Joe Bellino: Uncommon Talent, Common Touch

Roger Staubach went from gridiron success at Navy to a Hall of Fame NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys. That's the exceptional story for the small group of military men that have won the Heisman Trophy. The man who preceded him as a Heisman winner in Annapolis briefly tasted the pros, but he has still carved out a richly satisfying life steeped in service and outreach.


If you were to ask the casual college football fan, “Which Navy player or players have won the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy?”, one answer would almost always come before the other, and perhaps exclude it as well.

Roger Staubach is the name which springs immediately to mind when recalling Heisman Trophy winners from Annapolis. Yet, just three seasons before Roger the Dodger began to leave an indelible imprint on the gridiron, another man became the first to capture college football’s most prestigious individual award as a member of the Midshipmen.

From 1956 through 1962, most Heisman Trophy races were extremely close, with votes rather evenly distributed among multiple candidates. In 1956, Paul Hornung of Notre Dame narrowly defeated Johnny Majors of Tennessee, taking home the Heisman with just 27 percent of all possible points. In 1957, John David Crow of Texas A&M won with just 31 percent. In 1958, Army’s Pete Dawkins won with 39 percent of all possible voting points. In 1961, Ernie Davis of Syracuse won with 25 percent, and in 1962, Oregon State’s Terry Baker won with 21 percent. Only in 1959 and 1960 did Heisman winners smash the competition during that seven-year period. In ’59, LSU’s Billy Cannon – thanks to an iconic kick return against Ole Miss – won 53.7 percent of all points in the Heisman race.

Then came 1960.

Joe Bellino led Navy to the 1961 Orange Bowl against Missouri and catapulted the Midshipmen into the national conversation under coach Wayne Hardin. Bellino was the obvious target of every opposing defense in that 1960 season. A year earlier, in 1959, Bellino carried the ball only 99 times, but he averaged 5.7 yards a carry. As the 1960 season began, everyone knew where the ball was going to go when Navy’s offense came to the line of scrimmage. Bellino carried the ball 168 times in the 1960 season (by the way, that was the fifth-largest total in the nation that year; it wasn’t comparatively small within the context of the times), so with that markedly expanded workload, you might reasonably conclude that his yards-per-carry average would have plummeted.

Instead, Bellino averaged five yards per carry, a testament to his ability to produce when all eyes were on him and expectations began to skyrocket. Bellino also caught 17 passes for 280 yards, making himself versatile enough to attack opposing defenses from different angles. This versatility made the running game more effective and gave Navy the balanced offense it needed to reach a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl game. Bellino even completed five passes, two of them for touchdowns, to take advantage of defenses’ overpursuit in trying to shut down the Midshipmen’s ground game.

Bellino was good enough as a football player to eventually make his way into the pro game with the AFL’s New England Patriots. Bellino’s association with the Patriots is poetic and appropriate, in that Steve Belichick – father of current Patriots coach Bill Belichick – was one of Bellino’s coaches at Navy. Bellino has maintained a friendship with Bill Belichick to this day.

That’s a good segue to the post-football part of Bellino’s life, because it is a life that has been devoted to other people, in friendship and service.

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Bellino was stationed on a minesweeper near Vietnam in the early 1960s, following the end of his playing career at Navy. It was during this assignment that the Patriots reached out to him. Bellino played three seasons for the club, but after tasting the fun of professional football, Bellino returned to the military to serve. He entered the Naval Reserve and stayed there for 28 years. He went into the ship repair part of the reserve’s operations. The rhythm of his new life meant that on a monthly basis, Bellino would work at various points on the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

A 2014 article from the NFL site “Player Engagement” offers more details from Bellino himself:

“I was with the skeleton crews used by the Reserves to augment repairs for the Ship Activation Maintenance & Repairs (SAMA) section, serving at bases in places like Newport, Rhode Island and Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” he reminisced, adding that he also served as a Navy Liaison Officer dealing with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

Years of working in multiple communities have forged and strengthened Bellino’s friendships with many people in the Navy, building on the relationships he built as a football player.

Again, from the article at “Player Engagement”:

“Practically all of my closest friends today are Academy teammates, roommates, and classmates, who I keep in touch with and see at reunions during football weekends in Annapolis,” he said, adding, “Simply put, my best friends are those I met in the military… My son John graduated from the Academy in 1989, then went on active duty, and now for years has also been in the Naval Reserve, working with an intelligence unit,” he proudly pronounced. “And now I attend Navy games with my son and grandsons.”

Heisman Trophy winner. NFL player. It’s emotionally understandable for highly accomplished people to think mostly about themselves and what they can grab. Yet, Joe Bellino’s life and disposition reveal a constant concern for causes greater than himself, for nurturing the bonds created by sports, the collegiate experience, and the brotherhood of the military. There’s not a big-timing, better-than-you bone in Joe Bellino’s body. It’s a quiet legacy, but a legacy which speaks profoundly to the quality of person he’s been throughout his life… a life even better than the glistening college football career he forged between the painted white lines.

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