Men against boys. Even though the boys were pretty good, so were the bigger, more worldly men.
Oklahoma A&M was a team that started seven war veterans, including fullback Jim Reynolds who flew 52 missions over Germany, and tackle Bert Cole who had been shot down over Yugoslavia and spent months among the Chetniks while making his way back to allied lines. In contrast, St. Mary’s was a lot like Alabama in 1945 with seven 17-year-old starters on a team with an average age of 18-1/2.
Also, A&M, the heaviest team to play in the first 12 Sugar Bowls at a 203-pound average, was man-for-man 15 pounds larger than the Sugar Bowl’s youngest team ever.
The Aggies’ Bob Fenimore led the nation in total offense for the second straight year. His two-season all-purpose yards average of 212.4 yards was better than those of recent Heisman Trophy recipients Frank Sinkwich or Tom Harmon or Glenn Davis.
And, to make things worse, St. Mary’s was bitten severely by the flu bug four days earlier.
“I remember we went onto the field in just T-shirts and pants with no pads,” Herman Wedemeyer – a 21-year-old Honolulu native who would gain even greater fame a quarter-century later with a recurring role on TV’s “Hawaii 5-0” – recalled years later. “Bob Fenimore and the big Oklahoma A&M team was already out there. The entire stadium was full. How many were there, 72,000? Well, they all laughed at us. We looked like midgets on the field. No wonder people laughed. But that sort of set the stage for what was to come later.”
The Gaels, whose offense was based on deception, started fast with a lateral play that got them to the A&M 46. St. Mary’s scored as Spike Cordeiro started wide, then flipped back to Wedemeyer who faded back and waited for Dennis O’Connor to work his way behind Fenimore. He caught it and went in.
The methodical Aggies answered in five plays. Cecil Haskins caught a 29-yard pass from Fenimore, falling into the end zone with Wedemeyer and Cordeiro hanging on.
More of the same was waiting in the second quarter. Quickly, the Aggies put together another drive, culminating in another touchdown, this one of 1-yard by Fenimore.
There was still more to come. Wedemeyer broke loose for 24 yards, then lateralled to guard Carl DeSalvo. The lineman picked up a horde of blockers to escort him the remaining 20 yards. The weary Wedemeyer missed the extra point.
The crowd was mesmerized by the plucky, undersized Gaels somehow staying with the powerful Aggies. “The half ended with us trailing 14-13,” Wedemeyer remembered. “The feeling of the entire stadium had changed. Now they all seemed to be rooting for St. Mary’s.”
The Gaels continued playing in that vein, but the Aggies’ size and strength began taking over. Fenimore returned a punt 43 yards to the 7, and then scored from a yard out on fourth down. Don Schultz blocked the PAT and St. Mary’s remained within tying distance, 20-13.
The Sugar Bowl might have remained with a competitive score or a tie in those days before two-point conversions or overtime, but for a fluke play in the closing minutes. Wedemeyer slipped trying to punt and missed the ball completely, and A&M recovered on the Gaels’ 35. Jim Reynolds eventually scored from the 1. Then, on A&M’s next possession, from the St. Mary’s 20, Reynolds threw deep.
Gael halfback Paul Crowe batted the ball into the air, seemingly breaking up the game’s last play. Alert Aggie reserve back Joe Thomas grabbed the tumbling ball and crossed the goal.
Oklahoma A&M scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes.
Bob Fenimore was all he was cracked up to be, rushing for 125 yards and two touchdowns, and passing for another.
Gaels’ coach Jim Phelan, after locking the press out of the locker room for 30 minutes, explained, “Too much power – too much speed. And, above all, too much Fenimore.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.