Veterans remember when Great Lakes beat Irish

  • Former Great Lakes athletes Bill Downey, right, Ralph Jecha, and Stacy Mosser discuss their playing days during a round-table discussion on Great Lakes Naval Station's sports heritage at Ross Theater at the naval base. The event highlighted the base's 100th anniversary.

      Former Great Lakes athletes Bill Downey, right, Ralph Jecha, and Stacy Mosser discuss their playing days during a round-table discussion on Great Lakes Naval Station's sports heritage at Ross Theater at the naval base. The event highlighted the base's 100th anniversary. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald moderates a round-table discussion on Great Lakes Naval Station's sports heritage at Ross Theater at the naval base. The event highlighted the base's 100th anniversary.

      Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald moderates a round-table discussion on Great Lakes Naval Station's sports heritage at Ross Theater at the naval base. The event highlighted the base's 100th anniversary. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/15/2011 12:26 AM

Stacy Mosser still remembers what happened soon after the Great Lakes Naval Station football team he played on upset No. 1-ranked University of Notre Dame at the base during World War II.

"We were proud sailors," said Mosser, a Winnetka resident. "And then, we were shipped out."

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Mosser and four other former athletes relived memories for a round-table Thursday on Great Lakes' rich sports tradition as part of the base's 100-year anniversary celebration. Northwestern University head football coach Pat Fitzgerald moderated the session before about 200 spectators at Ross Theater.

One of Great Lakes' most memorable athletic achievements was experienced by Mosser in a stadium on what now is Ross Field at the base just north of Lake Forest. Great Lakes' admirals were known to have watched football games from an office overlooking the field.

An estimated 20,000 fans who packed into the stadium saw the recruits defeat top-ranked Notre Dame 19-14 in 1943, capping a season in which the Great Lakes Bluejackets reached No. 6 in The Associated Press college football poll.

"Hard-nosed football was our game," Mosser said, "and that's what we played."

Mosser also delighted in memories of playing against the Chicago Bears and the city's long-gone Cardinals at Great Lakes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It was a great experience and one I shall never forget," Mosser said of his Great Lakes stay.

Another former football player, Ralph Jecha, recalled being on a Great Lakes team that played in the Salad Bowl in Phoenix while he was at the base in 1953 and 1954. Jecha played for the Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers after his Navy stint.

Roger Gogan, an employee at the base just north of Lake Forest, said Great Lakes made the most of highly skilled athletes who were drafted into the military for World War II. Gogan wrote "By Air, Ground and Sea," a story about Great Lakes football.

While only the military academies compete in college sports today, Great Lakes formed varsity teams during World War II in part as a way to boost morale. Gogan said Great Lakes even became an honorary Big Ten Conference member.

"People who work on this base have no idea about the sports history," Gogan said before the program started.

Great Lakes didn't just excel in football back in the day. Its baseball team racked up a 188-32 record during World War II.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who died last December, was a chief petty officer when he led Great Lakes to a significant victory in 1945. Before about 12,000 sailors at the base, Feller went the distance and struck out 10 batters in a 1-0 exhibition victory over the Cubs.

Great Lakes has technical training schools and hosts the Navy's only boot camp. About 40,000 recruits are expected to graduate and become sailors this year.