Forgotten war hero a personal quest for Bellaire coach Walker

Heath Hamilton

Bellaire football coach Jeff Walker was a 12-year-old boy when he started reading about legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.

Little did he know he’d eventually write about a man who considered Rockne a mentor.

Walker is working on a book about Jack Chevigny, a football star in the 1920s and coach in the 1930s. As a Marine, he was killed at age 38 during the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.

Chevigny is comparable to modern-day Pat Tillman, a player for the Arizona Cardinals who had enlisted in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. However, Chevigny’s legacy has not stood the test of time, as Walker realized while looking through a University of Texas football media guide in 2000.

The only information he could gather on Chevigny, who coached at Texas from 1934-36, was that he was the Longhorn’s only losing coach and was killed in Iwo Jima.

“That was it,” Walker said of the small blurb. “I looked online and couldn’t find anything on him.”

Walker, along with his coaching duties, has written 17 instructional coaching books. He always believed his pen had more in it than that, and he thought Chevigny’s story must be more complex than a win-loss record.

For the last seven years, Walker has been working on the research for his book. As an 11th-grade history teacher, he was recently awarded a grant by Fund For Teachers, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers travel the world for independent studies in hopes of enriching their classroom.

Thanks to the grant, Walker will travel to Guam and then Iwo Jima in March 2008 at about the time his lesson plan concludes with World War II. He hopes to establish a Chevigny blog for his students back home.

He didn’t think he’d be selected, but Walker thought he at least had to go through with the formality. This is more than an extensive research project. Chevigny’s tale has become a personal mission.

“The reason I’m going is a debt I have to pay in this quest,” Walker said. “I can’t morally write about this guy when the central part of this guy’s story is his death, his sacrifice and willingness to go there.

“I don’t think this happened by accident. I think its all part of what’s supposed to happen. I was supposed to come across his path and look into his life story. This wasn’t just pulling someone out of a hat.”

Chevigny played for Notre Dame in the 1920s and coached there in the early 1930s. He was a player/coach for the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 before heading to Texas. After coaching, he moved back home to Indiana about 1940. By Walker’s estimation, Chevigny was drafted by the Army at age 36 and quickly left the Army for the Marine Corps.

Chevigny became a football coach at the Marine base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina before requesting a transfer overseas to fight with “his boys.”

Chevigny, at the time, was known for playing in the 1928 Army game, which included Rockne’s famous “win one for the Gipper” halftime speech. Chevigny scored a touchdown in the third quarter, and was recorded by officials (who were also journalists covering the game) saying, “That’s one for the Gipper.”

A penchant for women and fast cars, Chevigny dated movie actresses and was friends with celebrities such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. He was seen as a publicity coup for the military, appearing in ads promoting enlistment.

While the Gipper story has been confirmed, there were several stories about him at the time that proved untrue. One false tale was about a gold pen taken from Chevigny’s dead body that was later used by Japanese officials to sign their surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945.

There have been many challenges in putting the story together and, early on, Walker wondered if he would ever find anyone who knew him as an adult. In 2005, Walker was given an extensive scrapbook by Chevigny’s family. Since then the “sky has opened up.”

Still, Walker feels as though he’s putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle and not all of the pieces are in the same place. It’s going to take a while longer, but he hopes in the investigative process his students learn the value of thinking for themselves, rather than taking everything they read at face value.

When he teaches history, Walker also tries to give his students more of a personal connection between their subjects than just names and dates.

“This is just an outreach of my philosophy,” Walker said. “Being able to appreciate someone you know nothing about allows you to give more appreciation to yourself.”