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50 years later, Army's upset win over Staubach-led Navy still resonates

Army's 1964 starters line up for a photo.
Army's 1964 starters line up for a photo.(Courtesy of USMA)

Leading troops over the rugged, battle-scarred hills of Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1967, Rollie Stichweh sometimes would hark back to his football days at West Point to see him through.

"Those of us in Vietnam found adversity at every turn," said Stichweh, a captain in the 173rd Airborne Brigade who'd led Army's team past Navy in 1964 after a bitter loss the year before. "How do you react to adversity? Not by slinking off into the night with your tail between your legs, but by prevailing the next time something happens.

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"I thought about that, from time to time, in the jungle. It was good to reflect back on a very positive memory."

Fifty years ago, Army defeated favored Navy, 11-8, behind Stichweh, a quarterback who outplayed his celebrated rival, Roger Staubach, that day. The victory ended Navy's five-year grip on the Cadets. Not coincidentally, Stichweh, 71, was asked to speak this week to the current Army team, which has lost 12 straight to the Midshipmen entering Saturday's game at M&T Bank Stadium (3 p.m.).

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"Back then, losing five in a row to Navy was a big deal," Stichweh said, especially the last one in 1963 — a wrenching 21-15 defeat at the hands of No. 2 Navy. The game ended with Army 2 yards shy of a touchdown. The win sent the Midshipmen to the Cotton Bowl and clinched the Heisman Trophy for Staubach, a junior whose scrambling had flummoxed the Cadets.

At the final gun, Stichweh said, Army vowed that "there was no way we were going to leave the field in '64 without a win."

Navy thought otherwise. At stake Nov. 28, 1964, was a sixth straight win — uprecedented in the series — and a chance to tie the annual rivalry at 30 victories apiece. Six and Even was the cry as the Brigade marched into Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Stadium. Army's mantra? Nix on Six.

"For weeks we'd practiced the blitz, to pressure Staubach so he wouldn't kill us," Army linebacker Sonny Stowers said. "Guys on our 'B' squad took turns acting like Staubach and we'd chase each around the field until we got him on the ground, again and again. We called it 'The Roger Drill.'"

Beset with injuries, both teams had struggled. Navy was 3-5-1; Army, 3-6. Not that records mattered when they met.

"We've lost some battles," Navy coach Wayne Hardin conceded beforehand, "but we don't intend to lose The War."

Ditto, Army.

"There was an electricity out there, a single-mindedness of purpose," said Barry Nickerson, the Cadets' kicker. "To us, this was the day of reckoning to bring a conclusion to the '63 game, which, in our minds, had never ended."

In pregame introductions, the public address announcer, a Navy man, misstated Stichweh's name, calling him "STEE-wich" (it's pronounced STICH-way). The quarterback shrugged it off.

"I remember thinking, the outcome isn't based on how your name is pronounced," he said.

Army scored quickly. On the third play, a fierce blitz led by Stowers buried Staubach in his end zone for a safety. The crowd of 102,000 gasped as one.

"It was like something magical had happened," said Peter Braun, Army's middle guard. "That play was the spark in our do-or-die game."

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In the second quarter the Cadets scored again on a 54-yard drive climaxed by Stichweh's 5-yard touchdown pass to Sam Champi, a 6-foot-4 tight end. The point-after kick failed. Navy roared back, marching 69 yards before halftime for its only score. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Tom Leiser, a sophomore fullback, squirmed in.

"I can still see [Staubach], before the play, signaling to the coach on the sidelines," Leiser said. "Using his finger, Roger wrote in the air a '25' [the play number]. I got a clean handoff and, hoping for spiritual guidance, dove over the pile."

A 2-point conversion tied the score. On the play, an all-out Army rush swarmed Staubach who, under siege, floated the ball to the end zone where flanker Phil Norton caught it in traffic.

"How he got that pass off, I don't know," Norton said. "Roger had the ball in his right hand, with a guy hanging on to him. Then he shifted it to his left hand to free up his right arm, while dragging the tackler. He was halfway down when he threw it."

Navy, missing three injured starters in the backfield, wouldn't threaten again.

"Funny thing," Norton said, tongue in cheek. "The day before the game, Tom [Leiser] and I each received five demerits for not getting haircuts the week before. Turned out we were the two guys who scored against Army. I've often thought that if they'd given demerits to the whole team, we might have gone out there with a little more venom."

Army staged a final rally that stalled at Navy's 10-yard line. With 91/2 minutes remaining, Nickerson trotted out to try a field goal. A sophomore from Miami, he'd been recruited by Navy but wound up at West Point when his application got hung up in Annapolis.

"Was there pressure? I'd already missed an extra point, there were 100,000-plus people in the stands and it's the biggest game of the year," Nickerson said. "I thought, if I miss this, I'm running out of here."

Head down, he nailed the kick.

"When you hit it dead center, you don't have to look up," he said. "It's like hitting the sweet spot in golf."

Army's lead held. On the final play, a Navy pass, the stop was made by Stichweh, one of a handful of Cadets who played nearly 60 minutes.

"Making the last tackle was a thrill," said Stichweh, who'd shouldered blame for the loss in 1963. "That play was the punctuation point."

Within seconds, a tsunami of gray poured out of the stands, razed the wooden goal posts and engulfed the players, many of whom were too tired to flee.

"I had leg cramps in the last quarter and could barely walk," said Stowers, who'd played both ways for Army. "We blitzed so much, my uniform felt like it weighed 100 pounds. When the cadets knocked me down and tumbled overtop of me, I could hardly breathe. It was a little scary until I could wiggle my way out."

In a jubilant locker room, the winners learned the spoils of victory: three extra days' vacation at Christmas. Stichweh received a silver plate as the game's Outstanding Player.

"The game was redemption for Rollie," said Ed "Skip" Orr, Navy's star end and a childhood friend of Stichweh's. "For us, it was a fitting end to a very disappointing season. Fortunately, history has looked very favorably on Navy's 1963 team, and people focus on that."

Half a century later, the 1964 game still resonates with those who took part.

"We were not to be denied," said Nickerson, who cherishes the 8-inch sliver from the goal post on his desk at home.

"The game produced a great sense of satisfaction that has stayed with us all our lives," said Stowers who, last summer, attended a reunion of the 1964 Army team. Oh, the stories they told.

"Eight of us were asked to speak for no more than seven minutes each," he said. "Nobody talked for less than 15."

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Most players on both sides served in Vietnam. All of the starters survived the war.

"Football prepared us well for conflict," Navy's Leiser said. "You drew from that bedrock of practice and teamwork and watching out for each other. I was deep in the jungle, on small rivers and canals, in charge of 15 riverboats with flamethrowers. There, you quickly put the Army-Navy rivalry aside. We were one joint team."

In both war and peace, it seems. Two years ago, when Stichweh was enshrined in the Army Sports Hall of Fame, who should speak at his induction ceremony but Staubach.

"Many of us have remained close," Navy's Orr said. "Every year, four of us — Roger, Rollie, Tom Lynch [Navy's 1963 team captain] and myself — bet on Army-Navy. For the last 12 years, Rollie has sent each of us $1, with a note that says, 'I've mortgaged my house for this.'"

No one wants an Army win Saturday more than Stichweh.

"These recent games have been tough on my pocketbook," he said. Not so, the one in 1964.

"That win was the gift that keeps on giving for the decades that follow," he said. "It's a topic of discussion every time our old team gets together — and each play becomes greater every time we tell it."

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