Army-Navy game brings back memories of Don Holleder's stellar effort in 1955

Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy talks with Capt. Don Holleder, a former West Point football star, during a visit to South Korea in January, 1964. Holleder, commander of A Co., 1st Bn., 31st Inf., coached the 7th Div. Bayonet football team to a 14-game undefeated season and the Coconut Bowl championship in Hawaii the year before.


By MILTON NORTHROP | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: December 11, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — This is the weekend of the Army-Navy football game and, if you are old enough to remember, it was a highlight of the college season. That was before the BCS and the Power Five conferences' monopoly on the College Football Playoff.

The Army-Navy game brings back memories of Don Holleder, who played in the 1955 game, 65 years ago. This year's game is noteworthy because, due to Covid-19, it will be the first to take place at Michie Stadium at West Point since 1943 in the World War II years. Every game since has been at a neutral site, most often in Philadelphia.

Holleder, who died in combat in Vietnam in 1967, first gained fame at Aquinas Institute in Rochester before West Point, but he was a Buffalo native and lived here until his family moved to Webster when he was 13. His father had died before he went to West Point. At Aquinas, he was a star under former Boston College star Harry "Mickey" Connolly on a team that played a national schedule against opponents from Georgia, Tennessee, Connecticut, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. He helped the Little Irish to a 6-2 record, with the only losses coming against Manlius and Bullis Prep of Washington, D.C. He also was a star in basketball and led an American Legion team of Aquinas athletes to the Monroe County League title.

Holleder's life has been documented in two biographies and a television special. The basketball and hockey arena at West Point is named in his honor. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Besides football, Holleder played three seasons of varsity basketball for Army and played first base in baseball.

Perhaps his finest hour as an Army football player came in the 1955 Army-Navy game. The season before, Pete Vann of Hamburg had quarterbacked the Black Knights. When Vann's eligibility ran out, coach Red Blaik needed a quarterback. His choice? Holleder, a gifted athlete who had been an All-America end the season before.

With Vann, who set Army passing records, including 24 career touchdown passes, the Cadets had a potent offense in 1954. Holleder caught 10 touchdown passes and Army averaged 448.7 yards of offense a game. In a rout of Penn in Philadelphia, Holleder caught four passes for 140 yards, including touchdowns of 56 and 50 yards.

In 1955, with Holleder at quarterback, Army was 5-3 going into the finale against Navy. The only losses were to Michigan, Syracuse with junior halfback Jim Brown and Yale. Navy was favored and expected to get a major bowl bid. The Middies had upset Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl the previous year.

Given Holleder's inadequacy as a passer, Blaik devised a radical plan for the game. Basically, it meant not throwing the football. Army won 14-6 as Holleder attempted only two passes. One was intercepted by opposing quarterback George Welsh, who went on to gain fame as a college coach at Navy and Virginia. The other was knocked down by Welsh.

However, Holleder directed an all-out Army ground game that netted 283 yards, 125 by Pat Uebel.

Welsh scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak in the first quarter to give Navy a 6-0 lead that stood up the rest of the half. Navy twice drove deep into Army territory in the second quarter. The first time, Welsh's fourth-down pass attempt to All-America end Ron Beagle was broken up by Holleder, who played safety on defense. Another Navy thrust ended when fullback Nick Monto fumbled. Who recovered? Holleder, naturally.

Famed sports columnist Red Smith covered the game for the New York Herald-Tribune. Here is what he wrote about Holleder trying to get Army into the end zone with time running out in the first half. The situation called for pass attempts but:

"Army's Don Holleder, however, had been reading all season he can't throw and his receivers can't catch. Evidently, he had been convinced. He asked Army to do it the hard way, along the ground."

Uebel was stopped inches from the line as the half ended, but would not be denied the next time.

Uebel fumbled the second half kickoff, but Navy did not capitalize. A short punt that was nearly blocked led to the first Army touchdown, a 4-yard run by Uebel, who took a the ball from Holleder after he had faked a handoff to halfback Dick Murtland. It was a typical split-T option play of that era.

One more touchdown would wrap it up for Army, and it required a clutch play by Holleder. On fourth down at the Navy 31, Holleder carried on a quarterback sneak. He gained only inches, but enough for a first down after a measurement. Army went on to score its insurance touchdown on a 23-yard run by Pete Lash with 3:56 left.

Holleder ran 12 times for 34 yards, mostly on sneaks and rollouts.

The night before the Navy game, Blaik took his team for a walk outside its hotel in Philadelphia. The coach expressed concern about having to cross the field at Municipal Stadium after the game to congratulate Navy's Ed Erdelatz for the second year in a row.

As legend has it, Holleder spoke up and said: "Colonel, you're not going to have to take that walk!"

His promise proved not hollow.

Maj. Don Holleder, then 33, was operations officer for a brigade of the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, and rushed to the aid of troops who had been ambushed by the Viet Cong. He was hacking a clearing for medical helicopters when enemy machine-gun fire killed him in October of 1967. He left a wife and family of four young daughters, who grew up in Northern Virginia.

West Point classmates, who included Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, had petitioned the Army to upgrade Maj. Holleder's Silver Star decoration. Finally, in April of 2011, he received the next highest level, the Distinguished Service Cross. Holleder's surviving family were present at his gravesite in Arlington for the posthumous presentation to a man who epitomized what West Point stood for:

Duty, honor, country.

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Saturday's Army-Navy game at West Point will be played a few yards away from the Holleder Center, a basketball and hockey center named for Don Holleder, a star of the 1955 football game who died in Vietnam in 1967.