August 19, 2016

Marshall Myth: West Point Football Plaque

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds the General George C. Marshall plaque before the start of the Army versus Air Force football game in West Point, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 2012. The Army Black Knights won the game by a score of 41 to 21. (DoD Photo by Tech. Sgt. Bradley C. Church)Like many football teams, the United States Military Academy team has its own unique pregame ritual. Before taking the field, each player places his hands on a bronze plaque displaying a quote attributed to General George C. Marshall while he was serving as chief of staff of the army during World War II. The plaque reads, “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.” Although Marshall’s words may have been an inspiration to countless West Point football players over the years and remain a source of pride today, no reliable records are available to confirm whether Marshall made this statement.

One factor that casts doubt on the quote is the fact that Marshall played on the football team while attending the Virginia Military Institute. Marshall’s participation with VMI football would lead one to wonder why he would request a West Point football player over a VMI football player when making this statement.

p052814ps-0229A transcript of remarks recorded by Colonel Russell P. Reeder, Jr., who was on the football team when he attended West Point and served as the athletic director following World War II sheds the most light on the origin of the quote. Reeder said:

    “In 1943 or 1944, an officer from Gen. Marshall’s secretary came into the office of Lt. Gen. William H. Wood… This officer said, “Gen. Marshall wants an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. He wants a West Point football player.” Gen. Wood, now…then rather a lieutenant colonel, came to me a few hours after this incident and told me about it.”

Since General Wood and Colonel Reeder heard the statement second hand and third hand respectively, and no official record of Marshall’s conversation with the officer who spoke to General Wood is available, there is no direct evidence to indicate this quote can be attributed to Marshall.

As athletic director Reeder played a large part in the creation of the plaque, and he appears to be most responsible for crediting Marshall as the source of the quote. Although the authenticity of the quote may be questionable, it recognizes the unique combination of strength, leadership, and determination that West Point football players possess which has made it a cornerstone of West Point football tradition.