Legendary University of Illinois football coach Bob Zuppke once described Art Dufelmeier as the second Red Grange, but just a step slower than the “Galloping Ghost.”
Born in Beardstown on July 21, 1923, Dufelmeier was a standout athlete during his Beardstown High School years. In his senior year of 1941, Dufelmeier received all-state basketball honors. His speed and agility earned him the “Flying Dutchman” nickname.
It came as no surprise when he received a scholarship to play basketball at Illinois, but he would be best remembered for his years playing and coaching football.
Dufelmeier won his first collegiate letter in football in 1942, but then put his career on hold to fight in World War II. The young athlete enlisted in the Army Air Corps, a decision that nearly cost him his life.
While on a mission over occupied France, Dufelmeier’s B-24 was shot down. He was captured by the Germans. He survived 11 months in a German POW camp, but lost about 35 pounds.
Three years before his death, he commented on his POW experience during an interview with Gatehouse News Service sports reporter John Supinie. “It wasn’t that bad,” Dufelmeier said. “You just didn’t have food.”
The comment was so very typical of Dufelmeier. He was tough, but he also was very humble, rarely talking about himself. Many people, including students he coached, did not know he had been a POW until after he died.
Following the war, Dufelmeier returned to Champaign to resume his academic studies. In later years, Dufelmeier acknowledged that he didn’t know if he would make the team. Like other veterans, he wondered if he might be too old and too slow to play the college game. Coach Ray Eliot liked the speedy veteran. The Flying Dutchman would soar again at Memorial Stadium.
This 1946 Fighting Illini team of kids and veterans was unlike any team that had or would ever again play for the university. It was ready to write a new chapter in Illini history.
The season began with a 33-7 win over Pittsburgh, but they lost the next game at home to Notre Dame by a 26-6 margin. Following a win over Purdue and a loss to Indiana, the Illini went on to roll up five straight wins. These included victories over three ranked teams: Northwestern (5), Ohio State (9) and Iowa (11). With an 8-2 season and the Big Ten Conference championship, the Illini were set to face the fifth ranked UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl.
That season, Dufelmeier and Claude “Buddy” Young shared the backfield, rushing for a combined total of more than 900 yards. Oddly, neither made the all-conference or All-America teams. Only right guard and future Cleveland Browns’ star Alex Agase would receive that honor.
Next: Dufelmeier goes to the Rose Bowl and takes on coaching.