Wednesday, 3 April 2019


When I was a kid I had a book about Joe Bellino, who died a few days ago aged 81. The star of Navy's 1960 football team, which went 9-1 and lost to Missouri in the Orange Bowl, Bellino won the Heisman Trophy overwhelmingly that year; the first Midshipman to win it, and what turned out the first of two Navy players in four seasons, as Roger Staubach followed him in 1963.

The book must've been published after he won the Heisman, so I might have got it for my birthday (which was the day before Joe's on the calendar) or it might have been the following Christmas. I suspect the latter, because although my dad was a Navy fan, having enlisted at 17 during World War II, I think we may have spent Christmas in Boston that year, and my Uncle Jack might have picked it up for me. Which is also a sign of how much I loved football in my youth.

In any case, I remember some of the book very well, especially about Bellino's exploits at Winchester High in Massachusetts. He was, apparently, known as 'The Wnchester Rifle' but honestly I didn't remember that at all. Besides football, he was a baseball star good enough to get drafted by the Pirates, and as a basketball player led Winchester to two championships before the school was moved up a division and they lost a third. In those days we paid attention to the Massachusetts' large school champs, because the two (from Eastern and Western Mass) would join two Connecticut schools and one each from the other four New England states in an annual high school tournament at the Boston Garden, an even dominated by Connecticut teams.

Doing some research, I also recalled Bellino did a post-grad year, at Columbian Academy,
where he scored three touchdowns against the Navy plebes (freshman) team in an upset win. This was ironic, since I would go to a prep school where we took in post-grads; my junior and senior years I would be the only one from my class not a PG who played. He would have done that to get his grade point average or his SAT scores up to the required level for admission, and interestingly Staubach did the same, at New Mexico Military Academy, in the alien-visit town of Roswell.

Of course that made both of them a year more mature when they started college, and each would have played on freshman teams before becoming eligible for the varsity. You can find some film on Bellino on you tube. He was listed at 5-9 185, and he is built low to the ground and strong-legged. You can see him break tackles easily; he has good vision and most of all surprising speed (he led the Navy baseball team in stolen bases).

Navy was never as much of a power as Army—West Point's greatest teams, of course, came toward the end of World War II, when they had older players like Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis who were grabbed by the army from other colleges. Navy had a great team coached by Paul Brown at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago, but they weren't at the Academy. But under coach Wayne Hardin (with Steve Belichick, Bills father as a scout/assistant) Navy had a brief flowering in the early Sixties. The service academies were beginning to shrink: Yale had beaten Army in 1956, and Air Force had come into being and taken some glamour away. But as the lure of professional football grew (and the money) the four year commitment required in the service in return for your college education became a negative selling point. Nowadays the academies often waive the requirement to allow players into the NFL, and cash in on the patriotic publicity: back in the day Gen. Maxwell Taylor backed down from allowing Davis and Blanchard to go to the NFL, and neither Bellino or Staubach seemed to hesitate with their commitments. I can't begin to tell you how inspirational the book made Joe Bellino appear; I recall seeing picture of young Bill throwing a ball with Bellino and reading something about how he idolized him, and I could understand why. For a brief while, until Vietnam War protest radicalized me at age 15 or 16, I had a thought of going to Navy as well.

Ironically, when I was a sophomore at Wesleyan, we scrimmaged Army (well, mostly their second-string) at West Point, and at lunch in the huge mess hall, as cadets leapt onto our table screaming at us (the word 'hippie' might have sounded) I didn't regret my decision. We won that scrimmage, and went undefeated that season back at Division III, winning the Lambert Cup, the small version of the Lambert Trophy Navy won in 1960, as the top team in the East.

That Navy team was good. They had beaten Army the year before; Bellino scored three touchdowns in that game, no one had ever done that in an Army-Nevy game before. They were still lightly-regarded, but early in the season they beat Washington, with Bob Schloredt at QB, in Seattle; Washington would beat number one Minnesota in the Rose Bowl (the polls closed well before the New Year's Bowl Games in those days). Washington coach Jim Owens said 'he made us look like we hadn't practised tackling'. They beat Notre Dame, and took their only loss at Duke 19-10; Duke wound up rated number 10 and beat no.7 Arkansas (with Lance Alworth) in the Cotton Bowl. Goes to show you what the pollsters know. Navy was ranked number 4 (no. 2 Mississippi beat Rice in the Sugar Bowl; no.3 Iowa was second in the Big Ten and thus couldn't go to any bowl game). Missouri was ranked 5, and unbeaten, but with an asterisk, and looking that up I remembered the scandal vividly.

