Veterans Day actually began as Armistice Day, a national holiday initially proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, commemorating the end of what is now known as World War I. Seven years later, the U.S. Congress passed a concurrent resolution, requesting that President Coolidge observe the 11th of November with ceremonies, and then in 1938, the Congress made the date a legal holiday “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Of course, in 1939, the nations of the world had other ideas, and two years later, the United States entered what is now known as World War II. A war veteran thought it was now appropriate to change the meaning of this holiday to celebrate all veterans, living and dead. General Dwight D. Eisenhower supported this change, and in 1954, when he was President, Ike signed the bill into law, and the holiday has been known as “Veterans Day” ever since.
Interestingly, November 11th is just one day after another interesting date in American history. On November 10, 1775, the United States Marine Corps was created, and exactly 200 years later, on November 10, 1975, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a Lake Superior storm that claimed the lives of its 29 crew members, and inspired a legendary song by Gordon Lightfoot.
Let us now segue into the current Sharks road trip, and check out what will be happening at center ice tonight in Florida on Veterans Day: U.S. Army Brigadier General Pete Dawkins will be dropping a ceremonial faceoff, and the Panthers players will be wearing camouflage jerseys in warmups to honor military veterans, who will receive the opportunity to purchase discounted tickets to the game.
Pete Dawkins is a fascinating story, both in athletics and in the military. I’m going to paraphrase a story that I read about his remarkable life:
Growing up in Michigan at 11, he contracted polio. At the time, one of the treatments was to place the patient in a back brace, but subsequent research has determined that such treatment actually makes spinal curvature permanent. Dawkins was lucky to have a doctor with forward thinking ideas about physiotherapy. His sessions allowed him to resume athletics after several years, and that led him to his next great moment in life.
Playing football in high school, he was coached by a Marine Corps company commander at Iwo Jima, and it was that coach who guided him toward West Point. They drove all the way there with some game films and without an appointment to see legendary coach Earl “Red” Blaik. Waiting six hours, they were granted a five minute meeting, and it was that experience that made him want to attend.
But it was actually hockey that actually aided Dawkins in his path to the U.S. Military Academy. All of the required Congressional appointments had been given out by the time he applied, and so he was in the alternate pool. But hockey coach Jack Riley, the man who guided the United States to its first Olympic Gold Medal in 1960 at Squaw Valley, saw Dawkins’ hockey abilities, and was able to get him into West Point.
What happened from that point was one of the more amazing stories in college athletics. Dawkins, who was a defenseman in his day, earned three varsity letters playing hockey for Riley, and he worked his way onto the football squad, without giving up hockey, by the time he was a junior. In his senior year, the kid from Michigan who had fought his way through polio put together one of the most dominant performances in college football history, leading Army to an 8-0-1 record and being recognized with the Heisman Trophy, given to the best college football player in the nation.
But at the Heisman Trophy award ceremonies in New York, Dawkins seemed more focused on the fact that he had to miss two days of hockey practice to go to the ceremony. After all, Army had a hockey game that weekend against Brown, and he was eager to join his team in Providence for the game.
After graduation, Dawkins did not have the special dispensations that service academy graduates sometimes receive to play professional sports today. Besides, he was likely going to making more money as an officer than he would have in the NFL back in those days.
But first, there was a trip to Oxford for three years as a Rhodes Scholar, followed later by a doctorate at Princeton. Then, serving our nation in Vietnam as a Captain, he advised the most decorated unit in the Vietnamese Army.
Brigadier General Dawkins wore the number 24 when he played at West Point. His military career lasted a corresponding 24 years. In 2008, his number was retired by the Academy, an honor that has only occurred four times in history. By the way, here are the other retired numbers:
24Pete Dawkins, 1958 Heisman Trophy winner
35Doc Blanchard, 1945 Heisman Trophy winner
41Glenn Davis, 1946 Heisman Trophy winner
61Joe Steffy, 1947 Outland Trophy winner
12Representing the Corps of Cadets, the “12th Man.”
To think, it all started because of an ahead-of-her-time doctor, and an amazing athletic career in hockey that led to a legendary football and military career.
This story is but one that shows the honor and the dedication of our military members. Let us thank them all today, on this Veterans Day, on this Sharks road trip, with Brig. General Pete Dawkins in attendance.
I’m Dan Rusanowsky, for sjsharks.com.