Robert “Boots” Chouinard: From Battlefields to Boston College
Robert Chouinard ’50 dreamed of a college football career. After getting drafted into the Army, he thought his opportunity was lost, but it was only just beginning.
By Ellie Crowley ’23
When Robert Chouinard ’50 was five years old, his mother told him to run to the store to pick up milk. Winter was slowly dwindling in his small town of Newburyport, and the snow banks that had been taller than Robert now formed rivers that trickled down into the gutters. Robert put on a big pair of boots and grabbed his toy boat, which was attached to a string, and he dragged it through the gutters as he marched down the street. The store owner took one look at Robert with his oversized footwear and his little toy boat and coined him “Boots,” a nickname that stuck with Robert from high school, to serving in the US Army, to his time spent playing football at Boston College.
Boots had dreamed of playing football in college since he was a little boy. “When I was a boy I prayed to God, ‘Please Jesus, help me be a football player and play in college.’ And I ended up doing it,” he says. Boots’s football career did not begin at BC. Rather, it began when he was drafted into the Army. Chouinard attended a military school in Virginia with the aim of doing a post-grad year in order to play college football. However, when World War II began he was forced into active duty. “We couldn’t go back for another year of prep school, so I had to go into the Army. I was going to go into the Marines [but] my mother pleaded with me not to, so I ended up in the Army,” Chouinard explains.
Chouinard was stationed in Europe as an Army corporal for a little under three years, serving on the frontlines in Austria and France. When the war ended, Chouinard was sent to France to guard a German prison camp. It took the Army some time to return all the troops home, so in the meantime, they formed a football league.
“I played for a football team in France. We played against other bases, and we played at a German prison camp—the coach of the team was Ron Corbett ’42, a BC graduate,” he recalls. Boots’s first introduction to BC football came while he was serving in France. As his team continued to travel around Europe for games, he met other Eagles whose academic careers had been disrupted when they were drafted into the war. Yet, football in the Army after WWII was a bit different than the standards Chouinard would soon grow accustomed to at BC.
“We played on a hayfield,” Chouinard recalls. “It wasn’t a grass field like a football stadium. It was a hayfield, and they marked it with chalk and put wooden goal posts up. People—mostly soldiers—would come to see the game, and they lined up along the sidelines in trucks. [Even] our locker room was a truck, so we sat in the back of a truck at halftime. We had a couple of German prisoners who were doctors, so they were our team doctors.”
Despite the challenge of playing a game with mostly amateur players in subpar conditions and without any proper equipment, Chouinard believes that playing football in the Army ultimately made him a better player in college. “We played teams without any knowledge of who they were or what they had in store for our offense,” Chouinard said. “We didn’t know until the game started what we were going to face. We didn’t know anything about one another. We had to use our heads, you know. We were on our own. And I think that helped me a great deal.”
Chouinard remembers one specific game he played while abroad that significantly impacted the rest of his college football career. His coach, Ron Corbett, arranged for his team to travel to England to play another Army base there. “We flew from Cherbourg, France, to London,” Chouinard says. “The plane was one that they would drop paratroopers out of.” The conditions in London were superior to the hayfields of France, and Chouinard’s team played in a stadium with spectators. As team captain, Chouinard lined his players up on the field and looked over to their opponent whose leader was John Furey ’49, at that time the captain of the BC football squad. As fate would have it, Boots found himself at BC playing football alongside Furey once again, one month after he returned home from the war.
Now 98 years of age, Chouinard is one of BC’s oldest living alumni, and he looks back on his time spent playing football at BC very fondly. “It was two-way football,” he said, recalling how the game was played differently in those days. “It wasn’t one-way like it is today. When we played, we played. We stayed in the game. We didn’t come out. We’d probably play a quarter, then get relieved for a bit and go back in again. I liked that, playing both ways.”
Back in his day, BC did not have the expansive football facilities and equipment that it has now. “All our games were on a baseball field,” Chouinard reminisces. The Boston Braves would play a game, and on Saturdays, we would play football. And we used to get 40 to 50,000 people at a game there. So we never played on campus at BC. We did have a small, wooden, old-fashioned stadium there that we practiced on. Otherwise, we played at the Braves field all the time. It wasn’t like having your own field.” Despite the lackluster facilities, Chouinard and the BC team made a name for themselves in college football. They played teams that are now among the biggest programs in the nation, like Michigan State, Tennessee, and Alabama (who Chouinard notes that they beat).
When asked if he had any advice for current BC students, Chouinard recommends taking advantage of living on campus. As one of the first boarders at BC, he lived in what were essentially war barracks, which were familiar to him and most other students after they returned from overseas. Despite the rough conditions he lived in during his time at BC, Chouinard says, “I think living right there with all the other students is an asset and more fun. You get to know one another so much.”
After leaving BC, Chouinard had the opportunity to continue his football career at the professional level. “I had a chance to go to the Green Bay Packers,” he recalls. “They wanted me to come, and I gave it a pretty good amount of thought. Professional football back in 1950 was in its infancy. And they weren’t paying the money that they are today,” Boots quips. “All of those guys had to get additional jobs.”
Though Chouinard did not end up playing professional football, he did continue to foster his love for sports. He became a physical education teacher and coached various teams at Salem High School, all the while regaling his students and players with his passion for football and his tales of triumph on the hayfields of Europe.
About the author: Ellie Crowley ’23, from Arlington, Massachusetts, is a senior in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences studying English.