March, 20 2023
The atmosphere of the 1963 Army-Navy game was more subdued than at any other time in their storied series, but the stakes were also higher than normal.
John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, a Naval officer and die-hard fan of Midshipmen football, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, just eight days before Army and Navy were to meet in Philadelphia. With the Commander-in-Chief slain, there had been talk of cancelling the game altogether, but the Kennedy family helped to intercede. Jacqueline Kennedy convinced Army and Navy to agree to reschedule for December 7, stating that the former President would want the game to go on.
It ended up being a game worthy of the effort, recalled as one in which the gallantry of the defeated was equal to the joy of the victor. It also saw the introduction of new television technology and a crucial referee’s decision in the final seconds. Finally, the game allowed mourning Americans to forget about their loss and get excited about a needed distraction.
Navy came in as the second-ranked team in the nation with a record of 8-1, led by the Heisman winning quarterback Roger Staubach. Army was 7-2 under second-year head coach Paul Dietzel and anxious to end a four-game losing streak to Navy. The winner of this game would win more than bragging rights, it would secure an invitation to the Cotton Bowl to take on top-ranked Texas. Army and Navy both had the chance to keep their biggest rivals at home on New Year’s Day, which was more than enough to spice up the action.
The absence of the President was palpable. All the flags surrounding Philadelphia’s massive Municipal Stadium were at half-mast, the Presidential box in the bleachers was filled with black flowers and the ceremonial coin-toss, which Kennedy loved to partake in, involved only the players and referees. A member of the Army band announced to the crowd of 102,000 that the Cadets and Midshipmen “dedicate this game to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” The multitude then engaged in a moment of silence.
Shortly after, Army kicked off and for the next three hours the two teams played their hearts out.
The first half ended in a 7-7 tie with Army successfully containing the quarterback known as “Roger the Dodger.” They continued to befuddle Staubach in the second half but lost track of Navy fullback Pat Donnelly. Donnelly scored three touchdowns, and his scoring runs of one and 20-yards put Navy up 21-7 with ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Cadet quarterback Rollie Stichweh rallied his troops, leading Army on a time-consuming drive which culminated in his 5-yard touchdown run. Viewers of the CBS telecast were then shocked to see Stichweh score a touchdown again just seconds later. What was going on? Was there a transmission problem? Did the game telecast cut out while Army got the ball back and scored to tie the game within a span of seconds? CBS phone lines lit up with calls from perplexed viewers.
The confusion was caused by an innovation debuted by CBS producer Tony Verna. It is known today as instant replay. Given the funereal atmosphere of the nation, CBS chose not to promote this advance in technology prior to the game. CBS simply replayed Stichweh’s touchdown, the first instance in which instant replay was utilized. Broadcaster Lindsey Nelson tried to explain the new experience. “Now folks, don’t be confused,” he said. “Army has scored only one touchdown. What you are about to see is a replay.” Judging by the calls to CBS, Nelson’s words did not have the desired effect.
CBS returned to live action and Stichweh actually did score again, this time on a successful two-point conversion. Army now trailed 21-15 with 6:19 remaining.
Army then successfully executed an onside kick, recovering the ball at the 49-yard line. It was none other than Rollie Stichweh who made the recovery. Army again embarked on a methodical drive, taking almost the entire six-plus minutes to move to the Navy two-yard line. With less than ten seconds to play, Army lined up in formation, but Stichweh’s signals could not be heard as the din from 102,000 fans was deafening. The quarterback appealed to the head official who stopped the clock to allow Army to regroup.
The Army players, thinking the game clock would not start again until the snap of the ball, got back in formation and Stichweh again called out signals. They did not realize the referee had restarted the game clock once they got in the set position. Stichweh was shocked when halfway through his signal calling the referee came running up and announced the clock had expired and the game was over. Navy won 21-15.
Dietzel was upset by the referee’s decision, recounting that earlier in the year against Penn State the officials had kept the clock stopped until the snap in a similar situation. Official Barney Finn explained he followed the rules as written. The previous play did not end with an action that necessitated clock stoppage (incomplete pass, penalty, etc.). The game clock could be paused but when he believed the noise was abated enough to call signals, it had to resume before the snap. “I could have stopped the clock until today and the crowd of 102,000 would still be screaming,” he explained.
With the win, Navy punched its ticket to the Cotton Bowl and Staubach burnished a Hall of Fame legacy. In defeat, Army, and more specifically Stichweh, earned a nation’s gratitude for never giving up and providing a dramatic ending. It was not a perfect game: Staubach struggled, Army misunderstood the rules, and CBS confused viewers by underplaying instant replay. However, it was the game the nation needed at the time and that is why it will be fondly remembered for decades to come.