November 22, 1963. That was, of course, the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was assassinated in Dallas. November 30 was the day the 1963 Army-Navy Game was supposed to be played. The decision was made to push the game back one week, to Dec. 7, but the country was still immersed in mourning. Half a century ago, Army-Navy owned a hold on the American sporting imagination that was much more substantial than it is today (though the game still means so much to so many Americans). The Cadets and Midshipmen were asked to bring their countrymen out of the shadows of sadness and into the light of renewal, helping their fellow citizens to get back to the business of living, of putting one foot in front of the other in perilously uncertain times.
The 1963 Army-Navy Game is likely the most documented and written-about installment in the 113-episode history of this series. It is a game that, much like the Wisconsin-Arizona State game earlier this college football season, featured an instance of officiating malpractice at the very end of regulation, one which denied the team with the ball a chance to win the game. Army ran out of time on fourth and two near the Navy goal line when it should have gained a final opportunity to score a 22-21 win. In most years, that kind of controversy would have dominated the headlines and the history books. Yet, in 1963, under a particular set of overwhelming circumstances, the disputed conclusion of the Army-Navy Game receded into the background.
What is remarkable about the 1963 Army-Navy Game, even to this day, is that Navy's 21-15 win – which propelled the Midshipmen into a de facto national championship match against Texas in the 1964 Cotton Bowl, the last time any service academy has made a legitimate run at the national title in college football – is not remembered for anything relating to championships at all. The enduring reality attached to this, the most important Army-Navy Game of all time, is that it made its participants aware of their responsibility to care for their fellow men and women.
In the immediate moment of that afternoon at Philadelphia's old Municipal Stadium, Staubach experienced the elation of victory, while Stichweh absorbed a defeat that will always sting precisely because Army was denied a legitimate opportunity to win the game. Yet, what happened on a game clock – and with an officiating crew – doesn't linger in the present moment, 50 years later. "Marching On" captures the story of Stichweh and Staubach, two men whose competitive fires took a back seat to their friendship, forged from a strong sense of brotherhood – not just as military men, but as human beings who carried a great weight on that unforgettable day.
Stichweh will always believe – as well he should – that he would have beaten Staubach and Navy if he had been given one more play on Dec. 7, 1963. Yet, Stichweh's life – more specifically, his heart – is not the product or reflection of a loser. Stichweh could have chosen to be a bitter person as a result of what happened at the end of the 1963 Army-Navy Game. Instead, he took away a profound sense of responsibility from the experience. Moreover, Staubach – despite being the winning signal caller on that afternoon – didn't grow a big head or turn into a superstar athlete with an unhealthy sense of perspective.
One simple but powerful anecdote proves how much the 1963 Army-Navy Game turned Rollie Stichweh and Roger Staubach into better men, making them leaders throughout their lifetimes, even in the present moment. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports tells the story in a report from Nov. 14, the night when a special screening of "Marching On" was shown to members of the 1963 Army and Navy teams at a gathering in West Point:
The 114th meeting between the two will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, in Philadelphia. The nature of this rivalry and the threads from '63 connecting to today remain as strong as ever, considering how last year's game ended. With Army facing the longest losing streak in the history of the clash (10 games), the 2-9 Black Knights had the ball in the fourth quarter on the Midshipmen's 14-yard line with just over a minute to go, trailing 17-13.
On what would become the final play of his career, Army quarterback Trent Steelman botched a hand-off. Fumble. Navy fell on the ball. The game was essentially over. Army's losing streak against Navy increased to 11. Steelman was devastated. The first letters Steelman received after the loss -- letters of support and gratitude -- came from the quarterbacks of this game 49 years gone: Rollie Stichweh and Roger Staubach.