Army's Ken Waldrop dives to the Navy 2-yard line on third down with seconds left in the Army-Navy game Dec. 7, 1963, in Philadelphia. The clock ran out before Army could take one last crack at the end zone; Navy won 21-15. (The Associated Press)
President Kennedy greets the team captains before the start of the 1962 Army-Navy game at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. (Nimitz Library/Naval Academy)
If you were alive in 1963, you almost certainly remember exactly where you were when you found out President Kennedy had been shot.
Army quarterback Carl Roland “Rollie” Stichweh was a second class cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, walking by the barracks on his way to an electrical engineering class.
“A cadet — I don’t know which one it was — was sticking his head out of one of the barracks and screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘The president has been shot!’ and he repeated that two or three times,” Stichweh recalled.
Naval Academy quarterback Roger Staubach, then a midshipman second class, was in his room at Bancroft Hall getting ready for a thermodynamics class when he heard shouting in the hallway.
“So I started to go down Stribling Walk, to my classroom, and by the time I got to our classroom the teacher said it was not good, it didn’t look like he was going to make it,” Staubach said.
It was a Friday afternoon, eight days before the academies would face off in the 64th Army-Navy game.
At first, both men said, the teams didn’t know whether they would play. Ultimately, the Kennedy family said JFK would have wanted the show to go on.
“We definitely felt it was special,” Staubach said. “It was a testimony to him.”
Kennedy, who famously served aboard PT-109 during World War II and retired as a lieutenant in 1945, was a huge Navy football fan and had attended the annual contest for years. During his presidency, he famously walked across the field at halftime to spend two quarters in the other team’s section. That way, he said, he always sat on the winning side.
But he would be noticeably absent in 1963, as were the festivities that usually surround the game.
“So there were no pep rallies, no bonfires, no pranks, if you will,” Stichweh said. “Going into the game, the preparation, the practice, was very somber, very low-key, but we had a job to do and wanted to do the best we could.”
The feeling was similar in Annapolis, Staubach said.
“I’ve never experienced an emotional situation like the Army-Navy game in ’63,” he said, “because usually there were pep rallies, bonfires and all kinds of activities, but it was sullen.”
The coaches’ pregame speeches took a different tone, as well.
“Just before the game, Coach [Paul] Dietzel basically said, ‘Look, this is for the team, it’s for the Corps of Cadets, it’s for the Army, but we have a chance here to really help the country move through this tragedy,’ ” Stichweh recalled.
But when they got on the field, he said, the switch flipped and the gravity of the situation gave way to the will to win.
“Once the ball got up in the air for the initial kickoff — boom, we were fully into it,” he said.
The Midshipmen were ranked second in the nation. Staubach had been named the winner of the Heisman Trophy, given to the nation’s top college football player, on Nov. 26 — less than a week after the Kennedy assassination. Navy hadn’t lost to Army since 1958.
Navy had a 21-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, but Stichweh scored on a 1-yard plunge, then ran for a two-point conversion to make it 21-15 with 6:19 to play, then recovered the ensuing onside kick. Army marched deep into Navy territory, but after running back Ken Waldrop was stopped at the Navy 2-yard line on third down with less than a minute left, the Cadets couldn’t get off another play before time ran out.
“It felt sweeter because we had such a great year,” Staubach said. “But there was an old saying at the academy: You could be 0-9 and if you beat Army, you’ve had a great year.”
Stichweh and Staubach both graduated in 1965 and went on to serve in Vietnam — Stichweh as an artillery officer with the 82nd Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade; Staubach as a logistics support officer at a Vietnamese base.
Staubach continued his football career after his discharge, spending 11 years with the Dallas Cowboys and earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Did he ever imagine, 50 years ago, that he’d still be telling the story of that 1963 game?
“Are you kidding me? No!” Staubach said. But he did know the game would be something special, and forever attached to Kennedy’s legacy.
“With the game itself, you know, it’s understandable, because of his association with our team ... it really makes sense, and it’s kind of fun,” he said. “It just shows that he really did love Navy football.”