Clint Castleberry, legendary star of Georgia Tech’s 1942 football team, was killed when his plane disappeared off the West African coast in World War II. Bill Chastain – author of “Jackrabbit,” a book on Castleberry published last year — tells the story of the only player in Tech history to have his jersey number retired. Chastain’s book, “Jackrabbit: The Story of Clint Castleberry and the Improbable 1942 Georgia Tech Football Season,” is available from amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and billchastain.com
I went to Georgia Tech, and my dad went to Georgia Tech. I grew up a Tech guy, and my dad always told me about Clint Castleberry. He was kind of this mystical figure.
Once I became a sportswriter, I started researching this guy. It was sort of a passion for me. I had done some other books, but this was one I really wanted to do.
I was fascinated, first off, by the way this kid grew up. He was basically a gym rat. He spent summers on the roof at Ponce de Leon Park while the Crackers were playing, fielding foul balls. He played basketball, baseball, football. At Boys High, even though he was a (5-foot-9, 155-pound) runt, he was one of the top football players in the country.
Spring of ’42 was his last year at Boys High. He enrolled at Georgia Tech in June, and they didn’t even know if there was going to be a season. They were talking about canceling college football because of the war, but the powers-that-be finally decided they would play and make freshmen eligible due to the manpower shortage. All of a sudden, Castleberry is “The Guy.” Tech kind of knew they had the secret weapon.
He’s playing both ways. He’s picking off passes. He ’s making tackles. He’s running for touchdowns, throwing touchdowns. He had big games against Navy, returning an interception 95 yards, and Notre Dame — games that were nationally broadcast on radio. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting despite hurting his knee against Florida and playing injured the last two games.
After the season, he began his service in the Army Air Corps. According to his wife, Shirley, Clint and all the boys wanted to go and fight. He spent almost two years in training before he was sent overseas. I think he planned on coming back to Tech and trying to play again after the war.
He was co-pilot on one of two planes that left (Nigeria) for Senegal on Nov. 7, 1944. The planes went down. It remained a mystery how it happened. He was listed as missing until word came on Nov. 23, 1944, that he was officially declared killed.
Many years after that, Shirley and Clint’s father still had the feeling that maybe he was out there on some island somewhere, still alive. Shirley said Clint’s father died thinking that.
Of course, his is the only number (19) ever retired at Georgia Tech. Bobby Dodd (an assistant under William Alexander in 1942 and Tech’s head coach from 1945-66) always kept a picture of Castleberry in his office. And he always said of him, “He was the boy every father wanted his son to be.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
As told to staff writer Tim Tucker