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Book Report: The President's Team

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Thursday, November 25, 2010

In the 2009 book, The President's Team, author Michael Connelly tells the story of the 1963 Naval Academy football team and its unique relationship with President John F. Kennedy. The success of the Naval Academy football team and world events that occurred during the time of Kennedy's presidency (1960-1963) certainly makes for a fascinating tale.

After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II. He first tried to join the Army, but failed the Army physical due to a back injury he sustained while playing football at Harvard. Coming from a wealthy family, he used some of his connections to enlist in the Navy, using a physical performed by his own family physician. At first he was assigned to a desk job, but he requested an assignment to the Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats operating in the South Pacific. In April 1943, his request was granted and he was sent to Melville, Rhode Island to train on the PT boats. While in Rhode Island, Kennedy played on the camp football team which received an invitation from West Point to participate in a scrimmage with the Army Academy. At that time, the Army team featured two future Heisman Trophy winners, Felix "Doc" Blanchard (1945) and Glenn Davis (1946). Kennedy's Navy team took a 13-0 lead in the scrimmage, but, in the end, Army dominated the scrimmage 55-13.

Kennedy eventually became the commander of PT109 and on the night of August 1, 1943, while on patrol near the Solomon Islands, the boat was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. PT109 was split in two and sank. Two crewmen died in the crash. Kennedy and 10 other surviving crew members managed to swim to nearby Bird Island. After a few days the search for the survivors of PT109 was called off by the Navy. A funeral service was held for the crew and their families were notified that their loved ones were missing in action.

While hiding on the island from the Japanese, Lieutenant Kennedy and the rest of the survivors met a couple of local men who agreed to take a message to an Australian outpost on another island. Kennedy carved a message onto a coconut shell that the two men delivered. They then returned and snuck Kennedy to the outpost in their canoe. Kennedy was then able to lead a rescue team to retrieve the other PT109 survivors. (Years later that coconut shell was proudly displayed on Kennedy's desk in the Oval Office)

The official Navy report on the sinking of PT109 was written by a Navy officer by the name of Byron White. "Whizzer" White, as he was known, had played college football at Colorado and as well as in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions before joining the Navy. (Years later, President Kennedy would appoint White to the Supreme Court)

Kennedy loved football and he loved the Navy, so naturally, he had a great affection for the Naval Academy team. During the time of his presidency, the Navy football team experienced some of its best years on the gridiron.

Kennedy was elected President in November 1960. At the same time, Navy running back Joe Bellino became the first player from the Naval Academy to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

President Kennedy received many congratulatory telegrams from around the world on his inauguration day in January 1961, but the most surprising one came from Lt. Col. Kohei Hanami, who was the commander of the Japanese Destroyer that sank PT109 in 1943.

Kennedy's love of sports, as well as his stand against racism, was well known. He even received the Gold Medal Award by the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1961 for his contributions to both sports and society.

Also in 1961, the Washington Redskins of the NFL signed a 30-year lease to play its home games in the newly constructed District of Columbia Stadium. (The stadium would later be named RFK Stadium after the President's slain brother) The Redskins were also the last team in the NFL to integrate black players on the team. Washington owner Preston Marshall was quoted as saying, "We'll start signing Negros when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

Since some of the money used to build the stadium came from the city of Washington, D.C., Kennedy threatened to void the lease if the team did not select a black player in the December 1961 NFL Draft. Marshall got the message and the Redskins drafted running back Ernie Davis of Syracuse with the first overall selection in the draft. Davis was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, but he, in turn, refused to sign with the Redskins. Davis was quoted as saying, "I won't play for that S.O.B." He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Browns, but never played for the team. He developed leukemia and died in May 1963 at the age of 23.

In October 1962, the world was focused on Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Little attention was paid to a young sophomore quarterback at the Naval Academy by the name of Roger Staubach, who had been promoted off the bench and assumed the starting quarterback role for the Midshipmen.

On November 16, 1963, Navy defeated Duke 38-25 and improved their record to 8-1 on the season. Navy was ranked #2 in the country and had two weeks to prepare for their annual game against Army on November 30. Roger Staubach was a shoe-in to win the Heisman Trophy. President Kennedy was looking forward to attending the Army-Navy game as he had done the previous three years while in office. But everything changed on Friday, November 22 when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, November 25. As the nation mourned, there was talk of canceling the Army-Navy game, but the Kennedy family insisted that it be played. It was rescheduled for December 7.

Staubach did win the Heisman Trophy and was set to appear on the cover of Life Magazine, but the cover was changed and the issue became a tribute to the slain president. (A copy of the recalled Staubach cover of Life Magazine is included in the book)

Newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson did not attend the Army-Navy game. Instead, at the request of the Kennedy family, Army Secretary Cyrus Vance sat in the presidential box along with a number of orphans from the Washington area.

When the game was finally played, Navy beat Army for the fifth year in a row in front of 102,000 fans. History was made as instant replay made its debut in the game that day. It was used just one time to reshow a touchdown run by Army quarterback Carl "Rollie" Stichweh. The replay tape machine was still being perfected and failed to work on several other occasions that day.

The game was a nail-biter right to the end. Trailing 21-15, Army drove down the field and was at the Navy 2-yard line with time running out. The crowd noise was so loud that Stichweh asked for help from the officials, who stopped the clock with only seconds remaining. The Army players assumed that the clock would not start again until the ball was snapped, but once the two teams lined up for the final play, the officials immediately started the clock, which ran out before Army could get the play off.

Navy would go on to play #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1964. While the Navy players were in Dallas preparing for the game, they took time to visit the Book Depository and peered out the window where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at President Kennedy's motorcade. They also went down on the street and said a prayer for the President near the grassy knoll. Navy lost to Texas 28-6 in the bowl game.

Even though Navy had beaten Army five straight years from 1959-1963, a loss to the Cadets in 1964 resulted in the firing of Navy head coach Wayne Hardin. Who said it's only a game?

It is ironic that Navy's only two Heisman Trophy winners, running back Joe Bellino (1960) and quarterback Roger Staubach (1963), both occurred during the time of Kennedy's short term in office. He made trips to visit with the team and the coaching staff while in office and even had some of the players over to his house. It was clear that the players, too, had a great affection for Kennedy. The President may have meant a great deal to the country, but the Navy team meant a lot to him as well.


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