FORTY-SIX YEARS ago this spring, a young man named Alfonso DiMarco was playing baseball for the University of Iowa and looking forward to his senior year as quarterback of the Hawkeye football team. He had good reason to do so--he had already broken all of the school's passing records set by 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick, for whom the school's football stadium is named.
Under DiMarco's leadership, the Hawkeyes had climbed out of the basement in the Western (Big Nine) Conference and were set to make a serious run at the Rose Bowl. But he never got to play that final season because the Big Nine suddenly (and, in light of related developments, quite arbitrarily) ended his collegiate career on what amounted to a questionable administrative technicality.
Gone with the stroke of a pen were his chances to lead the Hawkeyes to a league title, a solid shot at earning All-American honors and (certainly of tertiary importance to him) the opportunity to add to his passing records so as to put them out of reach for decades to come.
After earning All-State honors in three sports as a high schooler, the Mason City, Iowa, product enrolled at Creighton in the fall of 1941 and played football. Following the outbreak of World War II late that year, he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Bowling Green (Ohio) University for officer's training. While there he played football, basketball and baseball, with his teams playing a makeshift wartime schedule against other military installations and a few severely depleted collegiate squads.
When his training was completed, he was shipped out and spent 40 months in the Pacific with the Marines. Upon his discharge he enrolled at Iowa. He quickly emerged from a pack of quarterback hopefuls and, teaming with future NFL great Emlen Tunnell, led Iowa to its best showing in years, highlighted by a stunning season-ending 13-7 victory over national powerhouse Minnesota.
Throughout that 1947 season he was officially listed by the school, the conference and the media as a sophomore, which indeed he was.
The next season was somewhat disappointing for the team, but Al DiMarco continued to shine. Many considered him the second best quarterback in the country behind Notre Dame's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack. By the end of that season, Iowa was on an upswing and hopes were high for the next year.
In the spring of 1949, the three-man eligibility committee of the Western Conference (consisting of men from Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota) ruled that DiMarco's time in Marine training should count against his athletic eligibility and therefore end his Iowa career.
The ruling came out of left field and caught DiMarco and the Hawkeye program by surprise. It was obviously wrong for at least two reasons. By ruling that his football experience (one year at Creighton and two at Bowling Green) should count against him, the committee was in effect admitting that they had failed to do their job the previous year, which according to the committee's math, was his fourth year of competition. Depending on one's interpretation of the time spent at Bowling Green, he should have had one or three years at Iowa, but not two.
When questioned about it, the committee released a report saying they had decided to count his two years at Bowling Green as only one, since he was training for the war.
Furthermore, the country was full of college students and athletes in their late 20s, each with a unique story as to how his career had been interrupted or prompted by the war. Like DiMarco, many had played service ball during the war. With a global conflict raging and the prospect of dying young all too clear, these men could hardly be expected to consider the potential for post-war intercollegiate athletic competition when deciding whether to play a little service ball.
If the committee's stance on DiMarco's wartime competition was difficult to accept, its inconsistent application in other cases made it an outrage. That same year, dozens of other players were given permission to play under identical circumstances. That same committee allowed Lou Levanti of Illinois to play a fifth year, while Emil "Red" Sitko played his eighth year of college-level ball in 1949.
All over the country, veterans were given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to play, making DiMarco's case all the more unique, all the more unfair.
When his appeal was turned down, DiMarco accepted his fate and got on with his life. He earned a teaching degree and began teaching business and coaching at West Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School, eventually ending his career as athletic director.
As he neared his retirement in 1987, his elder son, Danny, tried to think of a good retirement gift. He finally hit upon the idea of presenting his dad with a symbolic reinstatement of his final year of athletic eligibility.
"I talked it over with some relatives," said Danny DiMarco, "and we decided that it would be perfect for him. You know, he never complained about it when I was growing up. In fact, I learned about it from someone outside the family. That's just the kind of man he is. But I know it had to gnaw at him.
"What's bad is that if he had taken it to court, he easily could have had it reversed. A first-year lawyer could have punched holes in the committee's decision. But that sort of thing just wasn't done back then."
Danny DiMarco wrote an eloquent appeal to then-Big 10 Commissioner Wayne Duke. In it, he said:
"All that, however, is water long under the bridge. It was a decision that was made and accepted, and now consigned to history. What I am asking for, then, is not some nebulous admission of wrongdoing. I am asking you to join in honoring a man who served his country in war, brought glory to his university and conference on the playing field, and has been an inspiration to the thousands of young people he taught and coached in his career."
In a phone interview conducted before Duke's retirement, the Commissioner said he was deeply moved by the appeal, but that his hands were tied. He had reviewed the case, and while he was sympathetic to the younger DiMarco's request, Duke declined to offer the honorary year of eligibility because "it might open a can of worms."
Ironically, Duke grew up in Iowa and remembered the DiMarcos as a family of great athletes. "I was playing American Legion ball against Mason City," Duke recalled in a phone interview, "and (Al's younger brother) Gus DiMarco just destroyed us. All the DiMarco brothers (Al, Gus, Nick, Levino and Jim) were great athletes."
Still, Duke would not consider granting the extra year of eligibility. He concluded that "if I were to give (DiMarco) an extra year, even if it were honorary, and even though he's in his late 60s, it might open the floodgates for others to make the same request. And some might even lead to lawsuits."
Danny DiMarco gave up his quest and settled on another retirement gift. That was a few years back. But now, with the 50th anniversary of those Iowa teams approaching, some of his extended family and friends think it might be worth trying again, maybe with the NCAA.
I'll let you know how it turns out. Hey, of all my relatives, Uncle Al has always been my favorite.
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