50 Years Later The 1963 Navy Football Team Still Ranks As The Best In School History
Oct. 2, 2013
When the subject of the 1963 Navy football team is raised among the men who made that incredible season happen, it evokes an array of images.
It conjures up the serious visage of senior Tom Lynch, the Midshipmen’s hard-nosed center/inside linebacker and team captain, who remains its caretaker to this day. There is Lynch, captured on grainy, black-and-white film, grabbing the ball and running off the field with it, as time has run out on Army at Navy’s two-yard line, allowing the Mids to hold on for a 21-15 victory. That win would send the second-ranked Midshipmen into the national championship game against top-ranked Texas.
Ask about that special group of players, and you will hear about speedy and elusive playmakers such as John Sai, Edward “Skip” Orr and Jim Campbell. You will hear about bruising performers such as fullback Pat Donnelly.
There were quick, instinctive defensive backs such as senior Robert Orlosky and tough, under-sized linemen like senior Alexander Krekich and junior Fred Marlin. And the Mids’ savvy was typified by the crafty and inventive minds of head coach Wayne Hardin and the late Steve Belichick, his top assistant.
Of course, the 1963 squad was dominated by the highlight reel that was junior quarterback Roger Staubach. Throughout that fall, Staubach made so many plays in so many ways – scrambling, rolling out, slipping tackles, throwing with zip and accuracy from the pocket and on the run – that he won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player.
But this was a group comprised of more than just hard hitters and fundamentally sound blockers and tacklers and big-play threats.
“We were a bunch of guys who really cared about each other. We just blended so well, and we’ve never lost friendship or respect for each other,” recalled Krekich, a two-way senior lineman that year.
“The first thing I think about is friendship and the love of teammates when I think of that team,” added Richard Earnest, one of Navy’s senior halfbacks in ’63. “I don’t know why that team came together the way we did. But I know we were clear-headed, clear-thinking, with no bad actors.”
“I think anybody who has played a competitive contact sport, and everybody who has gone to the Naval Academy, gone through plebe summer and everything else, can appreciate what we had,” Lynch said. “You want to do something for your fellow man. You want to be selfless about it. We’re all still like brothers.”
Most of the surviving members from the 9-2 team that played in the Cotton Bowl for college football’s biggest prize have stayed connected over the years, mainly due to Lynch, who has organized reunions large and small for the past three decades. And most of the survivors associated with the ’63 team are in Annapolis this weekend to bask in the 50-year anniversary celebration of arguably the greatest collection of football brothers the school has produced.
A year after it showed flashes of greatness during a 5-5 season in 1962, Navy put it together in unprecedented ways. With Staubach, the future Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion leader of the Dallas Cowboys, pointing the way and getting a huge assist from Lynch -- whom teammates likened him to Dick Butkus, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker – the Mids had their twin towers, and then some.
“We had some of the best players at their positions that Navy has ever had,” Orr said. “We had great coaching and amazing senior leadership. We didn’t have many significant injuries. And we had no head cases on the entire team. We were all headed in the same direction, all season. Those guys are my closest things in life. That team had as much impact on me as anything else in my life.”
It was such a unique year. During a season that eventually would envelope the team and the country in sadness following the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy – a World War II hero as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant – Navy would reach some astonishing high points.
Three years after the great Joe Bellino had run roughshod over defenses to win the Heisman and lead the Mids to a 9-2 finish, the ’63 team ran a gauntlet of top-flight opponents behind a quarterback like Navy had never had. The Mids knocked off Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Michigan, Notre Dame and Maryland with ease. That was before Navy would edge archrival Army in a thrilling and controversial victory delayed by a week while the nation mourned Kennedy’s death.
Navy would not run out of gas until, as the No. 2 team in the country, it faced top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl and lost, 28-6, in the title game. It was played on New Year’s Day in Dallas, where the President had died 40 days earlier.
The 1963 team averaged 29.1 points while allowing only 15 points per game. Staubach threw for 1,702 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 371 yards and nine TDs. The Mids hit the big boys hard, as Navy went on the road to beat West Virginia, Pitt and Notre Dame by an average of 26 points, starting with its season-opening, 51-7 romp in Morgantown, W.Va.
