A president, and a rivalry, at its peak at 1962 Army-Navy game

Navy quarterback Roger Staubach (12) eludes Army defenders on his way to a touchdown in Navy's 34-14 win in 1962. Associated Press
Navy quarterback Roger Staubach (12) eludes Army defenders on his way to a touchdown in Navy's 34-14 win in 1962. Associated Press
Posted: December 08, 2012

Perhaps it was merely a duty to history that led Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to keep the leather-bound book the rest of her life.

Or maybe the ornate program given to John F. Kennedy at 1962's Army-Navy game possessed for her a "Rosebud" significance, an obscure artifact that recalled one of the best and brightest moments of her late husband's presidency.

Saturday's Army-Navy meeting at Lincoln Financial Field will mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's last visit to what was then college football's greatest rivalry.

Combined with the debut of scrambling Roger Staubach, with the spectacle of Army's "Chinese Bandits," Navy's exotic helmets, and great Philadelphia weather, Kennedy's presence, precisely at his presidential peak, has infused that long-ago game with an enduring appeal.

And that program, rediscovered after a half-century this week in storage at Boston's John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, remains a reminder of what was a golden moment for two subsequently diminished American legends - JFK and the Army-Navy game.

A Navy lieutenant in World War II and an avid football fan, Kennedy stayed for the entire game, following it closely with the aid of binoculars and the handsome program local organizers had presented to him.

Later, privately delighted by Navy's 34-14 victory, he returned to Washington. The program - its cover embossed with the words, "To our Commander in Chief with the compliments of the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen" - went with him.

After his 1963 assassination, that book, printed in Philadelphia, was among the items his widow removed from the White House. When she died in 1994, her children, according to a 1995 New York magazine story, decided they didn't want it.

Asked about the program this week, Sotheby's initially thought it might have been auctioned in its famous 1996 sale of Kennedy Onassis' estate. Officials there, however, could find no record of that.

But not long after the JFK library was contacted, spokeswoman Megan Piccirillo told The Inquirer that that institution had found the book.

Tanned and fit, the 35th president looked remarkably relaxed as he entered Municipal Stadium that Dec. 1, the weather so unusually pleasant that he wore sunglasses but no topcoat.

"It was a gorgeous day," said Tom Lynch, a center/linebacker on that Navy team who now lives in Villanova. "Sunny. Warm. Perfect."

Kennedy's approval numbers were near 70 percent. Less than a month earlier, he had managed to resolve the Cuban missile crisis.  

When the 98,616 in Municipal Stadium got their first glimpse of the president, they cheered wildly. They did so again when he performed the pregame coin toss (Army's representative there was John Ellerson, the team captain and current coach Rich's brother), and when he switched sides at halftime.

Kennedy was unusually interested in the game, the 63d in the famed rivalry. He'd met with Navy privately the previous summer at its Rhode Island training site. And his close friend and assistant secretary of the Navy, Paul Fay, attended all the Midshipmen's games, reporting back to the president.

"Kennedy was all Navy," said Lynch, 70. "He was our guy."

Anticipation for the game extended far beyond the White House.

Navy (4-5), led by future Temple coach Wayne Hardin, had beaten Army three straight years. In response, Army (6-3) had hired a big-name coach, Louisiana State's Paul Dietzel.

Dietzel was as much a psychologist as a coach. As at LSU, he split his defense into three platoons, and colorfully labeled one the "Chinese Bandits."

Hardin, who also rarely missed a motivational opportunity, ordered that Navy's helmets contain the Chinese characters for "Beat Army!" Then, for good measure, Navy's coach added a skull-and-crossbones patch to the front of each.

It was all very unusual for 1962, and the resulting publicity created an even stronger pregame buzz. According to Sports Illustrated, "both academies reported that never had there been such excitement over the game."

Adding to the excitement was Staubach, whom Hardin had installed as his starter in that season's fourth game. College football observers were astonished by the sophomore quarterback's scrambling abilities.

"He would scoot and scamper and duck and dodge, gambling many yards by retreating, then suddenly circle away from pursuit and throw a strike," legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote after Staubach ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more.

The 6-foot-2 Ohioan confounded all three Army platoons. Navy led, 15-6, at the half when, in keeping with tradition, Kennedy moved from the Navy side - where some fans revealed he'd rooted visibly for the Midshipmen - to Army's.

Staubach guided Navy to a 22-6 lead after three quarters. When the advantage grew in the fourth, Hardin pulled his young QB.

Gen. Earle Wheeler, the Army chief of staff, sat with Kennedy on the Army side. He said the president seemed concerned about Army's getting beat so soundly in a fourth straight loss to Navy.

"When I saw him not too long after that in his office," Wheeler would later recall, "he asked me what I was going to do about getting some football players."

On the sideline, meanwhile, his team safely ahead, Staubach at last felt some relief.

"I don't think I was ever as nervous as before that game," Staubach said earlier this year. "I knew everybody at Annapolis, everybody who had any connection to Navy, was counting on me."

Two weeks before the next Army-Navy game, Kennedy was assassinated. While it was postponed, thanks to the intercession of Jacqueline Kennedy, the game wasn't canceled. Philadelphia would rename Municipal Stadium in his honor.

Soon after Staubach graduated in 1965, though, the Army-Navy game - much like JFK's reputation - began to lose some luster.

But that presidential program, likely worth little as a historical artifact, remains a symbol of a sunny Saturday afternoon in South Philadelphia when both a president and an American tradition were at the height of their powers.


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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