FLORENCE, Ala. — It’s been nearly 68 years since a high school senior named Bill Cadenhead left Mississippi for football glory in Tuscaloosa.
He didn’t stay there long but returned three years later.
Now, he is set to make the trip back to the University of Alabama for a celebration of military service during that time away from campus without spoiling his football dreams.
Cadenhead, who lives in Florence, Ala., with wife, Rachel, is one of 13 World War II veterans and former Alabama football players who will be honored in a ceremony before Saturday’s game against No. 17 Mississippi State. The special uniforms that the 11th-ranked Crimson Tide will wear feature an American flag to honor military veterans.
An alternate team captain in his day, the 86-year-old Cadenhead again will be an honorary captain in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which seats twice as many fans compared to his time playing for coaches Frank Thomas and Harold “Red” Drew.
Cadenhead, who still enjoys doing yard work, has his story of military service and football playing featured in a new book entitled “When Winning was Everything.” The book published by the Paul W. Bryant Museum and written by Delbert Reed chronicles the experiences of Alabama football players who went off to fight in World War II.
His hearing isn’t what it was, but Cadenhead is sure that won’t be an issue when 101,000-plus fans show their appreciation Saturday evening.
“I will hear that,” he said chuckling. “I’m not that bad off.”
Technically, Cadenhead spent time with the Tide before and after going off to war.
He practiced for a week or so with the 1942 team before they went off to play in the Rose Bowl. Soon, though, it was apparent the fall of 1943 would not include football in Tuscaloosa, so Cadenhead enlisted in the Navy.
Boot camp took him to San Diego where he got back to playing football. The San Diego Naval football team beat college powers USC and UCLA but couldn’t beat the team from March Field that featured Alabama All-American Jimmy Nelson.
From there, Cadenhead volunteered for submarine training and was sent into action, passing through Pearl Harbor on the way to Midway Island.
There, sports saved his life.
Playing on one of the island’s best softball teams, Cadenhead was selected to head out on a boat just three games before the championship.
When his coach said he could catch the next one out if he stuck around for the team, Cadenhead agreed. Five days later, he received word that first submarine had sunk.
“You just have to wonder sometimes how lucky you are,” he said.
After leaving Midway on the USS Croaker, Cadenhead saw three patrols that took him to Honolulu, Perth, Australia and the Philippines. Only once did his boat encounter enemy ships, and it sank the Japanese cruiser and a few smaller boats.
“It never got scary,” he said. “I guess we all knew what we were doing.”
Cadenhead was discharged in 1946 and returned to Tuscaloosa with four years of eligibility remaining and the Crimson Tide coming off a Rose Bowl win over USC.
Things didn’t go so well in Frank Thomas’ final season as head coach as he suffered from cancer. Alabama went 7-4, losing three of four late in the season to miss a bowl game.
Cadenhead said he was one of the few veterans given an opportunity to play that year, but a knee injury slowed him in 1947. The highlight of his playing career came in the second-to-last game of his senior year in a 35-13 win at Florida. He returned a punt 80 yards before being tackled short of the end zone, and he scored on a 60-yard interception return.
In his four years, Cadenhead played in one bowl game, the 1948 Sugar Bowl (won by Texas), but he was part of the Auburn rivalry renewal. The Tide beat the Tigers 55-0 in 1948 before losing 14-13 in his final game.
After five years of coaching at Coffee High School in Florence, Cadenhead went into the insurance business and retired in 1998. In retirement, Cadenhead donated his time to the Salvation Army and still delivers to seniors with Meals on Wheels.
He also still travels football games from time to time and is looking forward to the activities planned for this weekend. One of the current players Cadenhead hopes to meet is quarterback Greg McElroy, whom he admires for his character and academic achievements.
Others, such as Mark Ingram, expressed their appreciation for the sacrifices veterans made before returning to football. It’s hard for the former Heisman Trophy winner to imagine leaving the football program for war.
“That’s amazing that they did that,” he said, eyes open wide.
“It’s just great that we can have them come back and show them the appreciation and the love that we have and the support we all give them. It’s just something special that everyone can’t do.”