Naval Academy QB inspires a generation of the Army-Navy rivalry, 25 years after his tragic death
By JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: November 28, 2018
Every year, as he listens to the singing of the alma maters at the conclusion of the Army-Navy game, Anthony Noto thinks about Alton Grizzard.
Noto graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1991. Grizzard graduated from the Naval Academy the same year. They weren't teammates, in fact they barely knew one another. And yet, regardless of the outcome of the game, Noto thinks about Grizzard.
"It gets chaotic on the field when the game ends," Noto said this week. "I didn't get to see Alton after our last game as seniors, but didn't think it was a big deal. I figured we'd be together for years and years, giving each other a hard time and telling one another stories. If I'd only known. . . ."
There was no way for Noto to know on that frigid December afternoon in 1990 that Grizzard would be killed three years later while stationed at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif., where he trained future SEALs.
Not long after midnight, on Dec. 1, 1993, he had gone to talk to his friend Kerryn O'Neill, who had run cross-country for Navy. O'Neill had just broken up with her fiance, Ensign George P. Smith, and the two had been involved in a screaming fight heard all over the building earlier that evening.
While Grizzard and O'Neill were talking, Smith returned with a 9mm Ruger pistol. When Grizzard opened the door, Smith fired four bullets into him. He then shot O'Neill before turning the gun on himself. Grizzard and O'Neill died in the room; Smith en route to the hospital.
"It was completely impossible to believe," said David Lillefloren, who played with Grizzard in high school and at Navy.
It is always impossible to believe when someone dies at 24, especially in a senseless shooting like the one that took place that night in Coronado. It was particularly hard to believe that Grizzard, who teammates and opponents agreed symbolized everything that was good about the Army-Navy rivalry, could be gone.
Noto heard the news from Bob Sutton, who was Army's coach at the time. "I had called him to wish him luck that Saturday against Navy," Noto said. "He had just heard the news about Alton.
"We must have talked about him for 30 minutes. I remember saying, 'He was the kind of guy who could have been president some day.' Coach Sutton said there was no doubt about it and then we both started to cry."
Even as a boy, Grizzard seemed to have the ability to get people to lead - not always in the right direction.
"To be honest, as a little brother he was often a pain in the butt," said his sister, Dale DeSarro. "He was always daring me to do things I knew we shouldn't be doing. He'd say, 'Let's jump off the carport, it's not that far down.' He always got me to go first. I should have known better, but he always had the ability to talk me into it."
Grizzard was a four-year starter at quarterback for Navy. He was the team captain as a senior in 1990, but it is the 1989 Army-Navy game that everyone talks about first when they think about Grizzard.
"He beat us," Sutton said. "That's not taking anything away from any of their other guys, but he was the reason we lost that game. He was the toughest guy on that field."
Trailing 17-16, Navy drove from its own 28-yard line to the Army 32 with 1:02 left and faced 4th and two. The weather was miserable and a field goal would have been unlikely. Grizzard ran left and was hemmed in by two Army tacklers. But he bulled forward and picked up the first down by inches. The Mids moved to the 15 and with 11 seconds left before kicker Frank Schenk hit the winning field goal from 32 yards.
"That drive was all Alton," Noto said. "Every time he carried, we had him pinned and he still came up with three, four yards. That fourth-down play symbolized who he was in a microcosm. He was indomitable."
Grizzard was the son of a Navy veteran and lived his dream to become a SEAL. Andrew Thompson, Navy's defensive captain in 1995 who went on to serve 19 years in the Marines, met Grizzard once - and remembers it vividly.
"I was a plebe [in 1992] and Alton had just finished SEAL training and was about to deploy," he said. "He came back to see our Tulane game in November. We were winless. Coach [George] Chaump just turned the pregame talk over to him. He got very wound up emotionally talking about the pride that was part of playing football at Navy.
"By the time he was finished he was just about in tears. We all were. We were beyond ready to play. We won that day - our only win that year. I remember him as a larger-than-life figure. Just the fact that he'd gotten through SEAL training told you how tough he was. Very few officers become SEALs."
Twenty-five years after his death, Grizzard's sister teaches senior English at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, where both went to school, and is in charge of a scholarship named for her brother that helps send a Green Run graduate to college every year.
To be eligible, one has to do three things Grizzard did at Green Run: letter in two varsity sports; have at least a 3.4 grade-point average and exemplify the leadership he displayed — dating from the days when he talked his sister into jumping off the carport.
"The one thing we require that's different from Alton is that the person not have a full ride to college," DeSarro said. "Alton had that."
When funds for the scholarship began to run low a dozen years ago, Lillefloren and a number of Grizzard's old teammates and friends from Green Run and Navy started a golf tournament to raise funds and keep the scholarship going.
"It's impossible to believe it's been 25 years," Lillefloren said. "But in a lot of ways all of us feel as if he's still with us. Everyone has stories about Alton."
Grizzard is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Many of whom will no doubt make a point of making a trip to section 59, site 1192 on Saturday.
DeSarro remembers the phone call her mother got from Lillefloren's mother on the day her brother died. "She was calling to say how sorry she was," she said. "Only we hadn't heard. The Navy hadn't told us yet because there were so many protocols to go through before official notification.
"Sometimes that day feels like a lifetime ago. Other times it feels like yesterday."
A week from Friday, after they've had dinner with family and friends, former football players from Army and Navy will meet at an Irish pub on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. This has become an annual tradition, a gathering to swap stories, talk trash about the next day's game and to be reminded of the closeness they all feel — regardless of the outcome of a football game.
For the last 20 years Lillefloren and Noto have been there. This year, Lillefloren will be wearing his Navy letterman's sweater, part of the bet the two make every year: loser has to wear his letterman's sweater to the bar the next year and buy all the drinks.
"I spent 14 straight years wearing my sweater and buying all the drinks," Noto said. "I brought some extra teammates last year to make Dave catch up."
"I told him to leave those guys behind this year," Lillefloren said, laughing.
As midnight approaches, Noto and Lillefloren will walk to the bar and order shots. Years ago, it was just the two of them ordering. Now, all the ex-Army and ex-Navy players in the bar will follow them.
When everyone has a drink in hand, Noto and Lillefloren will say together, "Alton." They'll raise their glasses, look up at the sky and drink.
And then, as they do every year, they'll have a good cry.