By Dr. Ken 


It is the natural progression of things but as we become older, what was important or judged to have met the standard of greatness means little to a younger, current generation. As a self-described football geek from an early age, I often knew the names and statistics of those otherwise forgotten idols of my father’s youth, but had no appreciation of the value they brought to the game. His heroes of the 1930’s and early ‘40’s were names and numbers to me but for him, the memories still had power and meaning. Like any young person, I just didn’t “get it” when he spoke about Mel Hein or Tuffy Leemans, but I certainly get it now. The HELMET HUT readers who lived through the suspension helmet era, perhaps played high school or college football before the so-called modern game took over television, or more accurately stated, television took over the game. The players that provided motivation to them, and both inspired and entertained are very much forgotten. Even those who ultimately were considered among their personal collection of “greats,” have been forgotten or ignored by the present day followers and analysts of football.  When most of the television “talking heads” consider football history as beginning in the late 1970’s or early ‘80’s, few true stars of the 1950’s or ‘60’s will be given their due. As one Sirius Radio broadcaster told me, he mentioned Johnny Unitas to a current NFL player during an interview and received a blank stare in return, a total lack of recognition of the great quarterback until something along the lines of “oh yeah, I think I heard that name before” spilled out.

It’s against this background that men like Joe Bellino remain almost unknown to any football fans and an afterthought to many now over the age of sixty. Yet, like his contemporaries Billy Cannon, Pete Dawkins, and Ernie Davis, he also remains as one of the best players of his time and one that should not be forgotten. In an era where gaining 1000 yards truly meant something and playing team oriented football was the standard, Bellino stood out. Playing in a United States Naval Academy offense that was not specifically geared to feature his talents or boost his statistics, he earned his All American status and Heisman and Maxwell Trophies. Without many of the physical characteristics that make for outstanding football accomplishments, Joe Bellino represented the culmination of dedication and hard work. Unfortunately many of these qualities have, like Bellino himself,been lost to time. Bellino was in many ways typical of his generation while also becoming atypically outstanding. He was clean cut, well spoken, had qualities of leadership, and allowed his on-the-field accomplishments to speak for him. Compared to the brash, self-aggrandizement that characterizes the modern collegiate or professional player, he is in retrospect, a reflection of an era lost but perhaps in need of more appreciation. During a time when representing one of the military academies was in fact an honor and privilege, Bellino captured the ultimate award given to a college football player.

Prior to the Vietnam conflict, one that began in 1957 relative to the involvement of the United States and intensified to prominent national news by 1964, young men viewed entry to the military academies as an elite conquest. Being able to represent one’s class in a varsity sport was even more prestigious. Thus both Army and Navy attracted many football players who were of true “he could have gone anywhere to play” caliber. Both academies had a history of fielding teams that were nationally competitive [see HELMET HUT ] and Bellino was a natural for the Naval Academy.  He was already the all American boy at Winchester, Massachusetts High School, a swimming and diving stand out, a three sport star who led his basketball team to fifty-five consecutive victories (and All State recognition for himself) and two state championships.  His All State baseball prowess as a catcher earned an offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates but he chose to pursue football despite standing but 5’9”. With most of his muscular weight centered in his thighs and monstrous calves that later drew national attention, Bellino first elevated his grades and tempered his football abilities at the Columbian Academy in Georgetown before entering the Naval Academy in 1957. When Columbian played the Navy plebe team, their coaches received a preview of what was coming as Bellino scored three touchdowns in leading his squad to a 34-33 victory over the Annapolis crew.

At the Naval Academy, Bellino continued to improve, and continued to play baseball well enough that he was enticed by an offer from the Cincinnati Reds to leave Annapolis for the Major Leagues. Instead, the Academy provided him with custom-made football pants to encase his thighs and calves, and he propelled his 185 pounds up and down the football field to national recognition. Again placing his accomplishments within the framework of the era in which he played, his strength and superior quickness allowed him to move his rushing total from 266 yards as a sophomore to 834 as a senior. This may pale by modern standards where even the worst offensive teams put up thirty-plus points per game but he averaged 5.7 yards per carry his junior year and 5.0 in his final season where his rushing total placed him sixth in the nation. He culminated the regular season, though not his collegiate career, with a victory over Army, the Maxwell and Heisman awards and helped to lead Navy to a 9-1 season and a number four national ranking. Bellino’s final game was the January 2, 1961 Orange Bowl contest against the fifth ranked Missouri Tigers.

It was with rapt attention that I sat in front of our small black and white television watching Bellino face off against a Missouri team that I had read about in every magazine and newspaper article I could locate.  Ranked in the top ten most of the season and at the number one spot entering their finale against arch rival Kansas, there was plenty of news prior to that game as the NCAA and Big Eight Conference investigated the eligibility of Jayhawk halfback Bert Coan. A phenomenal high school player out of Pasadena, Texas, the swift, strong 6’4”, 220 pounder with close to Olympian sprinter’s speed had transferred from TCU to Kansas after his freshman season with cries of “illegal inducement” from Missouri and the rest of the conference. With Kansas alumnus Kenneth “Bud” Adams, the future owner of the American Football League’s Houston Oilers as the provider of the alleged perks, there was much in the way of “back and forth” prior to the Border War that already marked the animosity between the Missouri and Kansas programs. The 23-7 loss to Kansas knocked Mizzou from the top spot in the polls, although the game was later awarded by forfeit to the Tigers. With their own offense and defense highly respected, Missouri had the tools to present the Naval Academy with all they could handle, and they did just that. I had high expectations for Bellino but also knew that the Missouri power sweep featuring speedy Mel West was the equal of anything Navy could put onto the field [see HELMET HUT ]. I was rooting hard for Bellino but was just as enamored with the Tigers’ Danny LaRose and what was considered to be the original “Student Body Right” and “Student Body Left” rushing attack. Noting that the Midshipmen wore the navy blue anchor logo on their gleaming gold helmets when they took the field, the same adornment that was worn during their victory over Army, added to my excitement for the game.

The 21-14 Missouri victory was punctuated by the shut-down of Bellino’s rushing as LaRose and company held him to but four yards. Bellino however did make the play of the game, a fourth quarter, twenty-seven yard reception that Mizzou head coach Dan Devine described as “the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.” The culmination of Bellino’s collegiate career was entry to the College Football Hall Of Fame.

Bellino was drafted by both the AFL and NFL in the latter rounds due to his military commitment. In 1963 he found time to play halfback for the Atlantic Coast Football League’s Providence Steamrollers and later was a member of the Boston Patriots from 1965 through 1967. The modest, unassuming Bellino retired with the rank of Captain after a total of twenty-eight years in the Navy and Naval Reserve. The collegiate player that ran like “a berserk butterfly” as famously described in one Sports Illustrated article, like every other academy graduate of his era other than Roger Staubach, could not enjoy the same level of professional success due to his military commitment, one that took him to Vietnam. Having to “settle” for having a local park in his hometown named in his honor, Joe Bellino, like so many forgotten stars, represented the football and character ideals of his generation, ideals that should not be forgotten.