The Virginia Military Institute football team plays its first home game of the season tomorrow. Many of today’s Keydet football fans may be surprised to learn that VMI’s most famous graduate has a connection to the football team, having played on it during his final two years at VMI.
George C. Marshall, having fulfilled a promise to his mother to not participate in sports during his first two years to avoid aggravating an untreated pulled tendon in his right elbow, tried out for the football team at the start of his third year. In interviews with his official biographer, Dr. Forrest C. Pogue, Marshall recalled, “I made the team the first year I tried for it. I made it my third day out for the team, or second I think…” Marshall also noted, “… I got on the first team very quickly. Then I had to go out to practice every day,” in addition to completing his coursework and his responsibilities as cadet first captain.
After the 1899 VMI football season was cancelled one game into the season due to a typhoid epidemic, Marshall returned the following year as the starting left tackle. The team compiled a record of 3-1-2 including a tie against the University of Virginia and a win over Virginia Polytechnic Institute and was proclaimed “Champions of Virginia” by the editors of the VMI yearbook. Marshall’s outstanding efforts at left tackle were recorded in both Lexington newspapers and the VMI yearbook.
Marshall’s continued interest in VMI football led him to travel from Fort Benning, Georgia, to watch VMI play the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on October 6, 1928. Two days later Marshall composed a letter to VMI Superintendent Brigadier General William H. Cocke expressing concern, “that the team lacked the old spirit which used to mark the playing of the cadets.”
In September 1940 Charles B. Miller, president of the Charlotte chapter of VMI alumni association, hoped to exploit Marshall’s fondness for VMI football to convince him to attend the October 12th game between VMI and Davidson in Charlotte, North Carolina. Despite the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s busy schedule, Marshall was able to attend and witness VMI defeat Davidson by a score of 13-7. A scrapbook of newspaper articles about the game appear in the Charles B. Miller Collection, located in the Foundation’s archives. Correspondence between Marshall and Miller regarding arrangements for Marshall to attend the game can be found in The George C. Marshall Papers.