As one of the signature events in college sports, the annual football game between Army and Navy often has a significance that far exceeds the details of any one particular contest. That was especially the case in the 1963 game, which was held two weeks after the assassination of one of Navy’s biggest fans, President John F. Kennedy.
The story of the connection between the two events is a natural subject for a nonfiction narrative. In addition to compelling characters, exciting games, the events take place in a time period that still holds a great deal of interest to people, as shown by the popularity of the AMC series “Mad Men.” On most counts, “The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game & The Assassination of JFK” doesn’t disappoint.
Boston Herald sports reporter Michael Connelly takes readers back to the time period and tells the parallel stories in an engaging, though occasionally verbose, manner.He has read almost every press account of the subject and also spoke with the players and coaches who are still alive. Mr. Connelly doesn’t break a great deal of new ground, but synthesizes information well. As a decorated Navy hero, Mr. Kennedy had a special bond with the football team of the U.S. Naval Academy that predated his presidency. There is an extensive discussion of Mr. Kennedy’s naval heroics as well as his love of football, including much detail about the Kennedy family’s frequent football games on the lawn of their estate in Hyannis Port, MA.
Even though presidents are supposed to be neutral at Army-Navy games, when Mr. Kennedy attended the games there was no doubt where Mr. Kennedy placed his loyalty. For example, he invited members of the Navy team to the White House and met with them during a summer practice session. He extended no such courtesies to members of the team from the United States Military Academy.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Midshipmen were especially affected by Mr. Kennedy’s death. Yet even though they and much of the rest of the nation were in mourning, at the insistence of the Kennedy family the Army-Navy Game was played, albeit a week after its originally scheduled date.
Navy went into the game as the overwhelming favorite. It had an 8-1 record and its quarterback, future NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, would win the Heisman Trophy that year. Mr. Connelly builds up to the showdown by summarizing each game of that season, sometimes with too much detail. He succeeds in giving a sense of the football culture at the Naval Academy, without relying on the obvious cliches about the similarities between war and sports. The rivalry, which dates back to 1890, is the oldest in college sports. This year’s game is scheduled for next Saturday [December 12] in Philadelphia.
Navy won the 1963 game against Army 21-15 and finished the season ranked number 2. The game, which was nationally televised, was the first in which the instant replay was used. The rivalry between the schools was so strong that Army Coach Paul Dietzel hung an effigy of Mr. Staubach on Army’s practice field to motivate his players.
After its victory, Navy was invited to compete in the Cotton Bowl against number-1 ranked University of Texas the following January 1.
Navy lost the contest 28-6 and members of the Kennedy family took the defeat personally.
At a post-season dinner honoring the retirement of Marine Commandant David Shoup, two family members expressed their displeasure in separate conversations with key officials of the team. Ethel Kennedy sat next to Mr. Staubach and castigated him for losing, saying “you went down there to play the Cotton Bowl and you were representing the Navy and the country.”
As Mr. Connelly noted, during the season Mr. Staubach “scrambled, dodged and avoided the fastest and biggest football players in the country, but there was no escaping the wrath of Ethel.” Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy poked his finger in the face of Navy Coach Wayne Hardin and said “I thought you knew, how important that game was to my family.” Such behind-the-scenes revelations make “The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game & The Assassination of JFK” an enjoyable book.
• Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history, politics and sports.