Homer Paine died Monday. Jim Tyree died in April. Lee Roy Neher in December.
Jack Mitchell died last July. Homer McNabb two months before that.
Plato Andros died in 2008, Buddy Burris in 2007. Harry Moore died in 2006, Stan West in 2005.
"Not many of us left," said Charlie Sarratt, who shares a bond with those heroes and dozens more. Millions more, really, but a deeper bond with those dozens.
The Greatest Generation.
Greatest Generation of Americans. Greatest Generation of Sooners.
The men who fought and won a world war, then came to the University of Oklahoma and ignited a football tradition that remains ablaze.
Their ranks are thinned.
Of the more than 16 million Americans who were part of the U.S. armed forces during World War II, about two million remain alive. Only a handful of those veterans also played football for Jim Tatum and/or Bud Wilkinson.
Sarratt is in Edmond. Claude Arnold and Earl Hale are here in Oklahoma City. Merle Dinkins is over in Shawnee. Wade Walker is out in California. Gene Heap and Darrell Royal are in Texas.
"I love these guys," said 75-year-old Norman Lamb, a lifelong Sooner fan, a former state politician and a longtime friend of Homer Paine. "I'm a firm believer in dead noses smell no roses."
So a salute is in order to honor Paine and his comrades who went before, and these regal men who remain in our midst.
"If you're a season-ticket holder," Lamb said, "if you enjoy OU-Texas weekend, thank these guys. They started it all.
"If you get chills at Boomer Sooner, then thank God for these guys who survived large, underfed families, the Great Depression, the hell of World War II and Jim Tatum's football practices in 1946."
* * *
Merle Dinkins graduated Blackwell High School in 1942, went to OU, joined the Naval ROTC, got commissioned and headed out for the Pacific in 1945, near war's end.
Dinkins was an assistant engineer officer on a destroyer off a little island.
"You talk about a country boy from Oklahoma," Dinkins said. "I didn't know the bow from the stern. I don't know how we won the war."
Dinkins went to see his chief and said "I need help."
The officer was gentle. Told Dinkins he would be fine because Dinkins had come to the right man for help and it was always good to see a sailor admit he didn't know a damn thing.
Dinkins spent six months in the Pacific, including patrol after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That's the story of all these guys, with varying details. Farm boys and college students, without a care in the world, suddenly fighting Nazis and the Japanese.
You've heard some of these tales before. But they never get old.
Buddy Burris earned three battle stars fighting in both Europe and the Philippines. Ken Tipps was a bombardier/navigator on B-29s in Guam.
Paine's old football knee injury flared up in the Army; he was transferred to an anti-tank unit, where he rode instead of walked. Probably saved his life. Paine's previous infantry unit was virtually wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge.
Dee Andros was a field cook but shed his apron at Iwo Jima and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism beyond the call of duty. Jake McAllister spent 40 months as a combat engineer fighting the Japanese.
Big John Rapacz was a Marine who stormed the island of Roi in the South Pacific, digging foxholes to avoid Japanese fire. McNabb spent three years as a Marine, enduring a skin burn across his back during savage fighting in Saipan and Iwo Jima.
Eddy Davis was wounded in the battle of the Rhineland, tripping a Nazi land mine, and laid in various Army hospitals for six months.
Moore was a Marine lieutenant on the U.S.S. Idaho, earning four battle stars.
"We had 'em all the way from Iwo Jima to the Battle of the Bulge," Sarratt said of the future Sooners. "As a group, we were very proud of what we got into, and we got done all those things we needed to do."
* * *
These boys-to-men came back to the States in 1946, having done their duty to Uncle Sam, but someone else sought their services.
Jim Tatum Wants You.
That was the message of the new OU coach, hired in January to jump-start Sooner football and counter the Grapes of Wrath image afflicting the state. Tatum's military connections — during the war, he coached military teams at Iowa Pre-Flight and Jacksonville Naval Air Station — gave him the jump on recruiting war veterans.
Virtually the entire OU roster turned over from 1945. Former Sooners like Joe Golding, Myrle Greathouse, Davis, Tyree and Dinkins returned to campus.
Players who had been at other schools before entering the military — Mitchell at Texas, Sarratt at Clemson, McAllister at Alabama, Paine and Burris at Tulsa — enrolled at OU. Boys who had gone straight from high school to the war (Royal, Buddy Jones, Stan West) came back as freshmen in their 20s.
Tatum recruited maniacally. Tatum went to New Orleans to retrieve Paine, who was planning to play at Tulane under Henry Frnka, his Tulsa coach who had changed jobs. Tatum met the great Jack Mitchell at the train station in Ark City, Kan., to talk him out of going back to the Longhorns.
And Tatum brought along several players who played military football during the war. Walker, Rapacz, Newt Trotter, Johnny Alsup and Warren Giese all were on Tatum's Jacksonville Naval team.
"Older people with a definite cause" is how Walker described the collection of OU ballplayers in 1946. "We were not there piddling around."
