Staubach reflects on his eventful season with Navy football in 1963

Gene Wang (c) 2013, The Washington Post

There was a time when the Heisman Trophy winner could not get recognized in New York City.

Such was the predicament for Roger Staubach 50 years ago when the quarterback became the second player in Navy history to capture college football’s most prestigious individual honor.

Then a junior, Staubach was in Manhattan for the award ceremony, and one evening he and teammate Tom Lynch decided they would visit the Playboy Club. The iconic members-only establishment required a special key for entry, but this was Time magazine cover boy Roger Staubach, so Lynch figured it wouldn’t be a problem.

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Staubach borrowed civilian clothes, including a pair of far-too-short trousers, from then-sports information director Budd Thalman, changed out of his dress blues and headed to the Upper East Side with Lynch, Navy’s center and captain. Then they waited, assuming that any number of clients entering the club would invite them inside.

“We’re standing out there and just making a fool out of ourselves,” Staubach, 71, said earlier this year during an interview at his real estate office in Dallas, where he played 11 seasons for the Cowboys before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “People are looking at us, and finally Tom starts saying, ‘This guy won the Heisman Trophy.’ They’re looking at me, and my pants were showing, they’re like, ‘What is he talking about?’

“We never got in the Playboy Club.”

As if that failed expedition weren’t enough, the night before Staubach was standing in full uniform outside a playhouse shortly before he, his parents and future wife Marianne were to attend a production of the Tony Award-winning play, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

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Several patrons began handing Staubach their tickets, assuming he was an usher.

To which Staubach’s mother said, ‘That’ll keep you humble Roger.”

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With Staubach entrenched as the starter in 1963, Navy embarked on the most prosperous season in program history by opening with three straight wins. The Midshipmen outscored those opponents 105-20, hanging 51 on West Virginia in the opener.

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It was during the fourth game in which Coach Wayne Hardin, his staff and Staubach’s teammates first witnessed the fortitude of the future supply officer who, instead of requesting a stateside assignment after being commissioned, volunteered to serve a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam.

The opponent was Southern Methodist, and the game was played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. One of Navy’s assistants was Steve Belichick, the late father of New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, and he provided a scouting report indicating the Midshipmen should expect aggressive tactics that included hits after the whistle.

That meant Staubach needed to be on high alert, and it didn’t take long for Navy to realize the Mustangs were determined to knock him out of the game at all costs.

In the first quarter, Staubach handed off on a running play, and well after the exchange, SMU defensive lineman Johnny Maag delivered a crushing hit. Staubach landed awkwardly on his left side, dislocating his shoulder one of more than dozen times throughout his athletic career.

To this day, Staubach is unable to raise his left arm more than several inches from his body, and the diagnosis in the locker room was an injury that could require season-ending surgery.

But given Navy’s No. 4 ranking at the time and with a national championship still in play, Staubach had trainers pop the shoulder back in place, and he re-entered before the end of the first quarter wearing a harness to keep his arm immobile. Shortly thereafter, SMU was at it again, this time ripping off Staubach’s helmet and gouging his face following his one-yard touchdown run that made it 10-0.

The Midshipmen wound up losing, 32-28, but Staubach became the first Navy quarterback to rush for at least 100 yards in a game. From that point, there was no doubt Staubach was going to be the player on whom everyone leaned when the stakes were at their highest.

“To have a guy like that you respect and love and have so much trust and confidence in a person that you know intimately, and now he’s in the huddle, and he’s calling the play, everyone feels this is not a phony deal,” Lynch said. “I used to say there’s nothing that Roger will do on the football field that will surprise me.”

The Midshipmen reeled off five straight wins after the SMU game, including a 35-14 victory over Notre Dame. That would be Navy’s last win against the Fighting Irish until 2007.

The next week, Staubach hurt his knee in a 42-7 throttling of Maryland, leaving his status in doubt for Navy’s final road game at Duke. With Staubach wearing a brace, Navy escaped the Blue Devils, 38-25, despite committing 56 yards worth of penalties and losing two fumbles.

Six days later, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

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On Nov. 23, 1963, word of Kennedy’s passing began to reach the academy, and Hardin had the sobering duty of informing players when they gathered to dress for practice.

The locker room fell silent as Hardin delivered the news, and practice was canceled. The team came together for a collective prayer, and immediately after Lynch led a group of players to the Navy chapel. Flags at the academy were lowered to half-mast.

The Pentagon subsequently announced a mourning period of one month for all federal and military institutions, meaning the Army-Navy game set for Nov. 30 was in jeopardy. Whether Staubach would win the Heisman became an afterthought as a nation grieved.

“The tragedy was even closer to us because he was the commander-in-chief, and he was a Navy guy, too,” Staubach said of Kennedy, who had enlisted after his graduation from Harvard in 1940 and had met the team one year earlier during training camp in Rhode Island. “It was more of, not an arm’s-length relationship, it was a little closer than that because he loved Navy football, and then with the chances we wouldn’t play the Army-Navy game, the Heisman just got shoved to the side there for quite a while.”

Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 25. The next day, with the status of Army-Navy still uncertain, the Kennedy family requested the game be played. The Pentagon, in an official statement, announced Army-Navy would be pushed back a week to honor Kennedy’s memory.

On the same afternoon, Hardin brought the team together in the locker room to reveal that Staubach had been awarded the Heisman Trophy. He became the fourth non-senior to win the award after accounting for 15 touchdowns and completing 107 of 161 passes for 1,474 yards and rushing for 418 yards.

So overwhelming were his qualifications that the Heisman committee had no issue announcing Staubach as the recipient even though he had one game left in the regular season. Staubach received 517 first-place votes, nearly eight times as many as runner-up Billy Lothridge of Georgia Tech.

Navy went on to beat Army, 21-15, for a fifth consecutive time before falling to top-ranked Texas, 28-6, in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 1, 1964. Still, Staubach set then-Cotton Bowl records for completions (21) and passing yards (228).

“For a guy who won the Heisman, he was such a humble guy, a hard-working guy,” said Bill Belichick, who as a youth attended practices with his father and played catch with Staubach. “First one on the field, last one off. Just had everybody’s respect. Everybody knew that he was obviously the star on the team and had a million demands, but he never put himself above the team. He was always just one of the guys.”