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Fabled 1963 Navy football team to celebrate 55th anniversary this weekend

The scoreboard at Philadelphia Stadium in the final seconds of the 1963 Army-Navy football game.

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By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: October 11, 2018

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Much has been written over the years about the fabled 1963 Navy football team.

That legendary squad, led by the consummate captain in Tom Lynch, certainly ranks as one of the greatest in Navy history and holds a special place in college football folklore.

Navy concluded the 1963 regular season with a 9-1 record and ranked No. 2 nationally by the two wire services (Associated Press, United Press International). The Midshipmen boasted the greatest player in college football that year in quarterback Roger Staubach, a first team All-American and recipient of both the Heisman Trophy and equally prestigious Maxwell Trophy.

Navy earned an invitation to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where it lost to top-ranked Texas in a showdown for the national championship.

However, what truly etched that Navy team into history was the 1963 Army-Navy game, which was delayed a week due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

That shocking incident threatened to cancel the 64th edition of the classic rivalry, which was originally scheduled for 10 days after Kennedy’s death. On Nov. 26, the same day Staubach was presented with the Heisman Trophy, word came from the Pentagon that Army-Navy football would be played on Dec. 7.

Reportedly, Jacqueline Kennedy, after consulting with brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, made the final decision that her late husband would have wanted the game played. In the locker room at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia beforehand, Navy head coach Wayne Hardin told his troops: “Let’s play a game worthy of a president. We have to celebrate his life.”

That is exactly what Army and Navy did that day. Star fullback Pat Donnelly rushed for three touchdowns to stake Navy to a commanding 21-7 lead. However, star quarterback Rollie Stichweh drove Army downfield for a touchdown and two-point conversion that cut the deficit to 21-15.

The Cadets then successfully executed an onside kick with Stichweh recovering at the 49-yard line of the Midshipmen. Army would advance all the way to the 2-yard line, but the final seconds ticked off the clock while Stichweh waved his arms wildly at referee Barney Finn to indicate his signals could not be heard amid the deafening noise of the 102,000 fans in attendance.

It was one of the most memorable Army-Navy games in history and not just because of the strange and thrilling ending. Many historians believe the traditional playing of the greatest rivalry game in college sports helped heal a nation in mourning and restore a sense of normalcy.

Considering all that transpired during the 1963 season, it is no wonder members of that Navy club have remained extraordinarily close ever since. Lynch has held the team together like glue over the past five decades-plus and the tremendous accomplishments of the former players has only added to its legacy.

Lynch, who would later serve as Superintendent of the Naval Academy, is one of six players from the 1963 squad who achieved the rank of admiral. Others served as captains of some of the country’s most important warships while some became battlefield heroes in Vietnam.

Michael Connelly authored a book titled “The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK.” Connelly wove a story about how Kennedy, a former naval hero and passionate football fan, developed a special relationship with that particular Navy team.

With Lynch as organizer and ringleader, the 1963 Navy football team will celebrate its 55th anniversary this weekend in Annapolis. Festivities kicked off Friday night with a formal dinner at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during which the north side banquet room of the Akerson Tower was to be formally dedicated in honor of the 1963 squad. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk said a display case containing artifacts and memorabilia from that historic season would be unveiled.

A public recognition of the 1963 Navy football team will take place between the first and second quarters of Saturday’s home game against Temple. Lynch said 35 former players are returning to participate in this weekend’s activities with some planning to don their 1963 Army-Navy game jersey for the on-field ceremony.

Former fullback Nick Markoff came up with an idea to have Staubach throw a Hail Mary pass to favorite receiver Skip Orr to spice up the moment.

The Capital has learned that Navy’s 1963 football team will be further immortalized through a documentary film that is currently in the works. Michael Meredith, an independent filmmaker and founder of Maximon Pictures, has already begun conducting interviews, compiling footage and writing a script for “The President’s Team” and will be in Annapolis this weekend to spend time with members of the 1963 club.

While bearing the same title as Connelly’s book, Meredith said the documentary is different because it is not based off the 1963 Army-Navy game.

“We want to tell the story about the 1963 Navy team with particular focus on the players and the bonds they formed while at the Naval Academy and how that played out later in life,” Meredith said. “All these guys did amazing things and they credit their time at the academy and being part of that great football team as being crucial to their success. I guess you could say that Michael Connelly provided the playbook and I’m calling some audibles.”

Meredith happens to be the son of legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Monday Night Football analyst “Dandy” Don Meredith. The Los Angeles resident is best known for such feature films as Three Days of Rain, Land of Plenty and The Open Road, the latter of which starred Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Mary Steenburgen along with Justin Timberlake and Kate Mara.

However, Meredith recently produced his first sports documentary, The Ice Bowl, which chronicled the legendary 1967 NFL Championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. That was a labor of love for the filmmaker since his father was the starting quarterback for the Cowboys in that epic contest.

Staubach, who – as a 27-year-old rookie in 1969 – succeeded Meredith as Dallas starting quarterback, was interviewed for The Ice Bowl documentary. It was Staubach who recommended Meredith take the helm of The President’s Team project, which was the brainchild of Joe Sai.

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©2018 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)
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