JFK assassination delayed the '63 Army-Navy game
PHILADELPHIA (Dec. 7, 1963) - Steve Szabo would have loved to have seen Roger Staubach play quarterback at Navy the way he played quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.
Szabo, a longtime NFL assistant coach most recently employed by the Buffalo Bills in 2005, attended the Naval Academy and was a teammate of Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner. The man who would later be known as Roger the Dodger was a deserving winner of college football's most prestigious award that year, and he guided the Midshipmen to an emotional, never-to-be-forgotten 21-15 victory over arch rival Army in a game that was pushed back a week due to the assassination of President Kennedy.
But the Staubach who ran around on that cold day at Philadelphia's Memorial Stadium, rushing for 55 yards and passing for 99 more could not compare to the Staubach who went on to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a pair of Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.
"He was an unbelievable leader, a great guy, but when he was in college his skills were nowhere near the quarterbacks of today," Szabo said with a smile. "He seldom threw a spiral in college. But he was so competitive and he would run with the ball. He would get in the huddle and he'd tell you 'We're going down the field and scoring' and we usually did.''
Szabo remembers after he and Staubach had graduated, their paths crossed once again on the football field, and this time they stood on opposite sidelines.
"He learned to throw a football when he went into pro football when he was going to training camp with Dallas in the summer while he was on leave," Szabo said of Staubach, who was drafted by the Cowboys in 1964 but could not play for the team until his military hitch expired in 1969.
"He was playing service football at Pensacola and I was in the Marines and playing at Quantico. We played against each other and I couldn't believe how much better he threw the ball. He was more of a competitor and scrambler in college. He played football like it was touch football."
In the second-to-last game of Staubach's career, the annual service academy showdown with Army, the Cadets weren't there to play touch. They came to play tackle and they very nearly ruined second-ranked Navy's season.
The country was still in shock after the assassination of Kennedy two weeks earlier and there were many politicians and officials within the military ranks who wanted to cancel the game. However, after consultation with the Kennedy family, it was decided to play the game one week after its originally scheduled date of Nov. 30, in honor of the president's love of football and his keen interest in this particular game.
"We were in game week, we were getting ready to go to Philadelphia to play and then the news came that he had been killed and it was shocking," said Szabo. "At the Academy and at West Point that week is all pep rallies and there's a lot going on around the game. So we were gearing up to go play the game and then we were told the game was cancelled. It was like letting the air out of a balloon. But then they decided we were going to play the following week so you get to the next week and you start all over again."
Navy came into the game at 8-1, the only loss coming to SMU in a game Staubach missed due to injury. The Midshipmen knew that a victory would qualify them for the Cotton Bowl and a date with No. 1 Texas. Even though the unbeaten Longhorns had already been named national champion, the Midshipmen felt that if they could beat Texas, they could claim a share of the title.
For 7-2 Army, all that was on the line was pride, and pride was more than enough in this game. The Cadets had lost four in a row to Navy and they desperately wanted to end that streak, and with a defense that was allowing just 8.4 points per game and had forced 27 turnovers, they felt they had a chance.
"My memory is that it was a weird game for us because it was like having to get up all over again for the game," said Szabo. "We were on track, getting ready to play and then they pulled the plug. I think Army benefited from that, but I don't want to take anything away from them, they played a great game. We were extremely fortunate to win that game."
That's because Army, after driving to within two yards of the Navy goal line in the dying seconds, couldn't get one last play off before the clock expired, enabling Navy to escape with the victory.
"At the end of that game they couldn't get the play off and we won," said Szabo. "They, Army, should have won that game. They deserved to win. If there was another minute on the clock, they would have scored."
Of course Szabo says this with more than 40 years of perspective at his disposal. The day of the game, Navy coach Wayne Hardin was of the opinion that no matter how much time was left, Army wasn't going to penetrate the Navy goal.
"There are a lot of ifs, but there's no doubt in my mind that if Army had gotten off one more play, the score would still have been 21-15," Hardin said.
With 24 seconds remaining, Army's Ken Waldrop went off tackle for a 2-yard gain to the Navy 2, bringing up fourth-and-goal. The Cadets were out of timeouts so they began scurrying into position for one last play. However, once they got to their designated spots, the crowd of more than 102,000 was so loud they couldn't hear the play Stichweh was trying to call.
Stichweh appealed to referee Barney Finn, and he rightly stopped the clock. But Stichweh then made a mistake. He huddled his team, not realizing that Finn had to re-start the clock as soon as the noise subsided. When the clock began ticking, the Cadets were still in the huddle and by the time they broke, only a few seconds remained. Stichweh - thinking the clock would be re-started when Army got to the line of scrimmage - was stunned and he turned to Finn for help, but the referee could only ignore him, and before the ball could be snapped, the clock ran out.
"Finn was getting pretty frustrated with our requests and when we got to the line there were eight seconds to play, enough time to run a play," Stichweh said. "But then the noise started and I turned to him again to ask for quiet. He looked at me and wouldn't do anything."
Echoing his coach's sentiments, Navy captain Tom Lynch, who doubled as a center and a linebacker, said Army would have been doomed anyway. "If they had run the play, there was no way they would have made it, we all knew it," Lynch said.
Army jumped to a 7-0 lead the first time it possessed the ball as it marched 65 yards to quarterback Rollie Stichweh's 10-yard TD run on a 3rd-and-9 play. It looked like the Cadets were in for a magical day when, on the ensuing series, they stuffed Navy with a goal-line stand to take over on downs.
Army caught another break early in the second period when Staubach's 32-yard TD pass to Gary Kellner was nullified by a holding penalty, but the Cadets weren't as fortunate on Navy's next series. Staubach twice ran for sizeable gains and he fired a 26-yard pass to Johnny Sai which helped set up the first of fullback Pat Donnelly's three touchdown runs, an off-tackle burst from the 4 that produced a 7-7 halftime tie.
Navy took the second-half kickoff and drove 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 14-7 lead. Staubach hit a pair of passes, Donnelly broke a 20-yard run to the 1, and then he carried over on the next play.
Another Navy threat was stymied when Staubach threw an interception, and after Army turned around and drove to the Navy 7, it was stopped on a fourth-down gamble at the 8 as Donnelly and Al Krekich piled up Ken Waldrop for a loss of one.
The Midshipmen proceeded to march 91 yards for what appeared to be the clinching touchdown. The drive was aided by two 15-yard penalties on Army, and culminated in Donnelly's 20-yard scamper with about 11 minutes left to play. As it turned out, that would be Navy's last offensive play.
The Cadets refused to quit as they drove 52 yards to Stichweh's 5-yard TD run, and when Stichweh scored on a two-point conversion run, Army was within 21-15 with more than six minutes still remaining.
Here, Army coach Paul Dietzel surprised the Midshipmen with an onside kick and Stichweh recovered at the Navy 49. The Cadets pounded away on the ground and twice had to convert fourth-and-inches plays to keep their drive alive. But when it came time for one more fourth-down conversion, Army couldn't pull the trigger in time.
"Our boys couldn't hear the signals," said Dietzel. "There was too much racket and the clock ran out as we tried to get a little quiet. I've drilled it into them that during a timeout they should immediately go into a huddle. In a situation like that, the officials have to use common sense. We couldn't even pull off an automatic because our boys couldn't hear the count. At least if they had run the play and failed, it might not have been so bad."
As for Szabo, upon exiting the military in 1969 he became a football coach. After bouncing around college football for 25 years - including three years with Frank Maloney at Syracuse from 1974-76 - he made it to the NFL in 1994 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He spent eight years there before going to New England in 2003 and winning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots, then joined the Bills coaching staff in 2004.