Editor’s Note: This is part final post of a five part biographical series on Barney Gill by Russ Crawford. He first encountered Barney Gill while researching his book on American football in France. Gill’s story didn’t make it into the book and was too good not to share. Click here to read parts one, two, three, and four.
By Russ Crawford
In addition to his regular coaching duties, Gill was an agent of what might be termed “cultural imperialism” trying his hand at convincing the French that football American-style was the wave of the future. Dodds and French businessman Marcel Leclerc conceived of a plan to launch a two game tour of southern France. Leclerc, a magazine publisher and the manager of the Olympique de Marseilles rugby club, sought to popularize our sport in his native land.[i] In consultation with Dodds, they settled on games to be played in Toulouse and Perpignan, and chose the SHAPE Indians and the Laon Rangers to play the games.
Laon’s Curtright remembered that Gill called him one day to pitch the idea. Since these were to be merely exhibitions, they decided to try to keep the games as close as possible, and therefore drew up a “script” of how the matches would proceed. The emphasis was on exciting plays, and often SHAPE would let Laon score on big plays.[ii] SHAPE won both games, playing in front of a crowd of perhaps 2,000 in Toulouse, and perhaps 1,600 in Perpignan.[iii] Gill later declared that “the only time that the French liked American football was on the kickoff,”[iv] and so the tour came and went without convincing the French to adopt our game. Chuck Bristol of Laon remembered in an interview that crowd ennui became so apparent in the Perpignan game that the players conspired, without telling Gill or the referees, to have a brawl on the field.[v] Dave Madril of the Chateauroux Sabers, who was along on the trip as a referee, remembered that one of his colleagues suffered a bruised rib trying to break up what he thought was a real fight, but that the scuffle only lasted until Gill yelled at them to “knock it off!”[vi]
Leclerc also wanted to entice American servicemen to play professional rugby, and enlisted Gill in that effort as well. This also came to little, since, when the soldiers squared off against a French rugby team, there were more fisticuffs than goals scored.[vii] Gill was not there to tell the boys to knock it off, since he was coaching the USAFE All Stars in the Freedom Bowl at the same time.[viii]
The versatile athlete and coach also put his basketball background to use in Europe, coaching a women’s squad, from the U.S. Navy, to considerable success. But by the mid 1960s, the army was beginning to have a need for paratroopers to do more than coach football.
After France, Gill, now a major, returned to Fort Benning, where he would meet Nancy Smith, who would become his wife in 1970. In 1965, he volunteered for service in the widening conflict in South Vietnam. While there, he served with the First Air Cavalry Division, and also served for a time with the Special Forces in Laos.[ix]
Even during his time in the war zone, Gill could not avoid football completely. In 1966, when a group of National Football League stars including Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff, Willie Davis, and Frank Gifford went to Vietnam to boost troop morale, Gill was an obvious choice to be their escort. The first stop on the tour was a visit to Pete Dawkins, the former West Point Heisman Trophy winner in Saigon. Gill reported that the NFL stars were “as interested in what was going on in Vietnam as Pete and I were to know about what was going on in the National Football League.” Dawkins and Gill later took the NFL players to visit wounded soldiers and Huff reportedly had “a list as long as your arm of parents he’s going to call for some of the wounded.”[x]
While serving there, Gill also demonstrated a certain talent for war and was awarded several decorations, including two Bronze Stars and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.[xi] In 1970, during his final year in the army, he directed an operation to rescue downed pilots that cost his unit eleven men, and he had two helicopters shot down under him. This brush with death convinced him that he wanted to marry Smith, and by November, after he had done so, he retired from active duty as a colonel.[xii]
After briefly working as an athletic equipment distributor, Gill became the General Manager of the Norfolk Neptunes semiprofessional football team.[xiii] The Neptunes were part of the Continental Football League, and enjoyed good success starting in 1965, but by the time Gill joined the team, the league had nearly run its course.[xiv] Therefore, in 1971, Gill was once again looking for a new position.
In 1973, he accepted a position as the executive director of the United Drug Abuse Council, Inc. Gill stated that “During my time in Vietnam I served on a great number of court martials that were trying young soldiers charged with taking drugs. We did a lot of investigative work in those trials and I never ceased to wonder how it all could happen – how so many of those men, many of them less than 20 years old, could turn to drugs. It’s a waste, a horrible waste.”[xv]
Gill was not through trying to promote football in Europe, however, and when Dodds connected with international football promoter Bob Kapp to send the Newton Nite Hawks and the Chicago Lions, two semiprofessional football teams on a tour of Europe, the former coach was tapped to help publicize the effort. His involvement with semi-pro football also gave him an insight into that world and made him an ideal choice to help with publicizing the tour. Besides, as he mentioned in one of our telephone conversations, “They still remembered me over there.”[xvi]
Kapp, the man who had brought soccer style kicking into vogue in the NFL, was now attempting to interest Europeans in gridiron football and had set up the Intercontinental Football League to accomplish this goal. His contention was that soccer was dying out in Europe and that people there were hungry for a new, more violent sport.[xvii] He and Dodds had conspired in 1976 to take the Texas A&I Javelinas and the Henderson State (Arkansas) Reddies, two top National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics teams, on a tour of Europe that included games in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna.[xviii] Kapp had floated several versions of the IFL, including the effort to establish semipro teams with a mixture of American and local players that he maintained would be a hit in Europe.
