John Leys (Col '36) chuckles as he recalls stories from his years on the Cavalier football team.
Leys was the football team captain in 1935 and at 99 years old is the oldest surviving UVA team captain in any sport. He joined the football team in 1932, a year after Scott Stadium opened.
"One time, they ran the whole length of the field for a score and the referee ran along with the Ohio State man who scored … and the referee took his lanyard from around his neck and put it around my neck and said, 'Here, Johnny, you run. You can ref. I can't run anymore.'"Leys grew up in Lynchburg, played halfback at E.C. Glass High School and was offered a scholarship to play at Virginia, but his mother had him decline it so a student who couldn't otherwise afford to go could attend. During the summers, he worked several different jobs, including as a dance companion on a cruise ship. After graduation, Leys played professional football for the Richmond Arrows, one of six teams in the Dixie League, a minor league with teams across the mid-Atlantic. He received $25 per game. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Leys joined the U.S. Navy.
Leys, a lieutenant, was the captain of USS Landing Craft Infantry 510 on D-Day."He was 27 years old and his crew was 16, 17, 18," his daughter Carroll Langston says. "And a lot of them hadn't even been off the farm or seen the ocean."
His entire crew survived that day, which Leys describes as "chaos." He made several trips back and forth, carrying 300 men at a time to Omaha Beach. Many of those men died—some were killed by the intense shelling and others drowned under the weight of their packs.
When Leys attended UVA, students had a dress code of coats and ties and first-year students had to wear hats. The football team took trains to away games.Besides football, Leys said he also played basketball his first year and learned to play tennis one year after breaking his right arm. A friend had challenged him to climb the University Chapel tower.
"We were walking by there and somebody said, 'I bet you can't climb that tower,' and I said, 'I bet I can,'" Leys says as he starts to smile. "And he was right and I was wrong. I fell off on my head. … I still can't see well in that eye."Although the team won infrequently, Leys was named an All-American honorable mention at defensive end his senior year in 1936.
He also part of a team record that has never been broken: the longest passing play in Cavalier history. Quarterback Harry Martin threw a pass to Evan J. "Bus" Male (Col '38) "and Bus Male lateraled to me and I ran about the whole length of the field and scored," Leys says, smiling. The play was a total of 97 yards.