PENSACOLA, Fla. (NNS) -- Former Navy Lt. Roger Staubach remembers a time early on in his pro football career when the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback, Craig Morton, got injured during a game.
Just before going in to replace him, Staubach leaned in to Head Coach Tom Landry and asked, "How's it feel to know your starting quarterback was playing for the (Navy) Pensacola Goshawks this time last year?"
Fortunately, Staubach played well, the Cowboys came back to win the game, and Landry never had to question the risky faith he and the team had placed in a 27-year-old quarterback whose last college game had been five years earlier.
The credentials were unquestioned, and if Staubach had attended Ohio State University, the University of Florida, or the University of Oklahoma; there would have been no doubts about his future NFL career. He was the best player on the second best team in the nation, a Heisman trophy recipient, and a recognized leader at the premier position in the game. Under most circumstances, he was a number one draft pick. However, he came with one very big caveat: he played for Navy.
The five-year obligation placed on each member of the U.S. Naval Academy team frightened nearly every NFL front office away from Staubach's name come draft time, but the Cowboys risked a flyer on a 10th round pick for the young naval officer and were prepared to bide their time, despite the fact that no one could know what kind of a player he would be five years removed from high-level competition. The pick was widely panned across the league.
Staubach had larger concerns. He was about to head into the Vietnam War.
Although he could have requested an assignment in the States, Staubach chose to volunteer for a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. Through August 1967, he commanded about 40 enlisted men as a Supply Corps officer at the Chu Lai port, an air base that provided support to Da Nang Air Base approximately 50 miles to the northwest.
He worked with swift boat officers and Navy Seals at the camp, and tried to maintain his conditioning. He ran and worked out at a soccer field in Da Nang with his co-workers. He joked, "You didn't want to run too far or you would be in VC (Viet Cong) territory."
Working around his duties as a freight terminal officer, Staubach also lifted with some old Navy teammates with the sets of weights they had at the camp. It certainly helped, but he admitted his conditioning in theater was not what it was while he was at the academy.
However, the benefit of his one year in Vietnam was that he was
able to transfer back to the States, to Naval Air Station Pensacola. The complex of air fields provided plenty of rewarding work, and the beautiful beaches and rural atmosphere was a great place to raise his family, but Pensacola came with one more advantage - the Pensacola Goshawks.
NAS Pensacola had one of the last military installation tackle football teams, and played a regular schedule of mid-level conference colleges. The location held a strong appeal to the young quarterback who had a desire to get back in the game. He even wrote a letter to the NAS Pensacola Commanding Officer, Capt. W.R. McDowell, expressing his desire to play on the team in advance of his transfer.
"I have managed to stay in shape and hope to play football for the Naval Air Station," he said in the letter. "I miss athletics very much, and hope to participate in them at Pensacola if they don't interfere with my duties."
It is safe to say that almost everyone was eagerly awaiting his arrival 50 years ago - except for perhaps Bill Zloch. Zloch was slated to be the starting quarterback for the Goshawks, and had been quarterback for Notre Dame during his college days. According to Staubach, when he reported to the team, Zloch told him, "I think I am going to have to find a new position."
He switched to wide receiver, and ironically as a Marine pilot, caught the winning touchdown pass against the Quantico Marines. Staubach said the Goshawks hadn't beaten the Marines until that 1967 team.
Like Zloch, most of the players on the team had played college football prior to joining the military. According to Tom McCracken, one of Staubach's teammates and a long-time friend, a very large proportion of the team was from the Naval Academy. At the time, the Naval Academy was a premier college team and played one of the more difficult schedules in college football. However, schools like Oklahoma, the University of Virginia, UCLA, the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa and Clemson University dotted the roster as well.
Anyone could try out for the team from the area installations or local squadrons. NAS Pensacola, Saufley Field, Whiting Field, Ellyson Field and other sites contributed players to the line-up. Instructor pilots, student aviators, and base staff formed the team. Although the competition was fierce, no one doubted what the true priority was.
"You had a job there to do and football was secondary," Staubach remembered. "We practiced about an hour and a half most every day, but that wasn't the primary role. Working for supply on the base was a big job!"
Tryouts began in July and carried through the second week of August, but Staubach missed the first two weeks of practice due to his transfer from Vietnam. The schedule commenced Sept. 9 with a slate that included McNeese State University, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Southeastern Louisiana College, Youngstown State University and the Quantico Marines, among others.
The players met at 4:30 p.m. at Kane Field onboard NAS Pensacola for practice. McCracken remembers that the 6 p.m. stop time was rarely enough for Staubach, who would pull him aside from the second team and throw routes.
"He would continue throwing to me after practice, and when I would lay there and couldn't move any more, he would continue throwing," McCracken said.
