For Rollin S. “Polly” Armstrong, it was an easy decision.
A lifelong Mississippi State fan who played baseball and basketball for the Bulldogs before graduating in 1930, Armstrong watched with great anticipation as the 1940 MSU football team finished with a 10-0-1 record — the best in program history. When the Bulldogs accepted an invitation to the seventh annual Orange Bowl, to be held on Jan. 1, 1941, Armstrong had to be there.
So for $5.50, he bought himself a ticket.
Today, that ticket stub sits in the office of Armstrong’s son, David, chief operations officer with the city of Columbus.
“My dad kept a lot from back then,” David Armstrong said. “I was looking through one of his old scrapbooks and I saw it. It’s a really neat piece, really grabs your attention.”
Frayed on the edge where the ticket was ripped in half, presumably at a gate at Miami’s Roddy Burdine Stadium, the stub is decorated by a bright orange logo that pops off a blue background. It gave Polly Armstrong access to Section FF, Row 27, seat 2.
MSU won the game, 14-7, over Georgetown University.
On Wednesday, MSU’s 2014 football team will return to Miami to play in the Orange Bowl for the first time since that trip in 1941, an absence that spans 73 years. When the team returns, David Armstrong plans to donate his recently found artifact that belonged to his dad.
“I’ll give it to the school,” Armstrong said. “My dad loved Mississippi State and he’d want them to have it.”
Though the ticket stub that sits in David Armstrong’s office is from an era gone by, it’s also a window into the past, an avenue to one of the biggest moments in MSU football history.
It’s a chance to relive the 1941 Orange Bowl.
Giant of the day
Erwin Brice “Buddy” Elrod would not stand out on a football field by today’s standard, one that’s occupied by 300-pound behemoths that glide across turf at lightning speed. At 187 pounds, Elrod would be among the five lightest players on the current MSU roster.
In the fall of 1940, though, Buddy Elrod was a machine on the MSU football team.
A senior from Memphis, Elrod was a key cog on the left side of MSU’s line, one that played both ways. He was MSU’s leading tackler defensively and a key contributor offensively. Lining up alongside fellow Bulldogs like Hunter “Captain” Corhern and Toxie Tullos, Elrod entered the 1940 season with high hopes on the strength of an 8-2 finish in 1939.
Elrod and Corhern were among the team’s stars, two leather-tough linemen who were critical reasons that MSU’s left side of its line hadn’t given up a touchdown run in more than two seasons.
Now, 73 years later, the complete story of that season, and Elrod’s journey to becoming MSU’s first All-American, can be found near downtown Starkville.
At Three Generations Tea Room, which sits on Jackson Street just north of old Highway 82, a treasure trove of MSU lore can be found. That’s where Elrod’s daughter, Paige Lawes, the owner of Three Generations, has preserved much of her father’s football-playing legacy.
There are old, weathered newspaper articles that feature sports writers of the day proclaiming MSU’s 1940 team as “The undisputed king of football in the Southland,” as the Associated Press did in November of that year. There are old pictures of a sold out Orange Bowl gleaming on a crisp Miami Day in January of 1941. And there are books detailing MSU’s only undefeated team in school history.
Lawes has saved all of it to honor her father, an All-American, a decorated war hero, a military veteran of three wars, a man’s man.
To tell the story of MSU’s trip to the Orange Bowl, a good starting point is MSU’s victory over Alabama that year. A season earlier, Elrod had been kicked out of the game on his birthday, and as he walked off the field, he looked around at his teammates and said, “I lost the game for us.”
He would get redemption, though.
A year later, on Nov. 30, 1940, MSU traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 13 Alabama. Showcasing a defense that allowed only five points per game, the Bulldogs blanked the Crimson Tide, earning a 13-0 victory.
The win caused outside observers to take notice.
Edwin Camp of the Atlanta Journal wrote, “This Mississippi State line is a defensive force of amazing mobility and determination.”
It was a watershed moment for the program, which only had a 7-7 tie with Auburn to blemish its record. It improved the Bulldogs to 9-0-1 and only a game against Ole Miss stood in the way of an unbeaten season. For Elrod, the win in Tuscaloosa was huge.
“The game I enjoyed the most in 1940,” Elrod told the Nashville Banner, “was beating Alabama. I had been waiting for those folks a long time. I was going to make sure they knew they were in a football game.
“We knew the Orange Bowl people would be there, and that poured a little cream over the cake.”
After dispatching Ole Miss 19-0, MSU was in line for a major bowl. It came down to either the Rose or the Orange, and when the Rose chose Nebraska to play Stanford, the Bulldogs were headed to Miami.
Arrival in Miami
The glare is the first thing that’s noticed.
In a book written by MSU’s Mike Nemeth, an entire page is covered by a bright, colorized photo of MSU’s arrival in Miami. Stepping off a train into the bright Florida sun, members of MSU’s team — farm boys from Inverness and Marks, from Hattiesburg and Laurel, from Columbus and Aberdeen — are all smiles.
The Orange Bowl was in just its seventh year of existence in 1940, but due to its pristine location and the enormity of the resources poured in, it was already among college football’s biggest showcases. With the silvery sides of the train glistening in the background, MSU captain Hunter Corhern battles the afternoon sun as he squints into the camera, holding a large “Welcome to Miami” banner unfurled by Orange Bowl officials.
