Historic Army-Navy Games
By Joe Harman
The annual Army-Navy Game is more than just a big college football rivalry game. It’s a national event. Before the NFL’s Super Bowl, Army-Navy was the biggest sporting event of the year, and many times Army and Navy have met as top-ranked teams. Along the way, both teams have featured teams with big stars who have won Heisman Trophies, national champions and wowed the world with their prowess.
To look at how the Army-Navy Game became such a huge American cultural event, we’ve highlighted some of the rivalry’s biggest moments that elevated it to national status.
Here are BTL’s picks for the Top Five Army-Navy Games:
#5: 1960: BELLINO BECOMES NAVY HERO
The 1960 Army-Navy match-up featured one of the program’s all-time great athletes, and a fantastic finish. Eagerly anticipated, Sports Illustrated’s Roy Terrell prophetically wrote in his preview, “The 1960 game could be one of the best.” Terrell’s piece was also a shining profile of Navy’s star halfback, Joe Bellino, who had dazzled defenses across the country all season with his ability to juke and jive his way out of tacklers’ arms.
Bellino’s hype was not overstated. Playing both sides of the ball, and special teams, he combined for 192 total yards in the 1960 Army-Navy Game, including an interception return for 46.
Navy dominated the game in the first half, leading 17-0 at the break, but Army came back strong behind quarterback Tom Blanda and running back Al Rushatz, scoring 12 unanswered points.
Down by five and needing just to cross the goal line to win, Army found themselves on the Navy 32 with just under two minutes to play. Blanda took a shot at the win with a deep pass for a touchdown. There, at the goal line, Blanda’s pass sought its target but instead found the hands of Navy’s Bellino, who ran it back to the 46 to secure the 17-12 win for Navy.
Bellino’s interception not only secured the win for Navy, but his stand-out showing sealed his win of the 1960 Heisman Trophy and his place as a legend in Navy football.
#4: 1944 THE GAME OF THE CENTURY
When the best teams in the nation met for a clash of titans:
In 1944, amidst World War II, the US military was the focus of national attention. But while that attention focused on the European and Pacific Theaters, on the gridiron the Army & Navy football teams were dominating the sport.
The much-hyped Navy team produced a 6-2-1 record during the season and were ranked #2 in the nation -- behind only Army, who had earned their #1 ranking with an 8-0 record entering the match-up.
Calling the Army team of 1944 dominant would be an understatement. They had outscored their opponents an astonishing 481-28 that season, and humiliated Notre Dame 59-0, which still stands as the Fighting Irish’s worst ever defeat. But, if you had asked them, the Army team would have told you that they wouldn’t be satisfied until they ended their 3-year losing streak to Navy, and avenged their 13-0 loss in Annapolis the year before.
When the two rivals finally met at Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium on Dec. 2nd, just days before the Battle of the Bulge, it was the most anticipated sporting event of the year. Widely regarded as the de facto National Championship, it was billed as “The Game of the Century” and the exuberant crowd of over 66,000 was not disappointed.
Strong defensive showings from both sides set the tone for the first 3 quarters, as turnovers were rampant but scoring was not; Army led just 9-7 at start of the 4th.
But in that final quarter, the Army offense finally broke through against a Navy defense that had been playing above themselves. Army star backs Felix Blanchard and Glenn Davis each scored touchdowns and the 1944 Army team cemented themselves as one of the greatest ever with a 23-7 drubbing of their rivals to end the losing streak and claim the National Championship.
#3: 1945 THE GAME OF THE CENTURY, TOO
The very next season, while the world was a different place after the US military and the Allies secured victory in World War II, one thing remained the same: Army and Navy football was the best there was.
Building on the excitement of the year before, with travel restrictions lifted at the end of the war and a sense of jubilation throughout the country, in 1945 the Army-Navy Game gained momentum and increased its status as the country’s biggest sporting event. Over 100,00 fans poured into Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia for the sequel to the Game of the Century, and the contest was televised nationally for the first time.
The rivals entered their match-up again ranked #1 and #2 in the nation and the game was presumed to determine the National Champion. This time both teams were undefeated and the anticipation was even stronger than the year before.
This year, however, Army’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back tandem of Felix Blanchard and Glenn Davis didn’t waste any time stretching their legs and staked Army to an early 20-0 lead. Navy, although a stronger team than a year earlier, couldn’t find a solution to Army’s offense and surrendered their game jerseys after going down to a 32-13 defeat.
Army won the National Championship again in 1945 after their second consecutive undefeated season, having not lost since Navy beat them in 1943.
#2: 1926 SOLDIER’S FIELD
The World War II-era wasn’t the only time that the academies’ football teams were at the top of the collegiate game, nor was 1945 the first time over 100,000 fans turned out for the game. The national launchpad for the now-storied rivalry happened in the second greatest Army-Navy Game ever played, in 1926.
Celebrating the official dedication of Chicago’s Soldier Field, the Army-Navy game was moved out of the mid-Atlantic region for the first time. Played before a crowd of 110,000 the game was also accessible to a national radio audience -- a rarity for the time.
Both teams were dominant that year. Navy entered the game undefeated and Army’s only blemish was a loss to Notre Dame. The National Championship was on the line!
The immense crowd was treated to instant action as the game began at a lightning pace. For some reason Army’s coach Biff Jones started his team’s reserves and Navy took advantage, sailing to a 14-0 lead. Army put in their first team and fought back to take a 21-14 lead at the end of the third quarter. Navy answered with a touchdown of their own in the 4th and regulation ended with the score tied at 21.
The two teams slogged back and forth in overtime, neither giving up additional points until, shortly before dusk, the game was called and ended in a tie. Navy, with it’s undefeated record in tact, was named National Champions after the game.
