Chance for Glory is the kind of book from which great sports films are made. It contains everything a true sports fan or just a fan of a good story desires, from a compelling plot to interesting characters, a mix of story, lots of action and a good dose of humor. . And it comes out just in time to celebrate the centenary of Washington State College’s first Rose Bowl game against Brown University in 1916.
Since author Darin Watkins is an alumnus of what is now Washington State University, his focus of course is on the Washington team, and he begins the story by describing for us a young school struggling to survive against its biggest rival, the University of Washington, who wanted to limit what its sister school could teach.
The opening chapter describes a fascinating start to a 1912 football game played at West Point – a game that would have among its players Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe and future US General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the coaches at this game was “Pop” Warner, the man who coached William Dietz and recommended him to coach at Washington State College when he was in dire need of a good coach.
Washington state had a long history of losing football games, but Coach Dietz quickly turned the tide. I’ll let readers explore his methods on their own, but I will say he was very innovative. Most notable was that he was a Native American at a time when racism was prevalent. In 1915, when he became coach of the Washington State Cougars, it had only been twenty-five years since the Wounded Knee massacre. But it wasn’t long before Dietz gained the trust of his players and he made them believe that they could succeed not only as a team, but also as a powerful rival to other teams in the Pacific Northwest.
The events that follow are like a montage of a movie running from successive victory to victory, and yet Watkins takes the time to describe every game and major piece, and he brings these historical figures to life, investing feelings and emotions into it, which made this book read like good historical fiction, while being full of facts. Each of the players becomes an individual for us, and we get to know them both on and off the football field, including, in some cases, what women they have dated. The amount of research Watkins has done to put all of these pieces together and get a glimpse of his characters is amazing, and he documents everything, but the book reads well like a novel more than a story.
As the Cougars stack up win after win, they begin to gain national attention and, before long, they are invited to compete in the inaugural Rose Bowl tournament. Sure, the Rose Bowl is a big deal today, but in 1915 no one was sure it would even succeed. Watkins describes the committee’s struggles to gain attention and sell tickets, the first Tournament of Roses parade, publicity, and the overall results that made the tournament an American institution.
One fascinating aspect of the Rose Bowl was that the Cougars, since they were going to Pasadena anyway, were asked to be in a Hollywood movie – Tom Brown is going to Harvard – part of a popular silent movie series of the day, which included a football game. Watkins’ presentation of this preview of the early films is fascinating and humorous.
And then it’s at the Rose Bowl. Watkins shares with us every play, every cheer, every worry, and ultimately the great triumph. Through the written word, Watkins provides a very visual story of an event that would make history.
Few American stories of adversity are as compelling and enjoyable to read as Chance for Glory. Watkins’ ability to bring history to life places this book alongside other great examples of storytelling such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and its triumphant message is worthy of a Disney feel-good movie.
How wonderful that Watkins timed this book to appear on the 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl. The efforts of the Washington State Cougars are bringing new life and meaning to football by reminding us that anyone with courage and a dream can be successful, whether in sports or whatever.