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The Marine Corps changed his life in the 1950s

Posted Wednesday, December 12, 2012, at 2:12 PM

Marvin "Juicy" Sprigg
Guest Columnist

It was the summer of 1952 working as a lifeguard at the Marshall Pool and playing fast pitch softball, that this young fellow, having graduated from Missouri Valley College, was worrying about the Draft Board.

He had already seen Louie Larm with the enlistment program but couldn't decide what he should do, so he continued working for Coach Lyon, Superintendent of the Marshall Park.

Much was happening in the world, and the Korean War was in full swing. Friends were going off to enlist in various branches of the armed forces.

John Marvin Sprigg really wanted to play professional football. He was a showman in the way he sprinted in a zigzag fashion with the football tightly cupped under his shoulder as he continuously made touchdowns both at Marshall High School and Missouri Valley College.

Marvin played for Valley when they had their 41-game winning streak in 1946, 1947 and 1948. The winning streak ended in 1949 when they played the Evansville, Ind., team.

Juicy, a nickname he inherited from his dad, who sold juicy burgers at his restaurant, enjoyed playing fast pitch softball with Tom Davis, Delmont Langan and Bob Mull on the Knights of Columbus Team.

Many people come up to him today and recall the many times he would hit a ball out of the playing field into the swimming pool.

They recruited a black friend, Tate Baker, to play on the team.

Black players in most sports were unheard of due to segregation laws. Juicy recalls that Marshall High School and Missouri Valley College had no black players on their football teams. In Marshall, there was a separate school for black children, as well as separate entrances and sections in movie theaters. Blacks could not go to local restaurants.

In East Marshall, near the black segregated school, there was an area of housing for blacks only. A restaurant near the black school was owned and operated by a black man named O.C. Bruner who made the best barbecue ribs and had his own sauce.

All of this began to change in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was inherently unequal. It took many years -- into the late1960's -- much turmoil, and even bloodshed to integrate the country.

Nearing the end of summer, Juicy's thoughts again turned to playing professional football.

He also realized with a halfback or running back position, a fellow had to be in great physical condition, which he was not, having sat on a lifeguard stand all summer.

He explained how your body must be in certain gears to perform. If you are in good condition your speed is third gear, breakaway speed is fourth and fifth gear and sixth gear in the open field is a touchdown.

In September, Marvin packed a suitcase and hitchhiked to Green Bay, Wisc., where Coach Volney Ashford had given a recommendation to Coach Gene Ronzani.

He got rides to Moberly and then got a ride all the way to Green Bay with a driver of a professional golfer.

He met a man in Green Bay who bought him a ticket to Grand Rapids, Minn., to the Packer's Training Camp.

He met a reporter for the Packers who did a story on his arrival. He was given a fullback as his roommate and had watched him two years earlier go 80 yards in the Cotton Bowl.

He was from Texas Christian, 23 years old and had two powerful first names, Bobby Jack Floyd. Juicy said there were no black players he remembers due to segregation.

The most exciting football player was a professional wrestler named Dick Afflis. Dick had to turn sideways to go through the doorway at Grand Rapids. Dick also would eat three steaks each night after practice.

Dick was a guard so he just took care of things down the middle of the line. He was introduced to Tobin Rote and spent one hour a day catching passes.

He just knew that with a rookie training him, he would be sent to the middle of the field, where you get hit hard running and get sideline short passes.

Juicy caught every pass thrown over the middle and down the sidelines and never dropped any.

Coach Ronzani announced that feat to the whole squad. He got 20 minutes playing time in each half that meant he would be offered a contract. The team traveled to Grand Forks, N.D., with a split squad.

Juicy's dad, R.W. Sprigg forwarded a letter from the Draft Board for him to report to Kansas City. Coach Ronzani released him, praised him for his efforts and purchased his bus ticket to Kansas City where he joined the United States Marine Corps.

Marvin arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif. As a result of a letter from Coach Ronzani to his Officer in Charge, a captain came down to the training area and he was immediately taken out of boot camp training and moved to Marine Corps football camp and Special Services.

Marvin played second-string tailback behind Tom Carodine, former University of Nebraska player.

A few of the players on the team were Bob Goode of the Washington Redskins, Bob Griffin, Arkansas University, and Eddie Brown, San Francisco.

