to Articles Menu
Book Report: The President's Team
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.
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
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
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.
to Articles Menu