As the story goes, there was a booze-addled challenge to a football game between two submarine crews taking R&R between war patrols outside the Gooneyville Lodge on Midway Island in the fall of 1943. With no football available, a billiard ball would have to do. The problem for officers from the USS Trigger (SS-237): They’d have to go up against Lieutenant Commander Slade D. Cutter, captain of the USS Seahorse (SS-304). Gulp!
“What I remember most about that game is not who won but the set of bruises I carried for a week afterward in trying to tackle Slade Cutter,” recalled Lieutenant Edward L. Beach, the Trigger’s executive officer. “He nearly crushed me when I unwisely tried to keep him from making a touchdown with a red-and-white billiard ball. One does not lightly tackle an All-American tackle, even in a friendly way.”
Beach might have predicted the outcome. Cutter, who was to earn four Navy Crosses as commander of the Seahorse in World War II, was known as “Whataman” back in his U.S. Naval Academy days. And for good reason: He was the undefeated intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion as a midshipman and an All-American hero who achieved football immortality in the Army-Navy game of 1934.
Cutter, who grew up on a 250-acre farm on the Fox River near Oswego, Illinois, never contemplated joining the Navy, let alone the submarine service. Rather, his passion was playing the flute. He won a national solo flute championship in high school. Encouraged by his parents, he hoped to work his way into a chair in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but he also kept a keen eye on sports. He was unusually large, topping out at 6 feet, 2 inches and 210 pounds. Competitive sports attracted him, though his father, who suffered a serious eye injury playing football at the University of Illinois, forbade his participation.
With Slade’s future in a kind of limbo after he failed to earn a spot with the orchestra, his father persuaded a local congressman to secure for his son an appointment to the Naval Academy. Money was tight at the time. The prospect of a quality education with free tuition and board, not to mention the opportunity to serve his country, was appealing.
The Paul Brown Factor
The first step for Slade was a year at the Severn School, a preparatory institution near Annapolis that groomed future midshipmen. On the staff was English teacher Paul Brown, who took over the school’s underachieving football program. Right away he noticed Severn’s huge new student marching in the school band during football practice. It didn’t take much coaxing to convince Cutter to give football a try. As Coach Brown later put it, this new recruit “was supposed to have preferred playing the flute to playing football, but we made him a tackle and, on some goal-line plays, even our fullback because he was so strong.”
Brown fathered a fast-paced offense that would make him famous in the National Football League as coach of the Cleveland Browns. He hoped the fleet-footed Cutter would fit in as a “bubbling, exuberant young man,” giving the team a jolt. That he did. The team went undefeated, taking the Maryland Division A state championship. Cutter earned all-state team honors—as well as his father’s acceptance as a football phenom.
In June 1931 Slade entered the Naval Academy, where boxing coach Hamilton “Spike” Webb zeroed in on him. Webb had introduced himself to the midshipman a year earlier when Cutter and a buddy hitchhiked into Annapolis to see a boxing match. “We were walking on the grounds of the Academy and we came upon Spike Webb walking there, and he gave me a left hook in the belly—Spike did. I didn’t know him; I had never seen him before, and I thought, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ That started my association with Spike.”
Webb was a good judge of talent. A veteran of more than 100 professional fights, he had helmed a boxing program among the nation’s best since arriving at the Academy in 1919. In one 11-year span, his teams never lost a match. He viewed Cutter, due to his speed and size, as a future world heavyweight champion. Indeed. In his plebe year Cutter was undefeated. Moving up to the varsity squad the following year, he won all his matches over two consecutive seasons.
Meanwhile, he was making waves in football. Easily the biggest man on the team, he developed into a skilled left tackle, accurate placekicker, and backup center for a unit laden with budding stars. Navy was trending upward from a 2-6-1 mark in 1932 to a 5-4 record in 1933. Still, it could not defeat Army. The Middies had not beaten the Cadets in 13 years. But under new coach Thomas Hamilton in 1934, the team was poised to make a run at Navy’s first national championship. The anchors were four All-Americans: Fred “Buzz” Borries, a running back; Bill Clark, a fullback and punter; Robert “Dusty” Dornin, a tight end; and Cutter as the dominating tackle and placekicker. Slade was in position to take intercollegiate championships in both boxing and football.
In a unique way, Cutter was “blessed.” On the annual summer training cruise to Europe on board the battleship Wyoming (BB-32), he and the rest of the midshipmen had an audience with Pope Pius XI in Vatican City. As the Pope blessed the assemblage, Cutter stuck out his kicking foot for an extra measure of papal piety.
In his final year at the Academy, Cutter more than lived up to his moniker of “Whataman” in the boxing ring. Previously, he was unbeaten in 18 matches. He was so formidable that Western Maryland College and Richmond College forfeited their three-round heavyweight bouts with him to start the season.
Next up came powerful University of Virginia, working on a string of 21 consecutive bouts without a loss. The Cavaliers counted on heavyweight Freddie Cramer to put an end to Cutter’s streak. A capacity crowd filled Macdonough Hall in Annapolis to witness the spectacle. Unfortunately, Cutter suffered a painful perforated eardrum in practice before the match. Webb wanted to forfeit the contest, but Slade pleaded with him. “So Spike says, ‘Okay, but you’ll have to get him in the first round. If you don’t, I’m pulling you out.”
Normally boxers throw jabs, testing each other in the first round. Not this time. Cutter was electric. “I came out into the ring fast and caught Cramer with a left hook and he went down. He got up at the count of eight while I was yelling to the ref that he was out. So the ref motioned us to come in and I hit Cramer again with a left hook and he was out.”
It took 38 seconds.
In the last four meets of the season, Navy defeated Penn State, New Hampshire, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh to finish with a 7-1 record. Cutter won all of his collegiate bouts by knockout or forfeiture, leaving him undefeated and with multiple intercollegiate boxing crowns. Philadelphia fight promoter Bill “Slim” Brennan and financial backers let it be known they’d be willing to pay Slade $50,000 to turn pro. It was a phenomenal offer. Cutter discussed the matter with his family. “But my father said, ‘No, you owe it to the Navy to stay in the Navy.” As it turned out, he had no regrets. “It was a good thing I didn’t turn pro, because I would never have beaten Joe Louis the best day of my life,” he recounted. “He was too quick, and speed is everything in boxing. I saw Louis, and I was pretty objective about it; he was just too good. Why not be honest? I was good in my league, but he was out of my league.”
Cutter’s last football season for Navy would net him lasting fame.
With the team’s All-American cast now under the dynamic leadership of head coach Hamilton, Navy defeated its first six opponents—William and Mary, Virginia, Maryland, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Washington and Lee (which had been favored but fell by a stunning 26-0 score). Next up was formidable Notre Dame. Man-for-man, the Fighting Irish outweighed the Middies. Moreover, the game was to be played at South Bend, where Notre Dame was nearly unbeatable. Fortunately, former Navy head coach Edgar “Rip” Miller had been retained as line coach under Hamilton—important because Rip was a defensive genius, having been an All-American tackle at Notre Dame in the 1920s where he was one of the “Seven Mules,” the offensive line that played in front of Knute Rockne’s famous “Four Horsemen” backfield.
For Navy the game was huge. A possible national championship was within its grasp. Only six major colleges still were undefeated—Minnesota, Alabama, Princeton, Syracuse, Illinois, and Navy. From the opening kickoff, Notre Dame muscled deep into Navy territory before the defense stiffened short of field-goal range. The rest of the half, Notre Dame threatened but couldn’t score. Meanwhile, Cutter’s foot (blessed by the pope) notched two field goals to make the score 6-0 at halftime. The score held up into the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame drove downfield for a potential winning touchdown. However, an interception produced a Navy touchdown and a 13-0 lead. With time running out, the Irish finally scored. It was too late. Navy 13, Notre Dame 7.
