By Mandy Howard
On Feb. 5, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will face off in Super Bowl LI. The winning team will have the honor of taking home the Lombardi Trophy - a trophy named after the prolific coach who credited much of his style and tenacity to his years as offensive coordinator at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. And no matter which team takes home the trophy, a military service academy graduate will earn a Super Bowl ring: U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Ben Garland, an offensive lineman for the Falcons, or U.S. Naval Academy alum Joe Cardona, long snapper for the Patriots.
Vince Lombardi coached the Army Black Knights under Earl “Red” Blaik from 1949-53. Blaik, one of the greatest college coaches of the time and for whom the field at Michie Stadium in West Point is named, took a chance on the little-known Lombardi. In their first interview, Blaik asked tactical questions about football strategy, encouraging Lombardi to stand up and demonstrate the types of holds and positioning he prefers for his players.
Blaik also was the first known coach to routinely study game film, play by play. It was from Blaik that Lombardi said he learned, “Football is a 24-hour vacation.”
Success in the NFL isn't limited to coaches from the academies, 49 athletes from the U.S. Military Academy (17), the U.S. Naval Academy (24), and the U.S. Air Force Academy (eight) have competed in the NFL.
Service commitments for graduates make the NFL dream more difficult, but the tradition is rich. Players have risen to the pinnacle of the sport even after serving their country overseas. They take the skills and training they learned in service and use them to lead their teams to victory on the gridiron.
Ranked No. 1 on NFL.com's list of “all-time NFL players from service academies” and nicknamed “Captain America” and “Captain Comeback” is NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach. Until the defeat of the Green Bay Packers during this year's NFC Championship, Staubach's phone was ringing off the hook with reporters asking his thoughts on the new “Mr. Hail Mary,” Aaron Rogers. They called Staubach because a play he made while quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys is the origin of the phrase.
Staubach recalls: “I'm proud of that. It was the 1975 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Prior to that, in the NFL, you'd say the 'bomb' or the 'alley-oop' [for long, last-moment passes.] We were behind 14-10 with 30 seconds left in the game. I threw a pass, [and] Drew Pierson made a fantastic catch to win. After the game, I was in the locker room and the Associated Press reporter asked, 'What were you thinking about when you threw the ball?' I said, 'Well, I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary. The headline the next day was, Hail Mary Pass Wins Game. It was amazing how it took off,” Staubach says.
In addition to originating one of the most recognizable phrases in football, Staubach holds the most NFL distinctions of any academy graduate. He is the only academy graduate inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and he has been to the most Super Bowls (five); winning Super Bowls VI and XII. (Read about Staubach's experiences playing football at the Naval Academy in “The Storied History of the Army-Navy Football Game.”)
The fact that Staubach paved such an incredible path of doing it “the right way” was important to Air Force Academy graduate Chad Hennings. A defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys after serving four years flying A-10 jets during the Persian Gulf War, Hennings holds the record for the academy graduate with the most Super Bowl victories, winning Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII, and XXX. But to Hennings, that record isn't the best part.
“The thing I'd take more pride in is the fact that I flew my last mission in Northern Iraq in March of 1992, and I played in the Super Bowl that same football season. That, to me, is cooler than having three Super Bowls because that highlights what I've been able to accomplish in serving a military commitment and being able to excel on the gridiron with the Cowboys,” says Hennings.
Fans of Army were watching this year's AFC division championship between the Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers with hope to break the Super Bowl ceiling. Despite the top prize being named after a former coach, no Black Knight has yet to play in a Super Bowl. Alejandro Villanueva, offensive lineman for the Steelers and Bronze Star recipient, would have been the first had the Steelers prevailed.
Though the Black Knights will have to wait another year to see if they can cross that line, the military service academies will be well represented Super Bowl Sunday.