The Cambridge Cornhusker Connection in 1940: Luther
For some 123 years Nebraskan football fans have been cheering on their beloved Cornhuskers, and there certainly have been many many memorable moments for those loyal fans -- none more discussed and appreciated than the football season of 1940, which culminated in the school's first ever Bowl Game, the Rose Bowl against the Stanford Indians. The team that represented Nebraska that year had the distinction of being made up entirely of Nebraska boys, including Butch Luther, the fair-haired favorite son from Cambridge -- a leader on that team of over-achieving farm and small town boys, who so ably represented their state in that historic contest.
Walter Luther had been a standout backfield specialist on the Cambridge High School teams, graduating in 1936. His athletic ability and calming influence on the team resulted in his being named captain of the Trojans football team in his senior year. In the game program of the final game of the 1935 season there was a tribute to "Captain Bob," as he was known in Cambridge at the time. "The Cambridge team will miss Bob in the 1936 lineup. This is his fourth year in the Trojan backfield and all four years he has played great football. Bob is an inspirational leader and is honored and respected by his team mates, student body and Trojan fans for his fight, clean play and determination. Although he is large (6',180#), Bob is a wonderful broken field runner and smashes that line hard." Luther's character and fine play are still remembered in Cambridge with the annually awarded "Butch Luther Award" to the outstanding Trojan male athlete.
Luther enrolled at the University of Nebraska in the fall of 1937. In those days freshmen were not allowed to participate in varsity sports. Instead, those 1937 freshmen (under the tutelage of former Husker great, Ed Weir), had their own schedule, against other University and Juco teams -- besides their duties with the scout squad, helping the varsity to perfect its game.
Beginning with his sophomore season in 1938 season, however, Luther began to make a place for himself on second year head coach, Biff Jones' Cornhusker squad. According to the Lincoln Journal, "he was far from being a sensation -- though the co-eds acclaimed him as one of their ideals." He saw limited action in the '38 campaign, "but enough to allow Major 'Biff' Jones to foresee what was in store for the next two years."
In the opening game of the 1939 season the Indiana Hoosiers were leading the Cornhuskers, 7-0 in the dying moments of the game. Then Luther "swung loose on one of the reverse plays for which he was later to become so famous." It was only a gain for five yards, but "Butch crossed the goal line and enabled the Cornhuskers to emerge with a tie game." (Note: When Walter (Bob) Luther joined the Cornhusker squad he was given the name "Butch," in reference to the Luther Grocery Store, in Cambridge, and its meat department, where Butcher Boy Bob had toiled during his high school days.)
Two weeks later, against Iowa State, Luther came along with the identical type of play, to score on a 14-yard jaunt, to enable Nebraska to come away with a 10-7 victory. Against Kansas State, Luther took a QB handoff and "zig-zagged wildly from the Wildcat 24-yard line. He was seemingly trapped endless time, yet he fought his way across the goal line. NU 25-K State 9."
Against Missouri, the Cornhuskers suffered their only loss of the season, 27-13. Still, Luther had another fine game for the Huskers. "Butch went to work again, scoring the touchdown that tied the count at 6-all early in the game."
But it was in the 1940 season "with its thrills, chills, and heart throbs" that Luther, along with the entire Cornhusker squad realized their full potential. The season opener, against Minnesota, the No. 1 team in the nation, Nebraska lost 13-7. In that game "Luther's magnificent run, totaling 66 yards through the entire Golden Gopher team, was called back because of an offside penalty." Yet, in speaking of that run to the press, Luther demonstrated his team leadership and strong character. "Sure, I know who was offside on our team," Luther was quoted as saying after the game, "but I'll never tell you who it was." As always, with Butch Luther, the team was more important than the exploits of any one player.
In the waning minutes of the first half in the game against Missouri, the Big 6 Champs of the year before, "Hermie Rohrig threw a perfect strike to Butch for a 17 yard gain on the Tiger 24. Then the pair worked another pass and Luther jumped high to snatch the oval for a touchdown." What made that catch even sweeter was that Luther "snatched it under the nose of Paul Christman, the ace of Missouri aces," helping the Huskers to come away with a 20-6 win.
Another dimension of Luther's play emerged that day. Luther began playing the safety position, because of "his outstanding work in the defensive department." A week later he demonstrated his defensive versatility against the Sooners at Norman. "He was patrolling the outlying lane when a booming punt sailed his way. Eagerly he waited for the ball to descend. When it did, Luther broke away on one of the most amazing runs of his meteoric career. Not until some 52 yards had been covered by his twinkling toes was he finally brought down. The run set up the pins for Nebraska's second score. Nebraska 13-Oklahoma 0."
Despite adverse weather. Luther had one of his finest games against Pitt, late in the season. In the first quarter he returned a punt to the Pitt 49. A few plays later he negotiated a 25-yard "snaky reverse dance" that set up the NU touchdown. In the third quarter, with "hands so numb from the cold that he had little feeling," Luther snapped up a Rohrig pitch, then lateralled off to Roy Petsch for a 14 yard advance to the Pitt 7. That set up a Vike Francis field goal, and sealed a Cornhusker victory, 9-7. Post-game Luther spoke to the press, saying that it didn't matter if he starred or not in a game. His job was to keep plugging away every play.
Today, when the Huskers are invited to a bowl game it is an accepted reward following a good season. So, it is difficult to comprehend the excitement generated by the Cornhusker bid to the Rose Bowl, following the 1940 season. It was certainly the high point in Husker football for its first 50 years. (Bob Devaney used to say that he had been here for three years before he found out that Nebraska had "lost" the Rose Bowl Game to Stanford 21-13.) The announcement set off a celebration in Lincoln that lasted for 24 hours. Classes at the University were cancelled. Students stormed the Governor's residence, demanding that Governor Cochran lead the revelers in singing the Cornhusker fight song, "There is No Place Like Nebraska." The whole state was caught up in "Rose Bowl Fever."
That important game, which resulted in a Stanford victory (21-13), showed that a good, fast team using the T-Formation could beat a good, big and strong team using the Single Wing. Veteran broadcasters Bill Stern and Ted Husing both referred to the game as their favorite. That day the T-Formation became the offense of the future. It might be said that the 1941 Rose Bowl game marked the end of innocence in College Football -- after World War II, and the advent of TV, college football became big business. Before another year went by most of the "boys" that played in that game would become the "men" of World War II. Some would not come home alive. One of these was Captain Butch Luther, who was killed Feb. 20, 1945, in Italy, the only member of the starting 11 to be killed in action in World War II. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for "Gallantry in Action." In 1946 the medal was presented to Luther's widow, Marian Bowers Luther, in ceremonies at the University. In 1986 Luther took his place in the Nebraska Football of Fame.
--With thanks to Butch's sister, Marylou Luther, for sharing clippings, programs and family photos.