Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Bryan Sperry
The 1948 Orange Bowl team featured names that many Jayhawk fans may be familiar with such as Otto Schnellbacher or Ray Evans, who are both in the Ring of Honor that sits atop the north bowl of Memorial Stadium. Until recently, most fans probably did not know the name Bryan Sperry. That certainly is not the case now. And while his touchdown run in the alumni game last April went viral, the story of how Sperry has spent his entire life off of the field is why Jayhawk fans should be proud to call him an alumnus.
Sperry grew up on a 30-acre farm northwest of Lawrence and would frequently walk to school, Pinckney Elementary, just a mile away. A berry farm when it was purchased by Sperry’s parents, the family was forced to transition to livestock soon after due to dry weather. Livestock was an integral part of life in central Kansas, where Sperry’s father was raised, and he loved the farm. His mother also spent her early years in central Kansas and both went on to teach at one-room schoolhouses.
“There were some people who graduated from that schoolhouse who were outstanding and that my father was very proud of,” Sperry recounted. “There was a whole range of ages. Once in a while you would have someone who was older than the teacher. Whoever wanted to come and get an education could.”
Sperry’s football career began at Lawrence High School, where he played end on both offense and defense. Even at a young age he put his name in the record books. Beginning in the middle of his junior season, the team went undefeated through Sperry’s graduation the following year and on to win a total of 50 consecutive games. He attributed this success to the junior high gymnastics program that existed at the time.
“Lawrence was the only school that had that; we worked out after school every day,” Sperry explained. “Then we had an exhibition for the parents, not a competition. And we all had our things that we could do and we just tried to give a show. I was on the mat and the high bar, and could do a string of back handsprings.”
After graduation, Sperry decided to pursue a degree in horticulture from Kansas State University. World War II had just begun and a 17-year-old Sperry began class, and the football season, knowing the draft was imminent. Soon after his freshman season concluded, he shipped off for France to serve his country.
Sperry, with the 75th Infantry Division, arrived three days before the Battle of the Bulge began. Their original orders were to fight the Germans alongside the British in Holland. Once fighting erupted at the Bulge, plans immediately changed and he was sent to Belgium.
While most accounts of the Battle of the Bulge focus on the fight at Bastogne, Sperry’s outfit clashed with the Germans at the Northern Shoulder. While the media at the time focused on General Patton and the happenings at Bastogne, Sperry insisted that the victory at the Northern Shoulder was, at least, equally crucial to the eventual outcome of the Bulge favoring the Allied forces.
The 75th Infantry Division was split up into three parts, ‘plugging holes’ as Sperry described it. Following orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the split was to supplement other divisions desperately in need of more men.
“Most of the bitter fighting happened at the Northern Shoulder, because the Germans wanted to go through there first,” Sperry explained. “There were a number of outfits up there that lost a lot of men. There might be 85 in a unit in the morning and there would be 35 in the evening.”
Sperry’s divided unit relieved part of the 7th Armored Division, and when he arrived on the front line, he could see Germans on the other side of a clearing less than 500 yards away. He soon met with a sergeant in a nearby house to discuss the current circumstances of the battle.
“Within 10 minutes of getting there, the Germans dropped mortars on us; the sergeant and I hit the floor and they shot that house all to bits,” Sperry recalled. “There was a big hole in the door right over my head. We were eating glass and dust, and the house burned down. He and I got out of there, but we got initiated real quickly.”
By the conclusion of the war in Europe, Sperry had fought in four battles, each in a different country: Belgium, France, Holland and Germany. The next step for the soldiers was to return to the United States and then move on to fight Japan. However, the journey back home was not as simple or swift as one might imagine.
“After the war was over in late May, I didn’t return home until February of the next year. That causes a lot of people to stop and think,” Sperry explained. “We had millions of guys over there who had to come back in boats that took 10 to 12 days to cross the ocean.”
Sperry’s division was assigned the task of building a camp to process troops going back to the United States. He was put in charge of supervising 30 prisoners of war who were building an athletic field at the camp. One day though, Sperry was given a new, unique order.
“They said I’d been selected to go to Shrivenham American University in England and to be ready to go in 25 minutes,” he explained.
Sperry attended two eight-week sessions of class at the university, taught by American professors, while playing on the football team there. They played 13 games and finished with a record of 11-2. The coach was an All-American from Boston College and former Stanford, Dartmouth and Alabama student-athletes helped comprise the team. The rules were a bit different however, allowing their All-American coach to compete alongside the rest of the team.
Nine months in England afforded Sperry with other once-in-a-lifetime memories off the field as well.
After taking a trip to London one weekend, Sperry attended a large cathedral for church and happened to find himself among royal company.
“I found out that I was at the King and Queen’s church and that they were coming that afternoon,” he recalled. “They had a flower bed in front that spelled out, in flowers, ‘Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory.’ I was interested in that and took a picture of it.”
