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  • Jacob MacGregor

The Legacy of Matt Urban ‘41— A Model of Resilience Then and Now

Matt Urban, considered the most decorated soldier in United States history, began 1941 as an undergraduate Cornell student-athlete. While in Ithaca, Urban studied history and government, competed on the track and boxing teams, and was part of the campus ROTC group.

Big Red Athletics have evolved since Urban’s day. The Ivy League was not formalized until 1956. Today, Cornell has 37 varsity sports for both men and women, but then, the university boasted only men’s teams. Now a hockey-crazed campus, Cornell Men’s hockey played only 7 games in the 1940-41 season and Lynah rink had yet to be constructed.

Upon his graduation in May 1941, Urban enlisted in the army. In December of that year, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor killing thousands of Americans and wounding thousands more. Suddenly, Urban and the entire nation were embroiled in a global war against fascism.

Although 2020 and 2021’s athletes did not hang up their cleats to enter the battlefield, they, along with the entire Cornell community, returned home to isolate and slow the spread of COVID-19. Over one year ago, President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency, the NCAA cancelled all interscholastic athletic contests, and President Pollack shifted Cornell to virtual instruction. But Cornell’s athletes have yet to return to competition. While many athletic programs in different conferences have resumed play, the Ivy League has agreed to hold its athletes out of competition in an attempt to further slow the spread of the virus.

These lost seasons are painful for all Cornell athletes who have dedicated countless, disciplined hours to their sports and are now missing the chance to grow and compete alongside their teammates. It is even more painful because their very inactivity is the key to stopping the spread. Active roles like Matt Urban’s in World War II are harder to find in the fight against COVID-19; leadership positions held by experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci (MD ‘66) and frontline healthcare opportunities are few and far between.

From his boxing career, Urban learned how to both take a hit and hit back which he took to extreme levels in his service. Wounded after single-handedly fending off German machine-gun fire to save the rest of his company at Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy, Urban was sent to a hospital in England. While recovering, he overheard that his unit was under heavy attack. He promptly left the hospital and hitchhiked his way back to the front to serve with his brothers in arms. Having limped all the way to catch up with his men, Urban immediately confronted a looming Nazi tank. Selflessly putting his life on the line, Urban charged towards the tank under heavy machine gun fire, leaped up onto the turret, and gained control, decimating the enemy forces. His heroism ultimately tipped the scales of the battle, leading to an American victory. Until the war’s end, Urban led countless similar solo counterattacks, risking himself to save his company. When his military career was complete, he had earned three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, a French Croix de Guerre, the Presidential Unit Citation, the American Campaign Medal, an incredible seven purple hearts, and received the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious honor an American soldier can earn.

The resilient efforts to maintain healthy spirits and keep the community safe during the COVID-19 athletics shutdowns seem to pale in comparison with the glory of Urban’s combat career. Yet, they are no less worth pursuing. A year into the pandemic, Cornell student-athletes continue to lead by example practicing COVID-safe behavior, pursuing academic excellence, and staying physically prepared for the day when they can finally return to competition.

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