Kansas beat Missouri but had to forfeit that game (and one to Colorado) for playing Bert Coan at halftime, because TCU had violated rules recruiting Coan, who then transferred to Kansas. This was the Kansas team that had John Hadl still playing halfback, but with Coan joining Curtis McClinton, they moved him to quarterback in 1961. Coan, like McClinton, was big (6-4 215) but ran a 9.4 100 yards. His pro career never panned out, while McClinton had a good one with the Chiefs. 

Bellino's senior season was pretty spectacular. He ran for 834 yards at 5.0 per carry, caught 15 passes for 264 yards and 3 TDs. He threw two TD passes (though he was only 5/14 passing), quick-kicked (!) 11 times for a 47 yard average (a lot of rolling involved there) returned kicks , kicked a couple of extra points and like most of the players in the game, played defense too.

He won the Heisman in a runaway. Check out the photo at the top and compare with the Heisman pose! With points allotted 3-2-1 for first, second and third place votes he had 1,793 points; second place went to Minnesota guard Tom Brown, with 731. Yes, guard. Yes, he did play both ways, but still, football was a different game then. Third was Ol' Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs, who became a catcher for the Yankees and Senators. Gibbs was second in the South and Southwest; Brown in the mid-west, and UCLA tailback Billy Kilmer second in the west (he finished fifth. Mike Ditka was sixth; Ohio State quarterback Tom Matte (a halfback in the NFL with the Colts) was seventh, and center/linebacker EJ Holub of Texas Tech was 10th: Holub would be the only player to start Super Bowls on both sides of the ball, center in one, linebacker in another, for the Chiefs. One name that I hadn't thought of in years was Pervis Atkins of New Mexico State, who was ninth in the voting but had an unsuccessful career in the NFL/AFL (but acted in the The Longest Yard).

1960 was an interesting year; I watched undefeated Yale play that year; they wound up ranked no14 in the country. Yale's Ben Balme was the other starting guard on the AP All-America team, but center Mike Pyle had a long career with the Chicago Bears. The quarterback Tom Singleton got written up in Sports Illustrated; he threw 70 passes all year, while the fullback Bob Blanchard was the running threat; he was a local hero from Hamden just outside New Haven.

In the rest of the country outside Connecticut, Norman Snead and Roman Gabriel were the 'best' NFL QBs, while Ernie Davis was just starting at 7-3 Syracuse and Bob Lilly was at TCU.

In the Orange Bowl, Missouri beat Navy 21-14, ending Joe's career with a loss. He was shut down completely as a runner, though he caught a touchdown pass. And it was the end of his football glory too. Because of the four-year commitment, he wasn't drafted until the 17th round by Washington (pick 227); in the AFL draft he lasted until the Pats took him in the 19th round (pick 146). He graduated in 1961; he joined Boston in 1965. He didn't play much, and mostly as a kick returner; he seems to have been effective as a pass catcher, but not as a runner. The years off obviously hurt. Although, in 1963 he was stationed in Newport Rhode Island, and he played for the Providence Steamroller of the Atlantic Coast Football League.

I knew the ACFL well too: those were the years when the Ansonia Black Knights played in the league, but it was a semi-pro operation. Later some teams would join the Continental League, then a couple return to the ACFL for a couple of pretty good years when teams were actual feeders to NFL teams. Oddly enough, Wayne Hardin's college coaching career would come to a screeching halt in 1966 when he went to the Continental League and coached the Philadelphia Bulldogs to the title. Why, I do not know, but Bill Walsh came out of the CFL too.

I couldn't find any stat line for Bellino, but he scored three TDs, and I believe played only three games for Providence. The Steamroller went 6-6 in the league (and won three exhibition games, two against non-league teams). They played the Boston Nu-Way Sweepers three times (one an exhibition) which I mention only because I love the name.

They beat the Black Knights in Ansonia, and beat the Harrisburg Capitols in the third-place (runner-up) in the post-season. While he was playing before small crowds, Staubach was winning the Heisman for the 1963 season; leading Navy to another 9-1 season. They were ranked number 2 in the country, despite losing 24-22 to SMU in the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas; they handed number four Pittsburgh their only loss of the year. They suffered another post-season loss, to top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl game, meaning they were unbeaten outside the Cotton Bowl that year.

Writing this I feel a lot like the ten-year old kid who loved playing touch football (the Kennedys had turned us on to that), wanted to follow in my father's football-playing footsteps, read coaching guides from the 1930s that advised punting on first down inside your ten, and made football cards from magazine pictures and created a probability game, APBA-style, after sending for their free sample then making my own charts. It was so much fun, and so much simpler then.

Joe Bellino didn't leave the Navy after four years just to try pro football. His son was stillborn when he was on a ship in the Atlantic; his mother-in-law died while he was in Japan. As it was, he served 24 years in the naval reserve after his pro career ended (he was taken by the Bengals in the AFL expansion draft but retired rather than move to Cincinnati) and retired a captain. He was a successful businessman in Massachusetts, and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. RIP.

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