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A teapot sits on the mantelpiece in a house in Urbana, Ill. And while it's charming to behold, the real power of this piece of fine china is the story it holds. It's a tale about long odds, strength in the face of adversity and the 1922 Rose Bowl. NPR's Richard Harris has this audio postcard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: In October, I paid a visit to the home of Tina Gunsalus, a professor at the University of Illinois. While her husband Michael was preparing dinner, she walked into her living room and came back with a white teapot festooned with a blue floral pattern.
TINA GUNSALUS: It's a teapot that was given as part of an entire tea set to my grandmother when she was married. And she said it had been given to her and to her husband as a wedding present from the football coach who took Washington & Jefferson College to the Rose Bowl.
HARRIS: Gunsalus's grandfather was a history professor at tiny Washington & Jefferson, which had just 450 students at the time. He also helped out the football team. And she says she didn't think much about the story until she told it to her daughters.
GUNSALUS: And we all sort of looked at each other and thought, that's really odd. Washington & Jefferson is this little college in Washington, Penn. And the Rose Bowl, as a person from the University of Illinois, I happen to know is between the Big Ten and the Pac-12. So it seemed odd. And I thought, well, you know, maybe my grandmother was old, or maybe I got it wrong. And, no, I had a note from her that said that's what it was.
HARRIS: A bit of research revealed that the story was even odder than that.
GUNSALUS: Not only did they go to the Rose Bowl. It turned out that they were the first team to take an African-American quarterback with them. And the more we looked, the better this story got and the more interesting it got.
HARRIS: Other teams had actually refused to play Washington & Jefferson because of its black quarterback, a man named Pruner West. But the coach, Greasy Neale, refused to bench West, even though it once meant forfeiting a game. The team was so cash-strapped that it could only afford to buy train tickets to Pasadena for 11 players. And during the trip, near disaster struck.
GUNSALUS: In Kansas City, one of the players takes ill, gets off the train. And they think they're going to have to play the game with only 10 players. Except it turns out one of the other players had stowed away in the baggage car. So he got off the train, got on the seat that had been occupied by the player who's now in the hospital, and they went. And I think that the same 11 players played the entire game, both offense and defense.
HARRIS: Their Rose Bowl opponent was no less a team than the University of California, Berkeley Golden Bears, who were heavily favored. But amazingly, the Washington & Jefferson Presidents finished the game in a tie at zero. In fact, it was the only scoreless Rose Bowl game ever. As she recounts this story, Tina Gunsalus glances down lovingly at the teapot and its hand-painted glaze.
GUNSALUS: It's just as pretty as it can be. And we look at it, and we think about the Rose Bowl and W&J and honorable people in the 1920s and Pruner West.
HARRIS: Do you ever use the teapot?
GUNSALUS: Well, we did. We all had tea with it. And other than that, we mostly just keep it on the mantel and look at it because the more that we found out the story was true, the more worried I got about breaking it.
HARRIS: So there it rests on an ornate, oak mantelpiece, an unlikely memento of a moment in American history. Pruner West would go on to become a physician and spend his life treating patients in Alexandria, Va. And he has just been elected into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Richard Harris, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAM SPENCE'S "WINTER ICICLES")
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