A tale that needs telling

Jerome Solomon
Houston Chronicle

People like Jack Chevigny helped make America America.

His is a stirring tale about a war hero and a football player.

In a week in which we celebrate our most meaningful holiday – Veterans Day – his story is even more powerful.

It involves a host of gripping elements – historic athletic achievement, bravery, mystery, sacrifice and death – that make it exciting and unique among American tales.

It is a book waiting to be written.

Thankfully, Jeff Walker is writing it.

Walker, the head football coach at Bellaire, isn’t after glory or acclaim. He is just following a calling that touched on a longtime interest.

“It has grabbed me,” Walker said. “I’ve always been interested in WWII history, and you add an old football coach to it, and I was really drawn to this.”

Left: Jeff Walker, a Bellaire High School football coach and teacher, talks to a crowd at the apache Corporation about a recent trip to Iwo Jima on Wednesday. Walker is writing a book about the life of Jack Chevigny, who he is pointing to, a little-know Depression-era sport star who served in WWII and died at Iwo Jima.

Right: Paul Merriman, 81, a WWII veteran who fought during the Battle of Iwo Jima, listens as Jeff Walker.

Hopefully by next spring, Walker will finish something that we already can’t wait to read.

He wants to tell us more about the amazing life of the Notre Dame Football legend, former University of Texas head coach and brave American who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country on Iwo Jima.

With that in mind, Walker visited the Japanese island earlier this year, thanks to Fund for Teachers, a program started by Apache Corp. founder Raymond Plank in 2001.

Walker was an excellent candidate for such a program, and Chevigny’s a perfect story. The moving trip added some emotion to this five-year writing project.

Jack Chevigny was in uniform at Yankee Stadium when Knute Rockne said, “Win one for the Gipper.”

So inspired, he came out of that halftime speech and scored the game-tying touchdown for the Fighting Irish in what turned into a 12-6 victory over heavily favored Army.

When he crossed the goal line, Chevigny yelled, “There’s one for the Gipper!”

That’s true.

He was the football coach at Texas before Dana X.. Bible came to Austin. Run out of town after his third season on the job, Chevigny did beat Oklahoma three times and was 2-1 vs. Texas A&M, but his teams never beat Rice.

That’s true.

His squad’s victory over Notre Dame in his first season at Texas (1934) – a win that compelled boosters to buy him a new LaSalle coupe, – should have led to a great legacy in Longhorns football history.

But when he left the 40 Acres, Chevigny was the only coach in school history to depart with a losing record (13-14-2). More than 70 years later, he still holds that dubious distinction.

That’s true, too.

“As a coach, I felt a debt to him that he is not remembered as the only losing coach at Texas and only that,” Walker said.

Chevigny’s UT stint is what caught Walker’s eye. A WWII buff, Walker was somewhat stunned to see that a former college football coach was among the fighting forces at Iwo Jima.

Chevigny was 39 when he died, not the typical young draftee.

“How did that happen?” Walker wondered. “Why was he there? I had to find out.”

Walker researched and found that Chevigny was so bothered by seeing so many young troops sent off to war that he applied for combat duty.

“He didn’t have to be there – he didn’t have to go to war – and that says a lot about what his generation was about,” Walker said. “Those are the people that are the backbone of our country.”

Lore has it that Chevigny was given a pen (not a car) commemorating the victory over Notre Dame. The pen was said to have been engraved with the phrase: “To an old Notre Damer who beat Notre Dame.”

The story has Chevigny taking the pen with him into battle. He was killed on the first day our troops invaded Iwo Jima. On Sept. 2, 1945, the most often told story goes, the pen was discovered in the hands of a Japanese envoy on the U.S.S. Missouri, there to sign the surrender agreement ending the battle.

Taken from the enemy, the pen was a given a new inscription that read, “To Jack Chevigny, a Notre Dame boy who gave his life for his country in the spirit of old Notre Dame,” and presented to Chevigny’s sister as a tribute.

According to Walker, the pen didn’t exist.

After thousands of hours of research, Walker is close to sharing a grand story. He says he is about halfway through the writing and 95 percent done with research.

“Everything I’ve touched in relation to this man has turned to gold,” Walker said. “His is a great American story.”

A great American story we can’t wait to read.