Maurice Britt's car was already packed with his things, and moments after his rookie season with the Detroit Lions ended with a 21-3 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, Britt was on the road, driving through the night back home to Arkansas.
The former University of Arkansas All-American wide receiver was known as "Footsie," a nod to a pair of size-13 shoes he had won at a local fair as a child. He had scholarships to play football and basketball, and that paid for him to receive a journalism degree.
Britt, though, made only a small ripple in his rookie season with the Lions. He caught just one pass in nine games, a 45-yard touchdown reception that helped the Lions beat the Philadelphia Eagles, one of just four Lions wins that season. Byron "Whizzer" White, the future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the star of that team. He had led the league in rushing his first two seasons in the NFL, and he used the money he made to pay his tuition at Yale Law School.
According to a description of the Eagles game from a May 2008 article about Britt in Army magazine, on the play before Britt's touchdown, White had caught a 12-yard pass from a young equipment manager turned fullback, Steve Belichick. Belichick would go on to have a distinguished football scouting and coaching career, and his only child, Bill, has won six Super Bowls as the coach of the New England Patriots.
None of the three men would ever play again in the NFL after that victory over Chicago ended the 1941 season. The country was a week away from the attack on Pearl Harbor, which would draw the United States into World War II, and all three would go to war. White was a Navy intelligence officer. Belichick was a Navy armed guard officer with an amphibious task force in the Pacific.
Britt, who had received an Army Reserve commission as a second lieutenant of infantry through the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps when he graduated from college, was called to active duty even before the Lions' season had ended, and he received a partial deferment so he could be with the team for that last game. His destination as he drove away from the Lions' Briggs Stadium was Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Arkansas, for induction into the Army.
Britt's playing career is barely a blip in NFL history -- that touchdown catch was the only reception of his professional career, and he would later explain he had trouble even making the team. More remarkably, football was far from the headline of his extraordinary life. The shy, 6-foot-4 honor student, who was described in the Lions' 1941 press book as liking to read, collect stamps and write feature articles (he was the sports editor of the student newspaper), became one of the most decorated soldiers of his era, the first American, according to Army magazine, to receive all four medals given by the Army for valor under fire, a man of astonishing bravery.
"War is not as heroic as we sometimes try to make it," Britt said in an interview for a 1993 feature on his life produced by NFL Films. "It's mostly filth and sorrow and grime and all the bad things and very little of the good things."
Less than a year after he left the Lions, Britt began his career in battle as a platoon leader in Casablanca as part of the landings in French North Africa. Just weeks after Casablanca was secured, Britt's regiment served as the personal bodyguards for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, where the two leaders mapped out the Allied military strategy against the Axis for the next year.
"I saw him throw 10 to 12 grenades, German fire coming back all the time. We thought we'd be overrun. Always, I saw Lt. Britt out in front. He was a one-man army." -- Witness describing Maurice Britt's actions in an assault on Monte Rotundo
Britt next was part of the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, which included one of the longest marches of the war -- 54 miles in 33 hours. After Sicily was captured, Britt was part of the assault landing on the Italian mainland that September, and it was there, after his company commander was injured and evacuated, that Britt assumed command. He received honors for his leadership and bravery in leading an assault on an enemy machine gun position, and he received one of his multiple Purple Hearts. In October, he won more commendations for his actions while engaging the enemy near Monte San Nicola, which allowed another unit to launch an attack.
With cold and wet weather settling in that November, Britt's battalion was part of an assault on Monte Rotundo, a position that allowed the Germans to control a major road that led to Rome. The fighting was particularly protracted and often at close range -- at one point, according to soldiers Britt commanded, he was exchanging fire with enemies who were just 15 yards away. The unit was ill-equipped for the weather and was undermanned, and the Germans were able to advance. According to the Army magazine story, Britt fired 75 rounds from his carbine.
A transcript of eyewitness accounts of Britt's actions that day, read aloud in the NFL Films feature, capture the unimaginable fighting and heroism:
"He ran from side to side of our machine gun position, firing at every sight of Germans," according to one recollection. "I saw Lt. Britt, having run out of ammo, picking up hand grenades, disregarding enemy gunfire around him."
Another soldier recalled, according to the transcripts: "I saw him throw 10 to 12 grenades, German fire coming back all the time. We thought we'd be overrun. Always, I saw Lt. Britt out in front. He was a one-man army."
And another: "His canteen was pierced with bullet holes. His shirt was covered with blood and water. I asked him if he wanted to go to the field hospital. He replied, 'No, I have to stay on this hill and help these boys.' "
Monte Rotundo was secured, and Britt was ordered to get medical attention for his wounds. It was later reported that Britt had thrown 32 grenades in that fight. A story in the Detroit Free Press was headlined: "Nazis Thrown for Loss. 'Footsie' Britt, ex-Lion, Kills 11 Germans in Italy."
In the story, Lt. Col. Lionel McGarr, Britt's commanding officer, was quoted saying, "Britt fired his rifle at them, he threw grenades and at the finish I believe he was even throwing rocks."
For his actions at Monte Rotundo, Britt would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. He received the award in June of 1944, on the football field at the University of Arkansas, where he had starred.
"His bold, aggressive actions, utterly disregarding superior enemy numbers, resulted in capture of four Germans, two of them wounded, and enabled several captured Americans to escape," read Britt's Medal of Honor citation. "Lt. Britt's undaunted courage and prowess in arms were largely responsible for repulsing a German counterattack, which, if successful, would have isolated his battalion and destroyed his company."
By the time Britt received the Medal of Honor, his combat career was over. Three months after Monte Rotundo, during intense fighting in Anzio, Italy, Britt and a few others took refuge in a farmhouse that was hit by a German tank shell. Britt's right arm was severed below his elbow, his leg was fractured and three toes were broken. Army magazine reported that, amid the rubble, Britt picked up his lost limb and said, "I always figured it would happen this way." Even as he was recovering, he took part in a national tour to support the war-bond drive.
The veteran of four amphibious combat landings was discharged in December of 1944, little more than three years after his Lions career ended. He returned to Arkansas, briefly attended law school and became a successful businessman. Known as a happy campaigner, he was twice elected the state' s lieutenant governor. He served 14 years as the Arkansas district director of the Small Business Administration.
According to Army magazine, Britt was in nearly constant pain from the injuries he suffered during the war, and a piece of shrapnel remained lodged in his left foot. He died in 1995 of heart failure, at age 76.
"Of course, I would like to have been able to continue my football career," Britt said in the NFL Films feature. "It just never occurred to me to think that far ahead. Getting through the war, coming back, of course, was the paramount interest to me. That's what I was planning all the time, to get back."
Later in the interview, he added, "Under the circumstances, and looking back on it and what happened and what has happened since, I have no regrets, because I did serve my country, I did my duty. And losing an arm was a very small price to pay. I feel like I was one of the lucky ones. The real heroes of war are the ones that didn't come back. They're the ones that paid the supreme sacrifice. I've had a good life. And I've said this many times: My country has been good to me. My state has been good to me. I've had a good life, and I wouldn't change a thing."