At the time the 1927 Army-Navy Game was regarded as the most important football game ever to be played, and since then it has been called the greatest game played before World War II.
#1: 1963 Healing A Wounded Nation
With a fallen Commander in Chief, a Heisman Trophy winner and a potential National Championship on the line, not since 1945 had the Army-Navy rivalry grabbed so much national attention as it did in 1963.
Excitement across the country had been building for some time for the annual Army-Navy Game, scheduled for Nov. 30. The game had more than just bragging rights at stake: the winner was headed to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas for the National Championship.
Navy was the #2-ranked team in the nation and their powerful offense featured Heisman Trophy winner, and future Pro Football Hall of Famer, quarterback Roger Staubach. Even after winning the Heisman that season, Staubach would famously honor his commitment to his country by serving 4 years as a naval officer before joining the NFL and leading the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowl glory.
But all of the anticipation leading up to the game was thrown into chaos when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22 and the nation was left in shock, just a week before the scheduled Army-Navy Game.
The academies were set to cancel the game in accordance with the military’s traditional 30-day period of mourning. But the Army-Navy Game was the nation’s biggest annual sporting event, and the country needed a respite. Plus, because President Kennedy, himself a naval war hero, was a big fan of the Army-Navy Game, Jacqueline Kennedy personally intervened and insisted the game be played as part of the healing process for a wounded nation.
Suddenly, the Army-Navy Game was more significant than it had ever been. Not only did the game have immense talent on the field and huge stakes for each team’s season, the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy each represented all of America all at the same time. Their football game against each other became cathartic and proved inexorable.
Delayed a week, to Dec. 2, and with the entire nation’s attention turned towards it, the game was played in front of another 100,000+ crowd at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium.
The massive audience in attendance and at home were treated to more than just a welcome distraction, they also watched an amazing football game.
After finding themselves down early, Navy responded with three unanswered touchdowns from fullback Pat Donnelly and led the game 21-7 with just 10 minutes to play.
But Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh proved Staubach’s equal that day and lead Army on a touchdown drive, ran in the 2-point conversion and then personally fielded an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff to keep possession for Army. Down just 6 points and with good field position, Army was set to pull off a comeback of their own as they steadily marched to the end zone with time running out.
But the Navy defense held firm, stopping Army’s advance at the Navy 4 yard-line as time ran out and sealing Navy’s trip to the Cotton Bowl and the 21-15 victory in the Greatest Army-Navy Game ever played.
i: Terrel, Roy, “Army, Navy and Joe Bellino”, Sports Illustrated, Nov. 28. 1960 https://vault.si.com/vault/1960/11/28/army-navy-and-joe-bellino, accessed Feb. 6th, 2021
Patton, John, “Army vs. Navy: 10 Greatest Games in the History of the Rivalry”, Bleacher Report, Dec. 10, 2011, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/977089-army-vs-navy-the-10-greatest-games-in-the-history-of-the-rivalry, accessed Feb. 6, 2021
ii: Smith, Red, “The Slasher”, Nov. 27, 1960, https://forwhattheygave.com/2007/11/02/1960-army-navy/ accessed Feb. 6, 2021
iii Smith, Red, “The Slasher”, Nov. 27, 1960, https://forwhattheygave.com/2007/11/02/1960-army-navy/ accessed Feb. 6, 2021
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iv: Tallent, Aaron, “The Army-Navy Game During World War II”, Athlon Sports, Dec. 8, 2020, https://athlonsports.com/college-football/army-navy-game-during-world-war-ii, accessed Feb 6, 2021
v: Doughty, Andrew, “The Most Iconic Moments From The Army-Navy Rivalry”, Sports Illustrated, Dec. 11, 2014, https://www.si.com/extra-mustard/2014/12/11/most-iconic-moments-army-navy-rivalry, accessed Feb 6. 2021
vi: Patton, John, “Army vs. Navy: 10 Greatest Games in the History of the Rivalry”, Bleacher Report, Dec. 10, 2011, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/977089-army-vs-navy-the-10-greatest-games-in-the-history-of-the-rivalry, accessed Feb. 6, 2021
vii: Milsarski, Eric, “These Are The Top 5 Army-Navy Games in the Rivalry’s History”, We Are The Mighty, Dec. 12, 2020, https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-movies/these-are-the-top-5-army-navy-games-in-the-rivalrys- history/, accessed Feb 6, 2021
viii: Patterson, Chip, “Staubach Leads Navy Over Army in 1963 Game Pushed Back After Assassination of JFK”, CBS Sports, Dec. 9, 2016 https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/staubach-leads-navy-over-army-in- 1963-game-pushed-back-after-assassination-of-jfk/, accessed Feb 6, 2021
ix: Milsarski, Eric, “These Are The Top 5 Army-Navy Games in the Rivalry’s History”, We Are The Mighty, Dec. 12, 2020, https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-movies/these-are-the-top-5-army-navy-games-in-the-rivalrys- history/, accessed Feb 6, 2021
x: Patterson, Chip, “Staubach Leads Navy Over Army in 1963 Game Pushed Back After Assassination of JFK”, CBS Sports, Dec. 9, 2016 https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/staubach-leads-navy-over-army-in- 1963-game-pushed-back-after-assassination-of-jfk/, accessed Feb 6, 2021
xi: Milsarski, Eric, “These Are The Top 5 Army-Navy Games in the Rivalry’s History”, We Are The Mighty, Dec. 12, 2020, https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-movies/these-are-the-top-5-army-navy-games-in-the-rivalrys- history/, accessed Feb 6, 2021