The US Naval Academy’s storied football team makes Annapolis a destination for big-time college sports. Normally, fans flock to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and then on to Annapolis’s many Navy-friendly bars and restaurants. This year we can’t go to a game, but we can look at the origins of a team that—win or lose—is always in the fight.
Midshipmen pioneered the game of football in the late 1870s, but they did it surreptitiously because the Academy’s superintendent at the time had prohibited football on campus. That seems odd until you realize that the sport was once known as “mob football,” with no limits on the number of players and no protective equipment. Injuries were routine.
In 1879, two Midshipmen tried to bring the sport to the Academy. First-classman J. H. Robinson used a form of football based on the rules of soccer to improve the fitness of Navy’s baseball team. The second effort, headed by first-classman William Maxwell and based on rugby’s rules, became the progenitor of today’s team.
Maxwell challenged the Baltimore Athletic Club to play against Navy. On December 11, 1879, Navy hosted the Baltimore Club, which fielded players from experienced Ivy League schools, for Navy’s first game ever and its only contest for that year. Knowing that the opponents outweighed his team, Maxwell designed a sleeveless canvas jacket that laced down the front to make it hard for opponents to grab Navy’s players. Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football,” declared this to be football’s first uniform.
The teams competed on the superintendent’s cow pasture. A Baltimore newspaper described an intense, closely fought melee with wildly enthusiastic spectators. The referee declared a scoreless tie after about an hour. Although Navy never possessed the ball, the team kept Baltimore from scoring.
Navy’s first football season started and ended with that game. Navy would not produce another football team until 1882. That season the team would have a coach and the support of Academy officials. From 1883 through 1891 Navy would not have a coach. Navy would finish the 19th century with a 54–19–3 record.
Nothing is more legendary in Navy Football than the Army-Navy games, which the President sometimes attends. The rivalry first began on November 29, 1890, and they have met annually since 1930. Midshipman Joseph Reeves wore one of the first football helmet’s ever made in the 1893 Army–Navy Game. He commissioned it from an Annapolis shoemaker to prevent a second head injury.
Chicago invited Navy and Army to play in Soldier Field on November 29, 1926, when the city dedicated the stadium to those killed in World War I. Over 110,000 people watched the teams play to a 21-21 tie in what the New York Times described as the greatest game of its time. That same year Navy shared its only National Championship with Stanford and Alabama.
After moving out of the cow pasture, Navy played in two places before the current stadium opened in 1958. Worden Field, a large grass field on the campus, served as the Midshipmen’s stadium from 1890 through 1923. A growing fanbase led the team to move to Thompson Stadium in 1924.
Many Navy players had stellar seasons as well as stellar Naval careers. Two won the annual national Heisman trophy for best college player. Halfback Joe Bellino won in 1960. He then played in the American Football League and served 28 years in the Navy and Reserves. Quarterback Roger Staubach won in 1963. After his Naval service, including a year in Vietnam, he started his NFL career in 1969—one of the best players ever in the NFL.
Navy players and fans pour their hearts into each football season. It’s no surprise because it’s the perfect sport for Navy. Football is complex and requires not just strength but also the ability to combine strategy and timing with the ability to respond under pressure—the same skill set the Navy requires of its officers.
Go Navy, Beat Army!