Texas A&M’s First Orange Bowl

by Travis Normand

As you are likely aware, Texas A&M just won the 2021 Orange Bowl by defeating the University of North Carolina on January 2, 2021. However, while this was A&M’s first Orange Bowl victory, it was A&M’s second Orange Bowl invitation.

The Aggies first played in the Orange Bowl following the 1943 season (on January 1, 1944); but A&M lost to LSU in that game. At the time, the Aggies probably didn’t know it would take them until 2021 to earn a second Orange Bowl invite.

In any event, the 1943 Aggies were affectionately referred to as the “Kiddie Corps.” In 2009, Rusty Burson wrote about the Kiddie Korps, their season, and their Orange Bowl appearance. His article is as follows:

“Remembering Red Burditt and the Kiddie Corps”
Published in the ’12th Man Magazine” (2009)
by Rusty Burson
Reposted on December 31, 2020 at 12thMan.com

In 1943, Jesse “Red” Burditt and his Texas A&M teammates boarded a train from College Station to Miami to cap one of the most surprising and inspiring seasons in A&M football history in the Orange Bowl. In that game against LSU, Burditt set a then A&M bowl-game record by catching six passes against the Tigers.

Burditt still has the Jan. 2, 1944 newspaper clipping from the Philadelphia Enquirer that features a picture of him catching a first-quarter touchdown pass from A&M quarterback Jim Hallmark. Burditt still vividly recalls that catch, as well as the other five receptions he made that day.

For that matter, there is very little about the entire 1943 season that Burditt doesn’t remember in great detail. He’s replayed the games, the moments and the magic of that season perhaps a million times in his own mind.

Burditt can talk to anyone about virtually anything. But his conversational juices really begin to flow when the 1943 A&M team is the subject. Lead him down that path, and Burditt’s eyes begin to twinkle like a strand of Christmas lights.

“Outside of my wife, family and my coaching career, playing on the ‘Kiddie Korps’ team was probably the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Burditt said. “We waited 50 years and then had a reunion in ’93. All of my teammates have become very close. We also had a 60th reunion. We had a squad of 72 that year and had 27 here for the reunion, and I keep in touch with 39 of them. The rest of them, we either can’t find them or they are dead.

“But it’s a special group, and it was certainly a very special team. What most people find hard to believe is that we weren’t surprised that we were that successful. No matter the circumstance, it never entered our minds that we weren’t going to be good.”

It certainly entered the minds of virtually everyone else, though. Many Southwest Conference followers and most sportswriters believed the ’43 Aggies were destined for a devastating season. In fact, the media labeled the Aggies in the preseason as “the beardless boys of Aggieland” and a “glorified high school team.”

One writer even asked A&M head coach Homer Norton if the Aggies might be better off by following the lead of Baylor and sitting out the ’43 season altogether.

“Definitely not,” Norton said at the time. “If I can find 11 boys on this campus who will suit up, we will have a football team.”

Norton found his boys, and those kids quickly became warriors, shocking the sportswriters, the fans of the SWC and the nation.

WAR TIMES

Under normal circumstance, an appearance in the Orange Bowl for the early 1940s Aggies would have been about as ho-hum on a national newsworthy level as the Oklahoma Sooners of today appearing in a BCS bowl. The Aggies, after all, had established themselves as one of the nation’s elite programs by winning the national title in 1939, claiming a SWC co-championship in ’40 and winning another outright conference title in ’41.

During that three-year stretch, A&M amassed an overall record of 29-3 and outscored its opponents 676-152, surrendering an average of just 4.75 points per game. In those 32 games, A&M recorded 14 shutouts.

There was a dropoff in 1942, as the Aggies struggled to a 4-5-1 season. Nevertheless, Norton and the Aggies were on a par with Orson Welles and Benny Goodman in terms of being national headliners in the early 1940s.

But that began to change on Dec. 7, 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor officially brought the United States into World War II. And for the all-male military school in  College Station, war would bring about many changes.

Among them was A&M’s status as a football powerhouse. Through the Army’s A-12 program and the Navy’s V-12 program, thousands of A&M upperclassmen were drafted into officer training schools. By the spring of 1943, the A&M football roster was decimated by the draft. In fact, only one varsity player from the Aggies’ 1942 roster returned for the ’43 season.

“I came to school here in ’43, and that was year they had just cleaned out all of the upperclassmen because of the war,” Burditt said. “But here’s the thing that is really interesting. If you were an upperclassman and a football player, you weren’t going overseas directly. They sent you to college for a couple of semesters first.

“So, all of these other schools—Rice, Texas and so forth— that had A-12 and V-12 programs would recruit the best players. And ol’ (Earl) Red Blaik really cleaned up at Army, picking up guys like Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis and Aggies like Marion Flanagan, Bill Yoeman, Hank Folberg and Goble Bryant. These military bases also picked guys up, and they played against college teams, too. Randolph Field in San Antonio had 16 All-Americans on its team. And when we played Rice in 1943, there were seven guys on that team that had been playing at A&M in 1942. Practically all of our upperclassmen were gone.”

