THE LEGEND OF JOE NAGATA: AN LSU ODYSSEY
Updated: May 19, 2021
Dedicated to LSU Professor Chao Wang, PHD.
I made a promise to you.
Also good friends Casey Kariya, Matt Miya, Kyle Robinson and Kevin Johnson.
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Recently, "Joe" has fast become a name which signifies purple & gold greatness, from Joe Burrow to Joe Brady, although when one turns back the pages of Louisiana State football lore, you'll find "another Joe" who transcended the barriers of a name altogether, sealing a legacy of triumph over hate & love over intolerance...all while remaining a firm, proud ambassador for the Great State of Louisiana:
Who am I referring to?
Joe Nagata....don't you dare forget the name.
While establishing a rarefied place in our university's history on the field as well as becoming an unlikely & unforgettable emblem of Tiger diversity away from the sidelines, fullback Joe Nagata not only represented the purple & gold....he also wore the red, white & blue in a time of world war, serving his country just as his collegiate footballing development truly began.
Winning an Orange Bowl for LSU before sacrificing sports glory for the love of his country, Joe Nagata stands as a legendary Tiger among the pantheon of LSU greats.
We celebrate Joe Nagata here at LSU Odyssey as we celebrate the indelible mark Asian-Americans have made on our purple & gold history....and when you realize his overall impact, you'll never forget the name:
Nagata, the son of an Irish-American mother (Edith) and Japanese-American father (Yoshiyuki), was actually born in Montgomery, Alabama after his father emigrated to Chicago to join Joe's Uncle Sam. However, like all true Tigers, the Nagata family didn't stay in Alabama for long, quickly relocating to Louisiana and opening the Eunice French Market.
While Eunice residents held the Nagata family in high regard, considering the family "one of them", this positive Cajun sentiment didn't stop the federal government from believing otherwise:
After Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th 1941, the U.S government began interrogating, detaining and even imprisoning entire Japanese-American families for suspected espionage (sending innocent people to internment camps such as Topaz Mountain); it only took a few days for Nagata's family to find out they weren't immune from the same racial persecution.
In December 1941, Yoshiyuki and Edith's Eunice French Market store was raided by FBI agents who ransacked the store for suspected "Pearl Harbor-related" evidence.
At the end of their prolonged harassment of the Nagata family, federal agents seized $400 ($6,600 adjusted for inflation) as well as a Philco radio, imprisoned & interrogated Joe's father, impounded the family car, shut down the Nagata business for days, and in the end...of course...these agents found nothing...
Still, as local Cajuns rallied around the Nagata family, Joe carried on amidst the ever-growing backdrop of war, rising above the racism & suspicion when he found his first higher calling: football.
Born to play football, Joe was an All-state star on both offense and defense throughout his time at Eunice High School, bouncing away from tacklers, dishing out devastating blows as a ball-carrier, perfecting the art of the I-formation blocking scheme, and becoming known for his trademark speed.
It wasn't long before LSU offered him a football scholarship....now, Nagata was a Tiger:
Joe played fullback at LSU under legendary Head Coach Bernie Moore during his 1942 freshman and 1943 sophomore campaigns, totaling 180 all purpose yards from just 41 snaps, resulting in 4.4 yards per carry...a high tally for the ultra-defensive era in which he played.
Despite being loved by Eunice locals for his football stardom, Joe Nagata wasn't immediately embraced at LSU, suffering racist catcalls from opponents during most games and sadly even enduring racist moans from his own crowd.
Even his fellow Tigers had their doubts at first, however that reluctance quickly changed when Joe produced a savage hit on Burt Goode during a practice, staring down with knowing, pursed lips at his approving teammates.
Soon enough, the stigma from LSU's fanbase would also evaporate following Nagata's instrumental role against bitter foes Texas A&M in the 1944 Orange Bowl.
Leading the charge at halfback was "red haired sensation" Steve Van Buren, amassing 3 touchdowns during the game (including 2 passing scores in the first quarter), setting an all-time LSU mark of 16 total TDs on the season...a record which stood until 1977.