Even so, after about a two-year layoff, the quarterback wasn't fully in football shape. Although he led them to victory in the first game, he was injured early in the season and missed two consecutive losses to Northwestern University and Southwestern Louisiana. He returned midway through the season on a gimpy ankle and still led the team to wins over Youngstown State, Quantico, Lincoln University and Mexico Polytechnic to salvage a winning 6-4 season.
Staubach went into the offseason driven to be better in 1968. McCracken, who quickly became best friends with the Academy grad through the 1967 season, emphasized that you could tell he was a special player by his attitude.
"He was a winner; he never felt like the team was out of a game," he said. "We practiced together throughout the offseason, and no matter what we were doing, he had to do at least one more than me."
The work also prepared Staubach for his tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. He took time off from the Navy and travelled to Thousand Oaks, California, to the Cowboy's rookie training camp. He remembers feeling "pretty good" after the camp, and recalls Coach Landry saying "he was looking forward to having me back."
In addition to some high hopes following the camp, Staubach returned to Pensacola with one other "secret weapon." Landry had let him keep the Cowboys playbook to study.
The legendary Vice President of Player Personnel for the Cowboys, Gil Brandt, told Staubach he just received "a great vote of confidence."
Armed with some advanced new offensive artillery, Staubach took over as the quarterback coach for the Goshawks, which strangely enough, is the only QB coach he ever had according to McCracken. The Naval Academy and the Cowboys had no designated position coach while he played.
The Goshawks' 1968 season was shaping up to be an impressive one, with high-pedigree players including wide receiver Steve Dundas, who had been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals football team, linebacker Don Downing who was named to the All-East team in 1965 and 1966, NAIA All-American Keith Collins at defensive tackle, small college All-American Jeff Dalluge at another linebacker spot, and UCLA defensive end Mike Roof who made the All-West team in college.
The team tuned up with a preseason victory over Troy State University and then reeled off four straight victories over East Central Oklahoma State College, Quantico, Middle Tennessee State, Youngstown State, as well as avenged 1967 losses to Southeastern Louisiana and Southwestern Louisiana.
"Coach Landry was an offensive genius," McCracken remembered. "Our playbook was so far ahead of the defenses we played, we were able to have guys uncovered before the defense knew what happened. We were running the Cowboys' playbook with the greatest college quarterback of his time."
At Youngstown State, Staubach threw for the most yards he had ever passed in a game - 452 yards - against a defense led by defensive tackle Ed O'neill, more famous today as the patriarch in the "Modern Family" and "Married with Children" TV series. During a "Tonight Show" broadcast, he supposedly quipped to Jay Leno that "the Goshawks receivers looked like they were renting condos in the endzone."
Unfortunately, the perfect season came crashing to an end when the hazard that affects any type of military team intruded on the stellar season. Players had to transfer to new duty stations. Many players were student aviators, and when they completed training, they needed to move on for further training. It was rare to have players for more than one season. However, unlike the norm when one or two would transfer at a time, McCracken remembers that 10-12 players were recalled at once.
"We lost all our Marines at one time," he said. "We had to recruit players just to field a team, and the offense was too complex to pick up in a week."
The team lost two of its final three games and finished 7-2.
Regardless of how the season ended, for Staubach, it re-energized his love for the game and solidified his decision to resign from the Navy and pursue his football career.
"I didn't know if I would leave the service at that time," he said. "I came back and had a real good year and felt like I was back to myself. After that season, I realized I really wanted to play again. I truly enjoyed my service and would have stayed longer otherwise."
The two years on the Goshawks squad are mostly lost in the annals of football history, wedged as they are, in between a Heisman career at the Academy and a Hall of Fame career with two Super Bowl rings on display. However, reflecting back 50 years later, Staubach agrees that it probably helped his career.
"I hadn't played for two years, but putting on the equipment again and playing the small colleges - they weren't big schools, but they were good teams," he said. "I was hurt the first year, but in the second year, I was able to come back in much better shape."
Pensacola turned out to be the right place, at the right time for Academy grad. He was able to continue his service to the nation, grow his family, and return to the game he loved. Staubach and his family are firmly entrenched in Dallas now, but he admits that "the area brings back some good memories for us." He even stated that in the day, if they'd had any money, they would have bought property in Pensacola.
Staubach completed his tour of duty at NAS Pensacola, and resigned his commission in time to participate in the Cowboys training camp - leading up to that important moment against the Cardinals.
As a 27-year-old rookie in the NFL, the route he took to football stardom was certainly convoluted. Staubach's military background would be considered a hindrance in most circumstances, but there was at least one lesson learned that he credits to this day with forming his tremendous legacy.
"I think one of the things that Coach Landry said was that he felt that my leadership made a difference," Staubach stated. "It was unusual for a rookie quarterback to start, but he felt that my maturity would be a big help. I learned a lot about those qualities in the military."
And he still has a firm passion for the uniformed services today.
"I admire those who serve on the front lines," he said. "I am proud I served and was fortunate to be associated with a lot of great people during my time in the military."
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