- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2007

Two very notable and very different guests visited Byrd Stadium on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1957 — 50 years ago today — to watch Maryland and North Carolina slug it out on the gridiron.

One was Tar Heels coach Jim Tatum, who molded Maryland into a football power and won a national championship in 1953 before defecting to his alma mater after the 1955 season.

The other was H.R.H. Elizabeth II, queen of England.

For some on the scene that distant day, Tatum’s presence seemed more important than Her Majesty’s.

“We just wanted to beat North Carolina and Tatum,” recalled halfback Ted Kershner, whose 81-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter put the Terrapins ahead to stay in a 21-7 upset victory. “I guess it was a big thing for her to be there, but it didn’t mean that much to the players.”

Indeed it was a big thing. A half-century later, Maryland’s signature triumph of a 5-5 season has been largely forgotten. Around the university’s athletic offices, however, the occasion is still remembered and hailed as the Queen’s Game.

And Elizabeth is still queen, in the 56th year of her reign, and gaining on Queen Victoria (1837-1901) as the longest-reigning British monarch.

How in the name of Curly Byrd, Maryland’s football patron saint, did Elizabeth turn up in the D.C. suburbs to watch two totally unfamiliar teams play a totally unfamiliar game? The answer is surprisingly simple.

For one thing, she and her consort, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were on a six-day North American jaunt that included stops in Ottawa to open a session of the Canadian Parliament; Jamestown, Va., to observe the 350th anniversary of the first British colony in the New World; Washington to attend state dinners at the White House and British Embassy with President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower; and New York to address the United Nations.

At some previous point, Elizabeth had expressed a desire to see an American college football game — why we don’t know. So the university’s president, Wilson Elkins, asked Maryland Gov. Theodore McKeldin to invite the queen and her party to Byrd Stadium, and just like that, Elizabeth and Philip were riding in a bubbletop Lincoln limousine around the track circling the field and alighting at a royal box constructed for them near midfield as the crowd of 43,000 cheered. The royals were nine minutes late in arriving and the attendant hubbub delayed the start of combat from 1:30 to 2:15, but no one seemed to mind.

More than 480 reporters also turned up at Byrd that day, only a few of them sportswriters.

“Society writers from every major newspaper in the Commonwealth were there, sitting on the track with Western Union operators behind them,” recalled Jack Zane, then a student assistant in the sports information office and later its director. “And there were so many other writers that we built a wooden second floor on top of the old press box for them.”

Elizabeth was 31 years old in 1957 and, as Gov. McKeldin described her in the chauvinistic terms of that era, “much prettier than her picture.” The queen wore a coral-colored wool suit and, as the day grew increasingly blustery with temperatures in the low 50s, donned a $15,000 fur coat supplied by the Mink Growers of America.

My, how times have changed.

Accounts differ as to whether the queen enjoyed the game. McKeldin, who explained the proceedings to her while North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges did the same for Prince Philip, later called her “a remarkably savvy spectator.” President Elkins said she made “astute comments.”

A negative note was contributed by Bob Considine, a nationally known columnist for the old International News Service, who wrote, “Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip saw their first American football game, and they would just as soon give it back to the Indians. … It was plainly one of the longest afternoons in the queen’s life.”

Considine was entitled to his opinion — but concerning his veracity we should note that he also wrote the screenplay for “The Babe Ruth Story,” one of the most ludicrous biopics in cinematic history.

During the game, the queen received so many gifts that an extra car was required to get them back to the embassy. One was a medallion struck in honor of Victoria’s 60th year on the throne that showed a likeness of her as a young woman on one side and as an elderly monarch on the other.

“She looks just like you, Your Majesty,” McKeldin told Elizabeth, indicating the first side.

“Yes,” the queen replied, turning the medallion over, “but I’ll look like that someday — except I won’t live that long.”

Also seated in the royal box, in addition to various spouses, were British Ambassador Selwyn Lloyd and Howard Miller, president of Maryland’s Student Government. Miller’s companion was Lynne Needle, a comely Baltimorean who attended Centenary College in New Jersey, but she was only his second choice. Taking a gutsy long shot of his own, Miller had sought to invite Marilyn Van Derbur, aka Miss America, but was told she had a prior commitment.

During the game, Elizabeth expressed surprise that there weren’t more injuries given the violent nature of the sport. Explained McKeldin: “These boys are in such good condition that it takes a lot to hurt them — plus they wear about 14 pounds of equipment.” Face masks, he could have added, had become standard a year or two earlier — but that didn’t help Terps co-captain and center Gene Alderton, who had lost a front tooth in the previous week’s game. University officials speedily ordered up a replacement so he could smile properly when he and the other co-captains were introduced to Elizabeth and Philip.

Life magazine reported that the queen’s brow “was often furrowed in perplexity” and said Prince Philip “was the more animated of the pair,” When Kershner broke his long touchdown run, Philip exclaimed, “Oh, man, look at him go!” The queen did not see the play because the excitable McKeldin jumped up in front of her, hollering and waving his arms.

For Terps fans like McKeldin, excitement was fully justified. Following Tatum’s departure, the Terps skidded from 10-1 to 2-8 in 1956 under former assistant coach Tommy Mont and were 1-3 in 1957 entering the Queen’s Game. North Carolina, meanwhile, was 3-1 and ranked No. 6.

After trailing 7-0 at halftime, Maryland scored three unanswered touchdowns. Quarterback Bob Rusevlyan dived 1 yard for a tying touchdown in the third quarter. Then Kershner unfurled his electrifying 81-yard scamper, cutting to the left sideline and benefiting from a devastating block by end Ben Scotti.

“We’ve won it!” McKeldin exulted.

“Not yet,” cautioned the queen, obviously a fast learner. “There are still nine minutes to go.”

When it did end, the Maryland players carried Mont over to the royal box for handshakes with Elizabeth and Philip. “Splendid, splendid,” the queen said.

The victory climaxed a day that “I will revel in for the rest of my life,” Mont said in a marvelous documentary assembled for the university by TV producer Mike Springirth. It was by far the likable Mont’s biggest triumph at Maryland. He was fired after the 1958 season with a three-year record of 11-18-1 but subsequently coached DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., for 18 years.

Tatum, who would die just two years later of Rocky Mountain spotted fever at age 46, did not exactly take the loss in stride.

“I was expecting [to have] another championship team — what happened?” the famous coach yowled at his players afterward. Then he got mean and meaner.

“We were supposed to have a party that night and go see the Redskins play the next day, but Tatum canceled everything,” recalled Ronnie Koes, a Tar Heels linebacker and center. “The next week was the most hellish week of practice I’ve ever seen. He was brutal, putting us through live scrimmages and all.”

After the game, while the Terps celebrated and the Tar Heels mourned, the royals and their entourage dropped in unannounced at a Giant supermarket in, appropriately enough, the nearby Queenstown Shopping Center on their way back to the White House, absorbing another large dose of Americana.

Asked by a worker whether he wished to buy a pastry, Prince Philip replied, “No, thank you. We’re very well supplied at the White House and at home. I don’t think we need a thing.”

All in all, Elizabeth and Philip had a fine time in Prince George’s County. Everywhere the pair went, they were accorded affection and respect — with one little exception.

At halftime of the game, a dog that possibly was a Maryland team mascot trotted onto the field and did his business right in front of the queen. We don’t know whether she laughed, smiled or wrinkled her nose, but it qualified as one more memorable vignette in a day full of them.

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