This article is the fourth and final in a series of articles commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy / Gottfried Helnwein / Gouache airbrushed on board, 1983 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine
Dwight D. Eisenhower / Ernest Hamlin Baker,/ Gouache on board, 1945 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; purchased with funds from Rosemary L. Frankeberger
As the story goes, the Army belonged to Eisenhower, but the Navy belonged to Kennedy. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and thirty-fourth president of the United States, was a graduate of West Point and had played football early in his time there. John F. Kennedy had served heroically in the Navy during the Second World War and was a big fan of the United States Naval Academy’s football team.
President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, had put the entire nation into mourning, and many questioned the propriety of playing football in the wake of this tragedy. However, the precedent had been set the weekend after the assassination, when National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle had approved all seven games to be played on Sunday, November 24. The NFL played its entire schedule of games that Sunday, but did so only with the advice of Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who said that the president would have wanted play to go on. The games were not grand affairs, however; they were stripped of celebration and joy, but they were played because they were recognized as part of the American autumn tradition that the late president had embraced. Football was the most loved game of the Kennedy family.
The following week, football again battled protocol when both West Point and the Naval Academy struggled with whether or not to play their annual game. The decision was made, notes journalist Michael Connelly, when “members of the Kennedy family intervened and asked that the game be played. They understood how much the game and the service academies had meant to President Kennedy.” It was originally scheduled for November 30, but the game was rescheduled for December 7, 1963, at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia.
Connelly notes that the game served as a momentary catharsis for those at Municipal Stadium, and possibly for the greater aggregate of grieving Americans:
When the Pentagon finally acquiesced to the Kennedy family’s request that the game be played, the teams and fans never fully anticipated what the game would represent to the nation. For two weeks, America had walked in a daze, unable to make sense of the senseless. On November 22, a piece of the country’s spirit had also died. . . . When the Army and Navy teams took the field on this day, there was a tangible emotional release of sadness. On the field and in the stands it was finally acceptable to run and clap and feel emotion again.
The recently named Heisman trophy winner, Roger Staubach, quarterback for Navy, was supposed to be the man to watch. However, in a contest that played out in front of 102,000 people, it was Navy fullback Pat Donnelly who scored all three of Navy’s touchdowns. The game went down to the closing seconds, with Army threatening to tie with a touchdown and possibly to win with the extra point conversion, but an Army misunderstanding over when the game clock would restart resulted in time expiring and Navy winning.
It was a bizarre way to end such an anticipated game, but the victory went to the Midshipmen nonetheless. Staubach, who had had a memorable season, played one more game that year for Navy. He scored Navy’s sole touchdown on New Year’s Day 1964, in a losing effort to the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Roger Staubach played a final season for Navy, but it was much less remarkable than the 1963 season. After playing for the Midshipmen, Staubach served a four-year tour with the United States Navy; he then enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, where he picked up two championship rings for Super Bowl VI (1972) and Super Bowl XII (1978).
The 2013 installment of the annual Army–Navy game, a great American tradition, will take place on December 14 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Michael Connelly, The President’s Team: The 1963 Army–Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK (Minneapolis: Quayside Publishing Group, 2009).