Back in October, some 30 members of the 1957 Naval Academy football team that finished 9-1-1 and ripped Rice in the Cotton Bowl held a 40th reunion in Annapolis and honored their most celebrated teammate, Bob Reifsnyder.
They presented him with a plaque that read: To Bob Reifsnyder, 1957, All-American tackle, Maxwell Trophy recipient and Philadelphia Sportswriters' Player of the Year. This year, they added a final line: Hall of Famer.
Reifsnyder, a native of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who now lives in Berlin, Md., will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame tonight in New York along with such former college stars as Arizona State quarterback Danny White, Nebraska center Dave Rimington, Penn State defensive end Dave Robinson and Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee.
There is no doubt in the minds of his Navy teammates and coaches that he belongs in such company.
" 'Reif' was a dominating player in his time and could have starred at Notre Dame just as easily," said Steve Belichick, who served as an assistant coach under Eddie Erdelatz.
"He was a terrific fullback in high school, but the first time he showed up for practice and Erdelatz saw this big, brawny kid standing 6-2 and weighing 240, he said, 'We can't afford the luxury of a guy that big in the backfield. Put him on the line.'
"Those were the days when guys played both ways. At different times, he played center, tackle and linebacker. You're talking about three distinct skills. But with his speed and instinct, it was hard deciding if he was better on offense or defense."
Maryland and Iowa coveted Reifsnyder's services after he graduated from Baldwin (N.Y.) High, but his father had other ideas.
"My dad was big on discipline and gave me a choice between West Point or Annapolis," Reifsnyder recalled.
"Growing up, Doc Blanchard, Army's great fullback in the mid-'40s, was my idol. When I got out of school, he was recruiting football players, and I really thought I'd be heading for West Point.
"But I also was invited to visit the Naval Academy, and I was really impressed with Erdelatz and his line coach, Earnie George. Besides, Annapolis and the white dress uniforms were easier on the eyes."
It was in his junior year that Reifsnyder first gained national prominence, especially after leading the Navy defense in a 20-6 victory over Notre Dame.
"That Notre Dame team had Nick Pietrosante and Monty Stickles, and when we beat them in South Bend, I started getting some notoriety."
But Reifsnyder has bittersweet memories of the annual season-ending clash with Army.
"In the fourth quarter, this big Army tackle, Bill Melnick, threw an elbow and knocked out one of my teeth," he said. "When I went after him, the referee, who happened to be Albie Booth, the great player from Yale, threw us both out but acted as if he felt sorry for me."
Reifsnyder buried this frustration when he joined the Midshipmen in their Cotton Bowl victory over a Rice team that included future NFL players King Hill, Frank Ryan and Buddy Dial.
The MVP in that game was Reifsnyder's fellow lineman, senior guard Tony Stremic. But Stremic, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel now living in Springfield, Va., said Reifsnyder was the unquestioned team leader.
"To me, Reif was the prototype for the linemen of the '80s and '90s," Stremic said. "He had great physical tools, was quick as a cat and had tremendous football sense.
"I think he could have played any position. When he was a sophomore, he intercepted a pass against Penn and raced 70 yards like a sprinter before collapsing in the end zone."
Everything turned sour for Reifsnyder his senior year, when he was again being touted for All-America honors. Before the opener, he tore his Achilles' tendon and missed the entire season save for a token appearance against Army.
The injury changed more than his final collegiate season. It also ,, cost Reifsnyder his commission as a naval officer.
"At the time, I had mixed emotions," he said. "I wanted to go in the Marines, but I would have been restricted to a ground unit. I just didn't see any real career opportunities in the Navy."
Despite Reifsnyder's physical problems, the Los Angeles Rams made him a fourth-round draft pick in 1959. He passed the physical but could not recapture his quickness and was soon cut.
The next year, he had a brief tryout with the American Football League Los Angeles Chargers before being signed by the New York Titans, bringing him home at a time when his wife, Sandy, was expecting their first child.
"I could write a book about my times with the Titans," Reifsnyder said, laughing. "They were a real rag-tag outfit run by the old broadcaster, Harry Wismer. I got $13,000, which was big money back then. But altogether, the league was pretty bush."
A leg injury ended his career in 1960, and Reifsnyder said he feels cheated by his brief professional fling.
"Everyone has an ego, and I always had to wonder how I could have competed with the best if I'd been healthy," he said. "My biggest attribute was my quickness, and I lost that. With today's therapy and surgery, who knows what might have happened?"
Reifsnyder turned to coaching and enjoyed success in his decade at Berner High in Massapequa, N.Y., before joining Columbia University's staff in the mid-'70s. He finished his coaching career in Patchogue, N.Y., and sent several of his players to the Naval Academy and Merchant Marine Academy.
His son, Bob Jr., followed him to Annapolis, played 150-pound football and became a Navy pilot. It only strengthened Reifsnyder's ties to the academy.
"Football was always a big part of my life and provided me with a career. But the best thing about going to Navy was the friendships I formed. They've lasted me a lifetime," said Reifsnyder, who will have at least a dozen of his old classmates chanting his name at his Hall of Fame induction tonight.
Mids in the Hall
Naval Academy coaches and players in the College Football Hall of Fame:
Name ............... Year(s)*
Gil Dobie .......... 1917-1919
Bill Ingram ........ 1926-1930
Ron Beagle ......... 1953-1955
Joe Bellino ........ 1958-1960
Buzz Borries ....... 1932-1934
George Brown ....... 1942-1943
John Brown ......... 1910-1913
Slade Cutter ....... 1932-1934
John Dalton ........ 1908-1911
Steve Eisenhauer ... 1952-1953
Tom Hamilton ....... 1924-1926
Jonas Ingram ....... 1906
Skip Minisi ........ 1945
Bob Reifsnyder ..... 1956-1957
Clyde Scott ........ 1944-1945
Dick Scott ......... 1945-1947
Roger Staubach ..... 1962-1964
* -- Letter-winning years
Pub Date: 12/09/97