CBS Sports Network Recalls JFK, 1963 Army-Navy Game

CBS Sports Network makes its mark among the channels offering half-century commemorations of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination with a strong documentary about the 1963 Army-Navy football game that kicked off 15 days after the tragedy.

Marching On: 1963 Army-Navy Remembered (view a three-minute promo here) laces the sadly all-too familiar footage of the ill-fated motorcade, Walter Cronkite’s unforgettable news read, Jack Ruby’s moment and scenes of a mourning nation and First Family, with player and coaches’ interviews from both service academies and Kennedy historians. Narrated by Josh Charles of CBS's The Good Wife, the doc provides context to the game’s on-and off-the-field importance, especially just one year after the Cold War escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The black and white clips provide details that were then not part of this reviewer's conscious memories of the JFK murder, much less of college football and the Army-Navy rivalry's place in the national sports landscape.

Fifty years ago college football – in a time before the multibillion dollar business of the BCS and Super Bowl – was more popular than the pro pigskin ranks. For many, Army-Navy was The Game, the culmination of the college regular season played out before 102,000 in Philadelphia’s Memorial Stadium (which in 1964 was renamed for JFK and bore that moniker until its 1992 dismantling) on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The one-hour film underlines JFK’s love of football – a member of Harvard JV before injuries ended his gridiron career, the doc screens well-worn home movies of the Kennedy clan playing two-hand touch in Hyannis Port – and his allegiance to the Midshipmen: he was famously injured on PT 109 in World War II.

However, Kennedy saw Army’s then three-game losing streak to Navy after the 1961 battle as bad for the nation and military and reached out to recruit Green Bay Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi to steer the Black Knights, who instead became helmed by Paul Dietzel, the coach of LSU and Billy Cannon’s 1958 national champions.

As president, Kennedy attended both the 1961 and 1962 games. Incredibly, the latter witnessed a spectator approaching the commander in chief as he stood at the 50-yard-line during halftime. The Secret Service was described by some newspapers as having more holes than Army’s defense that surrendered a pair of Roger Staubach rushing TDs and two aerial strikes in a 34-14 throttling.

Before the 1963 stand-off, Heisman Trophy-winner Staubach navigated Navy to a No. 2 national ranking with an 8-1 mark. Army was fierce, too, with a 7-2 record that included a win over No. 9 Penn State. Still, Navy was an 11.5-point favorite, when Lee Harvey Oswald struck.

Marching On reminds that there was much debate as to whether the game, originally scheduled for Nov. 30, should be played at all, before Jacqueline Kennedy swayed opinion by saying her husband would have wanted it to kick off.  Hence, 15 days after the horror in Dallas, on Pearl Harbor Day, the service academies engaged without the usual pageantry and hijinks that historically preceded their annual gridiron encounter.

On a stage like no other, it may have been the last time Army-Navy truly mattered, as college football was evolving to became a pipeline to the rapidly expanding pro game.

Although footage from CBS’s telecast is used limitedly, the heroics of Navy fullback Pete Donnelly, who scored three rushing TDs, and Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh, both of whom are interviewed in the film, are on full display, and set up the contest’s stunning conclusion.

But Marching On aspires to and succeeds in capturing the nation’s grief and how the symbolism of the game – and the playing of the contest itself – was much more important to the country than the final score. Participants called it cathartic and a final act of duty for the fallen President, that it supplied some measures of comfort to those of all ages.

As Pete Dawkins Army’s 1958 Heisman Trophy winner said: “We were all searching for some reassurance that we would be okay. I really believe that there was solace in the normalcy of this football contest, and that it was going on. Not only was it going on, but we were going on and would be okay.”

Unfortunately in the wake of 9/11 and other tragedies sports all too often have had to function in our nation’s healing process.

Marching On: 1963 Army-Navy Remembered debuts on CBS Sports Network at 8 p.m. (ET). It is scheduled to encore on the channel on Nov. 15 at 3 p.m., Nov. 16 at 2:30 p.m., Nov. 17 at 6 p.m., Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. and Nov. 21 at 5 p.m.