Nate Watson agrees.
It was a case of men against boys.
“There is no way anyone could look at those two teams and not think that we just looked like the better team,’’ Watson said, recalling a game played seven decades ago but still fresh in his memory.
“We were bigger, faster, more experienced. And we looked the part.’’
Watson was recalling the last time — the only time — Oklahoma State, then known as Oklahoma A&M, played in the Sugar Bowl. On Jan. 1, 1946, the Aggies, champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, were paired against St. Mary’s, champions of the West Coast Conference.
And yes, A&M was the better team, winning 33-13 — but the outcome was in doubt until the final five minutes.
World War II had ended just four months before, and the teams reflected the dichotomy of the time. Literally and figuratively, it was football played between men against boys.
A&M started seven war veterans, including fullback Jim Reynolds, who flew 52 missions over Germany, and tackle Bob Cole, who had been shot down over Yugoslavia and spent months among the Chetniks while making his way back to Allied lines.
St. Mary’s was made of kids too young to have served, and fielded the youngest team ever to play in a Sugar Bowl. The Gaels had a roster with seven 17-year-old regulars, and an average age of 18½ — four to seven years younger than some of the Aggies.
A&M was at the time the heaviest squad to play in any of the previous Sugar Bowls with an average weight of 205 pounds. Man-for-man, that was 35 pounds larger than the Gaels.
“You wouldn’t have confused those two teams,’’ Watson said.
But make no mistake. They both could play.
Still strong at 92
Now 92 years old, a retired high school coach and athletic director, Watson earned his scholarship as the Aggies’ bulldozer, the blocking back who cleared the way for Bob Fenimore, A&M’s first All-American who led the nation in rushing (1,114 yards) and total offense (1,641 yards) that season when they went unbeaten (9-0-0).
“I didn’t have to do much,’’ Watson said. “As long as I did what I was supposed to, we were fine. Bob was our motor.”
True enough. Fenimore’s two-season average of 212.4 yards was better than that of Tom Harmon, Frank Sinkwic or Glenn Davis, all Heisman Trophy winners.
At 5-foot-8, 198 pounds, Watson was like a bowling ball in front of Fenimore.
“I was short and squat, but all muscle,’’ he laughingly. “I just did my job.’’
So much so, he was cited on the All-American Blocking Team, an unusual but a long-running feature put together annually by Bernie McCarty and Wirt Gammon of the Chattanooga Times in recognition of the players who pave the way for the ones who got the headlines.
St. Mary’s, a small Christian Brothers school of several hundred, was no slouch either. The Gaels finished 9-1-0, beating Pacific Coast Conference champion USC 26-14, and losing only to UCLA 13-7 on the last play of the game. The Gaels, whose main weapon was “Squirming Herman’’ Wedemeyer, a 21-year-old Hawaiian who was second to Fenimore in total offense (1,428) and also a first-team All-American.
There was no question this was the elite matchup of the season. Oklahoma A&M ranked fifth nationally and St. Mary’s seventh, making the Sugar Bowl the only New Year’s Day game with two Top 10 teams. Putting the sledgehammer offense of the Aggies on the same field with the dazzling, sleight-of-hand offense of the Gaels created huge interest among football aficionados.
In the 12 years of its existence, the Sugar Bowl had been expanded Tulane Stadium several times to a capacity of 73,000. There was much more demand this time. Caught short for some of his political patrons, the governor of Oklahoma strolled over to Sugar Bowl headquarters as President Sam Coronswet Sr. and several other committeemen were walking out.
“Gentlemen,’’ said Gov. Robert S. Kerr, “I’m a man of few words. I want tickets.’’ Coronswet replied: “I’m a man of few words, too. We haven’t got any.’’
Still, when the teams kicked off, there was an overflow crowd of 75,000 on hand.
Crisscrossing the country
Watson took a circuitous route to the Sugar Bowl. Because of a high school knee injury, he was rejected by the military. To do his part he traveled to California to work in the aircraft industry. But after months of working as a riveter, Watson took the advice of a friend and went home to Oklahoma to try college.
Oklahoma A&M had shown interest in him, and he fit perfectly into coach Jim Lookabaugh’s multiple offense. A&M ran a straight T-formation, but would often shift into a single-wing. In the former Watson was a fullback, in the latter he was listed as a “quarterback,’’ which in that alignment was the primary blocker. Watson became a four-year letterman, starting in the 1945 Cotton Bowl and the ’46 Sugar, for teams that went a cumulative 18-1-0 in those two seasons.
The trip to New Orleans wasn’t all rosy for either team. The Gaels came down with the flu several days before the game. Watson said the Aggies got sick eating seafood, and one of his teammates was mugged in the French Quarter, despite Lookabaugh’s warnings to stay away.
But by gametime, everybody was ready to go.
Quite a showdown
The Sugar Bowl lived up to its billing. The youthful Gaels took a 7-0 lead when Wedemyer — later to gain greater fame for his role in the TV detective series “Hawaii Five-0” — threw a 29-yard touchdown pass. But the bigger, faster, more experienced Aggies began asserting themselves.
Fenimore answered with a scoring pass of his own. Then scored again.
St. Mary’s came back, but the wearying Wedemeyer missed the PAT.
Then came some of the A&M dazzle. Fenimore returned a second quarter punt 15 yards to the St. Mary’s 30. Oklahoma A&M picked up 11 yards on two Jim Palmer carries. Then Palmer, Watson and Fenimore each handled the ball on a one-play series of laterals that Fenimore got to the 1. Cutting off right tackle, he scored at that point, giving A&M a 20-13 lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Wedemeyer back to punt, one of the Aggies noticed the Gaels’ center make the sign of the cross.
“You better pray for help,’’ one of the A&M players warned loudly, as Watson recalled, “(because) I’m coming in right over you!”
The startled center snapped the ball over Wedemeyer’s head, and when he got it back he missed the ball completely. “That’s where we won it,’’ Watson said. “It was over right there.”
In short order, Reynolds scored from the 1 with five minutes to play, giving the Aggies breathing room at 27-13. And on the last play of the game, halfback Joe Thomas grabbed a tipped ball on the St. Mary’s 10, and tip-toed into the end zone.
The stars lived up to their press clippings. Fenimore ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 76 yards and another touchdown. He also punted four times for a 53.2 average.
Wedemeyer had just 24 yards on seven carries; but added 150 yards passing; and punted five times 43.0 yards.
Seventy years later
Seventy years after that Sugar Bowl, Watson remains an ardent Oklahoma State fan. Throughout his career in Oklahoma and Oregon, he sometimes was able to travel back to see his team — now called the Cowboys — play, and seldom missed one of his alma mater’s games on television.
These days he never misses their games on the big screen of his Texas retirement home.
“That’s where I’ll be on New Year’s when they play Ole Miss,’’ he said. “sitting there and pulling hard for the Cowboys. I’m ready.”