JACKIE ROBINSON (# 28) had thrown seven touchdown passes during his final tour of duty with the Pasadena Bulldogs the season before, but the one new dimension that the junior college transfer really brought to the UCLA BRUINS’ table for the 1939 NCAA campaign was his unprecedented ability to consistently return punts for substantial yardage.
Although there had never been any shortage of skill position players who could legitimately be considered fleet of foot during Bill Spaulding’s long run as head coach, the UCLA BRUINS had never really set the college football world on fire when it came to running back kickoffs and punts for touchdowns after joining the Pacific Coast Conference in 1928. It is a fact that lightweight halfback GEORGE “Buddy” FORSTER had scampered 97 yards for a UCLA score after receiving a kickoff from the Stanford University that same year. But, by the time Babe Horrell took the reigns in 1939, there still had never been another Bruin besides Forster who had successfully been able to haul a punt or a kickoff all the way back for a touchdown.
Furthermore, those reviewing contemporary newspaper reports of the Westwood school’s NCAA football games from the late 1920s and the entire decade of the 1930s will not be seeing too many references to spectacular kickoff / punt returns by UCLA players, either.
All that changed once UCLA’s highly touted junior college recruit, who had returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown against Santa Ana during Pasadena’s 1938 season opener, began turning out for the Bruins’ varsity in the fall of 1939, however. In just his second NCAA game for UCLA, on the road in Seattle, Robinson sparked the Bruins to a come-from-behind victory over the University of Washington by running a third quarter punt back 64 yards to set up the visitors’ first score. In only UCLA’s fourth game on the schedule that term, against the University of Montana, the Bruins’ rookie right halfback lugged yet another punt 33 yards deep into Grizzlies territory to pave the way for six more important points.
By the time the 1939 NCAA campaign had concluded, it was, indeed, Robinson who was leading the nation with an average of 16.4 yards per punt return … to help put matters in a much better perspective, the UCLA speedster’s statistics are compared to those of two of his accomplished contemporaries :
295 yrd … 18 ret … 16.4 avg ……… Jackie ROBINSON, UCLA
253 yrd … 19 ret … 13.3 avg ……… George CAFEGO, Tennessee
227 yrd … 19 ret … 11.9 avg ……… Nile KINNICK, Iowa
Iowa Hawkeyes left halfback NILE KINNICK, of course, was the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner and a consensus All-America selection that year. Kinnick was also the 14th overall player chosen when tabbed in the second round of the 1940 National Football League Draft by the ill-fated Brooklyn Dodgers. Inducted into the United States Navy three days before the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that kicked off World War II in earnest, Kinnick was later killed after a training flight accident off the coast of Venezuela in June of 1943.
Tennessee Volunteers left halfback GEORGE CAFEGO was named First Team All-America by three major organizations, including the United Press, in 1939 … the Chicago Cardinals also just so happened to make Cafego the very first player chosen at the 1940 National Football League Draft.