Beneath all of the impressive numbers was a team steeped in character, with no shortage of characters. It featured future U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers who were tagged with nicknames such as “Ragman” and “Sugar” and “Soupy” and “Snorter” and “Radish” and “Dirty Ernie.”
Among the 47 players pictured in the team photo, on a roster that reflected an era dominated by two-way performers, were future success stories in various pursuits. Staubach followed up his outstanding NFL career with huge success in commercial real estate. Earnest, whose penchant for off-color jokes led his teammates to call him “Dirty Ernie,” achieved great success in the computer software business. Sai taught math and coached football at a handful of high schools in Northern California for 31 years, before retiring in 2004.
Numerous players from the ’63 varsity squad fashioned impressive military careers. Several of them, including backup quarterback Robert Sutton and Krekich, ascended to the rank of Admiral. Fittingly, Lynch, who as the Brigade’s heavyweight boxing champ was the quintessential leader on a team bursting with them, retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral in 1995. He also served as Naval Academy Superintendent during his 31-year career.
“Tom might have been an admiral, but to us he’s a captain for life,” Orlosky said. “Nobody put themselves above the team. Tom made sure of that. He used to make the first-team guys run extra sprints after practice. He played with such intensity. He was a hell of a leader.
“What was great about that team was we weren’t overconfident. But Roger raised all boats and he gave us a certain confidence. We took care of all of the little things. Staubach took care of the big things.”
“I’ve always told the guys that they each deserve a piece of the Heisman [trophy],” Staubach said. “They still ask me about it. I told my wife when I die to cut it up into a bunch of pieces.
“What we did in ’63 really started with the momentum we had [late] in ’62. We almost beat USC [the eventual national champs]. We out-played the No. 1 team in the country, had them beat on their field [before losing, 13-6],” Staubach recalled. “Then we really handled Army [a 34-14 win], and we were the underdogs that day.”
The following spring, as the Midshipmen were wrapping up practice near the end of the school year, Hardin got the feeling the Mids had something special brewing.
“I remember driving home after a spring practice and stopping for groceries. My butcher says to me, ‘Coach, I’ve been looking at your schedule and I think you’ve got a chance to be the No. 1 team in the country.’ I asked him what he was smoking,” Hardin recalled.
“Then I started thinking why not? We had the pieces. Tom Lynch was the spearhead of the team. He pulled everybody together, and we felt with Staubach maturing the way he was, he could pull the rest of the guys up on offense. Sometimes you didn’t know what he was going to do, because he didn’t know what he was going to do, but Staubach had great instincts. A lot of coaches would try to put bridles on players like that. I let him go.”
And it didn’t take long for the Mids to be off and running in the fall. It started with a party-crashing trip to Morgantown, where West Virginia was celebrating its 100th year of statehood. The ninth-ranked Mids made short work of the Mountaineers with a 51-7 rout that set the tone for the season.
Orr, who had begun the spring season as a fourth-team, junior varsity player, caught touchdown passes of 26 and 37 yards and returned an interception 52 yards to set up another score. Sai, who was known as “Ragman,” because of his admittedly sloppy look in uniform (“I didn’t like to shine shoes. I wasn’t the best-dressed Midshipman.”), ran 47 yards for a TD.
The Mids followed up with a 28-0 rout over visiting William & Mary, a victory that laid the ground work for their memorable trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan, where Staubach was dazzling. He completed 14 of 16 passes for 237 yards and rushed for 70 more. Sai’s 54-yard TD catch helped the Mids score the game’s first 20 points in a 26-13 whipping punctuated by some vicious Navy hits.
“Michigan carried seven or eight guys off the field. Roger was like Wayne Gretzky, with that sixth sense of his,” Lynch said. “By that point, I was starting to think nothing he does would surprise me.”
But not even Sai’s blazing speed – he ran 100 yards in 9.7 seconds – or Staubach’s all-around heroics could prevent Navy from its only regular-season stumble the next week at SMU, where the No. 4 Mids blew a 25-13 lead and dropped a bitter, 32-28 decision. On a hot and humid Friday night that featured a suspicious amount of calls that did not go Navy’s way, Orr was stripped of the game-winning touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on the game’s final play.
