Bryan Sperry was standing on the Kansas sideline, an 89-year-old man with stories of fighting for his country and coming home to play college football.
Sperry was 17 years old when he first left home to play football at Kansas State. He was 19 when he served as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, the large and bloody battle in the final years of World War II. Three years later, in his early 20s, he was hauling in a pass for Kansas in the 1948 Orange Bowl.
If that sounds like quite a life, well, yes, that’s true. It’s been close to 70 years since Sperry suited up for a college football game, but on Saturday afternoon, at age 89, he pulled on a blue KU jersey and headed out onto the Memorial Stadium turf, playing in Kansas’ alumni scrimmage before its annual spring football game.
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Sperry finished the scrimmage with a stirring touchdown jaunt. But the story of how he came to play football at Kansas is just as compelling. The tale includes a freshman season at K-State, a college career interrupted by World War II, and a brief stint as a football player at a university in England.
In the months after the war ended, Sperry says, he wished to return home to Kansas and finish college. But the process of returning soldiers home by boat took months, so the military sent Sperry to a university in England to wait. While there, he says, he played 13 games for the school’s football team, a mix of professionals and college players and high school graduates with limited football experience.
“A hodgepodge,” Sperry said.
Finally, he returned home in February of 1946 and headed for a tryout, mostly for veterans, held by then Kansas football coach George Sauer.
“I went and asked him if I could go out,” Sperry said. “He didn’t know who I was.
“He asked if I could block and tackle. I said I thought I could. He says come on out. We had 138 guys. First time we lined up, I was on the 13th team.”
The Jayhawks finished 7-2-1 in 1946 and then appear in the Orange Bowl the next season. With a team captained by KU legends Otto Schnellbacher and Don Fambrough, the Jayhawks went 8-1-2, their only loss coming to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Sperry finished his career in 1948 under new head coach J.V. Sikes. In the process, he says, he played alongside his brother, Kenneth, and became at least one answer in an interesting trivia question.
“There aren’t many people that are lettermen of both KU and K-State,” said Sperry, who lives in Pittsburg.
After finishing his career at Kansas, he spent decades as a high school football coach and math instructor at Pittsburg State. He still retains an academic’s mind. Sperry is the kind of person that can recite specific World War II history from memory. Specific battles. Pivotal moments. Forgotten moments. (“We finished it in Germany,” he says.)
He is the kind of person that will tell you that he played “end” while at Kansas, and it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking about offense or defense, because, as he says, “Well, we played both ways in those days.”
These days, Sperry says, there aren’t many living members from that 1947 Orange Bowl team. Sperry estimates close to a dozen or so. So a few months ago, when he heard that KU, his old football program, was having an alumni scrimmage before its spring game, Sperry thought that sounded like a great idea.
“That was fun,” Sperry said. “I didn’t know if I could run.”