While Van Buren's 3 TDs would steal the headlines, it was LSU's promising young Japanese-American fullback who pulled off crucial runs, heavy duty blocks & full throated tackles to get the Tigers over the line.
Though his fumble would allow A&M back into the game to pull close 19-14, Nagata's renegade final play with teammate Bill Schroll sealed the Tigers' then-biggest bowl victory.
Playing defense for the Tigers, Joe atoned for his earlier fumble when future LA Ram Bill Schroll picked off Jim Hallmark's pass; immediately Schroll ran straight into trouble and without hesitation, lateraled the ball back to an on-rushing Joe Nagata.
As the Miami sun kissed Joe's gold #11 jersey, the legendary Tiger caught the lateral and burst free towards daylight, reaching the sideline while carrying the ball (as well as a few Aggies) inside the A&M five yard line before finally being taken down....ending any chances of a comeback.
After the Orange Bowl win, there was a growing buzz about Louisiana State's young fullback; whispers that Coach Moore was considering Nagata a 1944 starter roamed across the land.
Amid the flurry of Joe's newfound acceptance from LSU's fanbase or his rising football future, by the time spring 1944 came around, a second higher calling found Joe: soldier.
Immediately following Louisiana State's 1943 season, Joe volunteered for a tour of duty in Italy alongside many young men of his generation....but his World War II experience was far from typical:
Receiving eight different honors for his service (including the Bronze Star) Nagata joined the Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a "tough as nails" / "highly decorated" Japanese-American squad who's valor remains unparalleled across the timeline of modern combat, winning the obsession of famed General George Patton and still being studied by high-ranking West Point cadets to this day.
Made up entirely of Nisei soldiers (second generation Japanese-Americans), the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were among the most highly respected, chronicled and mythologized squads in U.S military history and the most decorated of its size.
Fighting across key engagements in Southwestern Europe, these warriors earned over 18,000 honors during World War II combat operations, including just over 4,000 Bronze Star and 4,000 Purple Heart medals, for the most part earned by soldiers who fought while their families remained imprisoned in domestic internment camps.
Staff Sergeant Joe Nagata was among these brave Nisei fighting during the brutal engagement of Po Valley, sitting below the Austrian-Alps.
These badlands consisted of flat terrain littered with mines and rows of fortified Nazi machine gun nests overlooking the valley from above, always with complete visibility...at least during the day.
Dubbed the Gothic Line, this "Hell's Gate" from Northern Italy into the Austrian Alps stood as an impenetrable barrier into Germany....one which Allied Forces had failed to crack since their arrival on European soil.
The 442nd had other plans...
Under cover of darkness, these Nisei forces trekked through the valley during the cloak of night, moving through fields and hills neither heard nor seen, not one man among them uttering a word.
Complete silence was absolutely paramount or not only would the mission be a failure, but the 442nd could find themselves caught in a hailstorm of Nazi bullets. Emphasizing this point, as they made their way up the treacherous foothills of the Alps, a single Nisei soldier fell 300 feet to his death "without uttering a sound".
At dawn on April 5th 1945, the 442nd attacked the Germans and took the Gothic Line, critically handing the Allied Forces another pathway into Berlin.
The 442nd's dawn raid was a bold and brave attack, with men like Private Sadao Munemori willingly pouncing on a live grenade to save his surrounding Nisei. He passed away from the wounds just four months before his 23rd birthday.
Joe's experiences in World War II shaped him, although to what degree remains slightly more of a mystery, according to his widow Jen:
“He did not speak about it. Every so often, Joe would say something. Usually he just said 'the men he served with were the bravest he had ever known'. Joe and the men he served with were all volunteers. Some of those men were living in internment camps, yet they signed up. Joe said he volunteered because he and the others wanted to 'prove they were there for America'.”
Returning to Louisiana as a war hero, and of course re-enrolling at LSU while stories of his Orange Bowl exploits were still fresh, Joe even met his future wife Jen on campus....you would think everything was rosy throughout his time in Baton Rouge.
