Naval Academy honors Joe Bellino legacy by placing No. 27 on field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: October 5, 2019
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — For years, Joe Bellino kept his Heisman Trophy packed away in a box stored in the attic of his home in Bedford, Massachusetts.
When John Bellino became old enough to follow college football he learned what the Heisman Trophy was all about. He was understandably proud his father was the 1960 recipient and asked if he could keep the Heisman Trophy in his bedroom in the basement.
“It was a pretty cool thing for a teenage boy to have in his room. I hung my hats on it all the time for fun,” John Bellino said.
Bellino never unpacked the Maxwell Trophy he was presented as college football’s best player or the Thompson Trophy and Naval Academy Athletic Association Sword. He was the first midshipman in 41 years to earn Navy’s top two athletic awards in the same year.
“The only memorabilia you would see displayed in my father’s house were the pictures of his family and friends,” John Bellino said. “Sports were an important part of his development growing up, but certainly did not define him. Dad cared about family most and always wanted to spend time with my mother, my sister and myself. That showed his true character.”
Considering how humble and unassuming Bellino was, one must wonder what he would think of having his No. 27 forever memorialized on the artificial turf at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Prior to this season, those two large numbers were placed at the 27-yard line on both ends of the field as a permanent tribute to one of the greatest football players in Navy history.
“Dad probably would not want that much fuss. He never wanted things to be about him,” John Bellino said. “However, that being said, I’m sure he would be proud and honored because he had such great love for the Naval Academy and was a devoted supporter of its athletic programs.”
Bellino, the first of Navy’s two Heisman Trophy winners, died on March 27 of this year following a valiant battle with an aggressive form of cancer. He was 81 years old and had only told family members about the cancer diagnosis that would take his life within three months.
“We didn’t know anything about it. He didn’t want any of his good friends to know he was sick and worry about him. That was Joe,” said Ed Straw, a fellow Class of 1961 member and retired vice admiral who remained close with Bellino up until the end.
Of course, the Naval Academy Athletic Association had every intention of recognizing Bellino’s legacy in some way this season. It was Straw and other members of the Class of 1961 that suggested installing the No. 27 on the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“After careful consideration, we felt that was an appropriate tribute to the great Joe Bellino,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “It’s been a sentimental exercise because we miss Joe Bellino dearly and wanted to remember him in a special way. What could be better than to have something that puts Joe front and center in our minds whenever the team takes the field.”
Navy had previously named the auditorium in Ricketts Hall in honor of Bellino, who attended the dedication ceremony. Before moving ahead with adding No. 27 to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Gladchuk contacted the family to gain approval. In addition to his son, Bellino is survived by his wife of 57 years Ann and daughter Therese.
“We were thrilled, quite honestly. It was unexpected, but very appreciated just as it was with Bellino Auditorium,” John Bellino said.
During halftime of Saturday’s service academy rivalry game against Air Force, there will be a formal recognition of the No. 27 memorial along with a video tribute to Bellino.
Close to 800 mourners attended a funeral mass for Bellino at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in his hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts. A second military honors memorial ceremony will be conducted at the Naval Academy Chapel on Saturday morning. Bellino will then be interred at the Naval Academy Columbarium overlooking College Creek.
“We will forever have an esteem appreciation for a man who was an incredible icon as a midshipman and alumnus,” Gladchuk said. “Joe Bellino was a special human being for ways that transcended his athletic ability.”
More than 100 of Bellino’s classmates are scheduled to attend this weekend’s events, while 50 family members are coming as well. That includes Joe Bellino’s two surviving brothers, Michael and Anthony, along with three grandsons.
“Dad’s last wish was to be with his classmates and teammates,” said John Bellino, who followed in his father’s footsteps by graduating from the Naval Academy (Class of 1989) and rising to the rank of captain during a lengthy stint in the Naval Reserves.
Members of the Class of 1961 are raising funds to help defray the cost of adding the No. 27 to the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium turf and to commission a sculpture to be displayed in Ricketts Hall.
After being presented with the Heisman Trophy in 1960, Bellino met with President John F. Kennedy. Back at the Naval Academy, Bellino patiently autographed copies of the Army-Navy football game program for hundreds of fellow midshipmen, requesting only that his 1961 classmates be given head-of-the-line privileges.
“I loved Joe Bellino and I still get emotional talking about him. He was just an incredible man,” Straw said. “Joe has been so beloved by our class and by the entire Navy football brotherhood. It is extremely fitting for the Naval Academy Athletic Association to put Joe’s uniform number on the stadium field.”
John Bellino got to know many members of the Class of 1961 on a personal level by attending reunions and other events. He said the whole family is overwhelmed by all of what the living class members are doing to remember Joe Bellino.
“What an absolutely phenomenal group of men. I’ve had an opportunity to meet them many times over the years at Navy sporting events and tailgates,” John Bellino said. “That Class of 1961 was incredibly close, and my dad felt honored to be part of it. Dad would go out of his way to do anything he could for his classmates because it was them that allowed him to stand out.”
During the two Navy football home games held so far this season, CBS Sports Network cameras have focused on the No. 27 while the announcers talk about Bellino and his accomplishments while showing highlights from his football playing days.
“Millions of people are learning about Joe Bellino from seeing the No. 27 on the field at every home game and that’s going to go on forever,” Straw said. “It warms my heart to know that people are remembering this great player and person.”
Straw always gets tickets on the club level at Lincoln Financial Field for the Army-Navy game and recently brought Bellino with him. He became accustomed to fans and admirers recognizing the legend.
“I’ll never forget the last Army-Navy game I attended with Joe. I’ll bet 100 people stopped us in the club section and wanted to get an autograph or take a picture,” Straw said. “Joe did not turn down one person. This man had no ego whatsoever.”
John Bellino said his father still received regular fan mail into his 80s and always responded with a hand-written note.
“My dad never really viewed his fame as anything special. He would say 'I’ve been blessed with some God-given talents and I’m very appreciative of that.’ He was a real people person with a very outgoing manner. You could talk to my dad for 15 minutes and feel like you’d known him your whole life.”