Chance for Glory is the kind of book great sports movies are made from. It has everything a true sports fan or simply a lover of a good story wants, from a gripping plot to interesting characters, a mix of story, lots of action and a good dose of humour. And it comes out just in time to celebrate the centennial 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 is of course on Team Washington, and he begins the story by describing a young school struggling to survive against its biggest rival, the University of Washington, which wanted to limit what its sister school could teach.
The opening chapter describes a fascinating 1912 football game played at West Point – a game that would have Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe and future US general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower among its players. One of the coaches in that game was “Pop” Warner, the man who coached William Dietz and recommended him as a coach at Washington State College when he badly needed a good coach.
Washington State had a long history of losing football games, but Coach Dietz quickly turned the tables. I’ll let readers explore his methods on their own, but I will say he was very innovative. All the more remarkable as he was Native American at a time when racism was prevalent. In 1915, when he became coach of the Washington State Cougars, only twenty-five years had passed since the massacre at Wounded Knee. But it wasn’t long before Dietz was gaining the trust of his players and had them believe that they could succeed not just as a team, but as a strong rival to other teams in the Pacific Northwest.
The events that follow are like a running movie montage of one successive victory after another, and yet Watkins takes the time to describe each game and each major piece, and he brings these historical figures to life, investing feelings and emotions in them, this book reads like good historical fiction, while still being full of facts. Each of the players becomes an individual to us, and we get to know them both on and off the football field, including, in some cases, which women they have dated. The amount of research Watkins did to put all these pieces together and get some insight into his characters is amazing, and he documents everything, but the book reads smoothly like a novel more than a story.
As the Cougars racked up win after win, they began to garner national attention, and soon after, they were invited to play in the first Rose Bowl tournament. Sure, the Rose Bowl is a big deal today, but in 1915 no one was sure it would even pull it off. Watkins depicts the committee’s struggles to gain attention and sell tickets, the first Tournament of Roses parade, publicity, and the overall results that transformed the tournament into an American institution.
A fascinating aspect of the Rose Bowl was that the Cougars, since they were going to Pasadena anyway, were invited to be in a Hollywood movie – Tom Brown Goes to Harvard – part of a popular silent film series of the time, which included a football game. Watkins’ presentation of this insight into early filmmaking is fascinating and humorous.
And then it’s off to the Rose Bowl. Watkins informs us about every play, every cheer, every worry and ultimately, the great triumph. Through the written word, Watkins provides a highly visual story of an event that would go down in history.
Few American stories of overcoming adversity are as thrilling and enjoyable to read as Chance for Glory. Watkins’ ability to bring history to life sets this book alongside other great examples of storytelling like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and its triumphant message is worthy of a feel-good Disney movie.
How wonderful that Watkins has timed this book for the 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl. The efforts of the Washington State Cougars breathe new life and meaning into the game of football by reminding us that anyone with a little courage and a dream can achieve success, whether in sports or otherwise.