But Norton wasn’t going to throw in the towel before the season ever began. In the true spirit of the 12th Man, Norton solicited what remained of the Corps of Cadets for football tryouts. When practices began in late July of 1943, 130 youngsters showed up in tennis shoes and shorts. The average age of the 1943 Aggies was only 17.5 years old.

But even as the sportswriters snickered, Norton assured Aggie fans in early September that the ’43 team would definitely be worth watching.

“These boys will make lots of mistakes that older boys with more experience would not make,” Norton told reporters just before the season-opener against Bryan AFB. “And they will take chances that will have the coaches chewing on everything in sight. But they will be the liveliest and most entertaining team that I’ve ever fielded, and I know I will enjoy coaching them more than any team that has been under me.”

Norton was dead-on in his assessment. The Aggies opened the year by trashing Bryan AFB, 48-6, and blanked Texas Tech, 13-0. By the time A&M pulled off back-to-back road upsets at LSU and TCU, the Aggies were 4-0 and developing some legitimate star power, as Hallmark, Marian Flanagan, Goble Bryant and M.E. Settegast would go on to earn All-SWC honors.

“Like I said, we just believed we were supposed to be  good because we were Texas Aggies,” Burditt recalled.  “And for me personally is was a dream come true to be playing for the Aggies. I was born an Aggie, and my father was class of ’21. From the day I can remember, I dreamed of becoming the next Joe Routt and then the next Dick Todd. The only thing I ever wanted to do was go to Texas A&M and play football.

“But coming out of Abilene High School (where he graduated at midterm), I arrived at A&M in the spring of ’43 thinking I had no chance to play. I didn’t even come to spring practice because I weighed only 158 pounds. But that summer (Norton) put out an article in the paper saying that he needed football players. I was pretty cocky and said, ‘Hey give me a uniform and I think I can make your football team.’ I wasn’t very big, but I had run a 9.7 in the 100-yard dash in high school. And I had a burning desire to prove I could play.”

Burditt and the rest of his teammates did just that, and heading into the regular-season finale against Texas, the Aggies were 7-0-1, with the only blemish coming in a tie against North Texas Agricultural College (now UT Arlington), which was loaded with V-12 players.

With the SWC title on the line against Texas, the Aggies again ran into a buzzsaw, as the Longhorns were also stocked with “lend-lease” players. Texas prevailed, 27-13, and went on to tie Randolph Field in the Cotton Bowl.

Meanwhile, the second-place Aggies were still extremely attractive to the bowl representatives. Nobody was snickering anymore at the youthful Aggies, who became known in media circles as the “Whiz Kids” and the “Kiddie Korps.”

A&M’s 1943 defense recorded shutouts in six of its first eight games and set a SWC record for fewest pass completions allowed in a season (33) in the history of the league. The record was never broken

With a 7-1-1 record the Aggies accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl for a rematch with LSU. Among the many things Burditt recalls about that trip was the train ride to Florida, which was anything but first-class.

“We only took 33 kids to the game,” Burditt said. “You have to remember that this was during the war and times were tough.”

So tough that each of the Aggie players was forced to share a bunk with another teammate for the entire trip.

But the cramped confines of the train didn’t diminish A&M’s excitement about the trip. And the Aggies were even more excited when Burditt caught a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Aggies a 7-6 lead over the Tigers.

Unfortunately for A&M, LSU’s Steve Van Buren proved to be too much for the Aggies to handle. Van Buren rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns and passed for another score as LSU beat A&M, 19-14.

The Aggies’ magical 1943 run had ended with a two-game losing streak. And by 1944, many of the key contributors of that team had been “drafted” into other lend-lease programs. After also playing basketball and baseball during his freshman year, Burditt wound up playing football for North Texas Agriculture College in 1944 and then was shipped to Pearl Harbor in 1945.

After serving his country as a radio man in Hawaii, Burditt returned to College Station to finish his degree in physical education. He lettered again for the Aggie football team in 1947 and ’48 and also earned a varsity letter on the baseball team in 1948.

Burditt enjoys poking fun of his athletic accomplishments, but says his proudest achievement is his family. Upon returning to A&M from Pearl Harbor, Burditt married his high school sweetheart, Elinor. The couple raised two boys, Jesse III and Charles, and numerous grandchildren–several of which graduated from Texas A&M.

Burditt was been an active member of the Association of Former Students since the day he graduated in 1948 and a charter member of the 12th Man Foundation (then the Aggie Club) when it  was formed in 1950. He was also a founding member of the Texas A&M Lettermen’s Association and was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003.

“I’ll accept it for whatever reason, because A&M means everything to me,” Burditt said of his induction. “And that ’43 team was something special.

“Marion Flanagan and Babe Hallmark were scholarship boys, and Goble Bryant, Monte Moncrief, Herb Turley, Bill Geer, Earl ‘Kid’ Beasley and Damon Tassos also received scholarships out of high school. They were they only players to be good enough to play out of high school, and that’s why we were picked to finish dead last. The rest of the team was just a bunch of average guys just like me.”

Average guy? Red Burditt?

Despite what Burditt may have lead you to believe, nothing could have been further from the truth. He was one in a million, just as the 1943 Aggies were one of a kind.

You can see the full article in the 12th Man Magazine from 2009; or follow this link to the 12thMan.com.

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