As the interminable pregame rites dragged on, a Virginia Military Institute cadet standing in full uniform at parade rest toppled over. Then another did the same. And a third.
The date was Oct. 7, 1961, the temperature was in the 80s and the District was dedicating its shiny new sports palace with extended ceremonies that delayed by 50 minutes the start of VMI’s football game against the host George Washington Colonials.
Meanwhile, a crowd of 20,340 endured speeches by city officials, federal officials and construction officials. In VMI’s locker room deep in the bowels of D.C. (now RFK) Stadium, the players also sweated out the seemingly endless wait - and went completely flat.
“Emotionally, we were ready to play, but we sat there and sat there and sat there,” former VMI quarterback Bobby Mitchell recalled last week. “All the air went out of our balloon, and we played the worst game in my four years at VMI.”
Mitchell, a native of Alexandria and a star player at the city’s old Hammond High School, had his own rooting section of family and friends in the stands. But he and his teammates floundered badly that steamy afternoon as GW romped to a 30-6 victory.
“It was very dramatic to walk out on the field before the game and see the largest stadium we had ever played in,” Mitchell said. “But we were really embarrassed because the game we played was so untypical of a VMI performance. As it went on, we kept saying, ‘We gotta get our juices back,’ but we never did.”
Back then, VMI was something of a regional football power. The Keydets were 15-3-2 and won Southern Conference championships in 1959 and 1960 under coach John McKenna, but that 1961 team slipped to 6-4, with the lopsided loss to GW contributing mightily.
Mitchell, now a 69-year-old lawyer in Winchester, Va., who prefers to be called “Bob,” had to pass the ball more often than McKenna preferred after the Keydets fell behind 12-0 in the second quarter. For the day, he completed just four of 10, and VMI didn’t score until halfback Stinson Jones took a pitchout and ran in from the 1 in the fourth quarter.
The game was not the first at the new stadium. Six days earlier, the Washington Redskins lost to the New York Giants 24-21. But for reasons that have disappeared in the mists of time, the official dedication was the following weekend.
Worse luck for VMI’s proud Keydets.
Before the game, Rep. Oren Harris, Arkansas Democrat, who had introduced the stadium’s funding bill in Congress, called the $24 million facility “a symbol that a country can be as great as it is strong and healthy,” whatever that meant. He also relayed President Kennedy’s “deep regret” at being unable to attend.
Grouped around the speaker’s stand at midfield were five military musical aggregations plus some 700 VMI cadets. At one point, a horseman dressed in colonial costume started to ride onto the field but was reined in by stadium manager Dutch Bergman, who feared damage to the grass.
During the proceedings, dozens of civic officials were introduced, and some offered speeches. There was an invocation and a benediction. Then somebody fired off a cannon, and the football players scampered onto the field. At last.
VMI’s defeat did not incite McKenna, a stern and principled man, to rant and rave at his tattered troops after the game. That was not his style.
“We feared what he would say when we got to practice on Monday,” Mitchell said. “But he just critiqued our performance, pointed out our mistakes. After a game like that, you move onto the next one [a 14-7 loss to Virginia] pretty quickly.”
Defeats of any sort were rare for Mitchell, who never played on a losing team at Hammond or VMI. He was fortunate to play under two coaches now in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, Harry “Red” Caughron at Hammond and McKenna.
Mitchell later spent two seasons coaching VMI’s freshman team while attending law school at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. He married his high school sweetheart, worked in the Army’s Judge Adjutant General office and moved to Winchester in 1968.
Yet nearly a half-century later, memories of that first college game at D.C. Stadium still rankle.
Said Bob Mitchell with a rueful smile: “It was a bad day.”