Sperry found the procession and snapped another picture, this time capturing the King and Queen with their two daughters. One of those daughters is now Queen Elizabeth II.
When Sperry finally returned home in February of 1946, he faced a tough decision on where to resume his studies and football career. Unfortunately, his February arrival again forced him to wait patiently after missing the deadline for spring enrollment. In the middle of that summer, he found out that new University of Kansas football coach George Sauer was holding practices. An undersized Sperry approached Sauer and asked if he could participate. Sauer agreed to let him play, but his spot on the depth chart at the end position was awarded accordingly.
“We had 138 guys out and the first time I lined up I was on the 13th team,” Sperry said. “All the other ends were at least four inches taller than me. Needless to say, I was the bottom man on the totem pole.”
It only took a few days, however, for Sauer and the other coaches to notice Sperry’s talent.
“I caught one of their prized ends with an elbow and knocked him flat on the ground. They wanted to know what my name was then,” Sperry boasted.
After five weeks of practice in the 100-degree summer weather, the roster looked much leaner. Sperry had climbed his way up to the second team, behind All-American Otto Schnellbacher.
The Jayhawks put together two-consecutive impressive seasons, winning a share of the Big Six Conference title both seasons, and were invited to the Orange Bowl upon the conclusion of the 1947 season.
Sperry’s fondest memories are of that 1947 campaign that concluded with the 1948 Orange Bowl. The final game of the regular season before heading down to Miami was a road game at the University of Arizona.
A passing contest broke out between the two teams, something largely uncommon in those days. Sperry caught four passes, two for touchdowns. His two touchdown receptions in a single game turned out to be a school record at the time, a fact Sperry discovered forty years later while reading the program at a KU football game
Although the outcome of the Orange Bowl was not in Kansas’ favor, the first bowl game in school history still produced memorable moments including an enormous catch from the arm of All-American Ray Evans.
“He was running for his life back at the 5-yard line and he heaved that ball as hard as he could,” Sperry stated. “It went 58 yards in the air and I caught it. Evans didn’t normally throw to me because in practice he would throw it too high. He was used to throwing to Schnellbacher.”
After his playing career ended, Sperry found a new way to serve others. Following in his parents’ footsteps, he decided to become a teacher. After earning his undergraduate degree in math education and then a master’s degree in education, he taught at the high school level for 11 years. First at Shawnee Mission North, the only high school in Shawnee Mission at that time, and then at Hiawatha and Chapman High Schools. Sperry also coached football at all three schools. He then moved on to teaching at the university level while earning another master’s degree, this time in mathematics, at North Dakota State University.
Years later, Sperry and his wife, Reita, welcomed their sixth child, Janel. Her arrival motivated the family to move to Pittsburg, Kansas, where Sperry settled in for the remainder of his teaching career. He taught for 35 years at Pittsburg State University and estimated teaching around 15,000 students during his tenure.
Sperry’s career of impacting young minds extended outside the classroom as well. He, along with five other veterans, took two trips to Europe with students from the College of the Ozarks to visit important sites from World War II. Sperry used this opportunity to inform the students and their Belgian tour guides about what really happened at the Battle of the Bulge. None of the guides had ever been to the Northern Shoulder and after some persuading, they took the American group up to where Sperry had first encountered the Germans.
“They found a couple of memorials to my division and they got all excited,” Sperry remembered. “There were two of us from that division on the tour and they wanted to know what happened.”
The Belgians took such an interest in the history that Sperry uncovered that they are now building a new memorial near the Northern Shoulder, inspired by the information Sperry gave them.
Sperry’s touchdown last April in the alumni game also became an inspiration, as well as an Internet sensation. His weaving run through the crowd of fellow KU alumni elicited a wide array of reactions; some laughed, others cried, but with the video now totaling nearly 40 million views on Facebook, people from all over the world have reached out to Sperry. From Brazil to Belgium, his run has affected millions of people in a positive way. The video was even shown at Sperry’s church and a woman later told him that she had watched the video five times, and cried every time.
“People had a lot of fun with it, and I had a lot of fun playing football in college and I’m still having fun,” Sperry said.
In all, 17 members of Sperry’s family attended the game. After the initial shock of seeing her 89-year-old father running down the field, Janel was overcome with emotion.
“I was crying,” she recalled. “I was just so happy for him. It was the best day; he just went on and on about it.”
Sperry now has more than 20 grandchildren and five great-granddaughters, with a sixth great-grandchild on the way. His daughters, Mlee, Kipra and Janel, carry on the family lineage of teachers. His sons, Jay, Kevin and Kyle, are all engineers.
Sperry will be welcomed back to Lawrence to present at the Rock Chalk Choice Awards in mid-September, with all six children in attendance. The family will also celebrate his 90th birthday on September 14.
A World War II veteran, educator and role model for generations of students, Sperry’s story is bigger than any Orange Bowl or touchdown run. He has dedicated his life to serving others, and for that, the KU community can take pride in the fact that Sperry will always be a Jayhawk.
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk