He won the 1960 Heisman Trophy as the top college football player in the nation, becoming the first of only two U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen (Roger Staubach being the second, in 1963) to win the award. After serving in surface ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, he played for the American Football League’s Boston Patriots. He talked recently about his extraordinary career, including the real reason he chose pro football over baseball, with Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz.
Naval History: What made you decide to attend the Naval Academy, and how important was your experience there?
Bellino: Let’s go back to 1955-56. Education was predominant in my family. I was one of five boys and the only one who really had the opportunity to get a college education. Sports was a way of going to college. I was born and raised in Winchester, Massachusetts, a small town about seven miles northwest of Boston. There was a very heavy Navy influence in Boston at the time; some destroyers were home-based at the shipyard, and there was a naval hospital. Winchester had an excellent school system, and quite a few Navy juniors were going there. A half-dozen retired Navy admirals also lived in town.
At the high school, I became a so-called blue-chip athlete as a 15-year-old and began being recruited by a number of colleges. I was more interested in education than playing pro football or pro baseball. So the things that attracted me to the Naval Academy were the education and the potential of a Navy career.
After wading through nearly 100 different college offers, I narrowed my choices to the Naval Academy, West Point, or Notre Dame. Finally, it came down to West Point or the Naval Academy. Because of the early Navy influence and because I really wanted to go to a prep school for a year, I was leaning toward the Naval Academy. West Point didn’t think I needed prep school, and the Naval Academy said, “We’ll put you through a summer school program and then send you to prep school, through the Navy Foundation.” That attracted me. What I think finalized my decision was a visit to both schools.
Naval History: Do you have any second thoughts on your decision?
Bellino: Absolutely not. After the accomplishments I had at the Naval Academy, both on and off the football field, and my 29 years of service—4 on active duty and 25 in the Naval Reserve—I wouldn’t trade places; no second-guessing.
Naval History: How did service and warfare specialty selection work back then? How did you decide to become a surface warfare officer, for instance?
Bellino: Basically, it was the pick-of-the-draw. You selected out of a hat. Whatever number you picked, that’s what you got. In fact, I was on a baseball trip when my number was picked.
Naval History: You served in the USS Norfolk (DL-1) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When did you learn about the significance of all that was taking place?
Bellino: We were in transit from Norfolk to Guantanamo Bay to begin refresher training. Just off the coast of Florida, we heard U.S. troops were moving out. We actually heard this on the local radio. We pulled into Guantanamo and anchored. It just so happened I was in the weapons department. The weapons officer and I took a small boat to shore in the middle of the night. When we pulled alongside the dock, we were surrounded by military people with guns. We were taken to a briefing room; we were just trying to get some inside information. The next day we were at anchor in a wartime scenario and watched planeloads of civilians being flown off the island and troops flying in. Within 48 hours after the announcement that dependents were being taken off the island, we realized we were in a potential war situation.
Naval History: What made you switch to minesweepers?
Bellino: I switched to minesweepers because I liked the thought of being on board a small ship and being close to land, doing coastal operations. And it was a specialty. A couple of senior officers on the Norfolk recommended the minesweeping force as a niche in the service, a select group.
It required my going to minesweeping school in Charleston, and I got my assignment to a minesweeper in Sasebo, Japan, for two years. When I landed and reported aboard the minesweeper, 48 hours later we were sailing from Sasebo to Subic Bay, Philippines, independent steaming. I can remember when I reported aboard for duty, the executive officer, whom I relieved, and the navigator were very happy to see me. I said, “Why are you so happy?”
The XO said, “Can you relieve me in 24 to 48 hours?”
I said, “Absolutely, if everything is in order. But why are you so happy?”
He said, “Because this ship is leaving for the Philippines in two days.”
“The Philippines?” I said. “I thought this was a coastal minesweeper.”
He said, “It is.”
I said, “But the Philippines has to be 2,000 miles away.”
He said, “It’s 1,800 miles away.”
I asked, “Who are we going with?”
He said, “You’ll be going by yourself.”
So this was a niche service, all right. But it was wonderful duty; a small ship with a definite purpose. It’s something I never regretted.
Naval History: When did you hear you had been drafted by the then-Boston Patriots, and were you disappointed you weren’t signed by an NFL [National Football League] team?
Bellino: I was drafted by both the Washington Redskins and the Patriots. Quite a few players from the service academies had been drafted by NFL teams, but not many had the opportunity to accept an offer. Back then, the average pay for a lineman was about $3,000 or $4,000 a year. It wasn’t really big money. I think most professional ballplayers played because they liked the game, not necessarily because of the money they made at it.
To be truthful with you, I didn’t decide to resign to play football. I was off the coast of Vietnam when I decided to submit a letter of resignation.
When my letter got to the Pentagon, I believe someone there realized the Redskins had drafted me. So word got to the Redskins, and I received a telegram while I was in Vietnam, saying, “We understand you’re getting out. We’d like to invite you to training camp.” That was about six months before I actually got out of the Navy, and it was really the first time I had even given a thought to playing football professionally.
After the Redskins contacted me, the American Football League—the Boston Patriots at the time—contacted me. They had heard the same thing. The Redskins had only invited me to training camp, though. The Patriots were offering me a contract. Because I was going home to Boston with no job prospects, pro football looked like a nice transition period. So that’s when I signed with the Patriots.
Naval History: It’s been written that the Cincinnati Reds offered you a pretty good bonus during your second-class year at the Academy. What made you choose pro football over baseball? Were you made any offers after the Reds?
Bellino: Actually, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates. As early as high school, I had been contacted by the Boston Red Sox. Keep in mind, it was a different era in sports. There were only 16 Major League teams, and there were no drafts or territorial rights. So you could really sign with anyone. In college, I heard from every Major League team. But the team that had the most interest was the Pirates. A contract was sitting on my kitchen table in 1959, after I had scored three touchdowns against Army, waiting to start the second semester of my second-class year. The offer was approaching six figures, which was a lot of money in those days.
I thought I could have played pro baseball. I was a catcher, I had the arm, and I felt I could hit for power and hit the curve ball. But going back to my family roots and my parents’ desire for me to continue my education and stick with it, I felt obligated to continue and get a college degree. That was most important. Even though the money was tremendous, it was a decision I never regretted.
Naval History: Were there any baseball offers waiting for you when the Patriots had a contract for you?
Naval History: And you chose football over baseball? Why?
Bellino: After four years in the military away from football, I was painfully reminded of my last game at Navy, the 1961 Orange Bowl, when I injured my collarbone. I never really had it X-rayed, but I believe if a doctor took an X-ray today, he would diagnose that I had broken it blocking big Danny LaRose, an All-American defensive tackle for Missouri [and later number-two draft choice of the Detroit Lions]. I had been blocking him on a lot of the pass plays throughout the game, and I hurt myself pretty badly. In fact, during the baseball season my last year at the Naval Academy, I played a lot of outfield because of it. And it really never healed properly. To top that off, playing basketball when I was in Japan, I had a slight separation in my right shoulder. I probably could have hit a baseball just fine, but I couldn’t throw it that well, without a lot of pain.
So I didn’t want to put myself through the grief of training camp. I knew I could never throw from home to second base like I would have to throw in the Major Leagues. To me, picking football over baseball was a no-brainer, even though I really loved baseball.
Football was great fun on weekends, when you played the game, but boy, the practices and the preparation and the hours of training before the season began weren’t easy. It’s fun to catch a kickoff in front of 100,000 fans at an Army-Navy, or a Notre Dame, or a Michigan game. But those lonely mornings running at 0500, that’s not fun.
Naval History: What is the biggest difference you see between Navy football in your era and what it is today?
Bellino: The rules. The rules are the biggest detriment to Navy football.
Naval History: Which rules?
Bellino: Single-platoon football versus two-platoon football. I played in the single-platoon era, when we may have dressed 33 or 34 players, and 16 or 17 of them played most of the game, offense and defense and special teams. When I played, I was on the punt team, punt return team, kickoff team, kickoff return team, and I played offense and defense. I only rested four or five minutes a game, at the most. We could compete with a team like Notre Dame, because we only needed 15 or 16 blue-chip players, and we had them at the Naval Academy. I found that we were a little better conditioned than the other teams. And if we kept the game close, we would normally win because of conditioning.
Those were the rules. They started to change, I think, in the latter part of Roger Staubach’s career, in 1963 and ’64. When I played, you could substitute one player at a time, anytime, on offense or defense. On changes of possession, you could substitute two players. So if you were punting, you could bring in the punter, and the quarterback would go out. After the punt, you could bring in two players when the possession changed. That was the basic rule. Most guys never really left the field.
In two-platoon football, with specialists on offense and on defense, 16 blue-chip athletes aren’t enough. In my day, we could play Notre Dame one weekend and Syracuse the next, or Miami and Michigan, back-to-back. And if we lost one or two players, that was okay, because we had enough blue-chip players. But in two-platoon football, Navy’s second-tier players aren’t as good as the first tier, and they can’t compete with big schools that have 60 blue-chip players on the field. The left halfback on the fifth team might be as good as the first-team guy, but he hasn’t had an opportunity to play as much.
It’s absolute. Guys who know the game say, “When is Navy going to come back?” I say, “Navy could come back next year. All you’d have to do is change the rules.”
Naval History: What advice would you give to an athlete contemplating one of the service academies?
Bellino: It’s very simple. I believe education is the most important thing. Graduating from any of the service academies will assure you a top-notch education, because you’re among the elite of the colleges. That’s item number one. Number two, graduating from a service academy gives you a career opportunity.
A lot of civilian schools promise a degree to a young football player who might want to be an engineer or a medical student. But football comes first, and they’ll drop your major as soon as your grades become poor. Nothing guarantees a degree.
Very few high school athletes make it all the way to the pros. Every town in America has a kid walking the streets who at one time was the best high school football player or the best basketball player the town ever had. But he’s still in his hometown, without a job, regretting that he relied too much on his athletic ability and never graduated from college.
'Football over Baseball Was a No-Brainer'
An Interview with Joe Bellino