But in a time of segregation and rampant racial prejudice, Nagata's journey to Tiger immortality was anything but smooth.
First Joe was the player, then Nagata became a soldier......finally, perhaps his most critical higher calling may have been as mentor when he accepted the head coaching position at Eunice High.
"Coach Nagata inspired me," Darrel Brown told the New York Times, recounting his days playing under the former Tiger and honored war veteran.
Darrel Brown & Joe Nagata's friendship lasted for nearly four decades, with Darrel following in his mentor's footsteps as a Eunice High player, coach & principal, culminating in Nagata pushing his apprentice towards a Master's Degree and his current position as the first African-American superintendent of St. Landry Parish schools.
Darrel Brown is a success story from Nagata's era as Eunice High's Head Coach turned principal, yielding multiple Coach of the Year honors.....yet it was through the hardest days of his tenure where Joe made his most lasting impact:
Taking the reins in 1951 and leading the program during a time of segregation, then integration, followed and preceded by racial violence (experiencing fatal stabbings & parking lot brawls at the school itself) and social / political change / upheaval throughout the 1960s, it would be 23 years before Joe accepted the school principal position.
During the school's turbulent integration era, Coach Nagata grew to be viewed as a strong leader in the community, doing everything he could to calm racial tensions amidst the violence and walk outs.
When one of his black players was wrongfully arrested for a stabbing at Eunice, the Coach displayed his true nature:
Before the young man was cleared of all charges, Coach Nagata made sure to visit him every day during his week-long stay in the local jail, often sneaking cigarettes and other time-passing contraband through the bars.
Though Coach Nagata received death threats over the course of his era (to the point he enforced steel plates behind his front door), nothing could shake Joe as he navigated Eunice High through the turbulent, imperfect waters of desegregation, showing extreme loyalty to the community during one of their most dire hours of need.
Speaking to Eunice High School's newly integrated 1969 squad, Joe recalled his time at LSU saying he vividly remembered having "things thrown at him...getting booed" by the away and home supporters according to Darrel Brown:
“I think he tried to correlate that with integration. He was letting us know that he had been through a similar situation. He was giving us a sense of security that things were going to work out.”
Later coaching St. Edmund High to a pair of state titles, Joe impacted the lives of many more than just football players, aiding students as both a coach and principal at both high schools:
One-time Eunice Police Chief Tony Fuselier went to both St. Edmund and Eunice High while Joe Nagata coached there, telling nola.com:
“When people talk about Joe to this day, they recall the guidance that he gave to them. It wasn’t just the athletes that got advice from him. There are people even now who say that Joe’s guidance affected their lives, set them on the right path.”
At the heart of it all, Joe never stopped having fun:
When shaking the hand of a defeated opposing coach, Nagata always recommended the following prescription after a loss:
"Two aspirins and a six-pack; if you don’t have aspirins, don’t worry about it."
After a life of public service, a pair of 4-AA Coach of the Year awards in 1964 and 1966, two state championships, an Orange Bowl victory as a Tiger, as well as his eight esteemed military honors during World War II, Joe retired at the dawn of the millennium due to ailing health.
Joe Nagata passed away in 2001 having lived the fullest of lives...from Death Valley's hallowed ground to the badland battlefields within Northern Italy's war zone, traversing everything life threw his way: From racism to FBI raids, death threats, fascist bullets, community violence....throughout it all, he triumphed, not merely for himself but for others, positively shaping the lives of the coming generation incalculably.
At the end of the day, Joe's legacy can't be measured by banners, rings, medals or trophies....everything cosmically boils down to how many lives you've changed, sacrifices made and truths laid bare.
In that statistic, Joe Nagata stands alone.
RIP JOE NAGATA
LSU TIGERS LEGEND
& AMERICAN PATRIOT FOREVER
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
SHOUTOUTS: All my Asian Tiger friends, in America or abroad, we love, welcome & cherish what you've established at LSU. This site will continue to remain steadfast in our commitment for racial & economic equity.
To quote The Who's Pete Townsend, in honor of our most needed Asian Heritage Month this May, let us all "join together".