Football coach to be awarded grant to research WWII hero
Walker will travel to Iwo Jima, where UT football coach Chevigny died ‘with his boys’ during invasion
Bellaire High School head football coach Jeff Walker is pouring his love of sports and history into a project that he hopes will inspire students and athletes alike.
Walker, who teaches 11th grade U.S. history since Reconstruction at Bellaire, earned a 2007 grant from Fund for Teachers. It is a national nonprofit organization that pays for select teachers to travel the globe in pursuit of independent studies.
Walker’s reward is a trip to Guam and Iwo Jima in March 2008.
For Walker, it’s the culmination of a six-year personal quest to tell the story of the late Jack Chevigny, a forgotten Depression-era sports hero who served in the Marine Corps and died in the invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
“I wanted to find a historical person who people didn’t know much about,” Walker said. “That’s when I stumbled upon Jack Chevigny. He played for (legendary coach) Knute Rockne at Notre Dame in the famous ‘Win One for the Gipper’ game against Army (in 1928).”
Chevigny, who also coached briefly at Notre Dame in 1931, after Rockne died in a plane crash, and with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in 1932, is best known in Texas as the only coach at the University of Texas to have a losing record during his three-year stint from 1934-36.
But Walker believed there was more to Chevigny than his record with the Longhorns. In 2001, he began intensive research, which initially did not yield much information.
“I became fascinated by Jack and had to know more,” Walker said.
Walker eventually learned that Chevigny died on the beach at Iwo Jima at 38 years old – well past the age of service. But Chevigny, who was coaching football at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina, stood up for “his boys” and refused to let them go to war without him.
“In my research, I wanted to accomplish several things, one of which was to prove the truth of Jack’s life was even more spectacular than the fabrications,” Walker said.
He made a breakthrough after interviewing Sonny Franck, a College Football Hall of Famer at the University of Minnesota and former NFL great who was considered at the time the fastest man in the league.
Franck met Chevigny while serving in the Marines and had fond memories of him, noting that Chevigny often talked about football strategy and demonstrated blocking techniques.
Walker also spoke to Chevigny’s nephew, Jack, an attorney in Hammond, Ind., who gave Walker the family’s scrapbook in 2005.
“I would have hit the wall without the scrapbook,” Walker said. “It included dozens of photos and letters that helped me understand who Jack was.”
In his final letter, Chevigny mentions his respect for Col. Thomas A Wornham and his awe at serving in the Marine Corps.
The letter was postmarked from Saipan just before forces moved on to Iwo Jima. Walker spoke to numerous Marines from the era, confirming that Chevigny had become a celebrity figure.
But why was Chevigny on Iwo Jima in the first place? Walker discovered that Chevigny served in the 5th Marine Division, 27th Regiment as a liaison officer, a newly created position with an open-ended job description.
Chevigny’s role was to facilitate communication between the 27th and 28th regiment commands during the actual landing.
“Jack was a true-life hero,” Walker said. “As a football coach, I felt it was my mission to tell Jack’s story.”
Walker is writing Chevigny’s biography and is seeking a publisher.
First, he is looking forward to his trip to Guam and Iwo Jima. A history buff, he considers Iwo Jima a “Holy Grail of American History.”
The main reason, though, is to explore the island that set the stage for Chevigny’s final day.
Walker will take with him his son, McMeans Middle School seventh-grader Gabe.
“It’s an important journey for me and I want to share it with Gabe,” Walker said. Fund for Teachers felt the same way, which is why the organization approved Walker’s grant.
“About one out of 24 applicants gets a grant, but we felt Jeff’s project was unique,” said Karen Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers. “The story he wanted to tell was truly fascinating. We felt it would translate well to his students.”
Walker plans to incorporate Chevigny’s story into his history classes and in his pep talks with his team.
He believes Chevigny’s life is inspirational.
“Jack Chevigny was a remarkable person,” Walker said. “I hope everyone will agree, whether they are a football fan or not.”