West, for example, already had started a career, working at Champlin Oil in Enid for $150 a month. He had to be talked into even talking with Tatum. Eventually, West decided to enroll and stayed in football as a coach or scout for more than 30 years.
Tatum coached a football team unlike anything the sport has seen before or since. Four years of recruiting classes rolled into one. War-tested maturity. Unbelievable competition.
"It changed you," Sarratt said. "You knew you had to do something. You knew you had to do it quick."
Tatum's tryouts and practices were legendary. Tales over the years told of 350 players on the field that spring and summer, but Lamb said Paine told him there were only about 150 players trying out for Tatum scholarships. Other players agree that number is close to right.
But the toughness of those tryouts has not been exaggerated.
"My God, I never saw so many football players," Dinkins said. "Blood on the moon every day. It was scrimmaging and toughness every damn day."
Claude Arnold didn't last. He had been an OU freshman in 1942, then entered the military. He came back four years later to find the Sooners running the Split-T, which was not conducive to his passing talents, and a quarterback logjam that included two all-time greats, Mitchell and Royal, plus Dave Wallace. Arnold was beat up and out of shape and eventually decided to quit.
Arnold played intramural football for two years, then in 1948, with three years eligibility remaining, he returned to the varsity and in 1950 quarterbacked OU to the national championship.
The 1946 Sooners were stunningly competitive; their 21-7 loss at mighty Army to kick off the season, a game that was tied 7-7 at halftime, might be the important OU game ever, stamping the Sooners as a legit threat.
Said Dinkins, "I've always thought Tatum, whether most people believe it or not, was the start of OU's big-time football."
* * *
But Tatum didn't last. He rubbed administrators wrong. Rubbed regents wrong. Truth is, rubbed players wrong.
When Tatum made noises about jumping to Maryland, OU was more than happy to let him go. The Sooner leadership had wanted Wilkinson to be the coach from the start.
Tatum had brought along the youthful Wilkinson to Norman, and the promotion of Wilkinson was automatic after Tatum left.
Wilkinson's success — three national titles in 17 seasons, the 47-game winning streak — and meticulous coaching is well-known.
But what's often overlooked is the timing. 1947 and that group of football players were the perfect time and place for Wilkinson to take over a football team.
He was dignified. Smart. A commanding personality without raising his voice.
Think how that played to a bunch of war veterans who had been subjected to military discipline.
"Homer Paine loved Bud Wilkinson," Norman Lamb said. "He treated them as gentlemen. Said he'd never been treated that way in his life."
Claude Arnold said Tatum "wasn't nearly as smooth as Bud Wilkinson. Not nearly as likable. More of a hard-ass kind of guy.
"Completely different guy from Tatum. We were aware of that when he (Wilkinson) was the top assistant. He was several cuts above."
Dinkins said Wilkinson changed the culture of OU football. Even before the war, in the Snorter Luster days, Dinkins said the typical Sooner "chewed tobacco and kissed every girl." They were like Plato Andros, the raw-edged Sooner who was "rougher than a cob."
Wilkinson changed that. Dinkins recalls a squad meeting before that 1946 Army game, a trip that included a stay in the historic Hotel Pennsylvania and dinner at the glitzy Cafe Rouge.
"I want you guys to know this," Wilkinson said. "When you're representing the University of Oklahoma, I want you to dress neat, act like gentlemen. I expect that out of you."
Said Dinkins, "It was the darndest thing." The days were over of Sooners throwing wet napkins at each other over dinner. "It made a hell of a lot of difference in what OU football was before the war and what it was after the war," Dinkins said.
The Sooners responded well to dignified authority.
"We'd all been to war, and we knew we had to obey the man at the top," Stan West told OU historian Harold Keith for his Wilkinson-era book, "47 Straight."
Wilkinson was just 30 years old when he became the head coach.
"We were just about as old as he was," Sarratt said. "He didn't have to tell us but one time. Our discipline was already built in. We knew what we had to do. We'd been exposed to a world that had a problem. We solved that, then started looking for our future."
By the 1948 season, the Sooners were Sugar Bowl champs. In 1949, they were undefeated with one of the greatest senior classes in football history. By 1950, they were national champs and had a 31-game winning streak.
The foundation was laid. The championships and bowl games and sold-out crowds and statewide fan base all stemmed from those guys who won a war before they started winning football games.
"We were grown men, in our 20s, we were a little more mature and had gone through more things," Sarratt said. "Our mindset was really good. We knew what we needed to do.
"We were a close-knit bunch. Still are.
"It was a great bunch of people. Brought 'em in from just about every area. It was a great ride, I know that.
"We realize it a lot more than we used to. That feeling's still there."
The 86-year-old Sarratt gets more excited the longer he talks. Says he feels like he could play one more quarter.
But that's not necessary. Sarratt and his old pals have done plenty.
"They were something special," Sarratt says of the many who have died and the few who remain. "A closeness you can't believe. It lights me now just to think about it."
Berry Tramel: (405) 760-8080; Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.