Gill seemed to have a different audience in mind for making football a success on the continent. He told Dave Cowan, the Stars and Stripes reporter that he wanted to get support from soldiers stationed there. “If we can get the GI to show interest in football over here…we might be interested in bringing some teams each year to Europe. First we must prove we have fan support here.” He went on to remember that when he coached the SHAPE Indians in the early 1960s, “Football was big then. There’s no reason why it can’t be big here now.”[xix]
As with the USAFE tour in 1961, this one also had little to show for the effort. Conflicts between the promoters of the tour ended with the teams having to cash a check at the U.S. embassy in Vienna in order to get to their homeward bound flight.[xx] A lack of promotion was apparent at many stops along the tour, and Gill remembered that he was assigned a sergeant who was supposed to hang posters, but gave very little effort, hanging up “fifteen posters in a row” on a convenient wall. By the time the tour fizzled out, Gill was on his way to Le Mans to watch the racing, having apparently had his fill of trying to convince Europeans that football was the answer.[xxi]
As a project in cultural imperialism, Gill and his compatriots’ efforts to convince the French to adopt football were remarkably ineffective. A weakness with the idea of cultural imperialism is that the cultural feature being “forced” on the recipients must be one that those recipients want – Hollywood movies, for instance. This was not the case with American football, and the game would not become established in France until Laurent Plegelatte, a French educator, brought the game back as baggage from a trip to Colorado in 1980.[xxii]
Shortly after returning from Europe, Gill once again was at loose ends. When the anti-drug agency lost its funding in 1978, he once again put his athletic and military background to use by creating programs for disabled veterans. He began working with the Veterans Administration (VA) to create programming for those veterans, “visiting 172 VA hospitals, and served as chairman and organizer of the Veterans Administration National Wheelchair Games in 1985-1986.” The retired lieutenant-colonel also kept busy by serving on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the United States Olympic Committee.[xxiii]
Gill finally retired from his work with disabled veterans, and until his death on April 17, 2012, he devoted his time to his family, but still followed sports and was happy to talk to people about his unique experiences in military sports.
The role of military football is no longer what it had been in the heyday of USAFE. Gill blamed the Vietnam War on the decline of that tradition, arguing that “The one year tour of duty spelled the end for military football.”[xxiv] However, while it lasted, the football culture connected to the United States military consumed considerable resources and was the focus of an incredible amount of attention in the armed forces. Along the way, it provided propaganda opportunities for Cold Warriors, and amusement for indigenous populations unfamiliar with the sport.
Although sports had been a formal part of military life since 1898, those involved during the Cold War, including Gill, maintained that the game was good for morale, reminding soldiers stationed at far-flung bases worldwide of the culture they were dedicated to protecting. With his play and coaching, Barney Gill managed to remind thousands of the American way of life as it existed back home. He also provided a window to a once vibrant and important world, and that window is now closed.
Others have experienced certain facets of his adventures such as excelling on army teams, coaching with Blaik, and the rest. Few however, could boast the wide range of experiences that he could claim as his own, or tell their stories in such a colorful manner. The world without Barney Gill is a less interesting place indeed.
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.
[i] George Packard, “Demi-Tough,” Texas Monthly, December 1976, 134.
[ii] Interview with Jerry Curtright, 9 Jan. 2011.
[iii] Robert Daley, “Football? Merci, Non,” New York Times, December 26, 1961, 29.
[iv] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[v] Interview with Chuck Bristol, conducted by Russ Crawford via telephone, Ada, OH, 29 December 2011.
[vi] Interview with Dave Madril, conducted by Russ Crawford via telephone, Ada, OH, 6 January 2011.
[vii] “U.S., French Teams Involved In Brawl,” New York Times, 5 March 1962, 30.
[viii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[ix] “Meet Barney Gill – Our Millionth Lion,” The Lion, June 1973, 18.
[x] Associated Press, “NFL Stars Are Big Hit in Viet Nam,” Des Moines Sunday Register, 30 January 1966, 2S.
[xi] House Joint Resolution NO. 521: Commending Bernard A. Gill, 13 March 2004 https://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?041+ful+HJ521ER+pdf (Accessed on 20 September 2011).
[xii] “Meet Barney Gill.”
[xiv] Bob Molinaro, “Neptune’s gridiron grandeur will be hard to match,” The Virginian Pilot, 3 September 2011, http://hamptonroads.com/2011/09/neptunes-gridiron-grandeur-will-be-hard-match (Accessed on 26 May 2013).
[xv] “Meet Barney Gill.”
[xvi] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[xvii] Dave Cowan, “Football in June,” Stars and Stripes, 29 May 1977, 22.
[xviii] United Press International, “Javs Wind Up Series Sweep With Paris,” Brownsville Herald, 18 June 1976, 2B.
[xix] Cowan, “Football in June,” 22.
[xx] United Press International, “Football a bust in First European Tour,” Redlands Daily Facts, June 23, 1977, B2.
[xxi] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[xxii] “Football Américain,” Elitefoot, 2010 http://www.elitefoot.com/france/article/plegeleatte/laurent.htm (Accessed on 9 August 2013.)
[xxiii] House Joint Resolution NO. 521.
[xxiv] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.