Strange But True: Lucky Defeat

In 1942, Boston College was one of the most powerful football teams in America. With only one game left to play–against its archrival, Holy Cross–it was undefeated. Boston College had scored 249 points to the opposition’s 19. If the Boston team defeated Holy Cross, it would go to the Sugar Bowl. Boston College alumni were so confident of victory that they were already talking of celebrating New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, where the Sugar Bowl game would be played. And they had already scheduled a big party for the team at Boston’s top night club.

But nobody had told Holy Cross about its rivals’ plans. True, it had a mediocre 4-4-1 record, but anything can happen when rivals meet. Holy Cross had nothing to lose by taking chances, while Boston College had to be very careful.

For a while the game was close. Holy Cross scored first to take a 7-0 lead, but Boston College came right back with a touchdown. Although the point-after-touchdown failed, Boston trailed by only 7-6. That wasn’t much of a lead against one of the top ten teams in the nation.

But Holy Cross kept up the pressure. By half time it led, 20-6. And in the second half, the game turned into a rout for Holy Cross. Boston College was humbled, 55-12.

It was the end of a dream. Some other team would go to the Sugar Bowl. The Boston College supporters canceled the party at the big night club, which was called the Cocoanut Grove. The players forgot about a night of celebration and went home instead.

That night a busboy at the Cocoanut Grove tried to replace a light bulb in one of the sockets. It was dark and he could not find the socket, so he lit a match. The match set fire to an artificial palm frond.

In moments the blaze was spreading–too fast to be stopped. The entire club turned into a raging inferno. About five hundred patrons were killed in that fire, and of the four hundred who managed to escape, many were badly burned. It was one of the worst fire disasters in American history.

The members of that Boston College team still talk about that date, November 28, 1942. Because they lost a football game to Holy Cross, they did not go to the Cocoanut Grove that night. A football defeat had saved their lives.

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. People used to treat fire safety the way we treat coronavirus safety today. Bad fires still happen, but the idea of routinely checking doors, putting up lit exit signs, limiting flammable materials was seen as stupid and not the government’s business. Then people finally realized letting fire marshalls inspect buildings and shut them down for noncompliance actually stopped horrible preventable deaths, and it was actually not so hard to do the right thing.

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