Roger Staubach’s football career – in Annapolis and with the Dallas Cowboys – is united by the fact that one of the two biggest games he played in at Navy was located in Dallas. The 1963 Army-Navy Game was one of the seminal moments in college football history, but the 1964 Cotton Bowl remains the last game of overarching significance ever played by an Annapolis football team. The next time Staubach played in the Cotton Bowl stadium, it was as a member of the Cowboys, playing for Tom Landry and professional football’s longest dynastic reign in the Super Bowl era. What Staubach experienced in Annapolis, in Dallas, and in the years between his collegiate and professional stops creates a career full of questions, yet a career able to transcend those questions at the same time.
Go through Staubach’s career, and questions emerge as rapidly as the accolades. Staubach was always a daring, swashbuckling, scrambling dynamo of a quarterback, blessed with a sound tactical understanding of the sport yet able to consistently make improvisational plays. This fundamental combination powered the 1963 Navy team to a victory over Army in one of college football’s most unforgettable encounters. Staubach’s skills led Navy past the Cadets and on to another mountaintop moment, the chance to play mighty Texas for the right to be seen as the best team of the 1963 season. Navy entered that game as the No. 2 team in the Associated Press poll, Texas No. 1. It would be just the first of many championship games Staubach would play in. It ushered in the series of questions which accompanied Roger the Dodger’s vast list of accomplishments.
What if Navy had beaten Texas in Dallas? Navy would have forged the kind of feat that might have sustained the program at a higher level for a longer period of time. For Staubach, though, a victory might have meant that he would have been taken sooner than the tenth round as a future draft pick in the 1964 NFL Draft under a special set of rules which enabled him to be picked before his final year of college eligibility had run its course. Naturally, if Staubach hadn’t been taken by the Cowboys, where would his career have traveled?
Yet, questions about Staubach’s career also revolve around the fact that, as a Navy man, he had to give up four prime years of his career (1965 through 1968) to military service. No, Staubach didn’t serve as a fighter pilot the way Ted Williams did in both World War II and Korea – giving up five seasons of a legendary career in the process. However, while Staubach’s Navy work was not as perilous as flying, he did choose to serve overseas in the Navy Supply Corps, until 1967. He put himself in the theater of Vietnam, giving substance and heft to the military commitment he had made. Much as one wonders what kind of stats Ted Williams could have compiled if he had those five wartime seasons back, the same is similar with Staubach, who lost four NFL seasons to the military. Staubach lasted 11 seasons in the NFL, but one has to remember that his “rookie” season unfolded at the age of 27. When he retired in March of 1980, he was 38 and the recipient of quite a lot of hits. He didn’t leave prematurely, but he certainly didn’t hang around too long, either.
The Dallas Cowboy portion of Staubach’s career also invited more “what if” kinds of questions. One is this: What if Preston Pearson had not cut back toward the middle of the field on the Cowboys’ final drive in Super Bowl X against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Dallas would have gained at least 30 more seconds with which to operate, removing the need for the two desperate Hail Marys Staubach had to launch at the end of that game.
Three years later, in the same Orange Bowl stadium where Super Bowl X was held, Staubach’s Cowboys met the Steelers once again, in Super Bowl XIII. The question towering over that game was, “What would have happened if Staubach’s pass to Jackie Smith had been caught in the end zone in the third quarter?” The complexion of that up-and-down contest might have been completely different. Staubach, not Terry Bradshaw, would have become the first quarterback to win three Super Bowls. The Cowboys, not the Steelers, would have been remembered as the team of the 1970s. Staubach led Navy to a winner-take-all showcase in January of 1964. He won two Super Bowls. He won at that high level referenced earlier. Yet, with those soaring highs came crushing lows, the price an athlete pays for being exposed on the big stage, in the moments of pain as well as pride.
Staubach was a man who was always at the center of the action… once he began his NFL career. He won multiple Super Bowls, and lost multiple Super Bowls. He won five NFC Championship Games, but he lost several times in that situation as well. His was a career which could have attained even more riches, and yet the riches he did in fact secure are vastly greater than almost all of his contemporaries, Bradshaw being the one true exception at the quarterback position.
That Staubach could compile such a successful career despite losing four NFL years to the Navy – and offering a meaningful contribution to the Navy Academy all the while – says so much about the football player and competitor Staubach in fact was. That Staubach never threw a teammate under the bus (hello, Peyton Manning) or stained his name with a scandal (nudge, nudge, Tom Brady) only makes his legacy even more luminous in the present day.
We are so familiar with Roger Staubach’s most central achievements in football. Can it be that we still aren’t able to fully express how great they are? This is what happens when a great career encounters many questions and what-ifs… and yet is able to so easily surmount those same queries.