It’s one of the most striking images in Nemeth’s MSU Football Vault, released in 2008.
“That was one of the greatest teams in the history of our school,” Nemeth, who is now senior athletic director for administration with MSU, said. “They remain the only undefeated team we’ve ever had.”
But the Bulldogs were up against a similar opponent once they arrived in Miami. That opponent was Georgetown, one of the East Coast’s top programs at the time, a machine led by backs Augie Lio and Jim Castiglia that featured a defense that hadn’t surrendered a touchdown since 1938. The Hoyas had lost just once — to eventual national champ Boston College — in three seasons.
“We’ve never had a bigger or better show,” boasted the Miami Herald on the top of its sports section the day before the game, and the paper was right.
More than 38,000 people filed into Burden Stadium that day, then a record. Many were clad in maroon, many in Georgetown blue, and many were simply South Florida residents who were promised a show.
‘Tell him you’re Tripson from Mission, Texas’
Don Tripson was a high school phenomenon just about everyone wanted. A halfback who could do a little bit of everything, Tripson was courted by every major college football program near his hometown of Mission, Texas. But it was a former Bulldog that shared the same hometown who set Tripson up with then-MSU coach Ralph Sasse, who convinced Tripson to come to Starkville.
But life happened.
The summer before he made the trip to MSU, Tripson opted to get married instead, thus ending his football career. But his younger brother, John Tripson, saw an opportunity. He asked his brother what to do, and Don Tripson said, “Just show up and tell them you’re Tripson from Mission, Texas.”
So he went to Starkville and did.
He was found out almost immediately upon arrival, but new MSU coach Allyn McKeen saw something in the younger Tripson. Opting to keep him because, “He’s got spunk,” McKeen put Tripson on the left side of his offensive and defensive line with Elrod and Corhern, and all three were named to the Commercial Appeal’s All-Southeastern Team.
Early in the Orange Bowl, McKeen’s decision to keep Tripson paid off.
After MSU’s defense forced a Georgetown punt attempt, Corhern broke through the line and blocked the kick, which was quickly covered by Tripson in the end zone. The special teams score was MSU’s first touchdown, and an extra point by Columbus native Sonny Bruce moved the lead to 7-0.
A period later, Big Bill Jefferson rumbled in from a yard out to balloon the lead to 14-0, a lead that would never be vanquished.
Georgetown got close, cutting the lead in half with a third-quarter touchdown. But in the end, on a clear South Florida day, MSU’s defense preserved the lead. When MSU linebacker Guy McDonald sacked Lio on the game’s final play, MSU had its most prestigious bowl victory ever.
“I guess we were ready,” McKeen wrote in a note sent to the Orange Bowl press box after the game.
In the Georgetown locker room, the post-game mood was tense.
“I’d like to see those boys again in Washington,” Lio said. “It might be a different story.”
After the sting of the loss had subsided, cooler heads emerged from the Georgetown side.
Talking to the Associated Press, Georgetown’s Castiglia said of MSU, “I’m glad this one is over. They are a real swell bunch of fellows.”
The mood was anything but tense in the MSU locker room, where elated Bulldogs were in the midst of a raucous celebration, one that included the requisite champagne.
According to “The Maroon Bulldogs” by William Sorrels, Harvey Johnson, a lineman, took his first sip of champagne, then turned to MSU athletic director C.R. “Dudy” Noble and said, “This stuff might be alright if you poured it on some turnip greens.”
The trophy remains
On the second floor of MSU’s Bryan Building, basically the nerve center for MSU’s athletic operations, there it sits.
Recently polished and shined, the Orange Bowl trophy sits on display. But it almost didn’t.
“We thought it was lost,” Nemeth said. “We have a trophy case back there, but nobody knew it was in there. We were looking, recently, and it had been turned. The trophy says ‘Citrus Orange Bowl Champion’ and people assumed it was a Citrus Bowl trophy. We were lucky to find it.”
The trophy wasn’t the only reward for MSU. McKeen was named the SEC’s Coach of the Year and Elrod was the league’s player of the year.
“It is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received,” Elrod said. “I can’t understand, though, why I was chosen over Captain Corhern, John Tripson or Harvey Johnson. They helped me win this honor.”
A span of 73 years has separated MSU from Orange Bowl appearances. In that time, all 42 varsity members of the 1940 Bulldogs have died. There was Elrod, from Memphis, who went on to be a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. And there was Johnson, the champagne-sipper, who lost his life during a bombing raid on Japan.
There was running back Walter Craig from Forest; Jefferson from Inverness; the sneaky Tripson from Texas; Wild Bill Arnold from Hattiesburg and a pair, Bruce and Marvin Campbell, from Columbus.
Only memories remain.
Memories like Armstrong’s brightly-colored ticket stub, like Lawes’ immaculately preserved catalogue of her dad’s life, and that shiny trophy that might soon have company.
For a team that made school history, Elrod summed it up the best. When asked by the Nashville Banner to sum up the reason for his team’s success, Elrod was direct.
“We just played as a family.”
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.