Oh, say can you see a Tacoma team in the Rose Bowl? And the birth of a sports tradition

Camp Lewis (Grey) played in the 1918 Rose Bowl against Mare Island (black).
Camp Lewis (Grey) played in the 1918 Rose Bowl against Mare Island (black). Courtesy

A hundred years ago, when “The Grandaddy of them All” was still a toddler, Tacoma sent a team to the Rose Bowl. And the way American sporting events begin was forever changed.

On an 86-degree afternoon in Pasadena, California, an estimated 42,000 spectators gathered at Tournament Park to watch the fourth Rose Bowl, called the Tournament East-West Football Game at the time.

The Rose Bowl was the first college football bowl game, but during World War I military teams played in place of the schools. The game was nearly canceled after the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, but with the support of President Woodrow Wilson the game continued in hopes it would help keep up public morale.

The teams selected to play on New Year’s Day 1918: An Army team from Tacoma’s Camp Lewis and the Marines from California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

Both teams were made up of former college stars and they played against some college teams. Camp Lewis played its home games at Stadium Bowl. In its first game of 1917, Camp Lewis played the eventual Pacific Coast Conference champion Washington State Cougars to a 0-0 tie.

Mare Island shutout Oregon, USC and Cal.

With the war at the forefront of most people’s minds, the Rose Bowl participants weren’t the only changes. Two additions to the festivities became tradition: One for the event and the other for all of American sports.

The Rose Parade, which started in 1890, adopted a theme for the first time in 1918: “Patriotism.” In the years that have followed, the parade has had a theme in all but seven years.

Considering the circumstances and the game’s participants, organizers decided a pregame tribute was in order. Before the game, fans were requested to sing along with Antonette R. Sabel the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” To make sure the crowd was ready, the Pasadena Star-News published a front-page story that included the lyrics even though, the article stated, “It is assumed everybody in Pasadena knows the words of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and that a copy of it is in your home.”

When the game began, the Camp Lewis Soldiers quickly found themselves facing an uphill battle. A 31-yard drop kick by Marine Keith “Blondy” Ambrose gave Mare Island a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Considering the Marines had not allowed a score all season and beat Camp Lewis 13-0 in Tacoma less than two months earlier, the Soldiers needed a quick response.

It came from a man who’d go on to become a coaching legend. Running back E.L. “Dick” Romney was a three-sport star at the University of Utah before he joined the Army’s 362nd Infantry. He scored on a 6-yard run that gave the Army team a 7-3 lead.

Romney would later go on to coach Utah Agricultural College’s football and basketball teams and earn election to the College Football Hall of Fame. Utah State University, as the school is now known, played in two stadium’s named for Romney until it sold the naming rights to a convenience store chain in 2015. Romney is also the first cousin once removed of 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Romney’s immediate future wasn’t as spectacular, however. A long return on the ensuing kickoff set up a touchdown by the Marines who controlled the rest of the game, winning 19-7.

Although a Pasadena physician would later tell the Star-News that Camp Lewis lost because players ate too many pancakes before the game, it was more likely that Mare Island’s superior line was the difference.

“We did our best, but were beaten fairly and I have no alibis to offer,” said Camp Lewis coach Lt. William “Fox” Stanton told R.J. “Stub” Nelson of The Tacoma Daily News. “The smashing wedge, the attack that I was afraid of, won for them and their great line was the biggest factor.

The first team from the Puget Sound area to play in the Rose Bowl wasn’t the University of Washington. It was Camp Lewis, which played in the 1918 game against Mare Island. Craig Hill

“My men fought like demons and I am proud of them. Give the Marines credit — they are a wonderful organization.”

Added tackle Capt. “Van” Cook: “The Marines have a great line and had the breaks. But you can say for me that the 91st Division backers can well be proud of their grid representatives. They fought until they dropped, and will do the same in every case.”

The headline on page 9 of the next morning’s Tacoma Daily News read “Marine Machine Tears Its Way Through Lewis.” On the front page, the headline told the story of the players’ future: “Rush Troops Over Seas, Says War Council.”

This is precisely where Camp Lewis soldiers were heading in the coming months. They continued their preparations at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord and by that summer they were serving in France. On Sept. 27, 1918, 1st Lt. Frank Gard, a 165-pound reserve end for the Camp Lewis team, was killed by enemy fire during the battle at Gesnes, France.

Camp Lewis continued to field sports teams, but with its Rose Bowl players at war, the team did not return to the Rose Bowl. The 1919 game, the last to feature military teams, again included Mare Island. This time the Marines played Chicago’s Naval Station Great Lakes. Great Lakes won 17-0.