“There are still a lot of sour grapes [over that game]. We had over 100 yards in penalties and had a touchdown called back. There are a lot of justifiable complaints about what took place,” said Staubach, who remains annoyed by the no-call on the defensive lineman who nailed him from behind after the whistle and aggravated his tender left shoulder in the process.
The loss dropped Navy’s record to 3-1, and its ranking slipped to 10. But there would be no more losing in the year of 1963. The Mids started a six-game winning streak by disposing of VMI, 21-12, then prepared for a huge game against visiting, unbeaten, third-ranked Pittsburgh.
Navy scored the game’s first 17 points and rolled to a 24-12 victory. The defense picked off four Pitt passes, beginning with Lynch, who set up a field goal by Marlin that opened the scoring. Staubach’s scrambling drove the Panthers crazy. Navy vaulted back up to No. 4 in the AP poll.
The Mids cemented their spot at No. 2 over the next three weeks, starting with a 35-14 blowout over Notre Dame in South Bend. That marked Navy’s ninth win in 37 games against the Fighting Irish. It also marked the last victory over Notre Dame until 2007, and it featured a rare tongue-lashing by the normally calm Hardin at halftime, when the surprisingly lethargic Mids were deadlocked with the Irish at 7-7.
Navy responded. Donnelly took care of Notre Dame with a dominant second half that featured outstanding line play by the reinvigorated Mids, who scored 28 unanswered points. Donnelly caught a TD pass to give Navy a 14-7 lead, finished the Navy scoring with a 41-yard dash on a great pitchout by Staubach and gashed the Irish defense with big runs in between.
Navy toyed with Maryland the following week and rolled to a 42-7 win, then overwhelmed Duke in a 38-25 victory in Durham.
Then, six days later on November 22, and eight days before the Army game, everything stopped when Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed the President in Dallas. The Army game was postponed, and no one was sure if or when it would be played – or any other game, for that matter.
The Kennedy assassination hit the Mids especially hard. Kennedy, a U.S. Navy enlistee, made no secret of his love for the school and the team. Prior to the 1962 season, as Navy was completing training camp at Quonset Point, R.I., the President had stopped to meet the team while en route to a vacation at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. The President shook every player and coach’s hand.
“JFK wasn’t supposed to be biased, but he let us know he was a Navy [fan] and he got away with it,” Krekich said. “We got to march in his inaugural parade [in 1961]. We had a real love for him, and we were extraordinarily sad after what happened in Dallas. We weren’t sure if there would be another game to prepare for. Frankly, we didn’t care.”
But word got out that the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, had requested the Army-Navy game go on, since the President would have wanted it that way. And on December 7 in Philadelphia, the archrivals met in a contest that carried a huge potential payoff for the Mids.
“All I told the guys before the game is ‘Let’s play a game worthy of a President,’” Hardin said.
Navy’s 21-15 victory unfolded in three segments. Army took an early, 7-0 lead and stopped the Mids with a goal-line stand. Navy then asserted control in the second and third quarters with stout defense and power offense, behind Donnelly. He scored all three Navy touchdowns that day. His last score, on a 20-yard burst, completed a 91-yard drive and made it 21-7 with 10 minutes left in the game.
Army finally answered with a touchdown drive, behind quarterback Carl Stichweh. The Black Knights then stunned the Mids with a successful onside kick, and drove to Navy’s 2-yard line. Incredibly, confusion got the best of Army, which failed to run the next play, as time ran out.
“The relief of not losing that game was tremendous,” Staubach said. “We wouldn’t even be talking about the ’63 team if we hadn’t beaten Army.”
This weekend, as they gather in Annapolis to reflect on what they did in 1963, the Mids probably won’t talk much about the tough loss against that loaded Texas team, which jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never looked back on New Year’s Day. Or the pulled hamstring that Donnelly suffered two days before the game. Or the emotional fatigue that seemed to affect Navy, as it played in a city where its beloved Commander-In-Chief had been cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Then again, there is little need to rehash such unpleasant topics. There is too much to celebrate.
“That season is one of the most satisfying periods of my life,” Lynch said. “I would have crawled through glass for the chance to play for a national championship. We had the opportunity to participate on the world stage and wound up No. 2 in the nation. We forged a bond you can’t change.”