Only two games remained—first Pittsburgh, then archrival Army. Perfection seemed possible but difficult. Lately Army seemed to always beat Navy. And Pitt had gone undefeated since a season-opening 13-7 loss to Minnesota, the number-one team in the country. In six subsequent wins, Pitt outscored opponents by a 154-27 margin. Navy hoped speed and trick plays would snatch an upset. The team kept it close in the first half, but Pitt unleashed a crushing onslaught in the last two quarters, scoring three touchdowns and winning by a 31-7 margin. It was a staggering blow. Many speculated Navy had spent itself emotionally the previous week against Notre Dame. Further, the Middies were looking ahead to the season-ending clash with Army.
The annual contest for service academy supremacy, on 1 December, was easily the most anticipated in a generation. “The Army game meant a lot to a lot of people,” Cutter recalled years later. “It means a great deal which it doesn’t in a lot of schools, but it does at the Academy. To go through four years as we were on the verge of without seeing your team win is pretty tough.”
Army was 7-2 on the year, losing only to Illinois by a single point, 7-6, and dropping a heartbreaker to Notre Dame, 12-6. The Cadets outweighed the Middies by 12 pounds per man and had every intention of continuing their dominance. For Slade, the game would take on greater poignance. His father, gravely ill with cancer, traveled to Philadelphia to see his son play for the first time.
The night before the big game, a fierce storm pummeled Philadelphia, turning the neutral-site Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania into a sea of sticky mud. The Associated Press described it as “a mass of slime, a shiny, slippery table, and as green as pea soup and just as gooey.” At game time, rain was relentless. Fierce gales shredded pennants atop the bleachers. Umbrellas were uprooted. Sheets of water drenched the bleachers. No matter, the Greco-Roman coliseum was packed—80,000 screaming midshipmen, cadets, former gridiron legends, congressmen, senators, VIPs, and fans from afar. Among the notables for the noon kickoff were Admiral William H. Standley, Chief of Naval Operations, and General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the Army.
The game became a titanic battle for field position in mud so thick it obliterated uniform numbers. The soggy, heavy pigskin was nearly impossible to pass. Running was difficult because cleats got hung up in the mud. The longest run of the game would be the second play, a 22-yard scamper by Navy halfback Buzz Bories in fresh cleats. As the game progressed, Navy punter Clark slowly outgunned celebrated Army counterpoint “Texas” Jack Buckler. Near the end of the first quarter of a scoreless tie, Clark booted the ball down near the Army end zone, where Dusty Dornin knocked it out of bounds at the one-yard line. The cadets were unable to move the ball in three running plays, forcing a kick that Cutter tipped at the line of scrimmage. Navy took over at Army’s 35 yard line. Borries blasted between the tackles play after play, slowly gaining yardage until the Middies reached the Army six. On third down, he was tackled for a loss to the Army 15. On fourth down, Richard R. Pratt, the quarterback, barked the next play: “Cutter back to place kick.”
Slade called for a time out. “I thought he was out of his mind in the damn mud,” Cutter later said of Pratt. The Associated Press described the drama: “The midshipmen gathered around their mastodonic tackle, Cutter. He tossed off his head guard and his curly brown hair glinted in the sun that had broken through the drip and the fog for a few moments. He wiped his hands and he wiped his right foot. The ball lay to the left of the uprights as Cutter, the biggest man on the team, squinted down the sights as though he were about to fire a 6-inch gun.”
