2016-07-07 / Opinions

’41 UGA football manager Erle Cocke had the heart of a lion

By LORAN SMITH
columnist

DAWSON – Hanging out within earshot of the remarkable Dan Magill, Georgia historian and Bulldog promoter for decades, brought about an illuminating exposure to his wit and wisdom and also his countless affiliations with those who had a bent for all things Red and Black, especially former players.

You became familiar with the accomplished names of the past, even though there were a few who seldom came around. There might be a phone call or a once-in-a-bluemoon appearance on campus, but not a frequency of visits as the way it is with most alumni. They might not be reclusive, but they had settled elsewhere and seemed anchored and grounded at their adopted address.

One of those whose name had come up a time or two, but who never, to my knowledge, returned to campus was a Dawson, Georgia native, named Erle Cocke. He was a manager of the football team in the years leading up to World War II. Managers aren’t touchdown heroes. They don’t make long runs or return punts and interceptions for heart-throbbing scores. You don’t see their names in headlines, but sometimes their campus afterlife leaves you nodding with deep and abiding reverence.

A few months ago, I was in Cornelia and visited with the late Cli ff Kimsey Jr., then Georgia’ s oldest living letterman. I knew that it was likely that Cliff was familiar with Erle Cocke, the South Georgian of note, and distinguished member of the “Greatest Generation. “

“Yes, I knew Erle very well,” Kimsey said. “He was a manager my senior year and a very good one. Against Tech, I broke the strings on my shoulder pads and told Erle. He remembered and replaced the strings for the Orange Bowl.

“When he got established in Washington, Erle became connected with a lot of men in high places. He really enjoyed Washington, and, best I remember, never returned to campus. He knew all the political heavyweights. He was friends with Walter George and Dick Russell.” (Georgia’s long time senators, who were very able, accomplished and powerful in the U. S. Senate.)

An old newspaper clipping having found its way to Claude Felton, Georgia’s dedicated Sports Information Director, prompted a search for more information about the UGA graduate who had lettered as a manager in 1941. Brian Morrison, a friend of Felton’s with the Atlantic Coast Conference, found a story in an old issue of the Sporting News and sent it to Athens. Erle, as National Commander of the American Legion, had gone to St. Louis years back to present a citation to the publisher of the Sporting News, J. Taylor Spink, for the publication’s support of American Legion baseball. A sidebar reflected Cocke’s exceptional World War II story.

Here is what that old clipping revealed:

As an army officer, Erle Cocke, Jr., escaped from German prisoner of war camps three times. The first two times, he was retaken in Germany. On the third occasion, he escaped with a group of 18 companions. They (were desperate) for a German military withdrawal. Their little party blocked the span(or a bridge) with tractors and fought a pitched battle with the Nazis, killing more than eight and capturing 592 German soldiers.

While the captured Germans were marched to the French lines by a small detail, Cocke and the rest of his party remained to defend the bridge. Finally, they were overwhelmed by a heavy German force. Cocke and his men were interrogated and shot with Erle receiving two bullets in the stomach and one in the lung, after which a Nazi officer gave him the coup de grace with a pistol shot in his back.

But Cocke was a tough solider, and hours afterward, he was found alive by German villagers. They hid and nursed him for 48 hours until Allied troops reached the area. Cocke spent the next 14 months in hospitals, underwent 17 operations and made an amazing recovery.

It is easy to conclude that Erle Cocke, who was not good enough to be a football player, had the heart of a lion. He, for sure was good enough to be a courageous soldier. No football player at Georgia – the entire college ranks for that matter – had greater courage and will-to-survive than this remarkable Georgian.

As I stood at the becoming gardens, just outside Dawson, named in his memory, I was reminded again why we continue to honor and admire the “Greatest Generation.” I regret that I never knew Erle Cocke.

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