It’s a fitful dream, one that has haunted Dick Nowak for 50 years. In it, Army’s football team has the ball on Navy’s 2-yard line. Trailing by six points, Nowak and the Cadets line up to run a final play as precious seconds tick away.
And then? Time runs out — and Nowak wakes up.
“The ending is always the same,” he said resignedly. “We never get the play off.”
The dream is all too real. In 1963, that’s how Army lost to Navy, 21-15, in a game deeply etched in the lore of their 144-year rivalry. Heavy underdogs, the Cadets drove downfield late in the game, only to waste the final seconds before a fourth-and-goal and bungle a chance to upend the second-ranked Midshipmen and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Roger Staubach.
Moreover, the game was a legacy to President John F. Kennedy, who’d been assassinated in Dallas 15 days earlier and whose family had insisted the teams play on. Navy was 8-1; Army, 7-2.
Half a century later, the two captains from that game — Army’s Nowak, a two-way lineman, and Navy’s Tom Lynch, a center and linebacker — can still hear the din from 102,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium as Army ground inexorably toward the goal line and the clock wound down.
“Army was out of timeouts. We were pretty confident they weren’t going to score, but they kept getting closer and closer,” Lynch said.
It was the crowd, raucous after two weeks of mourning, that caused Army’s undoing. Eight seconds remained when quarterback Rollie Stichweh, unable to bark signals over the roar, raised his hands in dismay. Officials called time briefly and Army rehuddled, unaware that the clock, per the rules, had started again.
The game ended with both teams set at the line of scrimmage and the Cadets a scant 72 inches from paydirt. Players reacted in kind. Lynch, who’d been counting down the seconds, grabbed the ball and raced off the field.
“Instinct took over,” he said. “I wasn’t going to give them a chance to run another play.”
Army slumped, bewildered.
“There was pandemonium on the field. Most of us didn’t know what had happened,” Nowak said.
When it sank in, Army’s right guard blew up.
“I just lay there pounding the ground. Then I threw my helmet 20 feet in the air,” he said. “I couldn’t believe we didn’t get the play off. It was to be an off-tackle run by Ken Waldrop [the Cadets’ leading rusher] to the right side, the same play we’d run for a touchdown to beat Air Force [with 81 seconds left].
“Now, all we can say is ‘what if?’”
The victory sent Navy to the Cotton Bowl, where it lost to No. 1 Texas, 28-6.
Funny thing, Lynch said: “We lost two games that year — the other to Southern Methodist — and both games were played in Dallas.”
As for the Army game, the years have not lessened the debate over the outcome, had time not expired.
“Now I kind of wish Army had gotten the play off,” said Lynch, former Naval Academy superintendant. “I know we would have stopped them, but for some, there’s always that doubt.”
Lynch said as much in a speech he gave at Nowak’s induction into the Army Athletic Hall of Fame at West Point in September.
“If we’d run the play, it would have been definitive,” Nowak said. “I used to be bitter about this, but in 50 years I think I’ve mellowed. It is what it is, and you live with it. We [Army and Navy players] still chide each other, but there are no grudges.”
Most important, he said, is the fact that the game even took place in the wake of the president’s death.
“I do think it was the beginning of the healing process for this country, that we could move on despite days of mourning,” Nowak said.
The following week, Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance mailed both Lynch and Nowak commemorative silver dollars, one of which would have been used by President Kennedy for the pregame coin toss. Lynch’s coin will be flipped before Saturday’s kickoff.
Nowak’s dollar, encased in glass, sits on his desk in his home near Dallas. But it doesn’t ease the sting of that game, nor end the dreams that he has about it:
“I told my wife and kids that the day that I pass over the Rubicon, the last thing I’ll say is, ‘Why didn’t we run the play?”