Army-Navy Football Game Let Nation Heal, Gain Strength After JFK Death

Army-Navy Football Game Let Nation Heal, Gain Strength After JFK Death

Perhaps no college football game meant more to President John F. Kennedy than the annual Army-Navy clash. Kennedy, a former Naval officer, had attended the game many a time and liked to spend time on the sidelines. He attended the year before and was looking forward to going to the 1963 showdown, which was scheduled the week after he was killed. He told Navy’s coach that he was hoping to be on the sidelines of the winning team. 

After Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, there was talk that the game would be canceled. But with the urging of the Kennedy family, especially his wife Jackie, the game was played December 7 of all days, which was a week after its scheduled date.

In 1963, the nation was looking forward to the game that had national title significance and a Navy quarterback in Roger Staubach who was headed toward a Heisman-winning season. But all that was secondary after Kennedy’s death, for the game allowed the country to heal and gave it back some of its strength during the Cold War:

President Kennedy’s death put into doubt what was already shaping up as the college football game of the year. The Army-Navy game was the Super Bowl of those days, and in 1963, Navy, behind the remarkable Staubach, was the No. 2 team in the nation. Army, having dropped four straight games in the series, had lost just twice during the season and was primed for the upset. The winner was going to go on to face No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

But it was also traditional for the military to observe the 30-day national period of mourning. And so on Tuesday, Nov. 26, four days after the President’s death and the same day the Heisman was awarded to Staubach, it was announced that the game would be moved back one week to Dec. 7 with the approval of the Kennedy family. According to some, it was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s ultimate decision that the game be played.

Michael H. Gavin, who wrote Sports in the Aftermath of Tragedy: From Kennedy to Katrina, said the game was significant “not only because of Kennedy’s relationship to the armed services but because he attended that game a lot in his presidency.”

“In the Cold War era and in an era when your commander-in-chief has just been assassinated, a lot of the stories about that game were about national strength and vigor being reasserted as a result of these two teams that were full of hope, strong individuals playing a game,” he said. 

Roger Staubach, who was the quarterback for the Navy team that won the game 21-15 after Navy barely survived a furious fourth-quarter Army comeback, recounted the significance of the game this week. 

“He was at the ’62 Army-Navy game. That was one game I played and it was a really great Army-Navy game for Navy, and he was there and he was going to be at the ’63 game. Obviously, the game was played on his behalf, and it was very emotional — heck of a game actually. The Army quarterback, Rollie Stichweh, was fantastic,” Staubach said. “We’ve become good friends. Rollie and I talked about that game and what it meant to the country, just to see the servicemen and women at the game. Honoring the president at our game is what took place. That’s why it was such a big deal, the ’63 game. The family asked the game to be played on his behalf, so it was a special game.”

Kyle Chandler, who played legendary fictional coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights, narrated the story about the 1963 Army-Navy game for Sports Illustrated, with somberly beautiful background music reminiscent of Friday Night Lights:

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