On the sidelines, Navy coaches Hamilton and Miller waited in nervous anticipation. They had developed a trick play, a fake kick in which Cutter would line up for a field goal but punter Clark, in taking the hike from center, would run the ball in for a touchdown. Collegiate rules in force in the 1930s forbade coaches from sending in plays. So, according to the prearranged script, the team wiped off the muddy football while building a little mound of mud for use as a place to spot the ball. It was 30 yards from the goal posts at the back of the end zone. The coaches eagerly awaited the chicanery to unfold. “They were sure it was a fake place kick—the play they had been working on for the past two weeks,” explained Cutter. “Then, when they saw I was going to kick it, they said, ‘The goddamned fool! He’s going to kick it!’ ”
They had reason to be concerned. Cutter had been practicing placekicks before the game and had not made a single one because of mud sticking to the long cleats of his lineman shoes. What the coaches did not know is that between the warm-up period and kickoff, Slade had obtained a shoe with much shorter cleats for his right kicking foot—just in case.
Out on the field, time stood still as Clark set the formation, barking out the signal to hike the ball. “The ball arched back from center, a perfect pass from Louis Robertshaw of Haverford, Pennsylvania, a tower in the middle of the line,” the Associated Press reported. “The kneeling Clark held it. Slade Cutter drew back his foot and struck.”
The crowd was breathless. The ball was so soggy it sailed low toward the goal posts. Two frantic Army lineman stretched their hands to block it. But it rose past them, “whistling like a shell” as it cleared the crossbar. Navy 3, Army 0. The crowd went wild. Cutter pulled on his helmet and went back into the line, and “for the rest of the afternoon all this magnificent lineman did was thunder Army backs into the muck, uproot play and players,” noted the AP.
Cutter seemed possessed. He slashed through the big Army line to drag down runners. Through the stormy afternoon, Navy made only three first downs and gained 109 yards from scrimmage. However, Army made only two first downs and 70 total yards. The 3-0 score held up and brought victory to Navy for the first time in more than a decade. News of the triumph made Slade Cutter a household name across the country. Front-page photos showed the flight of the ball as it rocketed off his foot toward the goal posts. The lead on the AP story said it all: “The boom of Slade Cutter’s mud-encrusted boot, like the crash of a battle cruiser broadside in some far rolling sea, roared out the end of Army’s thirteen-year football domination over Navy today as eighty thousand hysterical, rain-drenched partisans howled in as fine a battle as these great service rivals ever have staged.”
In the delirium of the dressing room a beaming coach Hamilton rushed up to his giant tackle. “You not only won the game with a field goal, Slade, but you also played a whale of a game at tackle.” Cutter accepted the adulation with humility. “Shucks,” he said to a crush of reporters around him, “anybody can kick a field goal with a fellow like Bill Clark holding the ball.” In the pandemonium, Slade’s father, bursting with pride, embraced his son. For Watts Cutter, the final score was a gift heaven-sent. He had been rooting for Navy not to score another point after his son’s field goal so that Slade would win the game all by himself. Which he did.
Jack Clary, P.B.: The Paul Brown Story (New York: Atheneum, 1975).
Carl LaVO, Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003).
Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Captain Slade D. Cutter, USN (Ret.), vols. 1 and 2 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Program, 1985).
Jack Sweetman, The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
The Lucky Bag (Naval Academy yearbook), 1932–34, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy.
Cutter’s heroics in the Army-Navy game are drawn from Lynn C. Doyle, The (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin, 1 and 3 December 1934, and Edward J. Neil, Associated Press.
From Sports Hero to War Hero . . .
In World War II, Cutter took command of the Seahorse in the Pacific and sank 19 Japanese ships. For that, the Navy awarded him four Navy Crosses. After the war he assumed a variety of commands, including Submarine Division 32 and Submarine Squadron Six. He returned to the Naval Academy in 1956 as athletic director and was instrumental in constructing the Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. In 1962 he became a charter member of the National College Football Hall of Fame (to which he was elected in 1967). In 1965 Cutter retired from active duty as captain after a series of billets that included command of the oiler Neosho (AU-143), the cruiser Northampton (CLC-1), and the Naval Training Center at Great Lakes. He passed away at age 93 in 2005 and is buried at his beloved Naval Academy.