1963: JFK, Army-Navy football and Dallas

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On Nov. 22, America observed the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Kennedy's death signified the end of an era for virtually every American and sent our nation into shock. Ironically, 1963 also marked the last time the two service academies, Army and Navy, played a significant game on the national scene.

JFK and college football went hand in hand, especially the Army-Navy game. The entire Kennedy clan played football at many of their family gatherings, and the President grew to be a huge college football fan. Kennedy was a Navy man, and a World War II hero. His PT 109 boat had been sunk by enemy fire and the young officer was responsible for saving the majority of his men.

After the war, Kennedy would go on to be elected a United States senator before becoming the youngest President in our history. It was something the Navy team was very proud of after watching the Army's own WWII hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, serve as commander in chief the previous eight years.

It's hard to believe today that either Army or Navy was ever relevant in the college football world. Actually, the Army went undefeated for three consecutive years in the mid 1940s, and won back to back national titles. The Black Knights also produced consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Glen Davis and Doc Blanchard. Army fielded another strong team in 1958 which featured its third and last Heisman winner Pete Dawkins.

The Navy had one national championship in its history, way back in the 1920s, but had turned the corner in the early 60s and was playing winning football again. Nineteen-sixty gave the Midshipmen their first Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Bellino. By 1963, Navy sported an 8-1 record and was ranked second in the nation behind top ranked Texas. The winner of the Army-Navy game would go on to face the Longhorns in the Jan. 1 Cotton Bowl at Dallas for the National Championship.

Military rules called for a 30-day mourning period after the death of a President, but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the rest of the family wanted the game to go on because of the President's love of football, so the Army-Navy game was postponed for two weeks. Kennedy had planned to attend the game and toss the coin at midfield as he had the previous year.

The two teams finally met on Dec. 7. It was the game of the year in college football, and the Midshipmen, behind Roger Staubach, who would go on to win the Navy's second Heisman that season, rolled to a 21-7 lead after three quarters of play.

Army, which was 7-2 on the year, was led by a very good quarterback of its own in Rollie Stichweh. The Cadet signal caller rallied his team in the final quarter, with a touchdown and two point conversion, to pull the Black Knights to within 21-15 with around 6:00 left in the game. Army then recovered an onside kick, giving the Cadets once last chance to pull the upset. The Black Knights methodically marched their way down the field, gaining a first and goal inside the Navy 10 yard line with just over a minute left.

With the clock winding down the finals seconds, Army's Ken Waldrop was tackled by a host of Navy defenders at the Midshipmen two yard line. Eighteen ticks were left on the clock and the Cadets were out of timeouts. The Navy defenders were in no hurry to un-pile and line up for the next play, and the crowd of over 102,000 in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium was producing a deafening roar. Stichweh looked to the officials for help, but the clock continued to tick. Before Army could get off another snap, the game ended and the Midshipmen held on for a heart-stopping six point win in college football's biggest rivalry.

The victory sent Navy to the Cotton Bowl, where they faced number one Texas. The Longhorns prevailed 28-6, and ruined the Midshipmen's shot at the national title. It also marked the last time a service academy would play for college football's top prize.

Another irony to this story involved Navy's only other loss of the year. During the regular season, the Midshipmen suffered a 32-28 upset at the hands of Southern Methodist University. As fate would have it, the SMU loss, like Kennedy's assassination and Navy's defeat at the hands of the Longhorns, also occurred in Dallas, Texas.

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