Again, no black players were recruited. He has two newspaper articles from The Marshall Democrat-News in 1952 telling about his time with Green Bay, his draft notice and eventual signing with the Marines.

On Dec. 7, 1952, Marvin remembers when he had a weekend leave from the Marine Corps to visit his uncle, Simeon Sprigg, in Pasadena and heard the Packers were playing the Los Angeles Rams.

Coach Ronzani invited him to be a guest at the game being played at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

While in the locker room after the game he heard someone yell out his name. It was Bob Dees, who he had played against while at Missouri Valley College.

Bob was attending college at Southwest Missouri Statein Springfield and went on to play for Green Bay.

They reminisced about that game. There had been a terrible snowstorm the night before that left about four inches of snow packed on the Valley field. The field crew worked to clear as much of the snow as possible to be able to see the yard lines.

Valley won the game. Valley was undefeated and Coach Ashford's Vikings were invited to play their second bowl game in the Cigar Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in 1949.

As luck would have it, while playing football for the Marine team, Juicy suffered a derangement of the left knee and had major surgery removing all torn cartilage.

This meant he would never be able to play football again and would not be able to return to Green Bay.

He spent two months at Balboa Hospital in San Diego, Calif. After a great deal of therapy, he was assigned to teach swimming at the Camp Pendleton Training Facility.

He saved the lives of many Marines in training when they were instructed to jump in water in heavy gear.

He refereed football and basketball; and in that capacity, he was sent to the Aleutian Islands. Even the Navy flew him all over to referee their games.

Although he never was sent to Korea, the Marine Corps Special Services kept him busy with entertainment for the troops.

When he was honorably discharged from the Marines he stayed in California for a time working, but eventually he came back to Marshall to work for Coach Lyon at the Park, also playing softball and had a full schedule of refereeing football and basketball.

Shortly after Juicy returned to Marshall, his good friend, H. Roe Bartle contacted him about a job. He was also approached about a job with a Kansas City Radio Station.

He was still devastated about not being able to return to Green Bay to play football and this so affected him that he could not make up his mind about what he wanted to do.

In 1956, Juicy obtained a job with the Marshall State School and Hospital, as the first Recreation Therapist in the State of Missouri.

One thing Marvin built that remains today on the State School campus is the baseball field south of the Spainhower building.

He worked here until 1964 when he left State Service to go to work for the cities of Neosho and Columbia.

He was a member of and held an office for the Missouri Park and Recreation Society and the National Park and Recreation Society.

He obtained his pilot's license and flew to most of the meetings in Jefferson City.

The family lived on a 150-acre farm in St. Louis County for seven years where Marvin was Director of Camp Development and Maintenance for the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis.

He continued his involvement with ball umpiring all around the area and was called on by the Commissioner to umpire many special events. He was selected to do several benefit softball games.

The most exciting was the Mizorany Jack Buck Benefit Softball Games at Fox Park.

Can you imagine that he got to know and visit with Joe Torre and Harry James one night before a game.

Looking around the field the line up was Jack Buck, pitcher; Joe Torre, catcher; Stan Musial, first base; Red Schoendiest, second base; Marty Marion, short-stop; and Mike Shannon, third base, all St. Louis Cardinals. He has the program to prove it.

Marvin had many interesting years as an umpire, traveling around the United States and umpiring National Tournaments. He always entertained spectators with his "strike" calls and other special moves.

One thing our family is sure about, if Marvin had been able to return to Green Bay, he probably would not have married Virginia Kessler and had five children, 13 grandchildren and one great grandchild, as he would have been living miles away from Marshall.

Author's note: Marvin now has a grandson, Keith Chvatal, who is a senior at Morningside, playing on their football team, which won a chance to compete at Rome, Ga. We were hoping Valley would win -- then we were going to Rome to see what Valley and Morningside would do. Things didn't happen like Marvin wanted.

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Ginny, I was very pleased to read this article about Marvin. I was his secretary for so long at the G.S.Council, and knew none of these things.

I did enjoy our working time together. I hope you, Marvin and your family are all well. It's been a long time. Please tell Marvin hi for me. I saw he is a grandpa now. Tell him I am grandma to 5-3 boys and 2 girls.

-- Posted by jerspat2@charter.net on Thu, Jul 25, 2013, at 10:00 PM

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