The award for college football's best player wouldn't be created for another three years.
    When Hoover did settle in to autograph the ball, there was no other writing on it, save for company markings and a warning to never fill it using a service station air hose. Hand and foot pumps were preferred.
    Hoover took pen in hand, chose one of the ball's four panels and scripted his name in distinctive style. The customary curl where the "H" crosses, the flourishing finish of the last "r," reversing course and diagonally underlining the signature.
    It was then shipped back to California.
    There was no mistaking the importance of the game to both service branches. A story in the Oakland Tribune, accompanied by a photo of game organizers jointly holding the football before it was sent to the president, allowed a bit of brash talk from officers on each side.
    Carter, one of those pictured, took a neutral side.
    "It'll be some game to watch, that's certain," he said.
    It was a battle, but it was not close. Navy scored a touchdown each in the first and second quarters, then three in the fourth. None of the point-after dropkicks were successful.
    Among those names on the ball were Abraham, Guntert and Lossetch — they scored Navy's first four touchdowns. Neither the game program, a copy of which was obtained from the John Gunn Sports Collection at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, nor the newspaper story used first names, but more identification is revealed on the ball.
    Like "D.J." Lossetch, who gained 33 yards on a fake punt from his goal line in the first quarter, and, it appears, "Jack" Guntert, a fullback who scored twice.
    Player coaches Whelchel and Jack Hoepner are represented on the ball, as are "Tex" Denton, who got some carries, and O'Neill, who was among the players pictured in the program.
    Two dozen players can be identified on the ball and matched with their name, number, position and weight in the program. Navy's heaviest player? Lewis, a 213-pound end.
    The newspaper story said Navy wanted to exact revenge for a 40-0 walloping it took four years earlier, but winning by only 30 didn't do it. It showed how coveted victory was and why, in the aftermath, as players signed the football, pride should have coursed through them, bravado should have been expressed.
    One player on the ball who didn't make it into the game story was Bob Bailey, No. 10 and the starting left end.
    He's noteworthy because there is a Bailey that appears in previous game programs, suggesting he was a veteran of the contest. Mingled with the signatures, under R.E. Turner's name and above H. Compton's is "Thanks Bob." Whether that refers to Bailey, and why it would, is unknown.
    But Bailey bears distinction for another reason.
    He is the one who ended up with the football.
    Sharon Shearer remembers seeing the football in a closet in her uncle Mike Scott's house. She saw it often but doesn't remember anyone talking about it.
    "It was not displayed, but I do remember a whole bunch of names on it," said Shearer, who runs a tavern in downtown Roseburg and whose mother was Mike's sister. "I don't know what the names were."
    Shearer is certain, however, the football didn't originally belong to Scott. He had little to do with sports, and he wasn't in the service. He was a road-builder by trade and a cowboy at heart. He owned ranches and allowed his many horses to roam.
    Scott was married to his wife, Billie, for 64 years before she passed in 2000 at age 97.
    It was Billie who had ties to the football.
    Her first husband was Robert Bailey Jr., or Bob. Left end. No. 10.
    Shearer doesn't know much about her aunt's first husband, only that he was a football star, served in the Navy and lived in Hawaii. Her assumption is that he died while married to Billie. Shearer has some of her aunt's belongings, including an old, wool American flag with 48 stars and folded into a triangle. She also has some of his football medals and a bible that contains personal notations.
    There's no telling how, when the '32 Armistice Day game finished, Bob Bailey got the ball. Was it presented to him? Was he the last one out of the locker room, stuffing it in his duffel bag? Did he win it in a poker game aboard a ship? Who knows.
    After Billie's death, Sharon helped her uncle sort her belongings. Some were put in a stack to be saved, others in a pile to be discarded. The following year, 2001, and after employing a local boy to cart a load of junk to the dump, Mike moved to Roseburg and stayed in Shearer's guest house.
    Mike remarried in 2007 and died last October at age 98.
    The ball's worth is hard to pinpoint, given there are only three with Hoover's signature.
    His predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, was asked to sign the game ball from 1925 on, according to a newspaper article. However, there is no record of Hoover's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, autographing Armistice Day balls, said William Baehr, archives technician for the FDR Presidential Library.
    Leila Dunbar, a contributing appraiser on PBS's Antique Roadshows who specializes in sports memorabilia, cited the ball's "great provenance" — or evidence of its history — and estimated the auction value at $400 to $600.
    Howard, the Hoover Library archivist, speculated that the ball could have "significant market value" because it is so unusual. Its true value, he suggested, might only be determined through an actual auction.
    When Hildebrand learned of the journey his ball had been on, he was surprised, to the say the least.
    "Wow, that's way more information than I was expecting," he wrote in an email.
    He agreed that it makes sense that Mike Scott wasn't interested in keeping the ball if it belonged to his wife's first husband. Hildebrand also said he doesn't remember having met Billie Scott.
    Hildebrand was heartened to the know the ball was used in a game of some importance, that it "wasn't just some JV squad match or something," he said.
    He doesn't expect the new information to change much, other than how he handles the ball.
    "I'll take better care of it," he said. "I don't really plan on selling it. I've thought about putting it in a glass case with a little better protection. I just kind of like it. It sits on top of my desk and occasionally becomes a conversation piece.
    "If it was worth a million bucks, I'd go sell it. I guess I appreciate it a little more now and I intend to hang on to it."
    The old football certainly appears safe from a run to the dump.
    Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com
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