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New Book Reveals Untold Story of First Rose Bowl at 100-Year Anniversary
Chance for Glory is the kind of book that makes great sports movies. It has everything a true sports fan or just a lover of a good story wants, from an engaging plot to interesting characters, a mix of history, plenty of action and a good dose of humor. And it comes out just in time to celebrate the centennial of the first Rose Bowl game, played by Washington State College against Brown University in 1916.
Since author Darin Watkins is a graduate of what is now Washington State University, he naturally focuses on the Washington team and begins the story by showing us a young school struggling to survive against its larger rival, the University of Washington, which he wanted to limit what his sister school could teach.
The opening chapter recounts a fascinating early 1912 football game played at West Point—a game that featured Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe and future U.S. general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the coaches for that game was “Pop” Warner, a man who had coached William Dietz and recommended him as a coach at Washington State College when it badly needed a good coach.
Washington State had a long history of losing their football games, but Coach Dietz quickly turned that around. I’ll leave it up to readers to explore his methods for themselves, but I will say that he was very innovative. It was all the more remarkable that he was a Native American at a time when racism was prevalent. In 1915, when he became coach of the Washington State Cougars, it was just twenty-five years after the Wounded Knee massacre. But it didn’t take long for Dietz to gain the trust of his players and make them believe that they could succeed not only as a team, but as a powerful contender against other teams throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The events that follow are like a running film montage of one successive win after another, yet Watkins takes the time to describe each play and each major play, bringing these historical figures to life, investing them with feeling and emotion, and creating this book read like good historical fiction, yet packed with facts. Each of the players becomes an individual for us and we get to know them on and off the football field, in some cases including which ladies they dated. The amount of research Watkins has done to put all these pieces together and gain insight into his characters is amazing and documents everything, yet the book reads smoothly like a novel, more than a history.
As the Cougars pile up win after win, they begin to gain national attention and before long are invited to the first Rose Bowl. Of course, the Rose Bowl is a big deal today, but back in 1915, no one was sure it would even happen. Watkins recounts the committee’s struggle to gain attention and ticket sales, the first Tournament of Roses show, the publicity, and the overall results that turned the tournament into an American institution.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Rose Bowl was that the Cougars, because they were going to Pasadena anyway, were invited to appear in a Hollywood movie — Tom Brown Goes to Harvard — part of the then-popular silent film series that included football. game. Watkins’ presentation of this view of early filmmaking is fascinating and witty.
And then it’s on to the Rose Bowl. Watkins fills us with every play, every cheer, every worry, and finally, a great triumph. Through the written word, Watkins provides a very visual account of an event that would go down in history.
Few American stories of overcoming adversity are as thrilling and enjoyable to read as Chance for Glory. Watkins’ ability to bring history to life puts this book alongside other great historical examples like Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and its triumphant message is worthy of a laid-back Disney movie.
How wonderful that Watkins timed this book to appear on the centennial of the Rose Bowl. The efforts of the Washington State Cougars give football new life and meaning by reminding us that anyone with a little courage and dreams can succeed, in sports or anything else.
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