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In Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1942, seven children of beloved football coach Frank "Cav" Cavanaugh are sworn into the military service to serve their country in World War II. As Cav's wife Florence proudly shows old family friend Father Tim Donavan pictures of her children dressed in their military uniforms, Tim presents her with a story that he is writing about her departed husband: Tim's story begins in Worcester in 1891, when Cav is fifteen years old. Young Cav's parents hope that he will give up football for a career in law, but when his high school coach suggests that he play college football at Dartmouth, Cav and his friend Bob vow to attend that university. Several years later, Bob and Cav are members of the Dartmouth team. Just as he is elected team captain, Cav receives word of his father's death. To support his family, Cav leaves Dartmouth and accepts a job coaching at the University of Cincinnati. By implementing rigid training rules, Cav molds his players into a winning team and moves on to the University of Denver. While visiting home one day, Cav meets Florence Ayres and decides to return to Worcester and study law. After earning his law degree, Cav loses his temper and insults the judge at his first trial. Although Cav is discouraged, Florence insists that they marry and move in with her parents. After the birth of their first child, Cav returns to football and takes a job coaching at Worcester's Holy Cross University, where he meets Tim, a player on the team. A successful season at Holy Cross leads to an offer to coach at Dartmouth. As the war in Europe escalates, Cav's players begin to drop out of school and enlist in the military. When Tim, now a priest, visits his old coach on his way to the front, Cav rails against enlisting, claiming that football is his fight. In response, Tim answers that the war is everyone's fight. When the United States declares war on Germany, Cav enlists out of a sense of duty to his country, ignoring Florence's objections that he is the father of six children and should stay at home. Cav is sent overseas, where he is promoted to captain and assigned to rally the exhausted troops for a march to the front. On the grueling trek, Cav offers encouragement to Manning, a young private who breaks down under the strain. While on a special reconnaissance mission one day, Cav is gravely wounded and almost dies of his injuries. At the hospital, he is visited by Manning, who tells him that he has been named the "Iron Major" because of his ability to survive. Sent home to recover, Cav is visited by Bob, who offers him a coaching job at Boston College. At Boston, Cav discovers that his players are skeptical about the capability of their convalescing coach. Cav proves himself by drilling his underdog team into shape and rallying them to a victory over Yale. Several winning seasons later, Cav visits Tim and confesses that his eyesight and health are failing and the doctor has advised him that he has only five more years to live. To provide security for his family, Cav decides to take a lucrative job at Fordham University in New York City. Despite his gradually failing eyesight, Cav molds his team into winners. His career culminates five years later, when he goes totally blind during a game in which his team wins the intersectional championship by beating Oregon State. After the game, the players present the now blind Cav with the football, and he bids them farewell and resigns. On his deathbed, Cav urges his friends and family to continue fighting for their beliefs. Completing his story, Tim salutes Cav's spirit as American fighting troops march into war.