Remembering Three Navy Legends
July 11, 2006
By Bob Socci
Two questions immediately came to mind when I read a recent press release announcing the late Leon "Red" Romo's induction into the Maryland State Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame.
First, I wondered, "He's not in already?" And more incredulously, I thought, "What took so long?"
Then it occurred to me. Red Romo had long ago achieved something far greater than being officially deemed a Hall of Famer.
Much more than being enshrined with a plaque or remembered by words printed on a certificate, he created a living, breathing legacy that endures through those he touched in his four decades at the Naval Academy.
Just like so many of his generation who helped impart life's lessons to the aspiring leaders they coached or - in Red's case - treated in their time on The Yard.
If it takes a village to raise the children who enter Annapolis each summer, so too it takes people like Red Romo or Steve Belichick or Joe Duff - or someone else you can no doubt think of - to see a one-day homesick plebe to some-day manhood or womanhood.
As the officer he or she is bound to become.
In Red's case, maybe it was forty-one years worth of endless stories that provoked smiles and one-liners that prompted laughter during morning treatment in the trainer's room or on a football Saturday along the sideline.
Away from the demands of the classroom, the pressures of Bancroft Hall or the disappointments that come with competition, he could always be counted on to serve a little wit and wisdom with a side order of 'Romo Toast'.
Or, more simply, maybe all he needed to do was pull another pair of pants out of the closet - the ones with those colorful, sometimes outrageous patterns - to cause more than the occasional chuckle.
With men like Belichick and Duff, the daily demand of themselves and their athletes to be better than before surely rubbed off on those they coached - in football and baseball, respectively - or taught in phys ed.
Such impact - through their spirit, in the memories they created - endures.
It could be with a Heisman Trophy winner like Joe Bellino or some lesser-known junior varsity backup who made his name in the Navy, Marine Corps or private business.
More than 40 years later, Bellino and others of his era fondly recall pre-game meetings when Belichick, a Navy football assistant for 33 years, would dispense his weekly scouting report.
Never was there a nuance uncovered or was there any trace of uncertainty about a game plan crafted to help the Mids exploit each opponent's weaknesses.
What seemed brilliant in the end usually boiled down to one thing at the beginning - an unwavering attention to detail born out of a determination to get it right.
Listening to some who once sat in such sessions, it seems they learned far more than simply the keys to victory over Vanderbilt.
Perhaps they learned - among many things - the absolute importance of exhaustive preparation.
And with it, something that would transcend their sport and serve them well in future roles on the bridge of a carrier, if not in the board room of a Fortune 500 company.
If not both.
When asked last December to share his memories, Phil McConkey - the diminutive Navy receiver who went on to a six-year NFL career - said he thinks of his ex-coach every morning.
Still to this day, McConkey said, he performs the same stretching program he was taught as a young Mid by Belichick.
Perhaps with each exercise, as he loosens his muscles, the player can still hear the old coach's voice echoing from McConkey's youth, as if transported back to a practice field along the Severn.
It's likely those who played under Duff experience similar moments when they call their coach to mind. Perhaps while having a catch with their kids or just watching a ballgame on TV - wondering whatever happened to fundamentals.
For many, the words that resonate may not be those from someone wearing a whistle. Instead, they may simply be the lingering encouragement from the honorary coach who never, ever failed to make a practice.
However rainy or cold, no matter how strong the winds blew on those dark December nights when Army was around the corner.
We should all have such figures in our lives. And just maybe, when we really think about the many voices of our past, we do.
They forgive us when we go astray, congratulate us when we do ourselves proud and remind us of the golden rules we should never forget.
And they need not be in anyone's Hall of Fame.
After all, they're already in a much better place - our hearts.